The importance of a picture reference library for writers and artists

The importance of a picture reference library for writers and artists


Every day I spend about an hour watching YouTube videos on topics ranging from the history of particular genres to various art “how to” guides. Recently I stumbled across one by a professional artist who spoke about his picture reference library. At the time I thought “That’s cool” and forgot about it. But later that day I realised just how valuable an observation this was. (Unfortunately I cannot find the video where I saw this or I would share it)

A bit of personal history…   (imagine a fade away and some chime-like chords)

As a teenager I started cutting out pictures from magazines (mum absolutely loved this… not) and pasting them onto sheets of paper. I kept all these sheets together and they really did pile up in my bedroom. (Mum also did not like these piles).

But I had such interesting images on them!

My favourite pictures were those of grand old buildings and their insides. Baroque palaces and the like. Mum always got her hands on magazines that featured such things because she was (is) an English royalist. (BTW – I am not.) Mostly they were second hand mags, gifted by various friends once they were done with them.

I suspect with hindsight that mum wanted me to let her read them before I cut them to pieces. Ah, the self-absorption of youth!

… (fade back to me with a glazed and somewhat confused look on my face – my normal expression)

I still have those sheets and use them for imagining things when I write. At least I did before the internet came along with its abundant resources.

Now back to what I was saying about this guy in the Photoshop video. He recommends organising all of your photographs so that you can use them when you are painting digitally. Like many digital artists these days he samples (copy and pastes or takes colours) from photographs. He made the point that it is ethical to only do this from your own photos. Now that I think of it… yes. What’s more, he pointed out that such things as pictures of clouds and fires are actually very identifiable when stolen from another artist/photographer.

So I have now intended to embark upon digitising all my photographs. Eeeeek! That’s quite a few. But oh what subjects! Some of the places that I visited before I had children are really beautiful and perfect for my painting purposes. (Venice is my favourite.) And also I purchased Adobe Lightroom CC when I got Photoshop CC, so why not use it?

As an artist it is also good to be able to compare your digital images to reality to see how good your work is. In another video I heard one artist talk about not being a “slave” to reference photographs. This is true too. If you religiously follow the photographs then why being an artist at all? It’s your judgement and interpretation that people want from you.

So I mentioned writing. I also believe that pictures are a wonderful reference point for writers, especially your own pictures. For example, I have a picture from the time I spent a week in Venice in the 1990s. It is early morning and in front of San Marco. Here it is.


So, not the world’s best photo but for me it evokes an atmosphere and a cascade of sensations and images. If I were to write about Venice, then this photo would bring back the briny smell early in the morning. I would remember the constant surprise at the morning flooding. The crowds all politely using temporary walkways that would mysteriously vanish with the waters about mid-morning. The worry of falling into the water. Reflections of architecture. Peace and tranquillity. Lazy birds floating on invisible, gentle air currents. The amazement of seeing a Byzantine church with water in it. Though you cannot see any here, this picture also reminds me of the rotting bottoms of certain doors in the city.

Too much! Even now I am stumbling under the weight of memories caused by nothing more than seeing this old photo. As a writer writing a scene, just imagine what I could do with such memories.

But without the picture I would have to rely upon my frail unaided memories. So I try thinking of the time that we spent in Vienna. This time no photo to prompt me. The images and sensations are a lot blander. No I don’t think that I could write something anywhere near as real as I could about Venice right now.

So writers and artists, build your picture reference libraries and build them from your own photos. Trust me, all you can do by this is enrich your inspirations.






  1. I just loved the phrase “I suspect that mum wanted me to let her read them before I cut them to pieces.”


  2. In my defence, she never confirmed my suspicions. :)


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