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7 Fundamental Ways to Improve Your Digital Art (Hint: They’re All About Referencing)

Are you looking to level up your digital art, but you feel like you’ve reached a plateau?

Luckily for you, today we’ve put together 7 solid-as-a-rock techniques for quickly improving your work.

Interestingly enough, they’re all based around a single premise: referencing.

Let’s get started by diving into exactly what referencing is, and how it can help you.

Resources Used In This Tutorial

Step 1 – What is a Reference?

A reference is something you look at to inspire your own art, and possibly draw direct elements from. It may be a photo, a sculpture or anything from the real world. Everything you draw is based on a reference, even if that reference is based on a memory, as drawing itself is a way of copying the reality. Using a reference in the moment of drawing highly increases your learning speed.

In Photoshop you’ll usually use a reference from the Internet. It means you need two documents open – the reference and your new document. There are two ways to place your reference for comfortable work. If you’ve got a big screen, you can work in Standard Screen Mode (it’s default), with the reference window on the top. Just grab it and move it out of its place to get this effect.

When you work on a laptop, you’ll probably want to use Fullscreen (click F for it). In this mode you’re not able to use multiple screens, so you need to place the reference in the workspace. Go to Image > Canvas Size to make the canvas bigger and paste your reference. Lock its layer to avoid mistakes.

Step 2 – I Can’t Find The Perfect Pose!

References can be great for estabilishing a pose, and you don’t even need the same object/creature you want to draw (they just should have similar anatomy). If you take a good look at your reference, you’ll realize every object consists of simple shapes, like circles and lines.

Now you just need to draw these simple shapes. Forget about rulers – you need to see and understand the measures. See proportions, not distances! As a result of this process, a lot of concepts will be planted in your mind. It will be a vector type structure, easy to reuse and modify!

Here’s the simple sketch. It may not be perfect, measuring with your eyes instead of other tools takes time to master. It’s worth the effort though – everytime you do this you’ll improve.

Now you need to get the skeleton dressed. You can imagine you’re using a tight stocking for every part – it will bulge on the circles and straighten on the lines.

If you were using the reference in the step before, now it’s time to get rid of it. Forget about that stock picture, you don’t need it anymore. Create something that’s really yours (like this fire goathorsepard).

Step 3 – The Colors Don’t Match

Sometimes a picture draws your attention even if it’s not very realistic or skillfully painted, and vice versa – the technique is perfect, but it still doesn’t look ok. There may be a problem with colors – they’re more important than you think. Look at these two dragons: the first is artificial, like a toy, while the other gives more realistic feel.

How can a reference help? Just find a photo with colors that you’d like to use in your work – you can create your own palette of colours with it. First, clear your current Swatches palette (hold Alt and click them very fast or just download an empty set and load it.

Now use the Eyedropper Tool (I), pick a color you like and click New Swatch icon. You can name it and then it’s being added to your list. Don’t pick more than 5-10 colors – they should be a base for you, something to create more shades of. The colors you pick should be as varied as possible.

Once your list is ready, save it for future use (a meaningful name of the file will help you find it later).

You can also use this trick to prepare a list of colors of particular object, like an animal’s skin. This way you’ll be able to use its realistic colors without any reference in the future.

And here’s a sample of how you can use it:

Step 4 – I Want the Picture to Look Interesting

Composition is a way of how particular elements of a whole are placed. If it’s correct, the viewer sees exactly what the artist wanted them to see. Otherwise, their eyes may wander and pass over the most important elements. It’s because the composition tells what’s most important and what to look at.

You may have heard about golden ration, but if you still doesn’t understand how to use it in practice, you can find a reference with a good composition and analyze it.

Once you understand where to place the most important elements, you can draw your own picture using the same composition:

Step 5 – I Don’t Know How to Make This Part…

Even if you’re an experienced artist, sometimes you struggle with a detail. You can try to guess how the details should look, but what’s highly recommended is finding a reference image to complete your knowledge.

A detail reference is the easiest to find, because it doesn’t need to be perfectly accurate. You don’t care about the perspective or other elements of the picture – you just take this one object and analyze it, step by step.

Step 6 – Biceps, Triceps, Quatrceps?

References are a perfect way to learn anatomy. No matter what your style is, if you want to break the rules, you need to learn them first. The Internet is full of references for both humans and all kinds of animals.

When you want to learn anatomy from the reference, first you need to establish the pose (Step 2). Then you can look for other basic shapes (mostly loose ellipses) and redraw them on your own. It’s good to treat it as an exercise and do it regularly until you’re familar with body structure.

Step 7 – Endless Possibilities

References aren’t just learning tool – they bring inspiration and let you create complex pieces. You can prepare “raw” (unblended) photomanipulations of references and then create something totally new of them! See where your imagination can take you.

Step 8 – Where to Find Reference Images?

It would be the best if you had your own base of photos (visit the zoo!), but if you don’t, you can still use these sites:

Wrapping Things Up

As you can see, references are very powerful tool to become better artist. But, be careful – references are just a part of your learning process and you should treat them as a way to get better. Use them for exercises mainly, because the more you rely on a reference, the more originality and your own creativity you lose. Use them as long as you need to get skills you want, and then enjoy your knowledge!

What Do You Think? Leave a Comment Below!

Hopefully this article has helped you better understand how to use references in your artwork.

We would really appreciate you leaving a comment below. Did you find the techniques explained helpful? Perhaps you have something to add?

We’ll respond to every comment, so let’s get a discussion going.

About the Author:

I'm an artist with a long experience in doing creative things. I'm familiar with traditional and digital media, and I feel at home in Photoshop. I love fantasy, my speciality are dragons - I could draw them all the time. You can visit my portfolio at

Leave a comment


  1. Digital art really eye catching for any photography. I have reviewed your all ways to improve digital art and definitely apply on my work. if I have any question on it I will contact with you.

  2. WebCraft says:

    The artwork is incredible, and of course some great tips!

  3. Kit Maloney says:

    Excellent post! Great ideas…

  4. I am primarily a photographer, but like to use Ps to include graphic art in my work. Your piece is both interesting and informative

  5. Su Hall says:

    Really good read! These ideas can apply to almost everything in graphics and/or design. I learned to sketch by using circles and lines. My dad was an artist. I passed it along to my grandson and his drawing changed almost immediately! He’s getting good!
    Thank you so very much for sharing your expertise!
    Tom, thank you for this kind of post! I like!


    • Tom Ross says:

      Thanks Su! They’re definitely tips that will help your general art, but it’s stuff many digital artists skim over, to the detriment of their work.

      I’m really glad you found this guide helpful. What are you working on these days?

  6. o0MSK0o says:

    Great tutorial, thanks for this! :)
    (Do html codes even work on here? xD)
    Prepare for an onslaught of questions xD

  7. logo says:

    the second that “I Can’t Find The Perfect Pose”. after reading this post, this statement is not valid for the lazy designers :)

    thanks tom for quite useful concepts and ideas.

  8. Parvez Shaikh says:

    Really good. You clear all my doubts related to (references), & i thank you for givng a good website for using refrences.

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