4 Tips for Choosing Reference Photos of Flowers

4 Tips for Choosing Reference Photos of Flowers

Today, I want share a few tips for choosing reference photos of flowers, especially complex flowers. The choice of topic arises from the following question:

Dear Carrie,
My daughter always said her favourite flowers were sunflowers so for her birthday I drew and coloured two sunflowers but when she was asked last week what her favourite flowers were she said hydrangeas and peonies and Austin roses!!!

They are such blousey flowers I don’t know where to start!

Kind regards, Loraine

Thank you to Loraine. This is a fantastic question because it leads me into unfamiliar territory. I can walk you through the process beginning to end as someone who may be even newer to drawing flowers than you are!

Tips for Choosing Reference Photos of Flowers

My original plan was a standard drawing tutorial, but after looking for reference photos for hydrangeas, I realized it would be better to start at the beginning. There were such a lot of photos, but not all of them were ideal for reference photos.

The more complex the subject, the more important the reference photo becomes. Without it, you’re left to draw from your memory, and there’s no way your memory can provide all the visual information necessary for creating a believable drawing.

That’s especially true for flowers.

Choosing Reference Photos of Flowers

Whether you take your own pictures or look for them on websites like Pixabay, here are a few things to look for.

Good Contrast

Contrast is the difference between the lightest values and the darkest values. In most cases, the bigger that difference, the more interesting the composition. Color is important, but value is more important.

Take a look at this image. The colors are nice, and there’s a fair amount of contrast between the light color of the flowers and the dark color of the leaves. But it doesn’t really have any zing.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference 1a

There are two reasons for that. One is the composition (which I’ll talk about next.)

The other is contrast. It doesn’t really have any. Yes, there are a few shadows within the flower itself, but there aren’t any really eye-catching highlights.

You can, of course, up the contrast with photo editing software. Most smart phones these days have options for basic photo editing built in.

You can also use desktop software. I used IrfanView on a PC to increase the contrast for the image below.

Increase the contrast a little more in the drawing, and this would make a decent drawing.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference 1b

But why not just look for a reference photo that already has good contrast? Unless you’re good with a computer and photo editing software, finding a good photo reference to begin with will be your best bet.

The image below has a lot of contrast considering the limited color palette. It also has an interesting crop and movement, both from front to back, and top to bottom.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference 1c

What You Should Look For

A strong light source
Strong shadows
Bold highlights

Good Composition

Think of this as the design of your drawing; where all the parts are relative to one another. Ideally, the main subject should never be dead center. That makes for an uninteresting composition, and one that will not hold a viewer’s attention very long.

This photo, for example, has the flowers a little bit too close to center. The pattern of the leaves and stems direct the eye to the flower fairly well, but what I tend to look at the longest are those patterns. Not the flower. If the background was the subject, that’s good. But the flower is the subject, so the composition needs improvement.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference 2a

This is the same image cropped to focus on the flower. I’ve left enough of the leaves to provide a backdrop, but the attention is now all on the flower.

The busy-ness of the background is also reduced.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference 2b

I cropped it a little further so that only a part of the flower is shown. The brightest highlights become the center of interest, but there’s plenty of interest throughout the rest of the composition.

Choosing Reference Photos of Flowers 2c

What You Should Look For

A clear center of interest
A center of interest that is not in the middle of the image

Interesting Accents

Something else to look for are interesting accents—details that are not necessarily part of the flower, but provide a nice counterpoint to the flower. In this photograph, it happens to be a honey bee, but it might also be drops of water or a butterfly.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference 3

Be careful that the accent doesn’t draw too much attention from the flower if the flower is your main subject. The accent should be something people find after looking at the drawing for a while. Think of it as a hidden treasure waiting to be found.

What You Should Look For

An accent that adds interest to the drawing without distracting from the subject
Accents that belong; they look natural with the subject


Context equals setting. It’s the place where your subject is.

If you decide not to do a closeup of flowers, consider expanding the view to include background. Here’s an example of context.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference 4a

And here’s another.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference 4b

Context could be your own flowers showing a portion of their surroundings in your garden, or maybe the container in which they’re growing.

Be careful not to let the context overwhelm your subject. Remember the second set of photographs? The first photo in that set showed the flowers in the center of the image. The context was the leaves, but they were actually more interesting than the flowers!

Each of these photos are good references, but if I were to draw them, I’d reduce the background to keep the focus on the flowers. The building in the first photo has to go. Let the basket and what it’s sitting on be the context.

In the second photo, I’d leave out the fence in the background. I might even crop the image to show just a small section of the fence in the foreground.

What You Should Look For

A background that enhances the subject without distracting from it
Balance between being too busy and too “blah”
A unique touch
Something that makes viewers smile when they find it


There’s a lot more to selecting the best photo reference when you’re drawing complex subjects—especially if you’ve never drawn them before. But if you get these four things right, or even just three of them, you’ll have a good start on the drawing process.

Remember, the first step in creating a great drawing is finding the right reference photo!

Next time, I’ll show you how to turn that great photo into a great drawing!


  1. Gina

    This was a good post. I recently drew a cat and used a pitcher with sunflowers
    In it as part of the picture. Google images allowed me to get many perspectives and I was able to create my own arrangement. I’m going to go back and critique my used of light, shadows and highlights. Thanks Carrie!

  2. Teresa

    Thanks Carrie… this was very helpful… I’m just a beginner and tend to draw the whole reference picture instead of referring to it… I think I’ll follow Gina’s example and go back to critique my old drawings.

  3. Constance A. Owen

    Thank you for sharing your expertise on finding reference photos in order to draw and color a flower project. Your four principles will also help me in finding a good reference photograph for a hummingbird and flower.

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