What to Keep and Leave Out of Reference Photos

What to Keep and Leave Out of Reference Photos

No reference photo is ever perfect. Even with the best images, you can make changes to improve the composition.  So the question is: Do you know what to keep and leave out of reference photos?


Then you’re in luck, because that’s the topic of this article!

The subject for this article is a colored pencil drawing titled The Sentinel, and the reference photo on which I based it.

The drawing was created using the complementary under drawing method, and I described the process step-by-step in a three-part series for EmptyEasel. If you’re interested in that tutorial, here are the links.

How to Draw a Complementary Underpainting for your Green Landscape

How to Add Rich, Vibrant Color on Top of Your Colored Pencil Underpainting

Finishing Up a Traditional Colored Pencil Landscape Painting

What I want to do today is talk a little bit about how I changed the reference photograph for The Sentinel to create a better composition.

To get started, here’s the original reference photo.

What to Keep and Leave Out of Reference Photos - The Reference

This is the drawing that resulted.

What to Keep and Leave Out of Reference Photos - The Drawing

I know what you’re thinking! How in the world did I get from the reference photo to the drawing?

Some of you are also no doubt wondering why I made the changes I made.

Grab a cup of coffee or hot chocolate (or whatever), and I’ll tell you all about it.

The Perfect Reference Photo

Before I go any further, let me stress the fact that something about the reference photo drew my attention the moment I saw it. The original scene was so appealing that I made my husband stop the car so I could get out and take pictures. That appeal came through in this photo.

The reason I mention this is to tell you that if there isn’t something appealing about your reference photo, find a different photo. Colored pencil drawings take long enough to finish that you had better be excited about the subject before you put pencil to paper. Otherwise, it’s likely to end up unfinished.

But, having said that, I can also assure you that no reference photo is ever perfect. There’s always some way to make it better. Something to leave out, something to add.

What to Keep and Leave Out of Reference Photos

Now lets take a step-by-step look at the changes I made, and talk about why I made them.

Step 1 – Find the Right Configuration

Believe it or not, I did not want to draw horses this time. I’d already done that with Afternoon Graze. This time, my subject was the landscape itself, with the largest trees as the center of interest.

So the first thing I did was crop the reference photo so that those trees were not dead center in the composition.

Step 2 – Eliminate Obvious Distractions

The next change was removing all the animals. I did that with the first, basic sketch.

Those fences also had to go because I wanted a landscape without “additives.”

Since I didn’t want to draw any of the animals, I removed them too.

I did this quick work in Irfanview. It’s not pretty but it’s enough to show me what I wanted to see without having to do a lot of sketches.

You can do the same thing in almost any photo editor.

In this case, it was actually faster to do quick thumbnail sketches!

Step 3 – Move Things Around

Once the distractions were removed and only basic elements remained, I considered how to arrange them for maximum effect. (Yes, it is all right to move things around!)

About the only thing I moved was the little tree on the left. I needed something to balance the trees in the background on the right, so I “moved” the small tree on the left so it nearly overlapped the large tree.

It’s also not as far in the background as the first row of trees on the right, so it helps establish the illusion of  distance.

Step 4 – Change Size & Shape

Next, I emphasized the center of interest by making those trees larger.

I also changed the shapes of some of the trees in the background, to serve the same purpose, by making them similar in size and shape to one another.

Step 5 – Changing Color

From the start, I wanted a green landscape. I love earth tones, but the earth tones in the reference photo were simply too dull and flat to provide much interest. So I changed dry summer grass to fresh spring grass by replacing most of those earth tones with greens when I began color work.

I also brightened the greens in the trees to liven things up still more.

Step 6 – One Last Change

Finally, as the drawing neared completion, I realized it needed one more change. The colors were shaping up nicely, but there wasn’t much to lead the eye into the composition. Despite my best efforts to add interest with color, value, and texture, the foreground was, well, pretty blah.

What to Keep and Out of Reference Photos - Final Change

So I erased a narrow, winding strip of color in the foreground, and added a path. Then I finished drawing the grass around the new path.

Comparing the before and after version, it’s easy to see that the path makes a big difference in the composition.

What to Keep and Leave Out of Reference Photos - The Drawing

So What’s the Purpose of All This?

First and foremost, I want to let you know that you can change reference photos. There is almost always some way to improve upon even the best images if you know in advance what you want to draw and how you want it to look.

Second, as I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve gotten at least three drawings from this reference photo just by changing things around or by taking things out altogether. Just because you’ve made one drawing from a reference photo doesn’t mean you have to set it aside forever.

There’s an endless number of ways to change a reference photo enough to get different drawings from it.

So if you have a favorite image that keeps drawing you back, try some of these tips and see what new drawings you come up with.


  1. Vickie C.

    This is useful information, and I was intrigued with the changes you made, which indeed led to a very appealing composition. I do have reference photos that keep drawing me back, so now I see the possibilities. Thanks, Carrie. Good stuff!

    1. Vickie,

      Thank you! I’m glad to have shown you some ways to make use of that favorite reference photo.

      A lot of artists, especially new artists, think they have to reproduce the reference photo exactly, but that’s not true. For most of us, the reference photo can be just a jumping off point, like this one of mine was.

      So have fun and see what you come up with!

      Thanks again,


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