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How to create a character drawing from photos (guide + tips)

Today you’ll learn how to create a stylized character drawing from a reference picture. With the following guide, you can turn any person into a stylized character. Let’s find out how!

1. Find a good reference photo

To get successful results you must have a great reference photo since this is the foundation on which you will build your character. Make sure…

  • Your reference has good quality (no filters!)
  • You have permission to use an image
how to draw character drawing from photo

Make sure your reference has a good quality

Nothing is more frustrating than starting a drawing and then, when you are focusing on details, finding out your reference is extremely pixelated. Trust me, been there done that.

Be especially wary of photos with filters. Filters change a person’s appearance to be ”perfect”, which is code for plain. It takes away any characterizations which you need to create your character. Specifically, those are the elements that make that person, that person.

Get permission or use your own image

You can’t just use any picture you find on the internet. What if you create a beautiful drawing and then your post goes viral? The person whose picture you used, either be it the photographer or model, put their blood, sweat, and tears into it.

See your reference as an artwork itself. Always credit the owner of the picture. To be completely safe it’s best to use your own pictures, or use websites that offer images. More on that later!

Here’s the image I’ll be using as a reference:

character reference

2. Analyze the reference and decide what characterizations to use

Look at your reference image and think of what makes this person this person. Are there key elements that you need to see to really know it’s them? Don’t forget to look at the colors as well.

I often like to take their color scheme, as well as the composition. You can choose to use the references lighting and colors or you can adjust them to the art style you are going to draw them in.

What if I don’t have an art style to draw my reference in?

You can pick an existing art style. Choose your favorite animation show and use their art bible as an extra reference. Here’s an article talking about art bibles if you don’t know what I’m talking about ;)

Or you can find a favorite artist of yours and use their style to create your drawing. Or, pick multiple artists and combine things you like from their style; et voila, a unique art style!

Here’s the linework I did of my reference photo:

character drawing from photo reference

After studying my reference for a while, I really wanted to capture her pose. Her head is slightly tilted and her hair covers half of her face. Something that stands out to me is her smile, which isn’t a full smile but it’s kind of between neutral and happy.

I really want to capture her long hair and the strand that’s going over her forehead. The jacket I simplified because my style is very simple.

3. Use your reference as a guide and draw your character

Easier said than done, right? If you’re taking the same composition, look at the proportions. How much space on the page is the character taking? Draw your bounding box before you start your sketch.

Don’t forget to look at the negative space! Now use the characterisations which you defined in step 2 and translate them into your art style.

Here’s my finished character!

character drawing from photo reference

So there are a few things you need to keep in mind when creating a character drawing from a photo:

  1. How strongly are you commited to your art style?
  2. How much of your art style are you willing to give up to portray your character accurately?

The number one thing you’ll run into when creating a character from a photo reference, is that your style might not be 100% able to capture a persons look. Unless you let go of some rules your art style has.

How much of your art style will you sacrifice to be able to create an accurate character from your reference?

When I create 3/4th view portraits, I usually tilt the head the other way. So her right eye (from the character’s perspective) would be lower than her left eye. This is just how I draw my 3/4th view. Another ”sacrifice” I made is the hair.

I usually draw my hair very dynamic rather than straight and rigid looking. Her mouth was another struggle I spent quite a long time on. She’s kinda half-smiling which is not an expression I often draw.

My illustrations are very simplified, so I balance the simplification with very expressive expressions. Technically I could’ve done it but I choose to be more accurate rather than sticking to my own style. It’s all about balancing your style to reality.

But hey, I think I did an alright job!

How the Simpsons do it

A great example of ”balancing style and reality” is how The Simpsons do it. The Simpsons have a very recognizable art style, but when they draw celebrity cameos you still see they are supposed to be Simpson style people. But, they definitely took some liberties so the viewer will recognize the celebs.

character drawing from photo

Is it okay to draw from photos?

It is okay to draw from photos, as long as you have permission to use that photo. Especially when you do a study and post it on social media. It can be hard to go and ask permission for every single photo you want to draw, so consider looking for websites that offer free-to-use images.

Don’t forget to always credit your source!

You can also pick a reference photo and use it for personal use only. This means you don’t post it on social media but you keep it in your sketchbook. No need to ask for permission or credit the owner since they won’t be missing out on exposure.

Of course, it will be unethical to not credit the owner if you show that particular drawing to anyone in person. But hey, if you’re like me, my sketchbook is very personal and pretty much no one sees it except for moi.

Also, studying someone else’s image is a great way to learn how to draw. Just remember that it’s for learning purposes only. Never ever post it on social media!

Keeping a study in your sketchbook takes off the pressure of how your art will be received by your followers. This allows you to focus on learning, rather than ‘’performing’’.

Another reason why drawing from a photo is extremely valuable, is because you skip the part of coming up with a concept. Whilst this is a skill you should practice, focussing on one thing at a time takes off the pressure so your success rate will be higher.

crop unrecognizable female designer drawing on paper in office
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

What is a character drawing?

A character drawing is a drawing of a person, animal, or anthropomorphic object that has been designed in either a realistic or stylized manner. Characters are created by character designers, often working for big studios like Dreamworks and Pixar.

Anna and Elsa are both human characters from the popular Frozen movie. They were designed by character designers in Disney’s style.

Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast is an anthropomorphic object (an object with human characteristics) that was also designed in Disney’s style. A drawing of Beth Harmon from the popular Netflix show The Queens Gambit would be a realistic character drawing.

Anyone can create a character drawing! Just come up with something unique. A character drawing may include:

  • A signature pose
  • Key facial features (Big round eyes, buck teeth, or freckles etc.)
  • Key body features (Big head compared to body (think of Queen of Hearts from Alice in wonderland))

Where to find character design inspiration

Here’s a list of where to find character design inspiration

  • Pinterest – Follow boards specifically about characters
  • Artstation – Follow professional character artists
  • Instagram – Follow your favorite character artists
  • Youtube – Watch how characters are designed from scratch
  • The Art of… – Almost every animated movie has an artbook featuring its concept art
  • Facebook – Follow character art specific groups to see how people tackle certain themes
  • Reddit – Browse subreddits that are dedicated to character art

Where to find character pose references

Those popular Instagram character artists use character references all. the. time. Trust me! BUT, they often only use the pose as a reference to keep their art unique.

You find character pose references on clothing websites. These websites have high-quality photos with actual models who model in a few different poses per outfit. There are also websites that offer class-like environments like Line of Action. This is very useful to practice poses, which will add to your visual library.

Read here why it’s important to train and expand your visual library.

Character pose generator

A character pose generator is an online tool that will generate a random pose with the click of a button. Often they come with additional settings: Time, clothed or nude, male/female etc.

  1. Line of Action
    • Website that shows images for you draw
  2. Quick Poses
    • Website that shows images for you to draw
  3. Magic Poser
    • A FREE app that features a 3D model which you can pose in any way you like

How do I learn from photo references

You learn from photo references by doing studies. This means you draw your reference photo as precisely as you can. Doing this, you’ll discover new techniques you didn’t know you needed to achieve the same result as your reference.

You’ll also note new things you haven’t noticed before: E.g. subtle changes of color, light, proportions and much more.

Here’s a mini-guide on how to learn from photo references:

  1. Pick a reference
  2. Make sure your canvas has the same dimensions as the reference
  3. Draw your reference as closely as you can. Take your time, don’t rush.
  4. Put your finished study asiede
  5. Trace your reference image
  6. Compare your study to the original reference image and the traced reference image

Once you finished your study you should put it aside. Trace your reference image so you can see the actual proportions. Compare it to your study to note what you did differently. Write down the thing you should practice more of.


I hope you now know how to use a photo reference. If you have any questions, you can leave them down below. See you next week,

♡ Laura

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