There are so many fantastic places where you can find amazing face reference for drawing. You need never draw the same portrait twice, unless of course, you want to.
One of the easiest places to find portrait reference photos is to use Google Image Search. That’s fine if you are just using them to practice, for non-commercial use. However, many of these photos will have copyright restrictions, so don’t use them commercially without checking first.
Do the classic artists thing and draw a self-portrait. You can pose with different expressions, sit in front of a mirror and draw yourself. If you find it easier working from a photo, take a quick selfie with some interesting lighting. Why not mix it up a bit, and draw self-portraits in a different media or style each day.
Above: Self-portraits drawn by Su Watson who drew a self-portrait a day for 365 days as part of our Kick 365 Challenge
Zoom portrait drawing classes
Since lockdown, life drawing has taken itself online and this includes portrait drawing. Draw a live model posing in different portrait poses each week from the comfort of your home. Classes generally cost around £10 per session
Monday – Portrait – Long Poses 18:30-20:30 BST
Tuesday – Portrait – Long Poses -18:30-20:30 BST
Face reference to draw, on the Museum App
This portrait reference drawing app used to be called ‘Sktchy,’ but has been renamed ‘Museum’. It allows users to upload photographs of themselves for artists to draw. What’s great about this, is that people are purposely posing in interesting ways and angles. As well as having great face reference photos you can also share the drawings you create and even upload photos of your own face.
Vintage Portrait Photos to Draw
From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales
State Library of New South Wales
Here, you will find some great vintage face photos to draw, many without copyright restrictions due to their age. You are requested to give attribution to the library
The New York Public Library
Take a look through the digital collections of old photos. There are some great vintage portraits that could be interesting to draw
Smithsonian Image Collection
This is another site with some fantastic vintage portrait photos in the public domain, that are available to download and draw.
Pause your TV to draw faces
Above: Roving Jay’s drawings from paused TV and inflight movie
Most modern TVs can pause. The great thing about this is that people on the TV tend to be well lit. So play your favourite show and pause and draw your favourite actors. You could also try sketching people while the TV is still moving, choose someone like a newsreader who doesn’t move too much to start. Remember that drawing people from the TV may have copyright issues if you intend to use them commercially
Draw old photographs of friends and family
Have a dig through some of your old photographs of friends and family. You probably have loads of face images stored digitally, but why not dig out old printed photo albums too. You can relive old memories while finding great faces to draw. If you’re too young to have printed photos, borrow some albums from an older relative and draw some vintage photos.
Above: drawing by Sanna Siira using a photograph of her husband as reference (continuous line drawing)
Royalty-free photo sites for face reference
You can find some incredible portrait photography to draw on free royalty-free photography sites. Although all of the images are royalty-free, which means you can use them without copyright issues, the only slight caveat is that with the “paid for” royalty-free images, photographers are usually expected to have signed model releases. This may not be the case with some free royalty free sites. A model release is a document that the person in the photo has signed, to give their permission for the photo to be taken and shared.
For example, the following text is a statement from Unsplash
“While photographers agree that photos they upload on Unsplash have model releases, there is no reasonable way for us to monitor all photos that get uploaded to Unsplash. We cannot make any guarantees, therefore we recommend when using a photo containing a person, that you should not imply endorsement by the person in the photo. We recommend reaching out to the photographer to clarify whether they have a model release, which you can do directly via the ‘message’ button on the photographer’s profile.”
This will only be a potential issue if you are creating realistic drawings which are clearly recognisable as a specific person and selling them commercially.
In my opinion, this is one of the best royalty-free sites for finding interesting faces. As with most royalty-free image sites, there always seems to be more female portraits available, but you can find a good selection of men’s faces to draw here too.
This site has a lot of face images, I would say in general it’s less professional than Unsplash, but there are still some great photos. Check out the free selection of old black and white portrait photography too; these will be great to draw.
Here, you will find a large selection of face photos to draw, completely free of charge
Burst, is owned by Shopify and has some very professional face photos to draw
Another large selection of face reference photos, which are free to download.
Morgue File is more of an amateur photography site than some of the others. It has a good selection of face photos, most are less posed than Unsplash. This can be good or bad depending on what you’re looking for.
Some very quirky fun face photography, well worth checking out to create some fun drawings.
Everypixel, is a search engine for royalty-free photography. You choose whether you are looking for free or paid photos and perform a search, The results will show portrait photos from multiple royalty-free websites
Facetastic Friday, Weekly Face Drawing Challenge
Join in with our weekly Instagram face drawing challenge. We find an interesting royalty-free face reference photo for you to draw every Friday. You draw it your style and share it on Instagram with the hashtag #facetasticfriday
Face expression reference project
This is a project over on Deviant Art where people have photographed themselves making different facial expressions from anger to curiosity, to boredom. You might find them useful if you are creating characters or cartoons or just want interesting faces to draw.
Draw faces of people who don’t exist
Now, this site is very weird as none of the people actually exist. They are generated by artificial intelligence. Click refresh to get a new face to draw or paint
Paint My Photo
This is a website where anybody who joins can upload their photos for others to paint, or paint other people’s photos.
“Paint My Photo (PMP) is a social networking site dedicated to sharing photos for artistic inspiration, without fear of infringing copyright. Membership to PMP is FREE but you need to join to have a look around.
Ask to draw “friend’s” face photos on social media
Why not ask friends on social media if you can draw their faces? I started a little project myself on Instagram a while ago. I put up a post saying I was looking for portrait photos to draw. I asked people to post an image of themselves with a hashtag I created. If you do this, make sure you stipulate what you will be using the drawing for. Advise them that by posting their photo they are giving you permission to “sell the drawing” or “share your drawing on social media” etc.
Portrait artist of the week – Celebrity Portraits to Draw
Portrait Artist of the Year is a UK TV Programme featuring a Portrait Painting Contest. As the TV show was unable to go ahead during the pandemic, an online show was created. Each week an artist who had been a finalist in a previous show was invited to paint a celebrity live on Facebook. The artist and celebrity sitter would chat as the artist painted them. Each week thousands of artists also painted along at home. Fortunately, even though the show is now over, you can still watch them over on the Sky TV Facebook Page
Timed Face Reference for Artists
These sites are great if you want to practice timed drawings a bit like a life drawing class. It forces you to make quick decisions on what’s important and what to leave out. The sites also include pose reference for drawing the full figure.
This site has several different subjects to draw including faces. Choose whether you want to draw men, women or all, and the time interval you want.
Line of Action
Choose the section, ‘faces and expressions’ and you’ll then be given the option of the type of expression you want, gender and time interval. Great if you want to draw a specific expression rather than the classic smiling stock photo. An interesting feature is also “class mode” which starts you off with quick sketches and builds to longer poses
Sketch Daily, lets you choose what subject you want to draw, so in our case, “faces”. Then you choose how long you want to spend on your drawing. It will show you a series of faces for the time interval you specified.
Earth World Candid Portraits to Draw
Earth (yes that’s their name) is an Oregon based documentary photographer focused on candid portraits of Americans at county fairs. They create the most amazing portraits which you can draw with attribution for non-commercial use.
Above: drawing by Roving Jay using Earthsworld images as reference
Flickr Copyright Free Portrait Photos
Search for portrait photos and then choose the license drop-down “no known copyright restrictions”.
Search for Portrait Reference Photos on Creative Commons
Use the Creative Commons website to search for portrait images to draw. Make sure you choose the type of license you need from the menu checkbox. Some photographers may require attribution or payment if you use their images commercially.
Wikimedia Creative Commons Photo Search
Another site to search for Creative Commons images. Make sure you select an unrestricted license if you intend to use the drawing commercially.
Art courses, which include face reference
Let’s Face it Portrait Course
Let’s Face It is a course for anyone wanting to improve their portrait or figurative art. It’s a course where 27 artists demonstrate the way they create portraits including sharing their photo references with you.
Full disclosure – Tara is one of the guest artists in Let’s Face It 2022
Sktchy 30 Faces in 30 Days
Earlier I mentioned an app called, ‘Museum.’ Well Sktchy, is the company that created it. They run different iterations of a course called 30 Faces in 30 Days taught by 30 teachers. For example, there’s – 30 Faces/30 Days – Pencil and 30 Faces in 30 Days – Watercolor & Gouache. Each day you are given a face photo reference to draw and a demonstration by a portrait artist.
Join in with our Face Drawing Challenges
Throughout the year, we have three art challenges to choose from every month. We have two, specific face drawing challenges that we’d love you to join in.
Share your work in our supportive Facebook Group or on Instagram. To keep up to date with all of our challenges, join our newsletter.
Choosing a face reference photo
When you are choosing a face photo to draw you want to make sure the photo is of a reasonable resolution so you can see detail. Also, think about how the photo is lit. A flat lit photo can look a little boring if you are drawing realistically, so you might want to find an image with stronger lighting on one side.
Fun things to do with your face reference photos
You could try mixing up more than one photo to draw. This is something that artist Lewis Rossignol has mentioned he does for some of his face drawings. This also gets around any issue of copyright of photos and model releases as the people will not be recognisable.
Distort the face photo using an App
Something fun to try is to distort your face. Do a quick search for a distortion app, then upload your photo, and distort your features. Use the result to draw a semi-abstract portrait.
Draw the portrait photo in a graphic style
You could try drawing a face in a very strong graphic style using ink and only in black and white.
Draw in the portrait in the style of a famous artist
Find a master artist that you love and see if you can draw in a similar style to them.
Blind contour drawing
Why not have a go at drawing your reference photo as a blind contour. It sometimes gives a really interesting and quirky effect. You can always draw back into it afterwards and add some colour. In his books, this is something that Artist Felix Scheinberger says he does.
Above: blind contour drawing by Jo Brown
Continuous line drawing
A continuous line drawing can also create an interesting drawing. You are forced to loop together facial features and loop back over yourself.
Above: drawings by Gabriela Popp, left a contour drawing and right using scribbles
Set yourself constraints
You could decide that you are only going to use straight lines to draw the face or maybe only use scribble. Choose something, try it and see what effects you get.
Are there any good face reference places you can recommend?
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