Do You See the Fine Details in Your Photo References?

Updated: Oct 20


I discovered the love for coloring when I learned that I could create coloring projects with a degree of realism. I would not have guessed this would be a style of coloring that would appeal to me and it certainly didn’t come naturally when I started coloring. In fact, my current coloring skills were developed class-by-class and by completing a lot of coloring challenges with my coloring buddy.

I don’t know about you, but when I take a class, I hear what the instructor is saying and even if I understand what the words mean, it doesn’t necessarily become knowledge I can draw upon in the future because I either didn’t absorb what it meant or comprehend its implications in the overall coloring process.

When I started coloring, I knew nothing about this artform. Now, just four years later, what I know now is nothing compared to what I have left to learn! That said, I have learned a great deal, so much so that I forget to employ all this knowledge when I’m coloring. What a dilemma! I mean I start out with all the tools on my desk and the greatest plan for my project, but somewhere in the coloring process I slip into autopilot. I might even forget all about my photo reference and start coloring mindlessly from memory. That is not a good thing. Makes me totally understand the statement,

“color what you see, not what you know”.

Photo references are probably the most valuable tool I’ve put in my coloring arsenal. I take the time to gather photo references to help understand more about the items in an image I want to color. I’ve taken enough classes where the instructor encouraged us to look at photo references to identify the details that would not only make our coloring more realistic, but make it stand out from the crowd. And I dutifully do that, search for photo references and study them. Or so I thought until today.

What I just realized about photo references I find on the internet; most do not give me enough detail. The photos are likely cluttered with unimportant items that don’t relate to what I’m going to color. They distract my attention from what I really need to be focusing in on. I might be getting ready to color a beautiful bouquet of daisies in a vase, but I collected photos of daisies in a beautiful green meadow next to a lake. I don’t need any of that, I just need photos of daisies that show me the petal structure, the stem and what kind of leaves they have.

I did an experiment to see if I could color something as simple as a couple of pieces of taffy. Could I make them stand on their own as a piece of art? Would you be able to tell what I colored? To make that happen know that I need to color as much detail on these candies as possible. After scouring the internet for a couple of days I settled on a few photos to use for my reference that helped me to understand both the wrapper and the candy. Yes, I was tempted to do my own field research, you know, buy some taffy and take close-up photos but I feared that they would disappear before I got to the coloring stage.


What I learned as a result of my experiment is that when I really want to study details of an object I’m going to color, I need “close-up” or “macro” photos. I used to think I was getting what I needed, but I know now that I can help myself from the start with better photo references.

One of the best things about coloring with realism is that you will never run out of things to color. You can pick an item on your desk, take something out of a cupboard, or a family heirloom from the curio cabinet. When you have the physical object you are coloring you don’t need photos. However, photo’s still might be a great idea. Why? Because you can zoom in on parts of the object and capture a level of detail that now see.

This was true of my taffy experiment because when you enlarge an image to color it as the main attraction you need photo references with greater detail. It was critical to get the details of the wrapper and the taffy right since there would be nothing else in my composition to grab your attention.

This led me to thinking about the photo references I will use in the future. Instead of looking for photo references that are closely related to my image, I will look for close-up photos of individual items within my image. So, if I am going to color a rose with a ladybug crawling up the side, I will find separate (zoomed in or macro) photos of roses and ladybugs. The close-ups will help me see petal details that might be folded over, torn or have a vein pattern. All of which will result in my rose looking all that more realistic.

If coloring with realism is something that appeals to you, but you don’t know where to start, I suggest you do what I did, find a great teacher. In my case I was fortunate to find Amy Shulke at Vanilla Arts. Amy is not your average teacher. While she offers amazing coloring workshops and classes full of art techniques, her goal is that her students learn enough to ultimately color on their own without needing a class or a tutorial. It worked for me and I know it can work for anyone that has the passion and love for coloring.

At this point in my coloring expedition, I still take classes because there is always something for me to learn and add to my skill set. But it’s great to not have to wait for a class to be able to know what and how to color.

It's been quite a month so far, observing shadows all around us so that we can start to incorporate them into our coloring projects.


Adding shadows to your coloring projects will not only anchor the image to the page, they can set a mood, and add depth and dimension.

Time for me to get back to my practice. I'm off to color my challenge image. I can't wait to add a realistic cast shadow to this one! Overcoming the fear of coloring shadows builds another valuable skill!


If you are reading this after we moved on to the next technique, you will be able to find the Practice Technique Pack for Shadows here.

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