How to Use Human References to Improve Your 3D Art

Sometimes new artists wonder if it is okay to use references in their artwork. It’s an understandable question, especially if you don’t have much experience getting into the business side of actually selling your work. While using references is an important step for any artist, you should still take precautions to ensure you aren’t stealing someone else’s work. That said, using human references is an integral part of creating art, especially within 3D. In this article, we will tackle everything you need to know about using references properly, and how to make the best out of the right resources.

What is a Reference in Art?

Using a reference for art is the age-old practice of discovering information about a subject via an image or real-world object, person, or location. These observations are used by the artist to inform their work and create a more accurate or believable representation of the subject within the artwork.

This is the safest and most common use of references. The artist isn’t copying someone else’s work and claiming it as their own. Instead, they are simply using firsthand observations to gain information that will help improve the art. In this sense, references overcome the imperfectness of the artist’s memory or allow the artist to more quickly recreate something that they may not have been very familiar with before.

How to Use References

As you are studying and learning, you will most likely find yourself copying your references, sometimes near exactly. This is okay as you learn, but if you become too dependent on your references, you may be greatly limited in your capacity as an artist.

References are powerful tools when used to glean information about the realistic fidelity of a subject, becoming the platform upon which your own imagination and skill can take over. In this case, you as the artist are constantly in control and making the final decisions, whereas an artist who always copies the references perfectly is limited by what they can see, or the references they can find or create.

If you were doing a drawing, for example, making a quick sketch by using a reference is a great way to lay out the proportions and shapes of a human figure, especially if that human is in a specific or challenging pose. Once you’ve laid the foundation, you can start turning from references to your own mind’s eye drawing upon your own imagination and intuition as the artist.

Human Reference Photo high contrast woman

How to Find the Perfect References

While learning artists will often use other artists’ work as references, this can be helpful to learn, but in a professional sense, it would not be proper to make a habit of this. Artists are encouraged to create their own references or obtain them from professional sites like Try to make a habit of brainstorming in your head, or sketching out on paper what you would like to create first, then source references suitable to what you wanted to create. This is another great way to ensure that you don’t become limited by your references and retain control as the artist.

Whenever possible, creating your own reference is a safe way to go. With a moveable light source and a camera with a timer, you could easily take a quick photo of yourself in whatever pose you needed.

Sometimes creating your own references isn’t possible, or maybe you personally just won’t fit the mold well enough for the reference you need. In this case, using professional sources for references is the smartest way to go. There are a number of reputable sites. Here at Daz 3D, one of our favorite sources is They have a trove of resources helpful for traditional and especially 3D artists, from human references, to photo scans and other useful tools.

Using is also a safe way to ensure that the references you use in your work won’t get you into trouble with copyright laws if you choose to sell or openly share your work.

How to Use a Human Reference for 3D Art

Now that we’ve cleared up a few common misconceptions about references in art, let’s talk about 3D art specifically and how references come into play. While references can be used to inform an artist’s sculpting of the 3D model, just like in sketching, human references can also be used directly in the texture sourcing of the model as well!

Human Reference Photo muscular male

Simplify Your Reference Image

When you are going to sculpt a 3D model, having good topology is crucial for having the proper end results so that your mesh looks right. A great way to do this is to open your reference image in an editing program like Photoshop. This way you can apply various filters like blur, to strip away the high-level details of the image. When a light blur is applied, you will only be able to see big-picture details and shapes.

As you sculpt the basic shape, you can readjust the filters on your reference image to allow more surface-level details to show. Consider taking away shadows and highlights with your editing software so you can better see the shapes, curves, and general flow of your subject.

This type of editing of your reference image will help you incrementally increase in detail as you sculpt your model. Because the foundation of your mesh is so important, this can be very helpful by preventing you from focusing on high-level details too early in the process.

Project Textures For Highly Realistic Results

Once you have properly created your mesh, you can also use real human reference photos from to create your skin textures. Projection painting in texturing programs like Substance Painter allows you to take real images and project them onto your mesh as you like.

This is the best way to create hyper-realistic skin textures. When designing a custom character you can decide where every mole, blemish, or imperfection might go, as well as the hue or tone of their skin. As you project various skin images that blend and match, you can slowly cover the entire body, being careful to allow smooth transitions across the entire surface of your model.

The best part is, you can use this method with any texture, as long as you have a high-quality reference image to pull from. Creating these types of reference images yourself can be very difficult because lighting and resolution quality are very important compared to a traditional reference image that won’t actually be used directly in the end product. This is also why understanding licensing is crucial when working with these types of images. Using a company like is a smart, fast, and safe way to source your reference images.

Human Reference Photo woman's arm

Level Up Your 3D Modeling Skills with

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Check out’s great collection of tutorials and access one of the largest collections of professional-quality human reference images. They are trusted by industry leaders and major studios. If you are familiar with the Genesis 8 Male and Female we offer for Daz Studio, then you have seen firsthand the quality level that is possible with’s tools.

Whether you are using the photos as a reference for modeling and posing, creating realistic textures, or accelerating your workflow by using premade tools, there is something for everyone. Taking advantage of and learning how to implement the professional tools for 3D artists it offers will greatly improve the overall quality of work and your skill as a 3D artist.

If you have never heard of or are curious how the professional tools for 3D artists they offer can help you, stick around and keep an eye out for future editions on our blog as we explore the amazing resources offers!

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