Reference…why you need it, and where to get it!

reference imageI believe the single most important aspect of makeup effects is to use reference!

It doesn’t matter what kit, materials or products you use – without basing the work on something real, it just won’t look right. Even the greatest sculptors who seem to work from memory are using a memory fed with reference!

Researching will teach you a lot about what you are trying to create, and reading up on it as well as just viewing images and video will certainly help the information soak in.

This is especially true for casualty makeup and creature design. Although monsters, aliens and creatures are make believe (well, I would argue that they are), their appearance still needs to be initially based on reality to look convincing. There are some crazy looking things in nature, and using them to refer to will help a great deal.

Deep sea animals, insects and images of cells, bacteria and other tiny objects taken with an electron microscope are all great departures from the usual way of looking at and thinking about things and provide a rich source of creative inspiration as well as information.

It often helps to shift a creative slump (or ‘artistic block’) by looking at things and realising they actually appear differently than you had imagined.

What it gives you

  • Simply put, reference can make you much better. The thing with drawing and sculpting figurative designs is that you are trying to create a specific look which will generate a response from the viewer. In the case of make up effects it is usually to create fear or disgust (yay!) or to simply look real, as in the case of an age or character makeup.
  • Very often, people get stuck into the fun part as sculpting for the sheer joy of it, and although sculpting is a fun activity, it is kind of like driving around in a really nice car with no destination in mind. Although a fun thing to do, there is no actual end point to arrive at. Your creative destination is going to be much better (and you will learn much more) by using reference material of real things.
  • Good design – be it drawing, painting, sculpting or digital – is all about seeing and understanding more. Reference is the best way to do that. If you have ever attended life drawing classes then you will know how much better your drawing gets if you have an actual live model to draw from rather than just make it up in your head.

The habit of collecting free reference

Getting into the habit of saving useful magazine or newspaper images is a good way to accumulate images for nothing. Keep them in a folder or scrap book for later when they may be useful.

The internet is a great resource for information, most of it completely free. Using Googles image search option is good, especially if you specify a large image size filter so the pictures you do get will be higher resolution.

Photo sharing sites such as Flickr are great too – someone comes off a skate board and needs ten stitches in their face, what do they do…apparently take a photo to show the world. Take advantage of this generosity and look for images tagged with your search terms.

However, search engines will only present results based on the results of your search term so using the right terminology will get you much better results.

Using correct terminology will help with your reference. Looking stuff up on Wikipedia is a great start as it will lead you to many other relevant options and often corrects you and leads you to more accurate terminology.

bullet hole imagePut the phrase ‘bullet hole’ in the search box in Google for example and you get a ton of bullet hole graphics for stickers and the occasional made-up injury from someone’s Halloween party.

However, if you try ‘gunshot wound‘, you will find much more relevant results as this is the kind of terminology used in the medical profession, and as a result the search term will find more relevant material. Try also ‘penetrative injury‘, ‘penetrative trauma‘ etc. You may find variations and different classifications depending on country and whether it is for civilian or military use, so play around with the words and see if that helps.

Word of warning though – as you can imagine these images of real casualty situations and injuries are likely to be quite unpleasant!

Below is a table of examples which you may try
if looking for casualty reference.

Instead of… Try…
Bullet Holes
Torn skin
Gunshot trauma
Blast trauma

My top reference tip is…

The best ever secret (and free) weapon for reference is to use a tool from Google called Google Alerts. Basically you can input a search keyword or phrase just like a normal search. However the great part is instead of just doing a single search, you instead instruct Google to regularly email you the results when this search term appears in the future.

This is a great tool which makes Google do the hard work for you – you just get an email once a day/week/month or whatever schedule you set. It works for anything you can think of, and is a great way of accumulating specific information relevant to YOU over time without having to spend ages looking for it. I use it every day, and it finds all kinds of things that I didn’t need to actually hunt down myself.

Great reference books
There are obviously thousands of books you can get which have great images – it all depends on what you are researching. There are however common themes that keep appearing in the makeup effects workshop – casualty, character, creatures and ageing.

As a result there are some books which you will see on every makeup effect workshops bookshelf. I have listed some of the best which I use all the time below.

Some may be out of print, but the ISBN numbers should help you track them down!

By Jay Dix
ISBN: 978-0849302787

By John A. Clarke
ISBN: 978-0412348402

By David G. Ferguson & David I. Fodden
ISBN: 0-443-06029-0

By Carol Dealey
ISBN-13: 978-1405118637

Originally by Jack Huddleston
Text by Katharine Dunn
Edited by Sean Tejaratchi
ISBN: 0-922915-29-6

By Philip Jones Griffiths
ISBN: 1-904563-05-8

By Myra Kalman and Neil Selkirk
ISBN: 978-1576870457

By Steve McCurry
ISBN-13: 978-0714838397
By Alex Kayser
ISBN-13: 978-0896595248

By Richard Avedon
ISBN-13: 978-0500541104


By David Doubilet
ISBN-13: 978-0714843018

By Andrew Zuckerman
ISBN-13: 9-780810-980419

By Andrew Zuckerman
ISBN-13: 978-0810983724

By Nick Sinclair
ISBN-13: 9780948797194

By Martin Schoeller
ISBN-10: 3832790454

Have any reference ideas?

If you have or know of any reference books or sources that you think should be included, please leave a comment below and I will happily add them and credit you for making the blog more useful to all.


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7 Responses to Reference…why you need it, and where to get it!

  1. Pingback: The Secret to Jaw Dropping Makeup Effects

  2. Pingback: Simple & effective scratches | Learn Makeup Effects

  3. Stuart says:


    Thanks for the support. I appreciate it! There are quite a few articles on my old site which may be of interest to you:


  4. Stuart says:


    I emailed you just now. What was the issue?

    I hope my email ( was not bouncing.


  5. grandpa says:

    very nice and neat, willgive it a go asap. thanks grandpa

  6. Hannah Keech says:

    Thats wicked Stuart!!!! never thought of taking a stanley knife to bits to create such a realistic wound for filming, as make-up artists a lot is based around a wound once it has happened and what you left with and not how to make it look so real when filming.

    you will find me in a hardware store now looking strangely close a stanley knife and how it can be taken apart lol

    thanks for that!!

    • Stuart says:

      Hi Hannah

      I would actually avoid the Stanley brand….they are made too well with those darned support struts in the handle which needed so much cutting out. The actual show used a store-brand knife which was much easier to fit with the rig.

      Then, when I started the tutorial, I had to jump through a few more hoops than the real job required. If you use a cheaper brand then you’ll probably have an easier time!


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