Reference Sheet Terrors: Refs That Make Artists Cry

As you may know, commissioning artwork in the furry fandom involves more than just two people, exchange of money, and art supplies. You have to communicate your character concept with your artist. The best place to start is with a proper reference sheet.

A clear, concise reference sheet is a crucial part of receiving satisfactory custom artwork of your character. It communicates detailed information that only you know about your character and in a visual way that is easier for artists and fursuit makers to understand. It helps to convey all the important details so they can transform your ideal character into their styles and through various mediums!

Without a proper reference sheet, you could face issues such as receiving art with “blatant” errors in your character’s anatomy or markings, incurring fees to cover the inconvenience you cause artists who have to ask for more information, or being denied the opportunity to commission your favorite artists all together.

Your goal (as an artist who draws ref sheets or a person commissioning a ref sheet of your character) is to help limit confusion and present your character in a way that makes it easier for your character to be drawn more consistently and accurately no matter who you commission! This means nothing left to question, nothing that could be misunderstood, nothing that is left to chance or opinion or assumption.

In this post, I’ll cover the various reference methods I’ve encountered, how they hinder, confuse, and frustrate artists, and important things to consider when designing a proper ref sheet.


1.) Descriptive paragraph(s) explaining character

Ok, so you have had time to plan out your complex character in your head but haven’t gotten around to getting a ref sheet or expressing these thoughts in images at all. You don’t want anything insane; just want a badge of your character. Should be simple enough! It will only take you about 25 minutes to type all the details out.

Oh wait, the artist has questions so here’s another paragraph of details. And another. Now it will take (at least) an hour for the artist to to read, re-read, check, double-check, etc. to make sure they get everything right. Oh, but wait! You forgot to include a detail and now the badge is colored. And you didn’t want that shade of orange. If only you could have communicated what you wanted visually. That’s unfortunate for you (considering the money spent) but remember that the artist cares too; they wanted to create the art correctly and make you happy. You failed them and yourself by not investing the time or $ into getting a proper, complete visual reference.

Many artists would charge extra for this troublesome process and some may even decline your commission – especially if the option of “artistic liberty” doesn’t come into play.


2.) Stolen or knock-off character

This shouldn’t be a problem, and yet, IT IS. If you didn’t create the character or buy it from a reputable source, it’s not yours. There are definitely shady adoptable sales people who steal and sell characters that don’t belong to them. Don’t give them your money.

And stop commissioning artists to draw art of a character for yourself if you don’t have rights to the character to begin with! The original owner may see it as bonus free art for them once they find out you’ve been doing this behind their back. Either you’re in a really selfless gift-giving mood or you’re just that oblivious. Stop it. Just stop.

Additionally, if you really like someone else’s character, draw them gift art. Don’t make a knock-off version of their character for yourself. People will notice and they won’t think about your character (or you) in a positive way.


3.) Traced another person’s reference sheet

Can’t draw? Got no money? Tracing a high quality reference may seem like the answer but NO! It isn’t! This is unfair to the original artist, the person who commissioned the sheet that you traced, and yourself. Many artists will notice the dishonest attempt and won’t accept an obviously traced ref. We artists don’t like art theft when it happens to us, why should we support it when it happens to others?

Free line art and pay to use line art are EVERY WHERE! (Search FurAffinity! Search DeviantArt! Artists will make it known whether it is free or pay-to-use.) Just take the time to find one, pay (if it’s pay to use), and fill it out! Or save up for a nice ref from a skilled artist!


4.) Scribbled in digital template

Oh goodie! A commission slot just opened for your favorite fursuit maker or artist but there is NO TIME to get a proper ref sheet together! You find a free template, open in SAI or Photoshop, and hurriedly get to work. You save your new ref and submit to your artist with pride. But in your excitement, you’ve gone outside the lines. Your color palette is too vast since you keep selecting different colors from the color picker. But color isn’t the only inconsistency. You chose to use the fill option on a file that was pixelated so there’s a pixel-thin line of white all along the inside the lines. The brush you chose for markings is more like a spray paint effect and creates gradients at all the points where one color touches different colors. The markings don’t line up between the front-facing and side and rear view. The brush size choice is large and clumsy so detailed markings just look like blobs.

Your intentions may have been good but this hot mess is daunting to an artist. If there are more questions than the ref sheet has answers, that’s a problem and usually is an automatic “no” from a maker or artist.


5.) Pencil Sketch

If you have a complex character that you sketched out in graphite but never got around to color. Good on you for doing your own work but here we are again with tons of questions about colors, markings, etc.

Even if your character is simple in your mind, you are asking the artist to create your character to your liking and that puts a lot of pressure on them when they have to ask for every single detail. A reference (with colors and all) will make it easier for your artist see what you want to see.


6.) Photograph taken of a traditionally drawn/colored ref

A traditional ref is often frowned upon. They are generally not favored for the combination of poor coloring skills and photo taken in bad lighting.

If traditional is your only option, color smoothly and properly describe your character in addition to the visuals. If it is a complex character, don’t try to cram the character (all the views, close-ups, and details) onto one sheet of paper. Consider typing (instead of hand-writing) any textual information including verbally describing the colors and species. If you used markers, record what marker numbers and brand you used. Scanning traditional art ref sheets helps greatly to preserve the accurate colors when sending information via email! (FedEx/Kinkos, OfficeDepot, and some other copy centers have the ability to scan and save to a flash drive.)


7.) Second Life selfie

Second life screen captures are pretty cool but since they are 3D graphics in different environments, they can be difficult for artists to decipher exact hues/shades and markings. Often, artists may be able to tell the species but will need to ask for the person to specify what colors to use and point out important markings, piercings, etc. which makes a Second Life selfie about as good as a photo of a traditional ref. Providing color swatches/palettes that you find online, or creating swatches digitally (either in an art program or even Excel) and taking screenshots could help an artist understand what colors will be ideal. Of course, this process is generally not going to fly with a fursuit maker… unless you opt for artistic liberty. Maaaaybe they’d consider it.


8.) Amateur fursuit photos

Photos don’t often do justice for fursuits due to lighting conditions which make colors harder to pinpoint and angles at which the suit is photographed may distort proportions of facial features. If the fursuit is the first and only time the character has been manifested in art, the ref sheet a fursuit maker used to make your suit would be ideal. Other options could be professionally taken and edited photos. When it comes down to it, providing links to the faux fur used in the suit could help but precise, solid-color swatches are ideal.


9.) Shaded or Textured ref

You are so past all this “kids stuff” and you’re ready to toss money at artists for commissions because you invested in a ref sheet! Woot! The anatomy on the ref is great, lots of great features, even some clothing options… But hold up! That ref sheet looks… really complex. Oh no… Is it shaded?? Is that a grainy rocky texture for “effect” applied across the entire ref sheet?? AND NO COLOR KEY??

Hark! What’s that I hear in the distance? Oh, it’s just the sound of artists screaming bloody murder and sobbing uncontrollably.

Now instead of being able to eyedropper the colors for a digital commission or eyeball the ref as a traditional artist, or matching faux fur as a fursuit maker, there is some figuring out to do. What is the REAL color of the eyes, nose, markings, etc? What is a gradient marking and what is shading? This is a surefire way to get inconsistent artwork from everyone you ever commission since every place the eyedropper lands is a different value and visual average of color will be a matter of opinion. Chance and opinion are not welcome here. Chance may be a good guy but not when it comes to recreating your character accurately and consistently!

Shading is one of the most common offenses to reference sheets that would otherwise be perfect. Although a color key can help in most cases, for characters with complex markings and subtle color changes, a color key may not be enough. Call outs can also help point out which areas are which colors but it’s so much easier to skip the texture and shading in the first place!


10.) Stylized character ref

You’re ready to commission an artist for their masterpiece of your stunning character. Hey maybe you’re commissioning ME – Crazdude – to draw in my style! It’s super cute! And that’s all I really know because there’s one big problem: what the heck is it??

Kemono suits and refs are a very stylized current trend in the Furry fandom to bring that big eyed, tiny muzzled, anime cuteness. But unless your artist is comfortable drawing that style, this could be a problem. A dramatic style distorts proportions- makes a wolf look like a Pomeranian – and with that dramatic style, it makes it hard to know where the markings actually begin and end if your artist will be drawing your character a little more realistic. This isn’t a problem exclusive to Kemono style: it could be tsum tsum, chibi, or any dramaticly stylized or toony style.

Having a character reference sheet in a style that doesn’t translate easily from realistic to various facets of toony makes it hard to expand your art collection beyond the initial style. If you have a Kemono style suit and only want Kemono style art, a Kemono style ref should be perfect! It just means your options for artists will be limited to those who draw that style. If you’re interested in seeing your character in a wide range of styles, semi-realistic refs help prepare your character for artwork that is as cute and simple as flat colored chibis or as complex and detailed as a photo-realistic painting.


11.) Distorted or small file

You’ve been passing your ref sheet around for YEARS! It’s been great! No complaints. If you need to share the file again, you just take a screenshot and send it along in Instagram or whatever. But wait a minute… That’s not a good way to send a file with any amount of detail. Details get lost or blurred. The small color key is so obscured by pixelation that you might as well have sent a shaded ref! Email or telegram the original file or link to a gallery so that your artist can see the character in all their glory: the notes, details, and all!


12.) The Mother-load of inconsistent examples

You’ve tried just about everything listed above with previous artists and now you have a few AWESOME art pieces to share with an artist as the “reference”… unfortunately there are inconsistencies so there are questions. Either your character went through changes or there was some artistic liberty in the past but the colors vary, the markings vary… ok cool but which one is correct NOW? Oh, so use ref A for color of the hair, ref B for body colors but not the marking on the arm, Ref C for… *sigh* you know what? This is obnoxious and confusing for the artist, impossible for a fursuit maker, but hey, you’re just fine and dandy with it! This method is only slightly better than the chaotic barrage of paragraph explanations. Please don’t do this if you can help it. Most artists don’t have time to put pieces of your character together like a puzzle and run the risk of including something that didn’t need to be there, exclude something that did, etc. It just ends up being a trap for us to fail and upset you. No one wants that!


13.) “It’s like this ref but there are some changes…”

This is one of the smallest offenders but worth mentioning since it can become a slippery slope quite quickly. You have a feral ref but you’re getting anthro artwork done. How do you want those bird wings to translate? Will they be wing-arms? How do you want the feet to look? You want it to be the same species but a different color varietal PLUS the eyes are now blue and… WOAH! Excuse me but is this reference even relevant anymore?? It’s basically the mother-load of refs but with paragraphs to explain the changes.

If you’re adding a necklace or changing eye color… no big deal. But once you start asking the artist to completely reimagine your character, this is in the realm of character design services. When you have an artist accept your ref only to learn later on how different your character should be is deceptive and a sneaky way to get around character design fees. An artist who values their time and intellect would be wise to charge extra for this design service. And a commissioner who values an artist’s contributions in cases like this and is considerate to the challenges they are presenting the artist will tip handsomely for the service.


14.) Showing off complex markings – specific or generalized? Symmetrical or random?

Some people have had their character turned away or commissioned quoted at a higher rate due to the fact that they have a single profile feral ref with what appears to be splotchy, irregular markings. Part of the problem may be due to the fact the artist was unsure how important those markings were to the character’s owners; how much wiggle-room does an artist or how nit-picky are you going to be as a customer. A reference sheet should elaborate what is important and what can be more flexible.

Got a blue merle aussie character? Do the markings need to look a specific way or just generally “blue merle-like”? Are there particular markings that need to be in the same place every time but the merle can be up to the artist? Point those special markings out and let the artist know that the merle patterning can be up for interpretation.

If a character is symmetrical, you may only need one profile view of a feral character! If they’re symmetrical except for one marking, show the left side with the marking and say “scar only appears on left side”.

If you have a character with very specific markings that aren’t symmetrical at all, show as many views as possible to convey where the markings need to appear. Ideally, front facing and left/right sides (or top/bottom) for feral. Ideally front/back and left/right for anthro (depending on how complex and specific the markings are as well as where the markings appear.)


Craz’s Reference Sheet Content Guide

These are some things that I like about ref sheets that make it easier for me to do my job (translating your character in my style) and help to make your commission a little more fun and custom (giving me some insight into what the character likes and does.) When all else fails, check out some of my reference sheets and quote request form for general good things to include.

  1. Important textual information: Species, gender, likes/dislikes, personality traits and habits, clothing, hair styles, age, sexuality. Species is probably most important for me since everyone’s style may vary and I often feel bad asking!
  2. Make sure text is legible (this means a clear font at a good size – sometimes the fun font isn’t the smart font!), the artwork stands out from the background (try to use complimentary colors, not similar/same colors), and that the background does not distract (stay away from busy photos and patterns.) I’ve seen some ref sheets that are beautiful as artwork but are technically difficult to use for these simple design issues.
  3. Call-outs for notable details in design (anatomy or textures like scales vs fur, colors or markings.) Let us know about whether markings are random, specific, or symmetrical.
  4. Clear color key with BIG shapes full of solid color with enough area for a proper visual assessment for traditional artists or eyedropper sample for digital artists.
  5. If colors must be exact: Prismacolor or copic marker numbers for traditional art. Pantone, Hex code, CMYK, or RGB values for digital.
  6. Many people forget to diagram or list colors for tongue, mouth, paw pads, and claws. I like drawing characters with big ol’ smiles and often have to ask what the tongue color is when it isn’t listed!
  7. Consistent markings across views that take into account the 3D quality of a character.
  8. Close-ups of important markings and features. Favorite props like a plushie or pendant the character always wears.
  9. If mythical animal or fictional species/hybrid, a size chart can help in cases where multiple characters are drawn together.
  10. Treat Anthro and Feral as separate refs – markings and anatomy can be so inconsistent depending on digitigrade vs plantigrade vs feral. For instance with anthro deer: sometimes human hands with hoof-colored finger tips is preferred, sometimes they want cloven hoof hands.
  11. NSFW refs for NSFW art / SFW refs for SFW art – I really don’t need to see the naughty bits when I’m drawing a headshot! ^^; I’m not offended by NSFW refs but I know some SFW artists that might be. It can sometimes be as easy as adding a few censor bars to a duplicate copy of your NSFW ref.

If anyone has comments or input to share, I would appreciate your comments below!

Much LORF!

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2 Responses to “Reference Sheet Terrors: Refs That Make Artists Cry

  • Ruka Sakura
    5 years ago

    I was just scrolling through my news feed, and as a furry/anthro artist, I can 100% confirm that these things are such a pain.

    I’m glad someone managed to accurately explain it!

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