Thoughts On Using Reference in Illustration/Art

Do you find yourself over-relying on using references? Like you are stuck without them, you cannot even start basic thumbnails without them, you want to draw a pose you instantly try to Google some form of photo reference to start your drawing and likely failing to find the exact right photo reference for your needs? I feel like that at times after a long time of doing reference studies.

Reference is great and using them is not cheating or wrong and taking your own reference with the exact pose you need helps wonders as well. However, if you are in the stage of thumbnails, quick layout sketching, and you still find yourself needing reference that may be an indicator of over-reliance on it.

I personally believe that reference in doing an illustration, (not a pure reference study which focuses on your sense of proportion and technique refinement) is meant to be a problem solver/refinement tool, and not a means of starting a piece as that may impede the process by have an additional step before the drawing itself, make your initial sketch too stiff, thumbnails are also impulsive sketches exploring composition that are meant to flow from your mind freely without looking at a photo reference. I also believe that there is under-reliance of going “USING REFERENCE IS CHEATING” at worst or being too lazy to use reference and learn at best and thus not be able to rectify anatomical/proportional problems in your art.

A common still life set up, a good example of reference studying. (Photo by Jill Burrow on Pexels.com)

Therefore, getting rid of an over-reliance on reference, relying/using it in the right stages of the illustration, is a good thing to learn for the creative process. It’s best to try and draw a pose first by yourself using your knowledge of anatomy, memory/reference bank/visual library and sense before pulling up a reference for the painting process or the correcting process. Being stuck with a blank piece of paper and going oh man wish i had some reference of a guy holding a gun to start drawing can be a problem, as just starting and staring at a blank piece of paper is already hard enough.

It must be said there is also the contrary to what I believe, there are artists that work straight from scratch using photo references taken to be exactly what they want, they know what they want and they take the photo reference as they want it immediately (they have models and their work is good although some people might say the work looks stiff. It is a contrary to what I think and it still looks good. (to me at least.)

There are also artists that have minimal or no use for references and are able to draw on their memory bank or their own art style to achieve what they wish to draw. So ultimately, truly there’s no right or wrong for reference if it works for you, except if you decide to trace over a photo which copyright doesn’t belong to you. It is fine to trace only when you already know how to draw/overcome the tell-tale signs of stiff tracing and its your photo, it can also be a refresher learning tool with photos not yours as long as you keep it to yourself and as with practice pieces, throw them away when you are done. Yes, if the photo is yours, trace away all you want, if it helps you finish the piece faster and get that bread faster sure, why not.

Why bring this up? Too much controversy and talking-instead-of-drawing has been made about reference and its use, truly reference have been used since forever, its just up to the artists discretion on whether it is useful to them or not, Norman Rockwell used photos taken of his live models, Leyendecker preferred to work straight from the live model and didn’t want to use photos. Both their works are great regardless.

The process is important to yourself and ultimately to yourself only, unless you are breaking copyright laws and tracing over photos or 3D models that belong to someone else, its truly anyone’s game. Nobody will give you a “NO REFERENCE USED IN THE MAKING OF THIS 15 YEAR COMIC CAUSE IT TOOK THAT LONG TO DRAW WITHOUT REFERENCE” star. I believe that there’s no need to suffer needlessly for your art. Again, it’s ultimately up to your workflow, and what you want from your art, what you need to get to that, what you have to do to get to that.

What do you think? Are you a staunch believer in never using reference? Or use reference but cannot trace at all? Or do you believe in using it all the time no matter what?

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