Shop Mobile More Submit  Join Login

:iconrahll: More from Rahll

Featured in Collections

News and Journals by Exillior

Journals by alexandrasalas

journals by SophieBrigitteXD

More from DeviantArt


Submitted on
March 4, 2012


21,518 (5 today)
144 (who?)

Is Reference Bad?

Journal Entry: Sun Mar 4, 2012, 5:00 PM
I feel like I've addressed this before at some point, in some other journal, but I find myself either discussing this with people a lot, or coming across people who on their work proudly claim to have "used no reference."

The biggest problem, and misconception, regarding references is that people feel like it's cheating or that it somehow cheapens their work. While I can understand the sense of accomplishment coming from using no reference to finish a painting or drawing, people who consistently do it are only hurting themselves in the long run. So in short, no, reference isn't bad.

Artists have been using reference since the days of the old masters. They would reference life, whether it be landscapes, objects on a table, or models standing in a studio. They would even reference their own sketches or other people's work in order create convincing paintings.

For some reason, a lot of people today seem to think that in order to be a good artist, they have to be able to do things without referencing photos or life. Unfortunately, to be able to understand things such as perspective, lighting, anatomy, and color especially, one NEEDS to use reference. There are far too many subtleties and details in real life that are nearly impossible to reproduce without directly viewing them yourself.

While I'm often impressed by people who claim to have used no reference and still do a good job, one of two things usually cross my mind. Either 1) They're lying, or 2) It would've been better if they had used reference. This doesn't apply as much to speed painting type images as it does to more finished illustrations, but it's still worth noting.

Any big shot professional artists you see doing amazing paintings, whether it be digital today, or someone doing awesome illustrations and paintings anywhere from 50 to 250+ years ago, they all used some sort of reference. The illusion here is that they make it seem so effortless that people begin to assume they didn't need reference, but rest assured they busted their ass on it and observed the world around them in one way or another in order to accomplish their work.

When I said that one of two things cross my mind when I see a claim of no reference used, I actually lied. There's a third thing that sometimes crosses my mind, and it typically applies to veterans of the industry who've been working for 20+ years, and that's usually, "Holy shit, that's awesome." But the reason it works for them is they've spent half their lives observing things already and painting their asses off. They can recreate things fairly accurately without reference, but you're talking about people who've quite literally spent thousands of hours creating art, or have done one thing so many times that they no longer need to directly use reference for everything. Comic artists are good example.

Don't make the mistake of trying to do that before you've put in the hours. And guess what, those vets STILL use reference most of the time.

I guess my main point here is that reference isn't cheating, it makes you a good artist. There's a reason art schools force you to do a lot of studies, take a lot of photos, and reference those images and live models. Without absorbing what real life is like, how can anyone hope to recreate it accurately? Don't let your pride get in the way of progress, because you'll be hurting yourself and your art.

And remember, there's a difference between referencing something and copying something. Borrowing a palette, a pose, or style isn't cheating, you learn from those things. You just want to avoid copying something wholesale, unless you're doing a study.

At the end of the day, you should do what makes you happy, but hopefully some of you who weren't convinced earlier will now see the value in using reference. Simply put, art mimics real life, so make sure you put real life in your art!

Take care!

Add a Comment:
JesKalina Featured By Owner Oct 27, 2014  Student Digital Artist
Thank you so very very much!! This was bugging me something fierce! ^^; hearing it like this makes so much sense and I just feel super fantastic!! Thank you friend!! c: You rule!!
Oceli Featured By Owner Mar 29, 2014  Student Traditional Artist
My art teacher told me this yesterday
Elias-Shamir Featured By Owner Feb 16, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
Rahll, I'm so glad you posted this (last year, though I'm only coming across it now). I had recently re-signed up to Dev, and while I looked through many of the galleries I kept seeing that "no ref used" phrase used over and over. It was boggling, really.

I wondered, "when did using ref become such a taboo in the art world?" And also thought that many of these people must have been lying. The exception being, as you said, if you've been a professional for many years. One of my professors in the university would often be able to tell me from memory, for example, that a certain pistol that I had drawn wouldn't have a particular part or vice versa. It was fascinating, but again, only something he could do because of his 30-something years of experience (probably more than that).

As for my own experience, it's like you said, a painting of any sort can only benefit from reference. Ones that don't use it can be impressive, but often they could have been improved regardless. The trick, of course, is to let it inform you, but not to led it dictate everything you draw, otherwise you've just copied it.

Take care, and keep being awesome.
Lazy--kurt Featured By Owner Jan 23, 2013  Student Traditional Artist
Love you<3
cafekun Featured By Owner Oct 15, 2012
This is such a wonderfully constructed material.

Before, I used to have that mindset of creating everything with my mind alone. Not using any references and somehow, i had the feeling of cheating if I ever did reference my work. I wanted to become original, I wanted to create everything without any help.

But then, I realized that my art has become dull, all of my works had become repetitively boring for I have created everything that my mind is able to produce. My creativity was pushed to its limits and so I've stumbled a major artblock. I feel like my artistic potential has stunt its growth.

This is what I'm feeling right now, right very moment. I'm starting to look for references on my next work.

I swear I could have learned a lot of things and if it wasn't for the "cheating" ego that I had.
(my english is bad, sorry.)
deideiblueeyez Featured By Owner Jun 20, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
:iconireal70: directed me to this.

When it comes to my intelligence and my sucky art work, I have a pride issue. That being, I feel like I shouldn't have to use a reference because if I can rattle off an entire episode of SpongeBob SquarePants quote by quote as its happening and do a spot on Austin-Powers-pervy-"Yeah baby yeah!"-smile, then why can't I memorise the human body?

It's that which makes me angry, bitter, and very demotivated... Why can't I draw her boobs without references? I look at mine in the mirror all the time after showering! (should I have told you guys that? Don't worry, it's strictly professional ;P )

So thanks for this. I had a suspicion I was depriving myself the opportunity to improve my art by denying myself the right to look at references (You draw this foot from memory, damnit! No cheating!) .. :+fav: :3
deviantART muro drawing Comment Drawing
deideiblueeyez Featured By Owner Jun 20, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Disregard the muro drawing.. I just clicked on it out of curiosity and it wouldn't go away x_x
deviantART muro drawing Comment Drawing
Superbum Featured By Owner Jun 2, 2012  Student General Artist
Yes, I think it's great someone has identified that a pro painter or illustrator has been building a catalog in their mind like a filing cabinet with each study or drawing they have done over the years; that's one thing most laymans and non-artists don't understand and it can be hard convincing someone of that sometimes.
Neelai Featured By Owner Apr 3, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I used to think that using reference for a drawing was cheating, and was unimpressed with the works of others who'd been using references because I thought it was too easy.
But over the years I've learned that it's necessary in order to get better. So I can relate to your words. And I hope others will listen to them and don't make the same mistake I did.
Kryat Featured By Owner Mar 26, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Add a Comment: