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!