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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:
meluvcheese22 Featured By Owner Nov 4, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
Rahll , how do you feel about using bases? Do you consider that like cheating? Or would you say it depends on the specific work?
I've never really used pre-made bases, probably because I don't do a lot of digital art, and if I ever did use one, I actually physically drew it on paper myself beforehand, based off reference material.
(By bases, I mean this type of thing:…)
FearTheMist Featured By Owner Aug 27, 2015  Student General Artist
thanks this is great i struggle with proportion so i do a lot of recreating of pieces :)
ValentiniaK Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2015  Student Digital Artist
Great post Rahll!
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  Student Digital Artist
MasterSavior Featured By Owner Mar 25, 2012
Absolutely in agreement. Some of the most popular artists out there consistently use references. Boris Vallejo, one of my favorites often used himself, his wife Julie Bell and other models for their art - which can be found on book covers everywhere.

And while I lack an artistic skill, I am a writer and I admit writers use references too. Influences off of other media are how great stories are born. Legit. ^_^
delaronde Featured By Owner Mar 25, 2012  Professional Filmographer
What can I took the words right out of my mouth Rahll!

By using references to do your work, it also teaches you to adopt a working procedure depending on what you are drawing on. It also helps you to remember the details and how the reference looks like not only for it's shape, size, proportion and colour but also it's negative space!

Trust me, when you guys out there start getting professional gigs to do illustrations or a painting, your customer won't care if u used references or not. What he wants is a good job being done by your hand.

Do yourselves a favour and put every chance on your side. A happy customer is a returning customer who already has mentioned your name to his friends and social entourage.

Thanks for reading,

Freelance Storyboard Artist/Concept Artist
Pyrokitsune777 Featured By Owner Mar 25, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
So long as you create a good sense of distance from the reference material then it's ok. In my creative Writing course, we are discussing a variety of published works and figuring out what we can borrow from them. Granted we are focusing on mechanics and narrative but the principle still applies to a variety of other things. Recreating another work of art is good practice for learning how to create art of that style.

If you are referencing, or drawing inspiration from, another work then it's important to make the ideas your own. For me, I look at works like John Carver or Starship Troopers and the various things they've influenced over the years.

Of course I feel like I might have misread a context clue throughout your discussion.
BlackestFlame Featured By Owner Mar 24, 2012  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
One thing I'd like to say is that, when drawing humans, it's not possible that someone drew them without reference, I mean they're humans after all, the artist is obviously trying to make the limbs and whatnot look the way they do in real life, therefore using reference. Some people are able to remember what they've seen vividly and don't need as much reference as those who can't. Basically, any form that is logical (correlates with experience), I believe, is referenced (from life), whether from memory or observation. Drawing without a picture is just laziness when we're confident enough that we can draw something, especially since we often wanna draw what we haven't seen yet.
In other words, no reference means creating which humans are incapable of. (Comment got dragged out)
angelchoir Featured By Owner Mar 23, 2012  Professional Traditional Artist
Glad to read this! I got sick of my classmate going around saying that my art isn't mine because I used reference photos for poses to get the angles and lighting right for a storyboard.
AnthonyDevine Featured By Owner Mar 23, 2012  Professional Digital Artist
Great journal man. I could never, & still cant understand people whom seem to think that by using references theyre somehow cheating. When infact, as you've pointed out, by using references we actually progress our ability & skill set as an artist &/or designer when used correctly. We can't fake what we don't understand & how do we understand observing!
deadmanvalley Featured By Owner Mar 23, 2012  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Fantastically put.
VampireSlug Featured By Owner Mar 23, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Personally, I'm just not good enough to work without reference. When I'm slapping down quick cartoons then yes, I use no reference for the most part but even then I have to look at my own hand or check out a cocked eyebrow in the mirror to get things "just right". All of my "serious" art was done using references and even though I don't copy the source I use it for shading, color, forms, etc. Imagine any of the great masters doing landscapes, for instance, drawing on memory or imagination... pretty shabby work I'd guess.

One thing I've noticed doing pixel art is that if you bang out a piece and don't cite your reference you will get caught, called out, asked to cite source and, in most cases, called an asshat for denying the use of a reference piece no matter how little it was used.

I guess I've been taught two things: don't be ashamed to use references, and ALWAYS cite your source. Always.
Annachuu Featured By Owner Mar 16, 2012  Hobbyist
Thank you for posting this! As someone who got over the mentality that "referencing is bad" after talking to some industry artists, I really do think that it's a popular misconception that needs to be addressed and brought to light.
Chenguin Featured By Owner Mar 14, 2012  Professional Digital Artist
In my third year of college (at SCAD) and I so agree with this! People seem to hang this stigma of "using reference", especially on deviant art, but in actuality, it's what the best arts of all of history have been doing!
Kaoyux Featured By Owner Mar 11, 2012
Agreed. I must say it's really shocking the amount of people who STILL see this as TABOO.

A silly example: Dali fans (Dali used her wife and other people lot of times as a models or photos about animals and other stuff to create later they own surrealistic scenes) don't object anything against him and later you could perfectly find some of them here bashing people just because other artists used references as Dali did.

I know about few people (that even are supposed to be "friends" of mine as well) who STATE that they don't use references or they use them so RARELY. How funny is when later I find the references in internet or the 3D objects they use to pose and create scenarios and poses. It's not that I'm against that stuff, no please, but I don't like to be fooled just because they are proud people who pretend to be what they don't really are... they have to be gods and can't mistake because they are so cool and EVEN a lot of them want to make you see this as a taboo... while OBSERVATION has always been part of the human being's evolution from the very beginning till the very end.

There are 2 kind of people for me regarding this subject:
1) The narcissist
2) The ignorant
lagxbag Featured By Owner Mar 8, 2012
Thanks for this journal, really inspired me to not be afraid of references. I near never use references when drawing digitally, but I never thought that I could do better using them. Just felt I'm cheating.
Phinnimonster Featured By Owner Mar 8, 2012   General Artist
I think reference is definitely important and contributes to a richer drawing or painting... without reference, the artist is only recycling what they already know in their mind, and depending on how experienced they are, that may be very limited. To grow as an artist, observation of the real world is needed.
Vegedus Featured By Owner Mar 8, 2012
You learn from using reference, thus using reference is good. However, I have my doubts to where the line between "tracing" and referencing goes sometimes. Namely, I've used a technique a couple of times lately, where I draw "on" a photo I'm using as reference. Import it in photoshop, make a new layer, and trace the basic pose on that layer. Of course I'll improvise and change lots of things around, draw different clothing, add or diminish bulk, change facial expressions and so on. But for all intents, I'm still tracing the pose itself. I wonder if I'm cheating myself of any learnings by doing this instead of using the reference more as an aid instead of a crutch.
Jagged88 Featured By Owner Mar 8, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I have said a few times in my work in the past, that I've never used reference but that's not to show off (I'm not good enough too)
It's to let people know I spent my time drawing it and it's probably not going to look exactly the way it should.
ArtDoge Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2012  Professional Digital Artist
My philosophy:

If you don't rely on reference and your work looks great, then kudos! Stating 'used no reference' is just showing off, I don't really care for that matter.

If you don't rely on reference and your work doesn't look as great, practice and use reference from time to time until you don't need them.

If you need to rely on reference, do so but don't copy them exactly, they are references after all. Unless your plan was to replicate.
Magic-fan Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2012   Writer
This is very true and I think a lot of people need to reference this. Heck, I'm a writer but even I use references - if for a different purpose. I look at the buildings around me and think of how to describe them, or the architecture of a mall, etc. Every artist is bound to use some form of reference at some point in their career.
lunarsparks Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2012   General Artist
Amen, and very well expressed might I add.

I think there is a lot of confusion (maybe with younger or less experienced artists) as to what a reference is and see it as a form of copying and are in fact disappointed when there is mention of a reference. Or the other extreme, where they think that any artist's work can be used for reference for a final piece (excluding studies) and then are confused when there is a question of copyright. Those who disagree with it, do not fully understand the way to use it.

Art can only exist because of the world we live in, and it's not much of a leap to know that you have to understand the world to create fully developed artwork ... and that means study, observe, study, observe ... infinity!
El-Principal Featured By Owner Mar 6, 2012
Absolutely right Rahll, everything starts with our knowledge obtained by our perception of life around us. Even music largely comes from
inner emotions. They're all references ;)
randychen Featured By Owner Mar 6, 2012  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I am 50/50 on references. Sometimes I see people draws a camera, a gun, a cell phone, and they draw it based on what they remembered how the thing looks, and they look like crap. At least study a little, look at the real product, draw a believable thing.

Although I admit, to draw everything according to the real thing takes a lot of work, and too much time. Sometime $$$$ too. (I spent too much $$$ on plastic models and diecast cars. Compulsive buying thinking I'll be using them, and end up still in original box...:no:)

Referencing is definitely good, but don't get too caught up in it, you'll end up spending too much time researching and not drawing.
Streaked-Silver Featured By Owner Mar 6, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
i always use "didn't use a reference" as "sorry it looks like crap" XD
Thiefoworld Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012
Well guess what? I made this without reference! [link] :B
Rahll Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012  Professional Digital Artist
Clever girl...
elexti Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thanks man, really good read and well said.
TrevorDeal Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012  Professional Interface Designer
Thank you. You made me feel better seriously. I am working on a Boba Fett painting and I kept saying to myself Dan probably didn't use reference and his piece is amazing. So I was going to start over and use no reference. Seeing this I don't feel like I need too. I think I just need to find a way to make the piece my own so it's not a painting of a picture which I plan on doing.

As always your journals are informative and I love to hear a good artist point of view on a subject.
ronri Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012
I tell this to my friends all the time, it's like somehow they feel like they're cheating by making simple references (even just hand gestures/poses) yet it's perfectly fine. Afterwards when they took the advice, one could easily tell that they've already started improving on their own! :D
fox-orian Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012  Professional Digital Artist
I lump anti-referencists into the same group as those who think using rulers is cheating, and reading instructions if for idiots.

It's like seeing a new house built by a carpenter, "Wow, you built that whole thing yourself? Impressi-- Wait... did you use blueprints? And a level, too?! Fuck man, any amateur could've done that, then. I'll be impressed when you can knock one off blindfolded."
Kenny-E-Beck Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012  Student Interface Designer
This reminds me of the people that only use one layer for their digital work.
fox-orian Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012  Professional Digital Artist
"I have all these high-tech features available to me to do things artists of the past could only DREAM of being able to do. That's why I will use none of them."

Kenny-E-Beck Featured By Owner Mar 6, 2012  Student Interface Designer
plumbunnies Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012  Student General Artist
I admire people that can draw without references because they remember enough information from their references to spit back out what they need. However, I agree that references are very necessary. I just feel handicapped when I want to draw something that I need references not in my reach. This is more of the situation when you're hit with inspiration in the middle of the road.
ZhouRules Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012  Professional Digital Artist
I was just talking about this the other day. Some people think it's cheating cuz they think they're just copying a photo and any amateur artist can do that. But for illustration, if you can find a photo of a cowboy with a jetpack riding a camel then you might as well just use that photo. But most of the time when you're creating you're not just copying from a photo. You're learning to use multiple things to create something original. I think the fear in using reference is it's no longer original, but when reference is used properly it can always be original, yet have a solid base in real life because reference was used. Also like you said, a lot of artists say they don't use reference, so amateurs see that and think they shouldn't as well. But that artist probably spend years using it and studying so it's become a little easier to paint something semirealistic from their head. Thanks for writing this.
hybridgothica Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012  Professional Digital Artist
You the man, Reid! Very good journal on reference usage :)
DawnSentinel Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012
There's nothing wrong with reference. I know a lot of professional artists who use it (I don't know if you've ever heard of James Gurney).
Rahll Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012  Professional Digital Artist
I loooove me some James Gurney :)
DawnSentinel Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012
KaizenKitty Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012  Student Writer
Yes, you're completely right. It's funny how often you see (mainly beginner artists) draw people of their own sex well, but failing to draw the other sex. (It's probably because they've seen much more of their own sex - themselves or friends - than people of the other sex...)

And what you also see is that they tend to make the people in their own drawings look like themselves... Even if they're drawing somebody entirely different, still little details of their own resemblance tend to slip through (nose or eyes for instance).
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