There are two sides to the art debate – one side that is for using references for creating your art and one that is against. Well, from the standpoint of many artists and my perspective: you should be using references because they will make your art better.

Okay, so what is a reference?

What Is A Reference?

A reference is an image that you draw inspiration from or use to assist you in creating art visually. It can be a reference of a pose, a facial expression, a texture, a color theme, an article of clothing, or anything that assists you. These usually come from life, but you can use references created from games, movies, and more. You also don’t need to use just one reference to create your image, but multiple can be used to composite together an idea.

So that sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? Are you using some visual guides to help you create great works of art? Some people don’t think you should be using references.

The Stigma Against Using References

At some point, someone influential said or started a thought process that using a reference to create your image is akin to copying that image. Which people notoriously look down upon. Using references has become something to the likes of “You can’t create art without references; you’re not an artist.”

No. Simply no. Don’t believe these people. Don’t listen to these people.

Man using references while painting
Photo by iSAW Company on Unsplash

Artists have been using references since the dawn of art. Think of people posing for portraits. That’s a reference. When an artist takes an easel out into a field to paint the wildflowers, those flowers, that field, is a reference. Animators have mirrors next to their stations so they can create facial expressions. That’s also a reference.

Just because you’re not going out and sitting in a field painting wildflowers on your tablet does not mean you are not a true artist. And here’s a secret: professionals use references too.

Have I convinced you to use references yet in creating your art? If not, let’s go into why using references is a good idea.

Why Should You Use a Reference?

Our brains are tricky things. When we attempt to draw something from imagination, we rely upon memory. Well, it’s been proven time and time again that we human beings have a hard time remembering things exactly as they are save in a few rare cases.

Relying upon a reference takes memory out of the equation. You no longer have to dredge up some ancient image you saw of a flower this one time to try to draw a flower and then realize later that the petals were off at a specific angle for that breed of flower. The image is right there in front of you.

And what if you’ve never seen/drawn something before? Whip out those reference images rather than trying to draw it completely from imagination.

Using references helps your art be more accurate and further trains your eye.

So let’s get into how to use reference images.

Copying References for Learning

The less advanced you are as an artist, the more you should be using references. Your eye has not developed yet. You’re still learning how shapes and light interact to create volume. You’re learning color theory and what makes a sound palette. If you’re drawing animals or people, you’re still learning anatomy. So what about directly copying the reference to learn?

Yes. When you are just starting, copy the reference. Don’t try to change it, but focus on copying it directly onto your canvas. Why? So you can train your eye!

Copying a Reference
I pretty much copied the reference exactly here.

Two things, however. First, do not just blindly copy the reference. Study the reference as you are copying it. Really look at it. I find when I’m doing this, I talk to myself. “The nose turns this way when, at this angle, the shadows have a hard edge here because of the way the light is cast.” Whatever method helps you learn from that reference, use it. And secondly, if you go asking for a critique, clearly state that you are copying a reference to learn. Why?

Because more advanced artists will tell you not to copy from a reference directly. They’ll let you know to change it slightly. If you’re not at a point where you can, well then, too bad – you’re using references wrong. Those people are right if you’re a more advanced artist, which is my next topic.

Using Multiple References or Altering a Reference For Your Art

Once you’ve begun to train your eye, you’ve started to get a feel for the subject you’re working on; you can begin to change that reference when drawing it. Perhaps you much prefer a different lighting scenario. Or maybe you like slightly different proportions. A recommendation is that you don’t copy straight from a reference at this stage. Instead, you start to make the subject your own. This is where multiple references can also come into play.

Say you have a scene of a woman dancing in a field in your head. You spend all day trying to find a specific image of a woman dancing in a field, but can’t find anything to your liking. You’ve found a few pictures of a woman dancing. Maybe some of a field you liked. But they’re not one image. Well, use all of those references! The trick, at that point, is having an advanced enough eye and thinking process to be able to merge them into one image in your head, which translates to your canvas.

What Makes A Good Reference?

A good reference, if you’re trying to draw something from life at least, will be one that is large in image size and has natural lighting. Look for things that have been taken outdoors and don’t appear to have touched up. Models, or images from magazines, can be some of the worst references due to having been retouched or having unnatural lighting.

The larger the image, the better you can zoom in to see the smaller details too. So try not to use small photos for references.

A pro tip: You can do a search on Google Images by image size. Click on Tools, then select the size dropdown.

Where to Find References?

Stock photos tend to be excellent reference images. There are quite a few places out there that offer free stock photos. Pinterest, of course, becoming an image search engine, is also a great resource. Lastly, you can always go take reference images yourself – which skirts around the whole “I copied this reference, and therefore I stole it” feeling.

Be aware that if you copy another artist for a reference, you should NOT claim this work as your own unless it is severely altered. That’s not referencing folks, that’s art theft, even if you drew it in your own hand.

Conclusion

You should be using references to create your art. Not only will they make your pieces more accurate, but they will continually train your eye to make you a better visual learner. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using references, to the point where the greats used them, and so do modern-day professionals.

Use your references, people. There’s no reason not to.

Did you find this article helpful? Do you have friends that are wary of using references because they think it might give them a bad reputation? Are you pro-reference usage for creating art? Hit the share buttons below!