Psst! Hey, Artists! Use a Reference, Everybody Does it!


Use a reference when you draw!

Butttttt –says uber annoying person–that’s not art! You’re not drawing from your imagination!

Uber annoying person just happens to be my brain, up until a few weeks ago when I told it to go f*ck itself. You know the voice I’m talking about. The one that guilt trips you into thinking that using a photo/real life/remotely helpful reference is cheating in some way. That it does not make your artwork original.


And that professional artists, and artists that ‘can truly be called artists’–BAH!–don’t use references because they’re super amazing and know how to draw everything from their mind and–


And I tell you why.

All artists start from a level where they are given one vital important lesson which those–like myself for a long time–fail to remember, and that is–THEY NEED TO DRAW FROM REAL LIFE. THEY USE A REFERENCE. THEY DRAW FROM A REFERENCE.

And WHY do they do this? To study it. To learn how to draw it. And once they KNOW how to draw it, they don’t really need that reference there anymore and can do it without. They train themselves. For example…

You may have never held a gun in your life. You don’t know what it looks like save for in the movies. You don’t know how it looks viewing it from different angles or when it is held in different ways, what the components are, the tiny details, how the light hits it. So, YOU USE A REFERENCE.

You don’t know how to draw hands. So you USE A REFERENCE. You draw your own hand making it pose in weird, striking positions and draw it over and over again until you’re a hand drawing ninja. Or you draw from photos. Same thing.

You don’t know how to draw two couples kissing. REFERENCE.

You don’t know how to draw a chicken.




What you don’t know how to draw, you can’t guess and make it truly wonderful. It’ll look odd. You need to really know what it looks like to draw it. When you guess, it rarely looks right.

ALL artists, I REPEAT, ALL ARTISTS, use a reference. I know professional artists–which means those who use their art as a profession and get paid, yadiyada–who when starting a piece of artwork, collect a collage of photo references, pin it, paste it around their work area (digitally or literally) and use those images to help them in their work. They will go looking for something later on if they aren’t sure how to quite draw it to perfection.

That does not make you less of an artist. In fact, it makes you more so. Because you care enough to learn how to do it. YOU GIVE A SHIT. Congratulations.

I don’t know why for a long time I was so caught up with trying to draw from memory or imagination, and not practising by using references. I haven’t spent enough time exercising my brain muscles and sketching over and over again. It’s like working out. You keep doing it and each time you get better, faster, stronger, fitter. Art is no different…except there’s less running involved.

You need to use photos and real life to help you to understand how things, anatomy, light, colour etc etc. works and there is no shame in drawing it! There’s no shame in using one reference or a hundred for one art piece. There’s no shame in copying a photo, interpreting it in your own way.

The definition of art in the dictionary is as follows:

The expression or application of human creative skill or imagination.

I define art as a personal interpretation of what the artist sees and how they portray it. Every interpretation is unique to that artist. Even if they bloody copy someone else.

The only time I think that it may be morally questionable to copy a photo, is if you get paid for that art, when you’ve basically drawn a piece of art that is exactly like a photo that someone–particularly a professional photographer who makes a living from those photos–has taken. I’m talking hyper realism copying. Interpretation is, in my opinion, harmless. If you’re getting paid for that piece, I mean. If you’re selling it on Etsy or something.

And don’t lie and say that you created it from your own mind, that’s just cold.

So that is a murky grey area. But I leave that to you to swim through. And no you can’t have my inflatable ring. Get your own.

And there is a difference between doing a photo study and using a reference. A photo study in my opinion, is where you copy/interpret a photo in your own way and style with the intention of learning something new from it, or just seeing how well you can draw it close to the original. Some people will happily pay for you to draw a personal photo in your own style or as realistic/hyper realistic as you can manage. I like doing portraits because it’s something I’m actually quite good at, but it’s not something I want to be known for doing so I don’t do it often. Or at least, I don’t share them publicly that much. Here’s one I did of author of The Casquette Girls, Alys Arden.


Not perfect looking back at it now, but still, when comparing with her other pics as well, it’s a lot like her.

Getting back to drawing from photos…

Depending on its purpose and your intention, it can either be a photo study or a reference to create a piece of art. Just because it’s not from your imagination doesn’t mean it isn’t art. If we were to say that art has to be–and ONLY be–some fantastical creation of the mind where trees look like giant mushrooms, and all the people have horns and scales, and they live in a boathouse in the sky, then what happens to all the landscape and portrait artists from the whole of history? Sure, everyone loves the idea of flying boathouses and giant mushrooms, but who says that it’s more ART than something that has been drawn from what the artist sees before them?

If you think like this then you may as well kick out Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Frida and all the greats out on their arse. If you look at their work they rely heavily on a reference, whether it be the great outdoors, props and models, or just looking in a mirror.

So oo, stick you, your mama too, negative, stupid brain! And anyone who says your art ain’t art because you didn’t imagine it.

And FYI, if you ever did decide to draw a world with tree mushrooms, scaly, horny people–that came out wrong–and a floating boathouse in the sky, you are more than allowed to find pictures of mushrooms, pictures of scaled animals and horned animals, and boathouses and skies!

That’s right, negative motherf*ckers.

*squirts bottles of paint all over negative motherf*ckers*

How’s that for imaginative art?



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