An Artist's Guide to Using References Pt.1: When and How to Use Other People's Photographs to Create Art
Sorry to burst your bubble people, but artists use references to create artwork. ALL TYPES OF REFERENCES! And there's nothing wrong with that.
This post is going to be the first in a four-part series about the use of visual references when creating figurative artwork (notice abstract art is not mentioned here though many abstract artists also use either photographic or real-life references they have set up). As most of you artists already know, this is quite a touchy and even controversial topic that a lot of people prefer not getting into.
However, it's important that we do. I see a lot of confusion and guilt on part of beginner artists who have been led to believe that using references is wrong. There is also a lot of ignorance on part of non-artists who think that an artist SIMPLY MUST be able to create art without the use of references.
In this series, I will be discussing and exploring the following reference-using methods with you:
1. Using Other People's Photographs to Create Art (when it's okay to use other people's photos and how to do it in a way that will ensure your artistic progress)
2. Creating Artwork Based on Your Own Photography (click here to learn fast and easy ways to produce your own reference pictures)
3. Why Drawing from Direct Observation is Essential and 10 Tips to Improve (click here to learn why this drawing/painting method is so important in order to progress artistically)
4. Using Collage as an Effective Method to Create Unique and Expressive Art (click here to find out why collage is so powerful and how you can use it to your advantage)
These posts will shed some light on HOW and WHEN to use each of these methods effectively. I believe there should be space for all of them within an artistic journey and I personally use them all. Every blog post will include a time-lapse video in which I will be showing you how I complete an artwork using each method.
A Little Backstory
I'm going to start by sharing a story with you so that, in case I sound rant-y at any point, you sort of understand where I'm coming from. See, I taught Art full-time in a school environment for five years and was able to get to know many, MANY kids, from terrified preschoolers to too-cool-for-you teenagers. Some of these kids liked Art class and some didn't. Some tried their hardest to create art even through it didn't come naturally to them and others that were innately talented in the subject simply didn't care much about trying. This one kid I had the fortune of having as a student demonstrated a rare, natural talent for drawing. He was very young when I first met him (I'm talking five years old) and I was able to see his progress throughout the years.
This boy loved to draw and his enjoyment of art was obvious to me from the beginning. However, he didn't believe in his skill or in the honest positive feedback I gave him time and time again. The boy's observational and drawing skills were CLEARLY above and beyond his classmates'. He was able to create amazing drawings using both printouts as well as images I projected on a screen. He even demonstrated the ability to draw from life as I set objects on the table in front of him, understanding ideas like three-dimensionality and perspective that even middle-schoolers couldn't quite grasp.
By the time I left my position, this boy was in Fourth Grade and he was ALREADY starting to show a unique drawing style and quality line work. All this and he STILL didn't think his talent and skill were anything to be proud of. How could this be, you ask? I'll tell you why! A comment that someone made stuck in his brain like glue. Someone told him that ``real´´ artists draw/paint everything using information they have in their heads and don't require references to create artwork!
The boy referred to what he was doing as ``copying´´ something that already existed, even though he definitely wasn't tracing and was even adding to these pictures. This sort of situation is very irritating for me, as a teacher. The sad part is that I know it wasn't even a jealous classmate that made the comment, but an adult.
Being able to create engaging artwork using a reference photograph (or whatever type of reference for that matter) is not easy. It requires a deep understanding of Art Fundamentals, as well as a lot of previous practice with artistic media. Not to mention the ability to recreate, by hand, what is being taken in through the eyes. It requires serious observational skills, analysis, patience, and whole lot of effort.
I get comments myself from adults that believe that, since I'm an artist, I can probably draw anything from knowledge/imagination. I probably can. However, I won't end up with the aesthetic I'm generally going for with my art. If I don't have a visual reference to work from as I am creating my drawings or paintings, I'll end up with something too cartoony for my taste. Having a reference ensures that I won't forget important characteristics or details that I would like to include.
Go to my blog post titled My Favorite Free Image Sites & Two Examples of References with Finished Illustrations to find a list of my favorite quality, free-image sites.
There ARE artists out there who have the ability to create amazingly realistic drawings from imagination. This is usually because they have practiced and studied specific subjects for months or even years, which has allowed them to form a visual library in their minds and even the development of muscle memory to recreate shape and line easily.
All this said, I always stay away from tracing and creating exact replicas of photographs. This is ok when an artist is just starting out (or if its intentionally what you're going for), but as soon as basic observation/drawing skills are attained, I always encourage drawing freehand and using references as something to loosely base drawings or paintings off of.
Some of my favorite artists in history used reference images:
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Notice how all of these artworks are intentionally modified, added to and even distorted in order to communicate ideas more effectively. The final artwork, in my opinion, is far more visually appealing and expressive than the original reference image. This is what we should strive for when using photos as references, whether they are your own or not.
To finish up this (very long) introduction, I want to tell beginner artists out there to not let ANYBODY make you feel guilty or like less of an artist for using references! Just make sure you are keeping any studies that could get you in trouble to yourself and that you have permission to use photographs when you are thinking of sharing your work (especially online). Just be smart about it and keep challenging yourself to improve!
Let's get into the first part of the series!
Using Other People's Photographs to Create Art
Do you find yourself CONSTANTLY using other people's photographs as references when creating art? Have other people's comments about this being wrong ever made you feel guilty or less of an artist? Are you constantly making sure to do whatever you can with your time and resources to move your artistic progress forward or do you frequently go for what's most convenient?
This first method in the list is the most frowned upon for obvious reasons. The main idea here is that, for an artwork to be truly your own, everything has to have originated from yourself as the creator, from idea, to planning, to execution. If you didn't build it from the ground up, then it isn't totally yours and it's not completely original. As with everything else in life, there are many points of view pertaining to this. Whether its right or not could be debated until the cows come home.
What's important for you to know is that there are ALL different types of artists out there. There are some who only paint from life, taking days to set up their shadow boxes in their studios. There are some who enjoy working in plein air, leaving their houses and setting up in parks or in the street to paint scenery as people walk around them. Others create collages using magazine and newspaper cutouts or ready-made supplies. The list goes on and on, and there will ALWAYS be opinions about what is right or wrong or better.
It is up to YOU and only YOU to discover what types of media and techniques you'll use to get your message out into the world. Everyone has particular tastes and enjoys different artistic methods. I prefer to keep an open mind about it and don't define anything as ``right´´ or ``wrong´´. I think, as long as you are being respectful towards others and are doing everything in your power to create from the heart, it's all good.
Read my blog post titled How to Effectively Use Other Artists' Work as Inspiration and a Great Method to Start Developing Your Own Artistic Style.
All this said, this method is going to bring you less artistic growth when compared to any of the others because you are limiting yourself to using a photograph that already exists, so I suggest making time to create your own reference library to have at hand AND drawing/painting from life whenever possible. If you're ONLY using other people's photos because it's easier, then you are only going to grow so far.
Make sure you're smart when using other people's photographs!
Follow the recommendations below to ensure you are always being safe and moving forward artistically!
What are your thoughts regarding the use of references? Do you ever use reference pictures that you haven't taken yourself to create artwork? I'd love to know! Please leave your comment in the comments section below. :)
Thank you SO much for visiting! Be sure to come back next week to check out the second part of this series!
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