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?
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's also a prevailing myth (usually thought by beginners and non-artists) that says that artists simply must be able to create art from imagination and using no references at all.
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.
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 years, which has allowed them to understand the structure of what they are drawing/painting fully, form a visual library in their minds that covers important characteristics, and even developed 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
Using other people's photographs as references for drawings or paintings is frowned upon by many people 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 different creative processes. I prefer to keep an open mind about it and don't define anything as being right or wrong.
As long as you are being respectful towards others and are doing everything in your power to create original artwork that comes from your own mind and 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.
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Make sure you're smart when using other people's photographs!
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