Reference Photos Aren’t Cheating

16 Jan

I get asked a lot, “How do you draw _____?” That blank can be any number of things; from hands to profiles, to foreshortening (I hate foreshortening, by the way). I am far from being an expert, I’m not trained to teach and I was self taught up until I did two years of art school after high school.

However, I like to help. So, I try to offer what advice I can and the one I keep coming back to is “draw from life.” Any artist will tell you how invaluable this is. I offer this to aspiring artists or accomplished artists in a rut. The class that did the most for me and the class I wish I could continue to take forever is Life Drawing. Even if you have no desire to do photo realism, if your style is super exaggerated-cartoony, you still want a solid base.

Obviously we won’t always have access to life drawing classes. Sometimes there isn’t one close, sometimes we just don’t have the money or the time. So my friends, I draw your attention to the next best thing. Reference photos! “But Lore,” you might ask, “Isn’t that cheating?” No. No its not. I don’t think using a reference photo makes you any better or worse of an artist. I tell myself all the time; I should use reference photos more. My husband gets stuck posing for me every now and again and I’ve been known to put calls out on Twitter for pose references.

There are quite a large number of artists on Deviant Art who mention reference photos in their work. The key is to note, if you didn’t take the photo yourself, where it came from. Even a number of professional artists have noted using reference photos to make sure their lighting, structure, etc. is correct. (I believe Luis Royo is one of them but I couldn’t track down the article from a number of years ago so don’t quote me on that.)

I’d like to point out that referencing is not the same as redrawing a picture line for line. If your goal is to replicate a photo as closely as possible there’s nothing wrong with that, just make sure you give credit where credit is due, if someone else took the picture. While I wouldn’t recommend referencing your pose from someone else’s work, I wouldn’t discourage that 100% either. Again, just make sure you credit and probably check with the original artist before showing off your masterpiece. I personally don’t even mind an attempt to copy a piece line for line or tracing because, admittedly, these practices helped me learn. However, again, please credit the original artist and check with them before showing off. If you do this and don’t credit, you have now become and art thief and whether you intended to or not, it’s very disrespectful to the original artist and can easily result in unwanted and negative attention. Not to mention its just bad form.

The point is; really, don’t be afraid to draw from life. Whether it is your friend or a sibling posing for you, or a photo you took or found on the internet. It will help in the long run, I promise. Just remember, if you borrow from someone else’s work (yes, Google image search is someone else’s work) to credit them for their creativity and hard work too.


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