Monday, February 13, 2017

Is it cheating to use reference images?

Absolutely not. BUT there is more to it than just that a lot more. If you are  plagiarizing someone else's work I think that is always an issue so we are going to skip that idea and going into a few reasons where reference makes sense and when it doesn’t.

Reference for likeness.

When you get a gig, or start a personal work that required you to get some sort of likeness using either photo or real world reference is all but a must. The average human mind can recognize a face it has seen before if shown it again but struggles a great deal to recreate it from scratch because our minds break what we see into symbols. When my children draw me they draw a circle with eyes maybe dots for a nose and a line for a mouth if I’m lucky! We aren’t too far removed from that interpretation of the world.
Sometimes something as simple as a scowl or a flirtatious look is a little hard to pin down with just your mind. The human body is so expressive that often times a wrinkle or a line can change how you read a person's mood. So don’t take for granted the power of reference.
I say all that to say this… even caricatured reference of something as complex and varied as a human face will require something to compare to and check against.
And for the sake of clarity this goes beyond just portraits. As an art professional you will be tasked with finding likeness in things.

Reference for anatomy

Anatomy is hard! Especially when you are just beginning stages of your art development. The more you draw certain parts of the body in certain positions the easier it gets for sure. But as an artist especially one with deadlines drawing things that have never been seen before you’ll find yourself at a loss…. What does someone look like right before they pitch a 90 mph baseball? What DOES a malnourished person look like foreshortened? What does an overweight foot look like? These are things you can’t just imagine up if you haven’t already handled them before, so in the interest of time grab reference and get an idea of what it should look like.
Another thing you shouldn’t over look is yourself as a reference. You can snap a photo of yourself doing the pose you for whatever reason can’t get down on the paper, especially if you are a similar body type it will help your character feel much more grounded balanced and real.

Reference for Studying

So. referencing art to study from is a great way to improve one's understand of how light affects our natural world. Getting out there and doing daily studies is the art version of hitting the gym. Doing result focused studies help you to understand color or form or shadow or anatomy work in reality so we can apply these realities to the things our brains dream up. There are tons and tons of art books marketed to us with this very idea in mind. They tell us that by copying everything inside of them we will have a better understanding of how X or Y works and to be honest a lot of the books are right. Our minds are designed to learn through watching, through hearing and through doing. When you hit all three of those growth is bound to happen. So go grab a sketchbook and reference you but off.


You can also reference other artist to study from so that you apply things you enjoy about the colors they choose or their workflow or whatever it is that you like and apply their methods to your own. You can reference bits and pieces of a character's core design. Feeding yourself lots of ideas and concepts, through books movies illustrations and any other kind of art will always make you a better artist. The combinations of bits and bobs we gather from all of our life experiences can become so very unique and inspiring in and of themselves when we these ideas together.

The Power of imagination

While there are TONS of people who make a living literally just referencing photos, people, and things. There is something truly amazing about the power of imagination. Our ability to create something from nothing is what separates us from every other living being on the planet. Use your imagination cultivate it let it grow! In the imagination our reality is just a tool we can loosely ground our imagination in. There is just as much beauty in the imagination as there is in our reality, but do be very wary of giving that up what your imagination can give you in blind surrender to what is physically around us.


I said I wasn't going to go over it... but lets go over it. You wouldn’t steal someone’s work and say you drew it. Don’t copy someone else's work and imply you imagined it. It is dishonest and will always catch up with you. I think a lot of the negative stigma that comes with referencing anything comes from the idea that you are stealing. And really who is to say? If I am on google one day looking at smiles and I really like one smile and do a cartoony version of it on my character is that theft, or was I inspired by that smile? When do you need to credit a reference? It's a slippery slope on a thin line but it all comes down to these: intent, clarity, honesty.
I feel that the difference between theft and inspiration is pretty clear. Looking up a fat foot is different than looking up a league of legends character concept and trying pass it off as your own.

Well gents and ladies… I hope I helped you to understand why reference is a indisposable tool for an artist. Don’t cripple your development and don’t get caught up in the myth!

As always guys if you have any comments or questions hit me up in the comments below. God bless, be safe

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