Is It Good To Draw Using Reference Photos?

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Written by Juha

When you want to draw something or create a painting in your free time at home, do you work purely from your memory, your imagination, or a reference photo? Working from memory is tricky as we forget key details or let emotion override fact.

Working from imagination is easier said than done. Some people with aphantasia can struggle to visualize things, while those with hyperphantasia easily see fantasies before their eyes.

Working from photos seems like the best option for a better understanding of a subject and a great starting point for an image. But, is this such a good idea? Can reference photos help us improve our drawing skills and artistic style, or will they hinder our progress?

The short answer to Is It Good To Draw Using Reference Photos is Yes!

Reference photos can be a very useful tool when learning how to draw and making sure you can practice your style. They provide opportunities for growth when you use them correctly. However, artists can become too restricted, especially early on. It is important to understand how best to use those images and when to question what is in front of you.

Using reference photos, pictures, and images

There are different ways to make use of reference photos when creating art. You can,

  • Take photos of something you see to work on a painting or drawing at a later date
  • Take specific shots as reference points for a difficult, long-term project, such as a landscape or portrait.
  • Use photos from other people to create art for them – such as taking inspiration from a friend’s holiday or graduation photos
  • Use photos from the internet for a bigger range of subjects – such as exotic animals or photographs of celebrities
  • Use images of famous artworks from online gallery listings to learn more about an artist’s style

There are issues to be aware of when it comes to using copyrighted material from other artists or photographers for your own work. It all depends on if you are doing studies for your personal development or to sell your art.

With your own photographs, there are no restrictions. So, it can help artists to get into the habit of taking shots of their subject to lean on as needed. This could be with a digital camera or just a smartphone.

The Pros And Cons Of Using Reference Photos In Your Art

There are artists on both sides of the debate here. On one side, you have those that say that artists shouldn’t use photos when creating work as it stifles progress and imagination.

They see the limitations of the flat photographic image and advocate painting and drawing with a real subject alone.

On the other side, you have those that appreciate that this isn’t always practical and creates its own limitations for budding artists. They will encourage the use of photos as a reference if it gives artists more opportunities to learn and develop.

The pros:

  1. You can enjoy a wider range of images with subjects not available in the flesh.
  2. You can take photos of landscapes you are working on to help you continue your work at home.
  3. You can capture details about a person, object, or scene that wouldn’t come through when drawing from memory.
  4. You can also get a better idea of color and the way the light creates shadows.
  5. This will all lead to more realistic images that will help you build confidence.

The cons:

  1. You may find yourself limited by the flat, static image compared to a realistic scene in front of you.
  2. There is the risk that the colors and shadows in the pictures aren’t true depictions because of the settings on the camera.
  3. You don’t get to see the subject for what it really is and build a connection with it.
  4. Reliance on reference photos runs the risk of limiting your imagination.
  5. Some feel that artistic style and progression are stunted this way.

Reference Images Can Limit Your Imagination

This is a common criticism of working from photographs. There is the idea that reliance on reference images stops artists from turning to their imagination to create images.

This is a possibility if artists become preoccupied with the idea of creating an exact copy of what they see in the photo. It helps to doodle and mess around with art materials without reference points to see how you express yourself. You can create more emotive and interesting images that way.

Reference Images Can Hinder Your Artistic Progress

Some also feel that an artist’s style and the chance for progression become stunted when using these reference points. The idea here is that because you only see a small 6×4’’ image of a scene or a snapshot of a moment, you don’t see the “bigger picture.”

You become bound to what is in that image. Also, these photos can be flat, static, emotionless images compared to what was actually going on at that moment.

There is also the risk that the colors and shadows in the pictures aren’t true depictions because of the settings on the camera. For example, you may take some shots of a scene at night but then find that the camera overcompensated when balancing the colors and tones for a “realistic” shot.

A smartphone camera can be too smart for its own good sometimes. Or, you may work from black and white images that have an unrealistic contrast or other forms of digital manipulation.

The obstacle here is the ability to understand these barriers and changes and work around them. Some new artists will copy what they see in the photo without consideration for the true form and light before that digital manipulation.

In these cases, artists are no longer drawing the subject and aren’t building on their drawing skills.

You Also Can’t Build A Connection With A Photograph

On a similar note, a photograph creates a barrier between you and the subject. Even if you are familiar with the scene or the person, there is still a sense of disconnection from the moment it was taken.

Many artists that paint portraits with sitters can get a much better sense of personality and life-story by talking with the person as they draw or paint. This can then help the image evolve.

Similarly, you can get caught up in a scene when painting a landscape and get a better feel for the area. You can see what it is like there during different times of day or weather patterns.

Something may come to life in the rain, or there may be a deeper relationship between the place and local people you can capture. This only happens when experiencing the area in full.

Reference images still have their place in developing projects and paintings

There are plenty of good points here that show how over-reliance on reference photos can be problematic for artistic development. However, these images do serve a purpose when used correctly.

For a start, you can keep working on projects when the subject isn’t available. Taking reference shots for portraits means you don’t have to rely on a sitter the entire time. A balance of both approaches is fine.

Then there is the fact that you can enjoy a wider range of images by working on subjects not available for long-periods in the flesh. Say you have an interest in wildlife and want to develop your art in this area.

You can’t get wild animals to pose for you. Sketching creatures in the wild is a brilliant practice for understanding movement and true form. But, reference photos let you go further and practice your drawing at any time.

Reference Images Help You To Create Realistic Drawings

The problem with working purely from memory or imagination is a lack of realism. Without a photographic memory, we can’t recall the exact image in front of us and recreate it at home.

We could get lost in a fantastical use of color and form and fail to see the people and trees for what they are. Photos let us develop the following:

Seeing Details

Working from photos lets you capture details about a person, object, or scene far beyond our memory. For example, say you want to draw the tree in your garden tonight. You can’t see it from your window, but you have an idea of it in your mind.

Tomorrow morning you could compare your drawing to the tree and find they are vastly different. A photo would highlight every bend, every interesting part of the texture of the bark, the true shape of the leaves. Then the drawing is a true representation of your tree.

Seeing Colors

Let’s continue with that idea of the tree in your garden. You might start adding color and simply say that the trunk is brown and the leaves are green.

Something in our basic understanding of drawing trees tells us so. But, what type of green? Are the leaves uniform or mottled? Are there different tones to the bark, and what color is in places where the bark is exposed?

Seeing The Light And Shadow

Then there is light and shadow. You may love the way that the canopy of the tree makes patterns on the ground at a certain time of day. But, can you recreate that properly without taking a photograph of that moment?

Reference images will only hinder your artistic progress if you stop questioning what you see.

This idea of reference images hindering an artist only works if that artist refuses to study the image and ask questions. You can still learn a lot from the colors and forms in a photo and use that knowledge to further your interpretations and a more personal artistic style.

At the same time, you can remain aware that the camera only captures so much, and you still have artistic freedom in your interpretation of any image.

Also, those that discourage the use of reference photos don’t consider the merit of photorealism art.

Photorealism is an extraordinary artistic skill of creating an image that looks like a photograph on first impressions. Artists can study an image in great detail, from the tones to the reflected line and perspective, and create a striking “copy.” While some criticize the form for lack of creative expression, others are wowed by the effort involved.

Reference Images Can Help You Build Confidence

Finally, while some talk about stunted growth and development as an artist, there is a counterpoint here. What about those that decide not to draw at all and don’t try and improve because they have nowhere to start. 

You can’t tell someone with aphantasia to work from imagination only. You can’t take someone new to drawing aspects of a landscape and tell them to paint the park in front of their eyes. Working from photos provides that practice and a way to build a style and build confidence.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while there are some understandable points to the argument against using photographs as a reference, eliminating reference photos is too restrictive.

If you are at home and want to practice your skills on a subject, it makes sense to have lots of photographic examples in front of you. Reference photos open up a world of subjects and styles you can’t see outside your front door. They are also perfect for night owls that are keen to continue work on a landscape.

However, just be careful that you don’t rely too heavily on the image and create a literal interpretation all the time. Question what is in front of you and use the image as a guide for further development.

Using reference photos doesn’t mean creating a direct copy – unless you want to practice photo realism. Play with the forms and colors, create multiple versions of the subject, and have fun.

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