Is Drawing from Reference Cheating? Or will it actually Help you Improve?

I think every artist is hesitant to use reference in the beginning but what if I tell you, that it will actually help you Improve fast if you use the reference the right way.

So is drawing from reference cheating? No, it is not! When you are using reference the right way and if you are not just copying, what you are seeing or tracing from your reference, then using reference Images will actually help you improve your drawings drastically.

Why is Drawing from Reference actually good?

All, that drawing really is, is creating an illusion of a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional surface. So when you are drawing something, then you are actually creating an illusion of the real world or an illusion of a real-world object.

But how do you want to create that illusion, if you never actually closely looked at the thing, that you want to draw?

Let’s say, you want to draw an Apple and you are not using reference. You may remember the general shape of the apple or the basic color of the apple but there are so many details, that you are not going to be able to draw from your imagination.

So using reference images will help you understand these details and you will be able to put them in your drawing more accurately.

How do I use reference images properly?

The most important thing is to not copy or trace the Image or reference in the exact way, that you are seeing it.

Instead, you should look at more broader things, like texture, different colors (you will be surprised how many different colors can hide in one little object) or how light interacts with the object and the way, a shadow is cast by the object.

So let´s use our example of the apple again. An apple isn´t just Red. There are so many different slight variations in the color. There are purples, greens, yellows, browns and even more colors hidden in just an apple.

And texture as well, an apple is surprisingly glossy and has a lot of interesting patterns on it, that you won´t see if you don´t look at it closely.

It may be hard to see all that right away, but the more you draw and the closer you pay attention, the more you will be able to make out and the better your drawings will look.

How to choose good reference Images?

What you should look for in a reference image:

  • Good resolution
  • The object should be clearly visible and not cast in shadow
  • The Image doesn´t have to be beautiful
  • Reference Images, you should not use:
  • Don´t look for paintings or drawings as reference
  • Don´t look for images, that show the object in the exact angle, that you want to draw it in
  • Don´t use heavily photoshopped Images

And finally here are some Sites, where you can find good reference images for free:

Important! As long, as you use these Images only as a reference and not in your artwork or you don´t plan on uploading these pictures, then you don´t have to buy any of them. Only when you plan on using the exact Image (not your artwork) then you have to purchase a license.

Why is tracing and copying bad?

By tracing or copying an Image you won´t actively learn anything. Because all you do is copying the exact thing without actually closely paying attention to what makes the object look the way it does.

Copying isn´t necessarily bad. But blindly copying something without asking yourself why a certain thing is looking the way it does, that´s bad. It won´t help you Improve at all.

The better you understand an object, the better you will be able to draw it. So try to understand the object, that you want to draw and don´t try to just copy it.

Do proffesional artist use reference pictures?

Yes, they do! All of them, all the time!

I have talked to so many artists and believe me, they all use reference images or real live references to draw. They need to, because if they don´t then they won´t be able to understand the thing, that they are drawing and thus they won´t be able to draw it in a way, that is believable.

But there are a lot of things, that they already studied like Anatomy, Light and shadow, color theory, etc. that helps them understand certain objects faster. So they don´t need as much reference anymore in order to be able to draw something believable.

But if they are drawing something, that they never drew before, they will use reference Images until they understand the subject, that they want to draw.

So don´t be hesitant to use reference images to improve your drawings.

I know an artist, who doesn’t use them and draws from Imagination only!

There are always exceptions to a rule but you are right, there are quite a few artists, who draw without using any reference.

But I bet you, they did when they were starting out and they will use reference images whenever they are drawing something, that they never drew before.

They are only able to draw without reference, because they have built their visual library so well, that they know each and every object, that they are drawing so well, that they simply don´t need any reference anymore.

Before you become good enough to draw something from your imagination without reference you really have to understand the subject, that you want to draw. And in order to get to understand that subject, you have to do some research and look at some reference images.

So try it out! Find an object, that you like to draw and draw it from your Imagination as accurately as you can. Then do some research on that subject and find some good reference. Then draw it repeatedly from multiple angles until you understand how the object is built. And then draw it from your Imagination without reference and see how much you have improved!