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Should I Draw from Art Reference Photos or Imagination?

Should I Draw from Art Reference Photos or Imagination?

Drawing from art reference photos can benefit artists of all skill levels. 

Many beginners may think that it may be cheating to use reference photos for drawings or paintings and that all professional artists simply pull exquisitely detailed artworks purely from their imagination with not a single reference in site – this is sorely not the case

Using a reference photo for your drawing is a good thing! and is strongly recommended for anyone trying to create detailed, realistic, or even semi realist drawings.

In fact, using a reference photo is so helpful that we have it listed in our top tips for beginners that many people aren’t aware of.

Table of Contents

    Is It OK to Use References in Art?

    Do professional artists use references? Is it OK to use references in art?

    Many beginner artists are still determining if they should use photography and drawing references or even need help finding ideal artwork references.

    Yes, professional artists often use reference photos, and it is OK to use references in art. In fact, it is rare for any artist aiming for realism not to use a reference photo.

    Suppose you are attempting a still life, figure, portrait drawing, or artwork. In that case, finding and using high-quality photo references is strongly recommended. It is to capture realistic proportion, placement, and composition better.

    It is rare for an artist to draw purely from imagination. I know when I started drawing. I assumed that all talented and professional artists just pulled detailed images from their vision and translated them perfectly to a canvas, but this is not the case. 

    Finding quality art reference photos will be one of the first things you do when considering creating a drawing or painting. 

    You will want to find a reference photo that is:

    -high quality


    royalty free – if you plan to use it without alteration for profit (will explain this further down)

    Do Artists Use Reference Pictures 

    For years, artists have utilized picture references as a source of information, inspiration, and creativity so yes artists do use reference photos quite frequently.

    Because using it is studying to understand better what you are trying to draw. Visual artists such as illustrators, painters, and even photographers have sometimes relied on outside sources.

    Artists have always done so, but it has historical roots that go back to the Renaissance when they would sketch or take notes on real-life figures, sceneries, and sculptures.

    What Is a Reference Photo in Art 

    A woman drawing a shell with a reference photo

    A reference photo is a visual aid used by an artist as a guide or source of ideas for their drawings. When creating a work of art, artists use images to accurately portray specific details, such as the appearance and characteristics of a subject or scene, to produce more realistic and precise work.

    Some often use reference pictures to improve their drawing skills and sketchbook ideas for beginners. Artists may learn basic drawing fundamentals, techniques, and your subject’s physical properties, color, textures, and more elements.

    How to Use Reference Photos in Art – Top Tips

    Using reference photos in art may be an excellent method to enhance one’s work, but it is essential to know how to utilize them efficiently for the best results.

    The following are some reasons for working with reference photos:

    To confirm accuracy: Photos are helpful for artists to ensure their illustrations of people and landscapes are accurate or true to life, primarily when focusing on a particular subject or setting.

    But remember that you shouldn’t replicate the exact reference picture and instead apply your imagination and creativity to make it yours uniquely.

    For realistic artwork: Photo references provide an accurate and clear guide for your work so you can include even the intricate details, making it look more natural.

    For drawing figures or portraits or still lifes: Studying reference pictures may be pretty helpful for learning the intricacies and nuances of the person or any other subject’s form.

    Proportion: Images may be used to ensure that the artwork’s elements are rendered proportionally or in scale to keep balance and harmony in your work.

    Composition: Using photographs as a guide, you may better organize or arrange the elements that make up your subject and drawing.

    How to Choose Reference Photos

    When choosing photos as references, there are two important ways or factors to keep in mind:

    Choose high-definition/detailed photos: This step will provide more accurate renderings when used to influence your drawing. As a result, you’ll be able to portray subtle details in your subject since more features and textures will be visible.

    Combine different reference photos: Reference photographs may be joined to get a variety of perspectives and styles from other approaches that can help you for a complete reference. It is used most especially when working with and combining multiple subjects.

    Can You Draw Without Reference?

    A hand drawing using a pencil

    Now that you know more about the benefits of a reference to an artist, can one draw without it? 

    The answer is yes; you can draw without using a reference. 

    This method allows creatives to express themselves freely and focus entirely on their imaginations and individual interpretations, leading to a more unique and authentic work.

    Does Tracing Help You Improve?

    For some artists, tracing is an essential first step in the creative process or a way to improve their drawing skills. It can help artists to achieve the right proportion and placement of elements within their artwork. 

    However, remember that tracing is not a substitute for actual drawing. Tracing may be helpful for the complicated aspects, but it does little to improve an artist’s ability to notice, comprehend, and render. 

    The best way to improve is always by practicing without tracing.

    When to Use Reference Photos vs Imagination

    When making artwork, whether to utilize reference photos or one’s imagination may be influenced by several factors, including the artist’s aims, subject, theme, and personal choice.

    If an artist is trying to create a realistic representation of scenery, person, or still object, they could find it helpful to use a photo reference.

    One may add intricate details of textures and forms to a design through this tool, which can be valuable if they are hard to see or retain from memory.

    On the other hand, if an artist is looking to produce something original, develop their approach, or discover their artistic pursuits, they may benefit from drawing from their imagination.

    Since the artist can apply their unique perspective to their work, the output may be more expressive and engaging.

    Art Reference Photos For Beginners 

    Art Reference Photos For Beginners 

    Artistic reference photos of excellent quality are hard to come by. The good news is that nowadays, artists may access a wide range of online resources that provide high-quality reference pictures for their work. Some of them are free of cost.

    Some of the prominent online resources that provide image resources for artists are:

    • Pixabay, Unsplash, and Pexels: These three of the best and most well-known websites provide a wide variety of free, high-quality photos
    • Paint My Photo: Artists may freely share photographs that inspire them on PMP without worrying about infringing copyright.
    • Picjumbo: A website that offers free stock pictures, created by Viktor Hanacek, for him to have a place to share his works.
    • Freepik: Not only do they provide high-quality photos, but they also have free templates, fonts, designs, and mockups.
    • Stocksnap: Helpful resources for finding high-quality photographs that don’t need to be purchased for their usage.

    This and many more resources available you can check out for free:

    Should I Draw from Art Reference Photos or Imagination – Conclusion

    Whether to draw from art reference photos or to use your imagination when creating artwork is a personal decision that depends on your artistic goals and style. 

    Using photos as a reference can be a helpful tool for achieving realistic representation and for studying the work of other artists. However, drawing solely from references can lead to a lack of originality in your work. 

    On the other hand, relying solely on imagination can lead to unrealistic or inaccurate depictions but can also result in more unique and original pieces.

    A balance between the two can lead to the best of both worlds. Ultimately, it is important to experiment with both approaches and find what works best for you as an artist.

    If you need help troubleshooting your creative process or understanding copyright law, we offer free consultations. Schedule a discovery call today and let us know how we can help you reach your artistic goals.

    Thanks for reading, and see you at the next one!

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