When I was younger, I had this pre-conceived notion that real artists have the ability to pull completed pieces right out of their heads like magic. They had an innate knowledge of perspective, anatomy, color, etc. My work would somehow not be legitimate if I used a reference. It all had to come from me because that’s how all the good artists did it.
I don’t know where this belief came from, but thinking that you shouldn’t use references is a fallacy. You absolutely should use references. And, guess what? All great artists do it. It’s not cheating. If there is something out there that can help you create better work, why wouldn’t you take advantage of it?
Just to be clear, using references does not mean you take someone else’s artwork and copy it or trace it and call it your own. That is cheating and illegal and a horrible thing to do. If you want to recreate someone’s art to learn from their process that’s called making a master copy and I don’t suggest posting those online either. You do those solely for your own benefit. (Simple Art Tip #4: Make Mastercopies).
Before I start a new project, I take time to research what’s already been done. For example, when I was working on my Penfield Croquet Ball poster, I went online and looked at previous poster designs used for the event. This gave me an idea of the feel and subject matter they prefer. I saw what had already been done and knew not to use specific subjects or styles that would be repetitive or too similar to existing designs. It also gave me inspiration to create something along those lines, but new and exciting.
I create a folder called references (or refs) and save all my references in there in case I need to go back and look at something that was particularly interesting.
Once I have an idea of what I want the design to be, I research specific things related to my idea. For example, I had to look up what a croquet ball and mallet looks like. For the moustache guy in my poster, I looked up stills of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang because I knew I wanted him to resemble Dick Van Dyke as Caractacus Potts
I also find different styles I think would fit my piece and use those as style references. I usually use style references as inspiration. I look at the artwork and decide what are the particular things I like about the style and apply those things to my own work. I don’t ever try to straight up recreate the style. That’s not beneficial to anyone.
Here is another example: My Archetypes series. If you follow the link you’ll see what images I referenced for each character. Style-wise I was inspired by stained glass window art and Byzantine art.
Warning: be careful not to go overboard with the references. Sometimes having too many refs can make you feel stuck. Remember that refs are there to help you and are only suggestions. You can always use your creative license to change things however you want.
That being said, don’t feel limited by the stuff you can find online. Go out and get creative.
If you see a building you like, take a picture of it. You might use it in a cityscape or as a style reference for an architecture-inspired piece.
If there is a particular pose you want to draw a character in that is hard to find online, have someone pose for you and take a picture or take a picture of yourself with a webcam or tripod.
If you don’t know what some particular lighting would look like, recreate the scene as best as you can and take pictures. You can use cheap clamp lights to create your own lighting.
If you find images of real objects, but don’t know how to simplify them into stylized versions, find out how others have done it and use that as inspiration.
If you want to do some hand-lettering but don’t know where to start, look up all sorts of hand-lettering and see how others have done it. Find what it is you like about certain pieces and keep those in mind when you’re working on your piece.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an illustrator, animator, hand-letterer, etc. You can always benefit from references.
Once you start using references you’ll notice a difference in the quality of your work. Plus, you’re automatically learning something by trying something you’ve never done before!
(If you haven’t already, I suggest you read Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon)
In short, use references because it is the smart and efficient thing to do!