Is Using Reference a Crutch?
If you’ve ever tried to draw something from memory, you may have noticed just how flawed our memories can be. There’s a large gap between the images we can conjure in our minds, and those we can recreate on paper. If I told you to close your eyes and picture a hippopotamus, you may be able to create the impression of one. If I asked you about the specifics of its ears or feet, the details would likely be blurry best. Remembering these details can be difficult. To recreate them accurately, reference is necessary, especially when drawing something for the first time.
With the wide amount of photographic reference at our disposal, it’s easy to fall into a habit of depending on them too heavily, and they can quickly become a crutch, harming our development. As artists, our job is to observe and interpret. Certain types of art lean more heavily in one direction, like impressionism or photorealism. In my opinion, the best artists live in a space somewhere in between, like John Singer Sargent. Naturally, as a portrait artist, reference is necessary, whether that means using a photo or a live model. But the magic of portraiture lies not in the faithful recreation of this reference, but rather its interpretation.
A close look at any of Sargent’s portraits will reveal just as much. His focus was on capturing the essence of his subject. He did so not by painting every hair on their head, but through a series of decisions aimed at capturing his subject’s likeness while simultaneously reflecting his expertise. He controls the focus and guides the eye through omission of detail in an attempt to leave the viewer with the same impression he felt in the presence of his sitter.
On a student’s budget, with the exception of life drawing classes, it’s more likely your reference will take the form of photographs. To avoid letting your reference dictate your creative decisions, it’s important that you develop your ideas first, and either search for or create the appropriate reference after. The reference should serve to inform your work, offering clarity to areas that may be a little hazy. It can be easy to let the reference take the reigns and simply copy them exactly, but it’s important to our development to resist this urge. If we let the reference make our creative decisions for us, we deny ourselves critical mental labor that ultimately makes us better artists.
Everyone uses references for study, but how do you approach using them for original works? Can work even be considered original if reference is used? Of course. All that matters is the result. The amount one relies on reference to get there will differ from artist to artist, but over dependence on reference can stifle your creativity.
To make sure you are using reference as a tool, rather than a crutch, make sure you vary your reference. Find different photos for each element of your piece, don’t copy them all from one photo in full. Pick and choose details from each, but don’t forget it’s your job to interpret. You need to design. Don’t let the details of your reference dictate the minutiae of your piece. Find one photo to serve as lighting reference, another for the pose, and another for your color scheme. Borrow aspects from each and blend them all together to make something new.
When selecting reference, be cautious of the color and the lens that was used to take it. Digital cameras tend to obscure these two aspects of photos the most. These can affect perspective and value in unwanted ways, so make sure your choices are appropriate.