The Benefits of Photo Referencing

Original: 9th Aug, 2010

Well, I started a journal entry on deviantART that sort of accidentally ended up trailing into thoughts about photo references, so I might as well write a blog entry thing about it while it’s fresh in my mind.

First, I’ll just give a brief history of my journey though the wonderful world of art! I’ve been drawing all my life, though until I was about 13 years old, I never really focused on improving a lot. Or improving properly, anyway. I’d mostly just draw yoshis again and again and enjoyed what I did, considering any improvement simply as a ‘bonus’. Eventually though, I discovered Neondragonart and had a gander at the tutorials there. From then on, I took improving far more seriously, but made the mistake of deriving all my anatomy knowledge from the art of others.

Why is this no good? Well, one reason is that you learn to copy other peoples’ mistakes. Even if you think their art is amazingly great and flawless and so on, chances are, it’s not. Everyone makes mistakes and everyone interprets the world differently. By deriving your art knowledge from another person’s work, you’re learning to draw in the way that they interpret the world around them – basically, their style and their mistakes. They’re distorting reality in the way that they draw their subjects, and anyone referencing their art is then distorting their distortions and… so on! It gets further and further away from the real thing, like a game of ‘Telephone’/’Chinese Whispers’, or whatever that game is called. You know. The one where one person will whisper a sentence into another person’s ear, and they’ll whisper from person to person and by the end, it doesn’t sound anything like the original sentence.

Another problem arises from this, and that’s the risk of copying another person’s style. It’s not horribly, terribly wrong or anything, but it does sap away some of the uniqueness of their style and gives you a style less unique than it could be. When I was finally starting to seriously improve back in 2003, my artwork was referenced heavily from the work of Neondragon, so I ended up with a style probably similar to hers, or at the very least, based on hers.

Uh… Though all that about borrowing aspects of another artist’s style sounds rather negative, I also want to say that, if we’re exposed to the art of others that we enjoy, it’s inevitable that aspects of their styles will rub off onto us, whether we’re aware of it or not! Artists develop their styles by finding things they like about the styles of other artists and the things they observe in reality and mushing it all together into a combination of things they find appealing.

What I’m TRYING to say here is: deriving inspiration from the artwork of others is okay, but that shouldn’t be your primary means of learning.

Now, uh… I’ve been drawing with improvement in mind for about seven years now, and I regret not referencing photos of real creatures from the start. I’ve only been referencing photos for maybe the last year and a bit or something like that, and I probably would have improved much quicker had I been doing it all these years. I only really started to properly grasp quadruped anatomy and how the forelimbs are *in front* of the rib cage within the last year or so. Until then, I’d been giving my fourly-limbed dragons clavicles (collar bones), not realising that they shouldn’t be there as their forelimbs should instead be connected to the body by muscle.

The example on the left there illustrates the same mistake I’d been making for years and years, the image on the right, however, is truer to nature (but still inaccuate because I have a lot to learn!1). Of course, if you’re drawing biped dragons with more human-like arm anatomy, the clavicle does actually apply. If I’d been studying real animal anatomy, I would have known this ages ago! But no, using photo references and drawing real animals was boooring, so I never bothered. I’ve seen others say things about how there’s ‘no creativity involved’ when you draw things from photos and that they disapprove of drawing from photos because of that, but… well… there’s a lot of learning involved, and that’s the important bit. You don’t have to show off any art drawn from photos, but you can use the knowledge you gained from those exercises to improve your other, more ‘creative’ artwork. So yes.

A year ago, I apparently didn’t know what tigers looked like and ended up drawing these ridiculous-looking things:

Not very tiger-like tigers, are they? Some of those just make me shudder! BUT, thanks to the magic of studying tiger photos, I was able to draw this a few months ago:

A slight improvement, I think. So if you’re really serious about improving, try searching for some photos of animals you think the anatomy of would benefit your drawings, and try drawing what you see! Drawing from a photo makes you focus on details you might not have payed much attention to when just glancing at the photo and it helps you to remember what that thing really looks like. If you can’t draw hands, you might want to try drawing your non-dominant hand or something like that. (I’ve done this several times. Try to think of your hand in terms of angles, lines, shapes, and distances between features rather than ‘finger’, ‘wrinkle’, ‘nail’.) It can be awkward and difficult to get accurate results at first, but the more you practise, the better you’ll get!


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