I’ve always liked to draw, but I started taking it seriously during my teen years. Initially I thought reference was a bad thing. Quite a common idea among beginners.
I wanted to be a comic artist and for that reason I thought I had to be proficient and independent enough in order to being able to draw anything out of my imagination. Quite an ambition, but it was justified by the fact there was no internet yet (at least not in my town) and we couldn’t just Google anything anytime. Young artists give the internet for granted, but what would they do without it? Buy tons of books? With what money? Anyway, those were the days.
I started with anatomy. To tell you the truth, I’m glad I used to think that using reference was “cheating” and I’ll tell you why by telling you how I faced this issue.
I bought two books by Burne Hogarth: Dynamic Anatomy and Drawing the Human Head.
Actually I first bought “the head”. I used to come home from school (boring maths!), sit at my desk and literally study Hogarth’s books page by page.
I used to sit down with paper and pencil and draw, simply following his rules and geometries, trying to understand and memorize everything.
I struggled and failed a lot, I challenged myself to draw things from different angles by following Hogarth’s “measuring system”.
I remember I also particularly enjoyed filling up pages with faces only, to try different expressions.
That obsession for memorization pushed me to look at real people quite often, in any situations. I used to observe people in the bus, in the street, anywhere, to see how Hogarth’s rules applied to them too. I imagined having a pencil in my hand, and drawing people before me. I didn’t have the chance of doing life drawing of course, nor it occurred to me I could try drawing myself at least.
Anyway, by doing so I started noticing exceptions to the rules too, which was very useful. I kept the same attitude later, when I started observing shadows and clothing.
Years later, when I finally entered art school, I noticed my classmates were technically stronger than me with colors and other rendering techniques, since they had been studying that for 5 years in art school while I was sweating and crying on maths and physics books, but they were too “reference dependent”, not only on photos but other artists’ work as well. I was disappointed at that, I didn’t understand why they gave up so quickly. I wondered “Where’s the fun if they can’t draw from their imagination?”.
After years I’ve learned that photo reference isn’t a bad thing, but I still stay away from it as much as I can when drawing anatomy. I like anatomy and I want to get better and better at it. Having a mental library of angles and rules is an asset everyone should develop. Eventually the more familiar you become with certain poses the least you need to actually measure it. It’s a matter of harmonies. You know Mickey Mouse looks good even if you don’t know the proportions and geometries forming his figure, but you have to learn those first.
These days I still draw figures out of my mind. When I struggle with certain poses I keep trying and trying until either I nail it or I realise I don’t have the tools to make it look good enough. That’s when I look for photos of that particular part only.
It helps immensely because I notice that this way I discover how wrong or correct I was compared to the photo and I learn how to integrate that piece of reference into my drawing without making it look odd or out of place. That new piece of information will consequently go straight to my mental library of angles and rules. That said, I hardly use reference. 90% of the times I manage to finish my drawings without it or with just a quick glance at something similar (as to double check).
All this thanks to my motto “Reference is bad”.
Although, it’s not a very good motto, we have to clarify a few things. Firstly: we don’t have “mental libraries” for everything. I certainly haven’t seen enough lions to be familiar with them, neither exotic insects nor missiles, Gothic churches or Aztec costumes. If you have to draw those things you’ll need reference. It’s inevitable.
However here I’m mostly talking about human anatomy and I still firmly support the idea that any artists should study it, find its rules and exceptions, find the way to work different angles and also discover why sometimes photos are anatomically incorrect and look very bad when directly turned into drawings. They have to be translated, not copied. It’s good to find out why.
The same level of understanding should be required for those who make life drawing. Don’t be contempt with simply being able to copy on paper what you see in front of you (which is a very good skill to have of course), but memorize and classify what you see, make it yours in order to use it as soon as the need arises and become independent.
I still have a lot to learn regarding anatomy and a lot more regarding all the subjects I seldom draw (architecture, machinery, animals, etc…). I have my strengths and weaknesses, but I’m satisfied with my approach and learning method. Since my Hogarth days I haven’t felt the need of buying more anatomy books because those were the right ones for me. I studied in a science based high school, I guess I have a natural tendency towards numbers, measuring, rules and categorization.
Many great artists and illustrators work with reference from the start. Nothing wrong with that if they are looking for a hyper realistic type of rendering. They are still required to develop good eye and common sense in order to use photos wisely and avoid oddities.
I’m not looking for hyper realism. I want to draw my own characters, the synthesis of all the stuff I have in my head. Perhaps it’s a reflection of my passion for comics and interpretation of reality, which is why it’s important for me to work free and start my drawings by facing a white canvas only.