Using References

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This week, while we waited for night to set in and the fireworks to start, Myla (she’s 8 years old now) asked if she could draw in my sketchbook.  Along with the other doodles she found, she saw a portrait I had started of our Boston Terrier, Adie, and asked if she could finish it.

Dang.  I was having fun drawing Adie!  But I don’t mind, obviously.  She asked if I was using my imagination to draw, and I told her I had started by looking at a photo of Adie.  She was very interested in that.  “Can I finish the drawing, and use the photo to look at, too?”

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And very carefully, she looked at the photo, doing her 8-year old best to copy what she saw.   I mean, look at that little chest wrinkle!!   EEE, it’s so cute!

I told her that when you look at a picture to draw from it, it was called a “reference,” and that nearly EVERY artist uses references.  She was hooked, and asked if she could draw our boxer, Scout.

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So cute!  She was fascinated to know that things don’t always look like what you THINK they look like–dog noses aren’t always little triangles, for example.  We talked about how that’s part of the fun of drawing from a reference, is to follow the photo to get it to look like what you see rather than what you THINK you see.

Several times, people will ask me if I use references in my artwork, or if I draw it all from my imagination, and I tell them all the same thing:  I don’t think I know a single artist that doesn’t at least START with references.  The fun part after that, is changing things around to make it your own.

She took this little pug, and made him waving his paw…

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She drew a tiger from a photo, and then added her own rabbit (without a reference) who is saying, “I don’t want any of your nonsense.”  🙂

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References have always been a jumping-off point for artists, and while some artists strive to make their artwork photorealistic and EXACTLY like their reference, most only use them to piece together an idea they already have in their head.

Myla even gave that a try, asking if I could show her the Alien she had seen somewhere (she’s never seen the movie of course, but I think they reference the queen alien in one of her goat simulator Ipad games).

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She asked if I’d show her references for the queen alien, and then drew the alien having lunch, while I told her the story of the entire movie.  She asked if there were other aliens, and then added the Facehugger sitting across the table, and the Chestburster popping out of someone nearby (how embarrassing!).

Humor is definitely a driving factor in this kid.

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If you were to browse the photos on my phone at any given time, you’d find tons and TONS of references–everything from movie characters, artists, animals, plants, flowers, and of course, TONS of photos of my favorite person to draw: Myla (thankfully, this doesn’t embarrass her yet, and she actually likes it.  She said the other day, “I really love that you love to draw me.”).  I have folders in my photos of beasties (animals to draw from), movie characters, Twilight Zone screenshots, plants, faces, you name it.  Whenever I want to draw, I just scroll through my phone, and I’m never at a loss for something to play around with.

I use references to draw from ALL the time, and it’s perfectly okay to do.  I swear, when I was younger, I thought it was considered cheating.  But how else would you learn how to draw without looking at something?

The tricky part is that of course there are some rules–if you straight up copy someone else’s photograph, it’s perfectly fine, and a great way to learn; you just need to acknowledge the reference source, or tag the person if you post it.  But if it’s YOUR photo, or you only use the photo as your jumping off point and change it up a lot to become your own new thing, it’s absolutely fine!  (You could go into a LOT more detail on this, of course, but those are the basics, because that’s a whole other discussion.)

On our long drive home the other day, I wanted to draw, and fought the bumpy road to doodle a photo I had of Myla, and turned her into a little mossy fairy forest sprite creature.

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Later, I painted her in watercolors, all mossy and brown.  I’m not done with her yet, but it’s a start.

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Myla, still on a reference kick, was excited to know that so many of the books on my bookshelves are actually (gasp!) REFERENCE BOOKS!  And now the whole world’s opened up to her, it seems.  She has been taking bits and pieces from creatures, and making new ones up herself (see the “hammerhead” in the center?  bahahah!) 

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One time during a live stream, a person saw me using a rubbing stick to blend my lines with my graphite pencil and asked me, “but isn’t that cheating?”  And I always found that funny, because…cheating?  It’s a tool, a technique, the same way using oil to smooth fingerprints out of your sculptures is a technique.  Whatever you have to do to get your idea or whatever’s in your head OUT.    That’s the fun part!

And that’s why it’s so much fun to see my own daughter find new and exciting ways to create.  She’s exploring and trying new things, and isn’t that what creating is all about?  ❤

 

9 responses

  1. Myla has got talent. Yes, cheating, so funny. How can using a tool, or looking at references be cheating? Techniques, just techniques. People are interesting creatures in how they think.

  2. Hmmm, maybe the idea of “copying” is wrong comes from school, you know the “copying on a test is cheating” thing.

  3. marcia hendricks | Reply

    I like this blog a lot

  4. I know an art teacher that cheats – he has his students trace photographs and then finish them… I think that’s cheating but he doesn’t see it that way. I love Myla’s imagination and creativity – she must have inherited your talent!!!

  5. I love the way you teach Myla about the creative process and limitless possibilities. It’s such a wonderful gift to pass on, the joy of creating something. I love that my kids are into drawing and making and we inspire each other. I love Myla’s Alien drawings. We are massive Alien fans in this house and my kids and I draw them frequently (also having not seen the movie). Do you know the picture book ‘The Alien Next Door’? That’s what my youngest uses as his reference when drawing xenomorphs.

  6. PS The sprite portrait of Myla is absolutely delightful.

  7. I just did a drawing series of houses in my hometown recently and I don’t as surprised that people

  8. …asked if I used a ruler! Um, yeah I used a ruler, for the straight lines! Sheesh!

  9. She’s so sweet. I have a very ridiculous number of reference photos on my phone, my computer, my Onedrive, you name it. I may use a face here, a body there, a dress from another and change the beads to go with something else I saw. I take hair from elsewhere and somehow I end up with a FrankenFairy that looks pretty fun

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