Is Drawing From Reference Bad?

Is drawing from reference bad? Before I answer this question, consider, what we mean by drawing from reference, and what your goals are from doing it. 

There's no easy answer to this question – it depends on what you're trying to achieve with your drawing. If you're trying to create a realistic-looking drawing, then using reference material can be hugely beneficial. It can help you get the proportions and details right, and give you a better understanding of how light interacts with different surfaces.

On the other hand, if you're looking to develop your own unique style, or are more interested in abstraction, then drawing from reference may not be as useful. In these cases, it's often better to work from memory or imagination, as this can help you break free from pre-existing ideas about how things should look.

ultimately, there is no right or wrong

Is reference necessary for every piece of art you create? No, but whenever you are trying to create a realistic drawing or painting, using reference can mean the difference between success or failure.

Just imagine how difficult it is to picture in your head how light casts shadows on a human face. Or how a building or mountain looks in a certain light. Is drawing from reference bad? Not when your goal is to create realistic looking art.

Do ‘Real Artists' Use References?

Many people ask the question, what is a ‘real artist'? Basically, a real artist is anyone that creates art. But, if you are talking about professional artists using reference, then the answer to that question is probably. But it depends on the artist. 

Don't forget that creating art often involves breaking the rules. If you are creating an abstract painting with no discernible objects or figures, would you use photo reference? Probably not, and a professional artist probably wouldn't either. 

But if you are drawing or painting something that you want to come across as realistic, then you'd probably use photo reference, and a professional artist probably would as well.

The decision of whether or not you use reference when you draw or paint shouldn't be based upon what you feel a professional artist would do. It should be based upon your personal preference, your unique skills, and what you want to accomplish. 

Maybe you are one of the rare few people in the world that can close their eyes, imagine something, then draw it correctly. But, it's much more likely, that you are like most other artists, you need to use reference in order to be able to create realistic images.

What Is Reference Art?

When most people think of reference used by an artist, they probably think of photos of people, places, or things. But, there is another kind of reference that may be used by artists, and that is reference art. 

What is reference art? It's an artwork that an artist looks at when they want to learn how to create something similar themselves. Wait, isn't that cheating? Isn't copying someone else's work wrong? Yes and no. Is it cheating? No. Is copying someone else's work wrong? Generally, yes.

Using reference art is something that many artists do as they are learning and expanding on their skills. In fact, many artists are trained from a young age in the techniques of various famous artists in order to create a solid foundation that they can build upon. 

If you want to learn how to paint amazing portraits in the style of the old masters, then looking at references for what they did, then learning how to emulate it can be extremely useful. This isn't copying their work, it's learning from their work to expand your skills.

On the other hand, if you simply copy the work of another artist, then try to pass that work off as your own, that is wrong. There's no grey area here, it's wrong. 

Now, if you want to recreate a famous painting, and make sure that you clearly state to everyone that sees it that it is a recreation, then that's different. But copying the creative work of another and claiming it as your own is always wrong. 

Just imagine how you would feel if someone did that to you?

Is Drawing From Reference Good?

Is drawing from reference bad? No. But as an artist, you need to realize that using reference can become a crutch that you lean on too heavily. If you are trying to create an illustration that is an exact copy of a photograph, then using a reference to do so is fine. 

But, unless you have a specific purpose for trying to create a photo-realistic drawing, why would you want to do that? If you wanted to see a picture of a person or building that looked exactly like a person or building, why not just look at a photograph? Why should you spend hours drawing or painting something identical to your photo reference?

Wouldn't it be much more rewarding to take your photo reference, then create a drawing or painting that uses it as a foundation, then expands on it? While a drawing or painting that is photo-realistic is an impressive accomplishment, it's not going to prove as rewarding to you as an artist, as it would be to create something that fulfills your vision. 

Why not take a photo of a person, then change it? Or distort it? Or throw in some abstract elements? Or add colors that aren't present in the photo? The point here is that drawing or painting using photo reference can be a great thing, but you shouldn't restrict yourself to trying to simply recreate what you see. Make it your own.

Is Learning To Draw And Paint From Copying Bad?

Is learning to draw and paint by copying other artwork a lousy way to learn how to create art of your own? Not necessarily. If copying the work of other artists helps you to gain a better understanding of how they drew something, or how they created a specific type of effect, then it's not a bad thing at all. 

Many young artists are taught in school how to recreate the styles of famous artists, and it's also common for students to actually recreate entire paintings. Why would you want to learn to draw and paint by copying the work of others? You do it so that you can learn the techniques that they used, then you can branch out and expand upon it.

Copying the work of another artist to learn how they achieved what they did is perfectly fine. It helps you to learn, and it develops the skills that you'll need to one day take your art in a new direction. History is filled with artists who were heavily influenced by their peers. Being influenced by an artist, and learning to copy their technique is a highly effective way to learn and grow as an artist.

Art Which Is Heavily Referenced

Artwork the relies heavily on photo reference can be stunning, or it can look terrible. The main problem with using photo reference and then trying to recreate what you see accurately is that any mistakes you make will be magnified. If you are going to use photo reference heavily in your artwork, then you have two choices. 

You can either spend a great deal of time painstakingly recreating what you see while paying close attention to detail. Or, you could branch out a bit and use some artistic license to change your drawing or painting into something that reflects your vision as an artist.

Using A Cell Phone To Collect Reference Images

Technology has undoubtedly made our lives better in many ways, and as an artist, you would be foolish to not take advantage of what it can do for your artwork. Sure, you could go online and download stock photos as reference, and there are times that this will be your best option. After all, if you need a reference photo of an iconic location, and you don't' live anywhere near that location, then using a stock photo is your best option.

But, whenever you have a chance to take your own photo reference, you are going to be much better off. Making your own photo reference gives you the ability to get the angle of the photo exactly the way that you want it. It lets you get the lighting and shadows perfect as well. In short, it gives you complete control over the photo, which will make your job when you are drawing or painting it later easier.

When you are planning a drawing or painting, you probably have a good idea of what reference you are going to need. But, you shouldn't restrict your photo reference gathering to only times when you are planning a drawing or painting. The beauty of modern cell phones is that they have high-resolution cameras, and you can store hundreds of photos on them. There's absolutely no reason you shouldn't be taking reference photos all the time.

If you see something that interests you, then snap a picture of it. Maybe you see storm clouds in the distance that look like they'd look fabulous in a painting if so take a picture. What about a beautiful sunset, or unique building, or a funny-looking tree? Take a picture. Your phone lets you store vast numbers of photos, so use it and take lots of pictures. You never know what you may end up needing in the future as a reference, so taking photographs all the time is very beneficial to you as an artist.

Create Art With My Favourite Drawing Resources

General Drawing Courses. I like Udemy if you want to develop your knowledge of drawing techniques. Udemy is an excellent choice due to its wide range of creative courses and excellent refund policy. They often have monthly discounts for new customers, which you can check here. Use my link.

Sketching and Collage. Take a look at this sketching resource I have created. Use this link.

Proko. Is one of my favorite teachers who surpasses in the teaching of Anatomy and Figure drawing. Prokos course breaks down the drawing of the human body into easy-to-follow components aiding the beginner to make rapid progress. For this, I really like Proko.

Art Easels. One of my favorite ways to draw is by using a drawing easel, which develops the skill of drawing on a vertical surface. The H frame easel is an excellent vertical way to add variety to the style and type of marks you create when using a drawing board.

To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations, check out this resource I made for you.


Ian Walsh is the creator and author of and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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