Musings on artistic development, reference, copying, and imagination

Over the last few months, I’ve talked to a few amazing pencil artists. You know the ones – the ones doing pencil portraits so mind-bogglingly accurate that you’re not sure if they’re black and white photos. And the funny thing is – whenever I get to talk with one of them, it turns out I envy them for their accuracy with light and shadow, while they envy me for my ability to move away from references. This seems to be a fairly common phenomenon. Unless you’re one of those absolute wunderkinder who have internalised previous references to the point of photographic memory, and who can conjure photorealism from their minds, it seems that these two things are a choice that many artists make along the way, and often remake: Reference or imagination?

And more importantly, can imagination even survive without reference?

I have made that choice too. Several times. And the outcome changed over time, which seems to have been a smart move.

Most kids abhor copying. I don’t know if it’s innate or kindergarten rules. My daughter certainly has never heard it from me that you must never use reference, but when she showed me a picture the other day that was obviously referenced from one of her books and I said, “Oh, and you looked at the tortoise in your book for that? That’s really clever!” she was mortified. I was the same when I was a child, never tracing or copying, and looking down at everyone who did, and being appalled if anyone assumed I did. I felt it was cheating, even if the results looked smashing.

When I see my students (I teach ages 11 to 19) drawing, it seems that there’s a lot more copying going round today than in my time, mainly from animes and cartoon figures.

Growing up, I never had many opportunities to copy much either. I didn’t read many comics, and none that I wanted to reproduce. Most of what I drew, even then, was illustrations for stories I had read. From Tolkien to Watership Down to Hannibal, it was all books and their images in my head.

Hannibal was then responsible for my picking up references. He needed a back door for that. While I was still sure copying photos or other drawings was a horrible crime, I was keen on getting my drawings as historically accurate as I could, even as a teenager, so I grabbed references for arms and armour, then I wanted to improve my elephants, my horses, and finally, anatomy.

From a cartoony sort of Asterix ripoff, in the course of less than two years, my drawings went a long way.


The approach I employed, funnily, is the same I employ today. What I wanted to draw was inside my head, and any reference I used had to assimilate to my needs. I went on to copy photographs of football players every now and then in between Hannibal drawings, which really improved anatomy of more athletic types (not arms though; the custom of football players working out to look athletic everywhere is rather recent. The guys I drew twenty years ago had legs like tree trunks and arms like twigs).

A fun observation can be made from the three images above as well: There are things we take so much for granted that we don’t see them. Artists generally look more closely and take fewer things for granted, but apparently, I was utterly unable to see that my mental concept for sword didn’t look like an ancient sword in the slightest. I even did a passable job on horse’s tack, but even after looking at and closely working with tons of reference material, my swords still had medieval crossbars.

In retrospect, while I can’t say if this was the perfect way to learn to draw, I can say this much: it was a great way for me. I could pursue my crushes on cute football players and practice realism, and I could pursue my even more hopeless crushes on long-dead or literary figures by practising to draw freely. And I kept switching between the two, and never got caught up in one of the them completely – until later.

When I was twenty-two, Star Wars came along. Suddenly I found myself doing what so many amazing artists do: Copying photos. Hundreds of them. I never got tired of it. For years, I faithfully copied photos – with pencil, with coloured pencil, with charcoal, with pastel. I loved it. I could have gone on for ever. Until I had copied literally every still, promo shot, and trading card of Luke Skywalker that was available (we’re still talking pre-Internet days here – that involved a subscription of Star Wars Magazine and giddily leafing through every new issue in search of new images to copy), and the first promo shots of Episode One begged my attention.


Episode One, when it appeared in cinemas, threw me out of the fandom, almost permanently. I turned away from the Jar-Jar-Binking idiocy that my beloved universe had become and turned to our role-playing universe. It was then that I hit the snag that everyone who has ever worked with excessive reference knows. I’d been churning out fairly decent realistic drawings for years. I felt I could copy anything. And now I wanted to draw my role-playing character at the same level I had become used to.

It didn’t work.


It’s that point at which you’ll make a decision. What’s more important to you? Photorealistic drawings or the stories in your head?

I owe George Lucas for my decision back then. I gladly forsook Star Wars, and returned to my own worlds, for which there was no one photo reference that I could copy. I struggled with my art for years – with overproportioned heads and absolutely unacceptable hands, until I got those things mostly straight by using the same reference methods I’d been using during my Hannibal time. I started building repertoires of anything that might come in handy – difficult poses, animals, cloth and folds, design elements, hairstyles, weapons, armour, costumes, environments. I changed to something more comic-oriented, which helped me to survive the abrupt fall from photorealism while preserving my visions.


From there, I slowly worked my way back towards a slightly more realistic style again, but, consciously or no, I never had any more of those excessive photo reference phases.

What I do these days is what I affectionately call “Frankensteining”. Quite a few of my images use reference, some more, some less, some none – but rarely will you find anything referenced so closely that you could actually see the influence.


So is copying from photos bad? No. Do I think copying photos is bad? No, I don’t. I just found it wasn’t my way. My way has less to do with photographic accuracy than portraying what goes on in my weird little mind. If I ever manage to make those visions photographically realistic, I certainly won’t mind. But I’ve found my prime concern are other things.

I suppose that’s the question: What makes you happy?  How do you get where you want to be?

Find the answer to those questions, and keep going. :)


8 thoughts on “Musings on artistic development, reference, copying, and imagination

  1. Lucas. How about Kurosawa…they knew each other — Star Wars based on Hidden Fortress, to a degree. Kurosawa was also friends with Tarkovsky, who once observed concerning happiness: “This world is not a place where we can be happy. It wasn’t created for man’s happiness, though many believe this is the reason of our existence. I think we are here to fight, so that good and evil can clash within us, and good may prevail, thus enriching us spiritually.”

  2. Fascinating how this echoes the discussions in the photographic world. The snapshots one takes with ones iPhone or Android are certainly photorealistic, but who cares? It has a lot to do with why I shoot mostly black and white. No one, with only a few unhappy exceptions, actually sees in black and white, yet black and white lets me get to the essense of what I saw.

  3. Thanks for sharing your experience Jenny. I am somewhat at this place in time when one tries to change from copying to drawing without reference and breaks her face. I discovered I have a mad difficulty with faces, rather than hands or head sizes. The problem is, from where to take reference on faces when your characters come from books?

  4. Really interesting post; I’m struggling with this very question still. Personally, I’m not very confortable in drawing comic-oriented drawings ( I’ve never read much comics, actually ), but I like phantasmagorical worlds and images that convey a sense of otherworldly magic, even if still retaining enough realism to trick the mind. I’ve a long way to go to get to nail that, though :-) still trying to figure out how to get to work all these coveted characteristics… A lot of practice to do!

  5. ‘Frankensteining’ is the perfect word! :) Like you say, there’s really nothing bad about using references. They help when learning new things and I often find that a one-off use of ‘frankensteined’ reference pictures enable me to draw similar scenes and objects in the future without using any reference at all!

    It really depends on the picture, its function and the mood I’m in. :)

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