We are a group of artists that have noticed there's widespread confusion and misconceptions spreading about the limits and ethics of referencing, so we have decided to help the community by clearing up the idea of what referencing is! -- You can also watch a video about it, just click here!
What is referencing?
When we talk about “referencing,” we could also talk about “searching for information.” Imagine that you have to do an essay for school about plants, animals, planets, in other words, a subject you don’t know much about. What’s the first thing you do before you start writing? Search for information about that subject, either on the internet or books, or ask your family and friends.
In the art world, referencing is exactly the same. It’s recognizing your lack of knowledge about a specific thing and seeking knowledge about the subject, so that you know more than what you did at the start. By expanding your knowledge, you can draw things your own way thanks to the information you gained from your previous search.
And you can do this as much as you want. This does not make your art worse, and it doesn’t make you any less of an artist; it actually means you are aware of your current limits and that you wish to overcome them and improve.
Why should I reference?
Studying from real life or professional works of others helps build a memory of how objects are shaped, observe how they move, and perceive depth (seeing things in “3D”). Over time, your mind builds a library of shapes, forms, and ideas. But memory isn't always accurate, so having references also helps refresh those ideas and can possibly bring inspiration to an artist as well!
Why is referencing important?
To put it simply, referencing gives you an opportunity to improve by offering a collection of real life and professional resources to study and recreate in your own way.
By referencing, you are also observing things captured in nature and life. Drawing blindly shuts you away from reality, and you will not be able to grasp the form and shape of things as easily because you're not observing anything. You're not learning of the things around you that fuel your brain to become creative and inspired.
Referencing also allows you to pick up on techniques other artists use. You can find ways to replicate another artist’s style in portions, then adapt those techniques to your own style. It’s a good way to develop your skillset as an artist.
Sometimes you might get stuck in same-face syndrome or same-pose syndrome, or even same-lighting or same-composition syndrome. Referencing someone else’s work can help you break the cycle and experience different feelings and aesthetics! It refreshes your brain and your sense of beauty. Artists who don’t reference will often get stuck in “style ruts” and get bored doing the same things over and over again. If you feel the boredom or feel you’re not improving as quickly, maybe it’s time to reference something challenging!
How do I reference?
Grab an image, observe and absorb how everything works there, study the object/part you are going to draw, ask questions to yourself, such as “why does the light bend that way in this part?”. Look at the small details, think about them, and then try drawing it.
Remember to supplement referencing 2D images/photos and graphics with observing real, 3D space. The reason for this is that doing 2D art is actually creating optical illusions of depth, and you can’t capture the sense of real depth if you don’t look at real depth in real life.
What is the difference between referencing and copying a style?
While referencing means gathering information to draw things on your own way based on that info, copying a style means you found some info and you are going to use it exactly as it is, without changing or putting your own artistic touch to it.
Copying a style may eventually lead you to a dead end because you are only relying on the artistic sense of another person. It makes you look like you have no opinion on your own. What if the artist you are copying ever stops improving or drawing at all? You’ll then have no way to move forward because you won’t know how to draw things by yourself.
But people say that referencing is wrong and it’s stealing?
Referencing is not stealing. It is mounting your vision onto the framework of another artist’s vision. It would be stealing if you take the vision of the other artist, didn’t alter it at all, replicated everything as exactly as possible, then passed it off as your own idea. But if it has your own style on it, your own take on it, then the closest it might be called is an “homage,” especially when it’s done with admiration for the referenced piece in your heart.
Professional artists reference all the time. Some pros will use reference boards, pin up images all over them, and continuously go back to them throughout their work process. This helps them stay grounded to their vision and not lose their way! Some artists will call this collection a “concept bible” or an “inspiration map” and collecting references for these is an indispensable skill for any art director. Professionals also reference for technical details because trying to memorize everything might not always be as efficient as looking things up! Books for posing, color, anatomy and architecture are published for artists to use for this purpose.
Collecting references, not only from other artists but through real life, helps expand an artist’s “visual library”. Observation is a key aspect in understanding how the world we visualize functions because of these characteristics. Referencing helps our memory on the subject in order for us to more quickly and accurately draw said subject in future works. It is important that what we translate from real life is understood by the audience as well. While we stay true to life, it is also our goal to emulate it in our own tastes.
Referencing only becomes a problem when an artist too heavily relies on a certain aspect that it is near identical to what is being referenced. Aside from losing the uniqueness of your own creativity, you are not quite honing in on the skill or comprehension. It is fine to trace or heavily reference, only in the interest of improvement and studying, so long as it is either not shared publically, or credit is given to the artist you are heavily referencing from.
If you’re really uncertain whether your referenced image is too close to the original, you can still upload it as long as you make it clear in your description that this is a “study” and don’t make money off of it, or if you have an agreement with the artist of the original for another arrangement. Otherwise, if you’re still too nervous, you don’t have to share it… but you should still reference because it’ll help you improve!
Another thing to keep in mind is that you should reference from a wide range of sources and artists rather than limit yourself to one or two. Variety is always good, and it makes sure that you aren’t referencing one artist too closely for comfort!
Where do you find your references and how do you store/organize them?
I generally keep organized folders of references for different things such as lighting, poses, colors, etc. My references come from multiple sources such as pixiv, instagram, and twitter ! It's important to try a variety of reference materials (anime style, photographed, etc) to develop a wide base knowledge. Learning how to observe, how to interpret those observations, how to put them on paper (or a digital application), and eventually how to add your own twist or spin become valuable tools for improving!
My sources online are mostly pixiv and twitter (sometimes facebook too), because there’s a diverse range of applied techniques and sometimes you just see something and it occurs to you that you’ve never treated the reference object in that light! I’m nowhere near as organised as Vi though haha, thankfully since I tend to browse twitter via my phone and there’s a handy save function, my twitter gallery folder is mostly filled with reference material or really pretty compositions I may look back on. However, just as often I like to go on google images and use stock images. I also take reference pictures (gardens, interesting forms, lighting) with a compact Canon when I go out, no matter what occasion you’re bound to find something of inspiration outside. That being said, even if you don’t go outside you can still get some good reference pics (selfies!!!). I like to indulge myself with selfies when there’s strong 3pm sunlight or softer, coloured sunset light but I’ve actually found they’re a great way to study how light falls onto the face, clothing and surroundings!
I have some references saved on dA, but most of the time, I remember what artists I’d like to revisit and their typical drawing subject. If it’s for more of a general idea, such as palette or anatomy, I’ll usually just search it up on google. There are some good free-to-use photography image-providing websites that are very helpful, and along those lines, palette/color-providing websites. I personally haven’t used them myself, but I would definitely recommend searching a bit if you’re interested. I also often retweet artwork that aesthetic pages share for artists who are old or already deceased. These are very inspirational, and I would definitely recommend seeing the beauty in old artworks as well. I’ll now and then sift through my twitter timeline or my favorites for recently shared artwork. Discord is also an amazing website for storing and sharing resources amongst other artists. It is also interesting to see how artists of different styles will also reference from resources that would not generally fall within their style. But that’s how you learn to understand the fundamentals, and how these elements and principles can be applied differently.
it’s basically the same for me. I sometimes go to whatever artist gallery to get inspiration/reference for compositions, poses, colors… Others I just save the pictures that I find interesting on my computer or gallery favs, but I also find many references on my daily life. I usually find myself staring at people or objects, I feel fascinated about how some things are shaped in life and I try to remember details that can help me draw these things later at home.
I also own dolls that I use sometimes as anatomy references. I like to play with the poses and look at them from different angles until I find something that can make an interesting composition.
If I’m browsing Twitter or Instagram, and I see something I like or might use, I save it on my computer/phone for future reference and note which account I found it on in case I want to revisit that page. This applies to anything, whether it be art style, anatomy, composition/flow, color combinations, poses, photographs etc. If I’m looking for a specific image, like a pose or a certain object, the easiest way is Google Images. I’ve also noticed that you can find a lot more than you think on Pinterest, since that’s where I usually go nowadays for photo references of people, or certain styles of outfits. On top of that it helps to take photos on your own -- if I’m referencing a certain part of the body I just use a mirror and/or my phone, and if I see something pretty (this especially applies to scenery and food) while I’m out and about I’ll usually take a photo of it. And finally, for random inspiration, I just scroll through the feeds of artists I like, OR my own and/or others’ Favorites folders on DA; sometimes you’ll notice things there that you forgot about before and it can help you make something completely new~!
My main sources are image boards like danbooru, which have a neat tagging system if you're looking for specific body movements or outfits. With an account there, I can favorite artwork I like and visit back without endless searching (eventually I save them all and organize them locally on my desktop). Other sources are artists from Twitter and Pixiv. For bodies, I also use DesignDoll, which has proven to be a very neat program for posing 3D models, and occasionally I'll play with physical mannequins to study a pose from various angles. For clothes, I browse Pinterest or google. I also happen to work in the apparel section in retail, so I get the opportunity to see all sorts of clothes as well as observe customers (how they're shaped, how they move, etc.).
I get references from everywhere, Pixiv, Twitter, DA, Danbooru, Pinterest, free-stock-photos sites, search engine. If I need something, I search for it no matter where; internet is endless and amazing, and lucky enough, most of the images are tagged. As as soon as I see an useful tutorial I save it on “how to” folder, inside “references” folder, which has another ones to most necessary things to me, like faces, anatomy, shading, night lighting, and so on, all of these are a folder filled with references related to only that topic, so it is easy to find. Basically, if I see it, it is good, I save!
I find references from everywhere! Usually pieces of artwork, photography, and movies give me inspiration for my artwork and I often use that initial inspo piece as part of my references. I use Pinterest to store my references, but I usually just have a ton of tabs open with references when working on a certain piece. Pinterest is my favorite reference organizer though~ I especially like that the Pinterest feed will also recommend similar pins which makes it easier to find new references! When trying to get a certain pose I often use myself as a reference with my mirror. Sometimes it hard to find the exact reference I’m looking for so making my own references is really helpful~ I find references really help with setting the ‘mood’ you are trying to achieve with your artwork as well and creating a ‘mood board’ of references can really help with achieving the theme you are going for~!
I find references often by googling what I want to draw. As example, I often google specific scenarios, expressions or poses. It's pretty easy to find something what I was looking for in the ever expanding internet full of sources! I use anime pics, real life photos and even figurines to study anatomy and poses. For coloring references I often look at pictures and try to find a way to draw something similar but with my own twist! Sometimes I use guides to learn how to color certain things and they all have helped me tons to improve my art over the years. I have a lot of dA favorites of references and other useful drawing technique tips and sometimes I just collect pose ideas etc. to my pc. I use sometimes design doll program and real life objects as well. Mirrors come also handy and I reference my own hands for poses too!
I usually get my references from twitter, pixiv, deviant art and pinterest for general digital illustrations -- I gather a mix of materials, from illustrations to sketches to photos to guides, and I save them in an organized folder on my computer. I also have materials from Patreon -- in my case, it’s from Kawacy and Shilin -- as I tend to pay for additional study materials from artists that use techniques I have trouble replicating. Finally, I have a stash of artbooks and photobooks on my shelf to reference for analog work if I decide to work at high resolution for the possibility of printing. For poses, I use Designdoll to get a framework and a perspective, then use anatomy illustrations and diagrams to fill in the necessary details. For the most part, I tend to keep a mental bank of what artists are known to me for what techniques and I visit their work as needed. However, if I’m doing exercises and warm-ups, I almost always prefer to draw from real life and will put together random objects from the kitchen to do lifestudy from. I will people-watch and draw reference from the city when I feel particularly constrained. Places like the gym, sports meets, dance studios are all great for studying dynamics and gesture.
Most of my referenced images are divided into two main folders, one for inspiring styles/compositions, and one for color palettes! I have a few extra folders that are used for when attempting a specific style; such as anime, digital paintings, copic art etc. I find my references everywhere, from dA and Twitter to color schemes on people's profiles or photography. Because I save so many unique things, I have a wide variety of references to pick from. For a challenge, it's fun to go through and pick a random image to try drawing elements from, I find it’s an interesting way to learn certain skills that you may not be actively seeking out!
Originally, I didn’t use other’s art for reference very much, as it would make me feel bad due to believing it was wrong! (I know better now though) But I do have a huge folder with beautiful art that have inspired me through the years! I often find inspiration through other people’s favorites, likes and tags on DA, twitter, Instagram, Pixiv and other websites I’ve come across. Sometimes I did reference for style practice though and studied how others did their art by looking carefully at their artwork. I also used a lot of references on naked models for anatomy practice, that I found through tumblr and DA. There’s also a website called posemaniacs that use realistic 3D models with visible muscles. I got into naked model referencing after attending a croquis session in school a few years ago. I would definitely recommend croquis it as it taught me A LOT in just an hour!
Just like Pemiin above, we grew up with the stigma that referencing was wrong! (It isn’t). I’m so happy to share my newfound knowledge! I like to collect references from dA, Pixiv, Twitter and Tumblr. I mostly collect pictures of cool lightning and colour schemes or neat poses! Sometimes if I struggle with a pose, I use the 3D modeling system provided by Clip Studio paint. It is not the most accurate but it can give a good “basic” view how the perspective works, and foreshortening. Collecting artbooks from well established artists with tutorials always helps me. Each artist has an individual way of drawing, and there is always something new to learn from each person you come across. I like to use my newfound knowledge as references as well, hence my art and colouring can change quite a bit depending on who inspired me. Which I think is great. Reference away and find your own aesthetics! ♥
Samples of referencing:
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