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What Is A Reference Drawing In Art? And How To Use It!

Something beginner artists always struggle with is drawing what’s on their own minds, especially without using a reference drawing.

It never comes out exactly as we imagined it! And that’s normal.

We first need to learn the basics.

You learn and become better at art by drawing from references.

But what is a reference drawing? Simply put, it’s a drawing you made, based on an image/subject you have in front of you. You’re reproducing something from real life.

I know there are a lot of questions about references, including if that’s considering cheating or even where to find references for your artwork. So we’ll go through all major questions while understanding a bit better what references are for in art!

What Is A Reference Drawing For?

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You draw from references when you need visual help.

If you want to draw a chair and don’t know how to, then the best thing you can do is grab a chair you have at home or find a picture of one online.

Afterward, you just need to copy what you see, into paper. The same goes for animals, people, flowers, plants, any kind of subject really!

If you’re unsure of how to draw, or if something isn’t going as planned, just grab a reference image and draw exactly what you see!

When you’re using references for your drawings, you’ll be sure you’re using the right shapes and light. You don’t need to guess, because it’s right there in the image.

This is a fundamental practice, not only when you’re just starting to learn how to draw, but throughout your whole artistic journey.

References are your friends and will help you avoid mistakes while drawing!

So, in short, a reference drawing is something you drew by following a reference image. It’s not out of the imaginary, but out of something that already exists.

Drawing From Reference VS Drawing From Imagination

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We all want to draw from imagination. It’s perfectly normal!

Most artists want to learn how to draw because they want to put into paper, stories, and characters that swim in their minds.

However, in the beginning, it’s very hard to perfectly translate into paper what’s on our minds. Our imagination can only do so much.

It’s perfectly fine to draw things directly from your imagination since you’ll always learn something with it. But you’ll also find it very difficult.

When I was starting my artistic journey I would be often frustrated that my drawings looked nothing like what I had in mind.

Even though I had perfectly imagined the coolest character ever, my body just didn’t have the capability to produce that idea.

So, for that reason, it’s important to first learn the basics. First, we learn from the real world.

And that’s where references come in!

photo reference on the left with a drawing study on the right
Study I did based on a photo reference by Howard Lyon

You can find references everywhere. You can go outside and observe the real world and real people going about their lives. Grab a sketchbook with you and draw what you see outside.

If drawing in public places isn’t your thing, I completely understand. In that case, we have our best friend, the internet.

Look for images of the kind of subject you want to draw. Is it a person? A dog? A specific flower? Search for different references and then draw them!

You can also take pictures of yourself or even use objects you have at home to use as reference.

The important thing is that you first need to look and observe the real thing and draw exactly what you see.

Then, once you got that down, you can finally draw whatever’s in your mind. Your imagination is free to run wild!

Is Drawing From Reference Cheating?

drawing of a tired student who's annoyed

Absolutely not!

If you watch any online drawing course or go to art school, you’ll see that your teacher will always encourage you to use references in your work.

Not only that, but there’ll definitely be exercises where you have to use references. Sometimes by using a picture, others by drawing real-life models.

As I mentioned before, drawing from reference is necessary to evolve your artistic skill. Without looking at real-life references, it will be very hard for you to know how to draw anything.

You won’t get it right until you actually look at what you’re drawing.

Some people have more difficulty than others in memorizing or imagining subjects in their heads. Some people can’t visualize anything in their heads at all!

For that reason, some artists will rely much more on references than others.

However, that does not mean they’re cheating.

They’re actually doing the right thing!

Not sure what something actually looks like? Then look it up, and draw what you see.

Even when you already know how to draw a certain subject, it can be good to have a reference nearby so you’re sure you won’t miss anything.

person holding a character sheet template that artists can use to create their own characters!

References serve not only for you to know how to draw a subject. They’ll also help you understand how light and shadow work. The same goes for perspective and composition.

So if you’re in doubt, get a reference. I guarantee you they’ll be your best friends!

I’ve been drawing for more than a decade and I’ll still look up references for most of my art. I’ll use it either for inspiration or to be sure I’m drawing a certain pose or object correctly.

Where Can I Find Life Drawing Reference Photos?

Free Pose Reference Websites For Artists - Cover

There are lots of places to find great reference photos. First, we have our good friend google.

Simply type what you’re looking for and go to the images tab. There you’ll find lots of examples!

However, I find that google sometimes doesn’t have the best quality, and the resolution can be too small.

It’s good for when you’re looking for a very specific subject that you can’t find anywhere else, though.

Throughout the years, I found several websites with great references of quality and most of them are actually free!

To name some of my favorites:

  • Pinterestthis is basically a social media website, however, it’s mostly used to share images, recipes, articles, etc. It’s a very visual website, where you can find a reference for anything!
    Not only that but instead of having to download images into your computer/device. You can actually create boards, where you keep everything you found and think might be useful for later. For example, I have boards for poses, outfits, colors, and other inspiring photos I find to use as references for future artworks.
  • Unsplash this is a free stock photo website. Here you can find everything! From people to sceneries, objects, buildings, animals, and flowers/plants. This is great if you need to use references or even use photos for any kind of work since they’re all free for both personal and commercial use.
  • AdorkastockThis one is more specific for anatomy drawing, but I think it’s worth mentioning. Adorkastock is a model who specifically takes photo references for artists, so if you need any pose or people reenacting certain situations, you’re sure to find it on her page!

From action to sitting pose references. Individual, couples, or group poses. There’s a bit of everything so be sure to add this one to your bookmarks!

These are just a few examples, but if you want more websites, I do have an article on 27 Art References Resources or even this one with 7 Free Pose Reference Websites, so be sure to check those!

You can even go through some specific body parts, like reference photos just for hands!

Learning To Draw Without Reference Images

It takes practice, but you’ll get there. The important thing to have in mind is to not force it.

It’s important to know that it’s always ok to use references. Either if it’s day one of drawing or if it’s been 10 years already.

Somedays, your mind just can’t focus, and something you’ve been drawing for years and years just isn’t working. So you look up a reference to make things easier.

Other days, you’ll be drawing something and you’re rusty at it or you’ve never really drawn before it, so you’ll need that handy reference right by your side!

Now, of course, as time goes by, your body and mind will start to memorize the shapes and lines it needs to draw a specific subject.

For example, if you want to draw people, the more you practice, the more you can rely on your brain and body to draw them!

Nowadays, a lot of the time I can just visualize a character in my mind and draw it. However, I’ll still prefer to gather some references, even if it’s just for inspiration.

photo reference of a girl with a dress on the left, and a drawing study on the right
Another study, this time from a photo from Pinterest.

In short, you don’t need to learn how to draw without reference per se. All you need is to keep on learning and practicing until your body is so used to drawing the subject, that you start seeing it more clearly in your mind!

When that happens, you’re ready to start drawing from imagination more often.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll never use references again. Believe me, they’ll always be your friends and a big helper whenever you start a new drawing!

Related Questions

Do real artists use reference images? Yes! Actually, that is part of what makes someone a real and good artist. It’s very hard to become good at art without knowing the basics and without drawing from real life. Now I’m not saying you need to draw realistically. You don’t, but you should use real life as an example!

Can I use other artists’ art as a reference? You can, and in fact, you’ll learn a lot with it. However, it’s good to know where their art stops and yours begin. You can make studies from other people’s art, but always remember they’re just studies and not your own art. They’re for learning purposes only!

You’ll also be mimicking a style so it will be harder to develop your own style. When you’re doing it, be sure to focus on the things you like the best about it, to better understand it and adapt it to your own style.

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Patricia Caldeira is the main writer here at Don Corgi. She's an art teacher with over 20.000 happy students across many platforms and courses!

Enjoy your stay and as always:
Keep on drawing!

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