How do they do it without reference?
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Thread: How do they do it without reference?

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    How do they do it without reference?

    I've noticed that lots of artists paint from their imagination and don't use any references, yet their paintings look so realistic. How do they remember to paint all of those details? How do they get the lighting perfect?

    I can only get my paintings that realistic and detailed if I use several references for each element of the picture. As a fantasy artist, having to use reference all the time is annoying and it's hurting my creativity. I wish I could just paint what I want from my head and have it look good.

    When I try to paint without reference, I feel lost and the result pales in comparison to my referenced work. I just can't get the same quality of work.

    I'm starting to think that my visual memory isn't as good as the no-reference artists. I've tried copying pictures and then drawing them again from my mind. I can remember a lot but by the next day the memory has faded. My mind only remembers the basics even after years of drawing from life and reference.

    Is it just a matter of more practice? If so, what should I practice?

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    Your question, "what should I practice" is pretty much answered in your post - do more of what you're doing.

    It's like a muscle, the more you work it - with a lil more weight over time, the stronger it becomes. The more you work this, the better you will get at it. It may not be your methods, but it sounds like it annoys you to the point where you may be stressing it out during the image itself, which WILL limit where you take that creativity.

    Beyond that, references really shouldn't hurt your creativity.... just gotta learn to know when to stop using it. And there's no real method for that, it's sorta a trial and error thang really. The other thing to remember is that while some artists can do this stuff without references - that shouldn't diminish the work you do with reference.... it's not a bad thing to use as long as you can slowly ween off of it enough as to not be entirely directed by photos.

    Keep it going!

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    I think it's about doing a shitload of life drawings and studies until your own head is a living anatomy encyclopedia...

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    I can only get my paintings that realistic and detailed if I use several references for each element of the picture. As a fantasy artist, having to use reference all the time is annoying and it's hurting my creativity. I wish I could just paint what I want from my head and have it look good.
    you know, I want to point out something that often goes unsaid in these discussions. No matter how realistic or convincing an image somebody can make without direct reference (and reference is used in some form or another far more often than many people realize), just about every artist can make a better image with it.

    While you may feel like the stuff you do out of your head is too simple or crude and these other artists are doing fantastic work (presumably) from the hip, it's all about time and experience. I know alot of people who can do amazing things from imagination but still choose to work with ref because they can do even better with that additional tool. And I'm not saying this to mean "always use refs, don't idolize non-ref work habits" (my personal feelings are more complex than that), just to say that everyone sees the flaws in their work differently from how other people see them. Many people have practiced to a level at which they could work without a net, but in their eyes it still will not be their very best.

    What I'm saying is, there's nothing wrong with not knowing everything. The guys you look up to know more than you maybe, but they don't know everything either. Going without refs may be necessary or preferable for reasons ranging from time constraints to stylistic, but it shouldn't just be because that's how somebody else does it. Try to keep pride and ego in the background when it comes to this sort of thing, because the work will suffer when you limit yourself without good cause.

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    I think you have some misconceptions that are getting in your way. First of all, things are much less either/or than you seem to be assuming. There's a big continuum in between copying life or a photo exactly and working completely from your imagination. If I have to paint, say, a dragon, I obviously can't work from life, and I'm not going to directly copy somebody else's artwork, so what do I do? I gather as much information as I can about crocodiles, lions, bats, dinosaurs, eagles, etc, etc. I research how other artists have handled similar subject matter. Maybe I make a model to study light effects. So, is this "using reference" or not? I would say yes, even if the final image comes completely from my imagination. Which brings me to my second point; If you think that working from reference is hurting your creativity, then you're going about things wrong. You have to look at finding or creating the reference you need as part of the creative process.

    And what Dave said, too.


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    Thanks everyone for your answers so far.

    I want to clarify that when I said using reference I meant using any kind of reference at all. When someone says "I don't use reference" I think they mean they aren't looking at anything outside of their own head.

    For example, I've read a few times that Brom doesn't use any reference. I just can't understand how he can remember all of that information. I have no idea if he means that he doesn't directly copy references, if he does it all from imagination, or a combination of the two.

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    Cool

    Is realy important learn to work from imagination withought refenrence, in a part in the art that give us the sense of reality, so, i mean, you will draw a men, and this men exist inside this piece on paper or in this file of bitmap and you need take this men in this own reality, this world, the references of our world could not work in his reality, if you cant paint or draw withougth reference yo cant take you paint inside his reality.....

    this is the diference betwen an artist and a good artist

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    Believe in talent

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    Insert very insightful quotes here ...
    - get back to work!
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    Quote Originally Posted by linranae View Post
    For example, I've read a few times that Brom doesn't use any reference.
    This isn't true. In Fantasy Art Masters vol.1 he discusses his process in detail, including his use of models and photography (short answer: sometimes). And this is exactly what I was talking about. You've set up a false dichotomy where none exists.


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    This brilliant thread by Elwell, shows how he goes between a rough sketch/plan and to using reference for a polished piece;

    http://www.conceptart.org/forums/sho...d.php?t=125083

    I can really relate to what your saying, I've been trying for awhile now to make a drawing that's purely from my mind. And I recently managed to produce four illustrations without reference, all depicting different scenes from Celtic Britain, and the one thing I found was whilst the anatomy was okay (as I've been frequently going to lifedrawing sessions) there was a general lack of detail. The drawings came out looking awkward in their expressions, and they weren't that interesting to look at.

    If you by any chance want to know how the likes of the Old Masters, created such realistic portraits and paintings, it's worth checking out David Hockney's study into their techniques.

    Last edited by Kagemusha22; May 15th, 2009 at 05:23 PM.
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    When I was driving back home today I was thinking about something similar.
    Today me and someone from my department were talking about something work related. And someone who only works with us two years was overhearing us and later commented that he had to think and focus really hard to follow our conversation.
    The difference? About 6 years of working experience.

    Now how to improve? Either just work those additional 6 years or determine where you lack most knowledge and improve that.
    I would go back to basics. Take one step, wire figure drawing for example. It's bad? Work on it. It's good? Next step: draw block figures. Also good? Draw muscles. Also good? Then probably you don't need to work on figures.

    Currently I'm working on my colors. I need to swap my new pastel box tomorrow else I would be working with those this evening (for some reason on opening it I found a dozen double yellow pencils and only two blue ones). And I've been looking a lot at faces for a couple of weeks now to see and understand the various skin tones. It's amazing how different the dark skin color of two Africoid people can appear when you see them both at once. And how close some of the light colors in their face are to the dark colors in caucasian people. And how different the tones in caucasian people can be.
    Maybe you could just work on something and put it in the Critique Center asking for crits on the things you feel unsure about?


    And reference?
    I usually make sure I have some around before I start to work.
    I know what I roughly want to draw and which parts I most likely need reference for.
    If it's all I just gather 'all' reference I think I might need.


    Edit: Oh, I forgot our reaction to the guy at work.
    We told him that he should just try and test things ourself. Doing stuff, experimenting and failing sometimes helps a lot.
    We are there to support him when he's got questions but he should really take more initiative and just DO things.
    And we told him to ask our head of department if he could take a peak at other departments. See how they work, what they do and why they do it.
    Learn a bit about their work so he can relate our work to theirs.

    Last edited by the_jos; May 15th, 2009 at 05:55 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by linranae View Post
    I've noticed that lots of artists paint from their imagination and don't use any references
    IMO it's a tiny, tiny minority of artists who consistently choose not to use reference, especially if we're talking about people.

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    I have a bad habit of either using too much of the reference material or not at all in my 2D. I think I'm getting closer to unifying these two aspects while studying 3D in college, especially when you have to spend hours and hours modeling your first human figure...not saying this is the route to go, just one that works better for myself.

    On another note Im anxiously waiting for James Gurney's 'Imaginative Realism' book due to come out in September...from reading his blogs Im guessing it's tons and tons of studies and research...but very interested in it.

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    re - IMO it's a tiny, tiny minority of artists who consistently choose not to use reference, especially if we're talking about people.

    Hate to admit it but I fall into that category - and it's mostly to do with bloody-mindedness, and a juvenile wanting to be different, I guess. Combine that with me being more than a bit thick and you're nearly there. It's just how I grew up, assuming that it's how folk did it (based on no good supporting evidence), and being determined not to be beaten by it.
    That said, my bookshelves bulged with anatomy books and still do - alongside hundreds of art books full of inspirational artistry by figure artists whose images reinforce my determination that it can be done. Add in books about drawing/painting techniques, colour theory and perspective and all the tool set that an art college course would give you and you soon have a book lined room.

    The I did go off to College and did an illustration course where I encountered life drawing for the first time - Interesting and illuminating. Now I have that as a fall back position, but still prefer to work out of my head, because it gives me results that are a litle more individual and seems to keep me getting work.

    Working without reference you have to expect it to go wrong more than it goes right - especially in the early days. I hate to think how many trees died for my discards while I still worked traditionally (I'm totally digital, even for the sketching now) . And don't expect it to magically materialise on the paper, fully formed either (which applies to working with refence as well of course - just more so from the imagination). Practice makes better. Lots of practice.

    A basic break-down of how I may tackle it, more like 'constructing' a figure on the flat plane,
    Decide how/in what space the figure exists.
    Draw some perspective guides to indicate it that the figure can conform to.
    Start from a simple, stick figure,
    flesh it out with basic volumes,
    refine them to make sure the proportions work,
    refine them more to add character,
    clothe them,
    refine the clothing,
    adding props if not already integral to the pose (in which case they should already be factored in),
    and on and on.

    My process is a bit more fluid now, but I've been at it a long time. If I run into trouble (happens all the time), I often resort back to that sort of process.

    That's just me though and I'm in no way recommending this as the way to go - it's just the path I have taken. We're all different and that's the great thing. A good grounding in the fundamentals of drawing and painting is always going to be a positve, whoever you are. If you are determined enough to put the hours and the graft in, you will improve, whichever path you take. There is no substituion for hard work.

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    Based on personal experience, I can always tell when something was done with reference. And I think that's the thing you have to decide for yourself...Do you want to have that foolish pride that you did it all from head? Or do you want to have a really perfect (or as perfect as you can make it) artwork? I prefer the latter. That's not to say I don't use the mind more often than not, but I am continually amazed at how much better the drawing turns out when I use reference. It's kind of a continual slap to the face to remind myself.

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    There are some artist that can take photographs and manipulate them together to create a great picture in photoshop and that's the end product. It feels like this is the same approach illustrators take, traditionally before the computer, but then carefully rendered in paint making a very distinctive and perhaps more personal feel when it's rendered by hand. But I still feel like I'm in competition with photoshops photo manipulation. I know it's a matter of perspective and how you look at things, but it still feels like you have to really develop two approaches, one using heavy reference and one solely from imagination (like highly rendered comic art) while trying to keep a consistent style.

    I know Brom works from reference sometimes and other times solely from imagination, but when he uses reference he manipulates it to look like his style. Steven Hickman is such a great artist, it's sometimes easier to see when he uses reference and when he does his figures from imagination. But he keeps a consistent style. It seems like you have to concentrate a lot on making images from imagination (even if it's just the roughs before you gather reference) in order to help really develop this personal style if you want to make paintings that are "sometimes" heavy on reference and other times solely from imagination??

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    Figure out the tools and skills you need to do the sort of work you want to do. It's that simple, and that complicated.


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    if it can't work , make it work.

    don't think about the end product think about making the base strong.

    and try diffrent techniques, try to relive the imagination as much as you can , even put down sum notes of your imagination so you can always compare your process with those.

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    Those last three comments had some great points in them.

    Bowlin's point about consistency within an image for figure work and whatever else may be included, is spot on (unless you are using the contrast deliberately).

    Master Elwell's comment about deciding what exactly you need to be able to create the images you want is also spot on. What's the point of beating yourself up about not having to skills to make images you wouldn't like doing anyhow. Try to streamline what core skills you do need to work on first, and go from there. Get those ingrained and can always add to your arsenal later.

    Rapxic talks about making it work. keep at it until you get somewhere - OR start over afresh and come at it from a slightly different angle/approach if you hit a brick wall that's too well built. Find a way.
    Different media really can open up your eyes to new possibilities sometimes. Try them. Look at a range of work by masters in them to inspire you as well. It's amazing how much variety of appearance you can find created using a specific medium, dependent on the mind creating it.

    All great advice, guys. Rings bells with me, big time.

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    What everyone calls reference is actually not a single element that serves a single purpose.

    As you start with art, you certainly need reference because there is absolutely nothing in your head that is useful in a practical art sense. You have no idea of HOW to look, HOW to interpret, and HOW to make the jump from a viewed 3-dimensional artifact to a 2-dimensional depiction. You must learn. You copy reference and items to acquire the skills necessary to advance your abilities.

    At this point, what most people call reference is not "reference." It a SUBJECT that must be interpreted by you. Mass, lighting, shadows, shape, placement and proportion, and all those other goodies you think spring spontaneously from someone's skull like manna from heaven are all learned here.

    Once you've advanced through these basics enough, you begin to simultaneously develop a need to CREATE something NOT in front of you as a subject. Your imagination supplies the image, and the elements and techniques you gathered from your copying and life/still studies form a solid groundwork for what you're trying to do, but it's not easy yet. You still don't have the mental library to do it straight from memory, because the memory just isn't there yet. It's like trying to learn how to cook but your stove just arrived and nobody ever hooked it up to the gas line. The scientific and generally accepted-in-art term for this is "You're fuckin' screwed, dude..."

    At this point, the best thing you are capable of is to get a rough idea down of what you WANT to do, and then find as much REFERENCE help as you can to spackle in all the gaps your mind isn't able to come up with yet. You've had fingernails since you were born, but it's a sure bet that if I asked you to put on some opaque gloves out of the clear blue and suddenly ordered you to draw a realistic set of fingernails and maybe a thumbnail or two, you'd need clean underwear after about 30 seconds. Odds are, you can't do it, because you never really LOOKED at the obvious. You have no more idea what your fingernails look like right now than you do your own asshole.

    This is where reference becomes a TRUE reference and a learning tool. It's done by every professional artist on the face of the earth that is involved in anything above the level of drawing a basic oval (Actually, I doubt many people can really draw a true oval without a quick glance at a real one, since most attempts I've seen have various problems in the transition from the long side to the short side--it's either too abrupt or too extended a curve).

    As you move along with your practice and efforts, you'll find yourself relying less and less on reference for certain things because you've done that particular item so many times from reference before that it's now firmly embedded in your sub-conscious toolbox. BUT, there are always new things popping up that demand your attention that you just haven't become all that familiar with yet, so we still need reference. Learn those, and new "holes" pop up, and the process continues.

    When you reach the level that pros like Elwell and the others operate at, you can brain-fart out a really accurate rough of a 24-year-old nekkid chick on a dragon in a couple of minutes, with most of the parts in the right place and in pretty much the stance/etc., that you wanted, maybe in one to three tries. The problem comes in when these guys DON'T know what female hairstyles were popular in 876 AD or exactly what type of nipple rings dragons used at the time... Reach for the reference. At this point, it's reference that's probably highly specialized and exotic...and very necessary, no matter how fuckin' smart and professional your family thinks you are.

    They don't need to refer back to how the shadows fall, how the hair drapes, or how the scales overlap and arrange themselves because they've done it so many times before. It's the pieces that were never "seen" before in the mind's eye that are needed.

    This brings us to the idiots who claim never to use reference. If it's true, they're mutants with IQs 1,000 times higher than us normal schmucks, or they're bored out of their fuckin' minds because they have to be doing the same thing over and over and over and over and... Puke... Otherwise, they're just plain lying to us.

    It IS possible for anyone--ANYONE--to do a complete piece of really great realistic art from imagination alone IF they have learned where all the parts are and how they move, and can visualize how simple and secondary lighting sources affect those parts. Ain't hard. I do it all the time, and I'm a completely incompetent asshole compared to these guys. Otherwise, the funny looking critters that fill up the sketch books here and the the FINALLY FINISHED section wouldn't exist. There just ain't (HOPEFULLY!) anything that looks like that in real life to copy from.

    This is the point where reference becomes what we want it to be... How many variations are there in eye/nose/mouth/boob/hand shape are there? Reference, please. My homies all look like they work for Merrill Lynch, Dude! Reference, please. How many wings should I draw on my super helicopter? Reference, please. What if only one huge boob falls out? Reference, please. Alright, now gimme that face you get when the rubber glove checks your innards... Reference, please.

    Reference is reference, and using it will be a part of your entire life. It is important because it is just physically impossible for any one person to remember all the detail and historical/sexual/age/mechanics/surface sheen/size relationship/material and skin fold elements that one person needs to have access to mentally.

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    I'm agreeing with most of what is being said here. I would add that making artwork requires a great deal of idealization or poetification. Which is to say, even if you were working directly from life, you'd be extensively translating what you see. The "translating language" that we use to interpret life (cyllinders and boxes which sometimes interlock, value ranges, colors we happen to have in our paint box, gestural shape and form, various edges and lines, etc.) is exactly the same as the language we use when working from the imagination. In order to impute these linguistic bits on the model, they would already need to be memorized. Otherwise, what we don't know, we tend not to see in the model. It is always a back and forth between memorization of structure, the learning of the science of optics and how that can be abstracted for use in art, and the use of reference (live, googled, or clipped and filed). Drawing from the imagination, (arriving at a gestural idea, remembering anatomic form, the various speculars associated with various materials including skin, value schemes, the effects of light, the location of the bottom of the ribcage, say, or using tension lines to turn form, etc) thus teaches one how to use reference, to extract from reference the abstract or idealized bits of detail that will make the idealized composition seem real. Foundationally, there are not that many "rules" to obey once one memorizes the entire anatomy and all the associated form. Everything else, compared to the anatomy, is boxes, cyllinders, and spheres, practically. However, actually learning volumetric anatomy is a not an overnight process, especially as it is absolutely necessary to make sure that looseness and gestural freedom is equally present (or else you end up with ultra stiff and crappy drawings.)

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  30. #22
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    It all depends on what you are trying to do.
    Modigliani painted from the model, but not in order to achieve naturalism.
    It was a way of responding to an experience.
    Dave Polumbo's assumption that a better image will nearly always be produced by employing reference is something I disagree with.
    The main thing is to develop your ability to internalise within yourself the forms of the world around you.
    This we call style.
    But style should not be a form of arrogance.
    You will become malnourished.
    Keep feeding from the forms in the world around you using your pencil as a spoon.
    But digest them so that they are related to everything you want to say with your psyche.
    When you get the hang of this, using reference will not produce that embalmed-infected-with-a-photo look that you are probably, and rightly worried about.

    Elwell on post 17 has said it in a nutshell.

    Last edited by Chris Bennett; May 17th, 2009 at 05:17 PM.
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    Practice doing memory drawings as well. Whether working from life or imagination, memory drawing is necessary to learn I believe.

    Even when working from life, to capture the sight that you first saw that made you want to draw/paint that subject, such as a tree blowing in the wind or being lit a certain way, you need to learn to capture the important parts of that scene in your memory and translate that to your surface.

    I believe memory drawing would help in the case of not using any reference. I have nothing against using references though, I believe it to be logical and a good choice.

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    I agree with most that have been said..great advice in this thread!
    i'm not a big fan or "reference" myself as I had your same problem.

    reference is there for you to look at and understand the forms you're gonna be depicting..
    you can copy photos of people all day long for years but if you dont make an effort to learn the underlying structure of bone/muscle and general anatomy,
    and actually understand why things look that way, you will be slave of the reference.

    that's what I felt too at the beginning when i couldnt draw anything if I didnt have a "reference"(I should really call it "a picture to copy", reference is more of a research on your subject)..and lots of times i found it hard to find the exact pic for what i wanted to do. the dragon example above is a good one..
    that really put me in the mindset of: gotta learn perspective, gotta learn anatomy, gotta learn the basics..and after i did that i found i didnt really need a reference to draw a generic mountain or a tree nor the need to copy everysingle detail just like it is in the picture..
    you can design your own..and maybe have the reference help you do it correctly.
    that's the fun of it.
    when it comes to characters its the same thing..you learn the landmarks and the canonic proportions that allows you to find all the features of a body in the right place relative to the pose and to each other. if you know anatomy you'll know approximately where to put them.
    but its still hard to be precise and anatomy is not something you master overnight so having a reference to look at will make it easier to understand what is where and your work will be stronger as a result.

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    Arshes Nei is offline Registered User Level 17 Gladiator: Spartacus' Dimachaeri
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    Quote Originally Posted by Chris Bennett View Post
    It all depends on what you are trying to do.
    Modigliani painted from the model, but not in order to achieve naturalism.
    It was a way of responding to an experience.
    Dave Polumbo's assumption that a better image will nearly always be produced by employing reference is something I disagree with.
    I think Ilaekae put it better since reference isn't always just having someone do the pose for you or getting a photo. You're drawing reference everyday with your experience. You wouldn't know what "walking" is if you didn't see it or do it.

    So I actually agree with Dave's assumption. You're always referring to something that creates that image, and what your mind has an idea about.

    That doesn't mean the general idea can't be sketched without reference, but it does have better solidity when you have reference. You have a warrior with armor and did research on types of various armor...not just copying one you see out of a book, that's reference.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Arshes Nei View Post
    So I actually agree with Dave's assumption. You're always referring to something that creates that image, and what your mind has an idea about.
    I don't understand the logic of this statement. Dave is making a distinction between using reference (in whatever form) and not using it. You state that there is no such distinction and then use it as testament for your agreement with him.

    I still hold by my statement that it depends on what you are trying to do. As Elwell pointed out, it is just a tool.
    Further, reference is not automatically to do with our idea of 'making things look real'. What this usually means is 'making things look like the way a camera sees them'. The assumption that this is realism is merely a current predudice. Giacometti used the model almost constantly in his later life, but his images look nothing whatever like this idea of realism.

    Reference is just information. Journalism. Optical journalism.

    You either want to use it or you don't. Or you use it sometimes.
    It has nothing to do with the artistic quality of a piece of work, only its amount of relevence to journalism.
    To assume that this relationship to optical journalism is proportional to the quality of a piece of work is where I dissagree with Dave's assumption.

    Last edited by Chris Bennett; May 29th, 2009 at 03:02 PM.
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    To assume that this relationship to optical journalism is proportional to the quality of a piece of work is where I dissagree with Dave's assumption
    I should have been more specific. What I was saying only applies if realism (in whatever measure you choose) is your goal. Although I believe that's the case for the majority of people here, it's true that there are many styles of painting in which it's not.

    Yes, many artists use refs (life or photo) for work which deviates severely as you mentioned, though I think this only strengthens my point. You don't need to be doing hyper-real images to benefit from reference, it can help in all kinds of ways and often without the viewer realizing it

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    Perhaps instead of referring to 'reference' we should be calling it a 'visible springboard'. It's all to do with the potential you see in it. Meticulously rendering something that closely resembles the source is just not leaping very far. That sounds like a negative and I don't mean it to. There are gorgeuous examples of that throughout history and being produced today.
    Some folk leap so far in such an odd direction that we'd never dream what the visual stimulation was unless they told/showed us. Great!
    The bulk of us fall somewhere in between.

    Whatever it takes to enable your particular grey matter arrangement to coordinate your limbs in productive visual creativity - go for it. It will be coloured by you upbringing, experience, aptitude and personality - as will your appeciation or not for the creations and the working practices of others. Just so long as we can refrain from being too judgemental and harsh when they do not conform to what we percieve as the 'proper' way. That way elitism and snobbery lies.

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    Stupidly enough, I didn't realize a lot of artists--especially professionals and even historical artists--used reference until I was probably in freshmen year of highschool when I actually HAD an art history section (and just an all around informative lesson) in our "art class". Even after learning artists reference stuff frequently, I had already ingrained it in myself to practice relentlessly and commit as much small detail of figures and surroundings to memory as I could possibly hold. It's rough, and sometimes I do admit working large from reference is restricting (and even boring) sometimes, there's DEFINITELY no wrong in doing so if it helps correct problems you just can't quite nail on your own. It can be pretty nerve wracking and downright infuriating when you're trying to get something down from memory and it just isn't working out right...

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    just a question.... so when bengal draws those girls from many different kind of perspective without any ref, its based on his strong foundation on human anatomy and perspective?

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