It's not cheating... not really. It can become a crutch, but you can use it effectively to sort out what you're not seeing (proportionally, especially). It's a good check, but if you use it as your foundation, you'll never get better.
For your hand studies, try something a little thicker so you're less worried about contours and forced to work in value. You'll get a better sense of how light and dark fall on the features.
About the hand study value. Thing is the reference photos were shot with a flash, and so all the value is washed out. Just white hands. And I didn't want to use my imagination for the shading, haha.
And I'll stop doing that when I stop making the same mistakes. I don't trace anything. I just double check. And I've learned that both times I checked the proportions I was making the nose bridge too long, and the gap between the bottom of the nose and the mouth too wide.
Oh! Yeah, no, the whole point of a study is to just work with what you see so you can do it from imagination later
However, get yourself a strong light, like a desk lamp, and point that at your non-dominant hand next time to do a hand study. That'll give you nice, strong shadows. Hell, point it at anything and you'll get nice strong shadows.
Decided to do a fantasy piece. Some sort of ancient earth/rock colossus/golem in a realistic landscape (ie. grass, trees, some hills). The lighting will be from the sunset, which the colossus will cover and cast a huge shadow on the landscape.
Here are the preliminary sketch designs for the golem.
After doing the one on the left I figured it looks too aggressive, I want the golem to look somewhat peaceful and passive, yet colossal and intimidating with it's size. I am quite happy with the design on the right. Guess gonna go in that direction.
Also tried to give it some depth by making it step forward, not sure if it works.