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Thread: Reference vs Imagination

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Feb 2009
    Omaha, NE

    Reference vs Imagination

    I was just curious...

    I don't know about anyone else, but I have trouble drawing from my imagination. Everything I draw is something I've actually sat down and looked at while drawing it - a still life, a photograph, a model. Something physical.

    Does this invalidate my efforts? I don't consider myself to be an artist, just someone who likes to draw for pleasure, but sometimes it bothers me that I have to see what I draw, like maybe it is limiting or something. I don't know. Is it better to draw from imagination and memory than from what you see? Because I can't draw unless I'm looking at the subject.

    It makes me feel like I'm nothing but a parrot... *sigh*

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Aug 2007
    Cape Town, South Africa.
    Bearing in mind that there is a process of interpretation going on between what you see and what you think, as well as a gap between the looking and the drawing part. So although you might feel as if your are seamlessly at one with reality here, there is in fact a vast amount of processing going on.

    And so too with Parrots they're just interpreting sounds according to what they understand.

    I think it is the artist within you who takes pleasure from drawing - but beware of a Judge-within that tries to interfere and evaluate your efforts - as all this seeks is to assume power and undermine. It is that Judge which is no artist, not you!

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Feb 2009
    Concord, California

    For a very long time classical art education has had at its core the work ethic to observe, observe, observe to clearly see what reality really does look like. Translating close observation into works of art no matter how fanciful and divergent from reality remains a cornerstone of both classical and modern art education.

    Attempting to draw reality from the imagination to look like reality without having first spent years closely observing the real world and transforming it into marks on paper and canvas would be a near impossibility. References of every imaginable type in one form or another have been the cornerstone of all painting for the great classical masters. The entire impressionist movement was maniacal about intently observing reality (especially color and light) and translating it into that particular school of artistic expression.

    The imagination is the creative powerhouse. But the imagination is different from technical skill. Technical skill comes from observation and practice and lays a foundation for helping the artist translate any and every wild imagining into magnificent works of art from the most photo-realistic to the most wildly abstract. Even the great abstract painters (for the most part) have as their artistic foundation a history steeped in an intense observation of the world around them coupled with the intricate workings of their own subjective worlds.

    So maybe you can change your feeling about yourself to one of being in partnership with the great masters on their path of observing the real world and translating it into their own unique artistic expressions. If you get to that place where you've practiced so much you never need a reference to create perfect people, cars, cats or woodchucks, then wonderful. But until then, take delight in looking very very closely at every aspect of your models from line to volume to light and shadow and know that you are in outstanding company, and a good human being to boot.

    Be well,
    Last edited by byroncallas; 03-12-2009 at 08:19 PM. Reason: spelling
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  4. #4


    That's funny these are exactly the same questions/problems I have.

    First: Thanks for starting this thread and for the replies - this is truly valuable reading for me.

    The second thing is that I yesterday found a remarkable book by Kimon Nicolaides, "The natural way to draw". Have begun with the first exercise - blind contour drawing - in which he emphasizes how important it is to really study and preferebly know the object your drawing with all your senses.

    So far so good - the problem is that my big passion, what I really want to be able to draw is fantasy. Obviously I can never get a "five senses" experience of a dragon for instance. Have lately tried to draw from imagination, but I just can seem to depict those "inner images". So I have decided to start trying to draw fantasy scenes from references.

    However I - as you yellowhorde - has somehow gotten the impression that it's "better" not to draw from referenca and have felt torn between drawing from imagination (with a dissatisfying result) and drawing from reference (much "better" drawings, but with that "parrot-feeling" you mentioned).

    Having read the replies here have helped me even more to see reference drawing as a necessary step on the way to one day being able to draw from imagination. Thanks a lot for that.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Oct 2007
    NC, USA
    I think byroncallas did a fine job of explaining things, which I agree with.

    Whether one looks directly at the image or pulls the lines and shapes from ones mind, one is referencing some sort of an image (or images) the person once saw before. The thing about a visual reference is that one has access to the exact image as it truly appears, whereas using ones memory may instill some exaggerations of how one thinks the image should appear.
    Nothing is easy to the unwilling.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Apr 2007
    U.S.A. North Carolina
    WOW!! Is this a subject that is near and dear to my heart.. Most all of my paintings are from a reference.. Does that mean I am less of an artist, and more of a software manipulator?? I don't really know.. I know I never Trace or paint-over, and I always try to interject my color and texture.. But does that make up for using a reference?? I really don't know.. I know I'm a 72 year old retired person that is really enjoying expressing himself, as best that I can.. If I had to go from scratch, I couldn't be doing that.. I will say, that when my family and friends express their liking of my paintings, I feel kind of guilty, and always have to explain that I used a reference.. However when I say that, some if not most think that that means I traced or cheated in some way.. Perhaps It is.. My advice, is enjoy yourself.. Do what I finally ended up doing.. I don't show them to family and friends.. I still enjoy it just as much..
    So polly wants a cracker?? Eh! I really don't give much of a rats ass..
    Last edited by Rick; 03-13-2009 at 08:58 AM.
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  7. #7
    Join Date
    Jul 2008
    Grand Island NY
    I think everyone uses a reference it's just that some people's reference is in their mind....

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Oct 2006
    For my part I can't use a reference..........not trained you see I paint what I see in my mind.........I wish I could use a reference because I could paint so much more than I do at the I would say that your skills at this are far greater than's the same with music.............I don't read music......I could when I first started way back in school but found that I didn't need to......I remember well my music teacher saying to me "Yes you have a gift BUT if someone wants to be a professional musician and is given a sheet of music he has to be able to play what is written." but then along came rock'n'roll!
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  9. #9
    Join Date
    Aug 2007
    Huntingdon QC
    I don't think it really matters if one draws from reality or from imagination.
    The point is to draw and have pleasure.

    If not being able to draw from imagination becomes a frustration then it becomes a problem and vice versa for those who want at al cost to draw reality.

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