Some artists work from life, observing objects, scenes and so on but some use secondary references like photographs or images or paint or draw from their imagination. Some artists (most in my experience) use both, but there is some shame around copying for some. Is copying okay? In short…yes, I will explain why.
Observational drawing isn’t always possible
There are dozens of reasons why artists might copy images or photographs, sometimes we simply can’t get the reference we need so we have to find a secondary source. For example if I am painting a zebra and I don’t live anywhere near a zoo or a place where I’m likely to be able to observe one I will need to use references.
Here is an example where I used a reference. I wanted to draw an old man who looked sad and confused, although I did have a model who I had drawn a few times I couldn’t get the expression. I used photographs to get the expression in his face. I know that many Illustrators use references because the deadlines are short and you can’t go and draw a model or a real life animal for example when the artwork is due the next day.
Sometimes the goal is not realism, we are interpreting a subject in our own eyes and we don’t want total reality so using many references can help us create our own version of what we see.
There are methods that can help if you are directly copying an image in proportion. Squaring or scaling up is a technique where you can proportionally scale up an image. I can draw the grid on the image and map it out fairly accurately on a larger grid, see What is Squaring Up? for more information on this technique.
The camera is another tool that can be used by the artist. The photograph can save a sitter posing for days, to avoid changing light or sitting around on a cold, wet mountain side to capture a landscape. But is copying creative? It can be especially if you take your own photos or perhaps use different secondary sources to create one image.
You can take control of the image making by selecting parts and leaving parts out of the imagery. Copying is okay, however there is also benefit from drawing from life, I like to advise my learners to do both.
What do you think, is copying cheating? Leave your thoughts below…