Drawing From Imagination and References

Drawing from imagination a bike

What are a few differences and similarities between drawing from imagination and references? Can they help us to learn how to draw better?

Some artists might say its cheating to use references. Others might see it as the gateway to learning how to draw.

In many ways, they would both be right. In critical learning, one cannot function without the other.

This is why reference drawing is so widely used by artists as a learning tool. There are however certain constraints to consider when choosing your references. Especially if you are planning to make art for commercial reasons.

Why would an artist need to use references?

References are practical for accuracy.

There are many artists who use photography, digital mediums, grids, projectors, tracing paper, stencils, and other support images to help them maintain accuracy and clarity in their work.

References can bring you closer to your ideas!

There are artists who can clearly express their ideas and inspirations without having to refer to any references. Is this pure talent or not? Well! That’s always debatable.

You see everyone would love to be able to sketch and draw anything they wanted from imagination.

The reality is for most of us though! Getting closer to our ideas requires a little help.

Using references will make you better at drawing from imagination.

The idea behind using references is to capture more information that can be translated into your artwork.

A reference can be used for technical and emotive studies. Think of it as a library that you are creating around your areas of interest.

The more information that you can register each time you have a reference to work with.

The quicker and more confident your imaginative drawings will become.

This blog post forms part of a series of art fundamental tutorials to accompany new artists into the world of drawing.

All the images that are provided in this document were taken from students I have worked with or artwork from my own collection.

You can also visit the following links for more information about learning how to draw.

1.Drawing fundamentals

2.Drawing from observation

3.Drawing people and faces

Reference drawing. Study of a skull

What is a reference drawing?

In Layman’s terms. Drawing from a reference is using the aid of external imagery such as a printed photo, digital image, existing artwork, and/or gathering information from a life context through observation.

What are some differences and similarities between drawing from imagination and references?

3 Examples of why you might need references for your drawing.


Learn how to draw

Artists Block

References are great for those days you feel like drawing, but it’s just not an inspirational day.


Lacking a visual database

Relying purely on your imagination requires experience and training. Using references is a way of increasing your visual library by studying subjects that interest you and will serve you in your creative process.


Level up your drawing

Leveling up

To level up is a term related to getting better at a particular technique, medium or level of completion. Such as details, rendering, and proportions.

What is drawing from imagination?

Drawing from imagination is when you create work from your own visual library.

It is a direct and spontaneous way of creating art as you decide it to be.

The more information you are able to capture and remember, the easier the imagination drawings become.

Imaginary art study. Textures

3 reasons why an artist will draw from imagination.


Because they can!

Artists will draw from the imagination if they have sufficient visual information to be able to create what they have intended to. Instantaneous inspiration comes from within. But not everyone possesses the desire or the tools to express it.


Explore new ideas

Drawing from imagination is a sure way to keep the creative juices activated. Trusting in concepts such as individuality and uniqueness makes exploring creativity so fascinating.


The imagination is forgiving

Drawing from imagination has many personal healing and relaxing attributes. It is a space where rules don’t need to apply and you can freely experiment with ideas as you please. The world of imagination is open to anyone who is willing to try.

When and why should you consider

drawing from imagination vs reference drawing?

Phase 1.

Designing your composition with intention.

Learn how to draw a box from references

In the early stages of a new idea for an artwork, try to pull your inspiration from your imagination rather than going straight for visual references. It doesn’t really matter what you call this process.

Some people like to call it the warm-up drawings, others refer to thumbnail sketches, Drafts, underlay, it all just means that you are applying a method of work which requires you to tap into your visual library to create.

This kind of informal playing with ideas is a good way to get a sense of what you are intending to produce.

Phase 2

Be curious about the composition

Imagination gives you the possibility to arrange a variety of elements on a page in a way that it looks and feels interesting and inspiring.

Decisions for design structure such as point of view, scale, color, medium, style, mood, and format are some of the many possibilities to consider during the development stage of your art piece.

Learn how to draw anything

Maybe you are thinking of a new character for a story. Or creating a fantasy world. Whatever your purpose for creating is, there will always be an element of reality that you can source reference from to define and detail your original inspiration.

You don’t have to rush to get references too early, rather try to take your initial inspiration as far as you can from your own knowledge of the subject. Doing so will keep an element of surprise in your work that is spontaneous and honest.

Phase 3

Deciding when to use imagination and references in your drawing.

Once you have established the big picture guidelines, it makes the next stage of your art piece much easier to fine-tune and detail. Getting this part figured out is best done by exploring your own imagination.

When experimenting with personal interests. Work can feel more dynamic and unique.

You might not have all the visual information stored in your memory to develop a drawing, and this is where references become important.

Phase 4.

Reinforcing your idea by using references.

Irrespective of what your composition is, at some point, you might need external visual references.

If you were to work in the opposite way by first sourcing your references and then working on your composition,.

You risk losing focus on your main idea by letting the references dictate the outcome of your work.

This could potentially result in a less dynamic and unique representation of your idea.

It is clear in this example that imagination needs to be the initial trigger for your composition.

References are intended to be used for supporting information or to study a particular subject that is unfamiliar to you.

Using a reference to help you push your idea further is essentially what will make your drawing or painting feel accomplished.

Phase 5.

Adjusting the composition and adding details to the drawing.

In the final stages of your artwork. If you have established a solid composition then it makes it much easier to source references that will allow you to complete your work to the level you desire.

Some artists stop at a simple gesture, whilst others will go as far as to create hyper-realism.

No matter what you decide for your art, it is advisable to start with your imagination then build up from there using references to help you along the way if you need to.

Drawing from imagination and reference

To wrap this up

Using references to help you create your art is by no means cheating. Just as drawing from imagination is not the only solution to creating original or unique art.

One could argue that both methods complement each other. Working at their best when they are in fact paired together. The word copying has a negative connotation in the art industry.

It suggests that someone is appropriating the style or work of another person intentionally. Understanding the difference and importance between a case study and final work is essential to avoid any potential allusions to plagiarism or replica work if you are studying a particular artist.

Celebrate your individuality in the early stages of your artwork. Allow your imagination to push through the initial inspiration boundaries. Stay clear of being influenced by references or artworks too early in a drawing development.

Imagination is what helps you set up a cool piece of work.

I encourage you to try working alongside these guidelines so as to get into the habit of free drawing knowing that you can seek visual assistance through references once you have properly established a visual narrative.

So what do you think about drawing from imagination and references?

Do you think you will change your approach to learning now that you have both sides of the story?

Good luck and remember to have fun and enjoy the learning process.

David Lagesse

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