Your memory is shit when it comes to replicating visual information onto paper or screen. We can create memories based on detailed images, but copying them from our mind onto a page is very difficult – especially for beginning artists.

Drawing without reference can be very frustrating, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone try it, especially starting out. Having reference at-hand lends your work more realism, more accuracy and it makes your work faster.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t actively observe your surroundings. It should go without saying that you need to observe your surroundings when you set out to become an artist.

But I’m going to say it anyway – observe your surroundings!

Not just casually, but seriously. Of course, with technology, there are other ways to do this quickly.

Build a Reference Library

First – you need to build a library of reference material.

Make a folder on your desktop to put reference photos into. Reference photos you can find online, photos you’ve taken yourself, clippings you’ve scanned, etc.

Find a neat pose you’d like to draw? Save it to your folder. Interesting architecture? Save it.

Even an amazing composition from a modern-day master – save it.

Building a library of amazing reference will set you up for future success. Just don’t get caught up so much in building your library that you forget to create art.

Because Great Artists Steal

I’m not saying “copy the art” – I’m saying learn from it. Steal the ideas and let them incubate. That’s the point of the reference library.

Steal the technique, steal the pose, steal the composition. You can learn from your reference library every time you open it up, but only if you have a decent library to read.

This doesn’t mean you should use somebody else’s creativity as your own. Copying great compositions can be a good way to learn WHY something gets placed just so, but don’t post these works of art publicly and claim them as your own.

As long as you’re not only collecting images, but using them, the library is doing its job.

One Last Tip: Be a Photographer

Everyone and their mom has a smartphone now. So use the built-in camera to its fullest potential.

Take reference photos of everything! I’m not saying you need to be a professional photographer, but there are some great scenes out there waiting to be photographed and painted.

Grab those textures, take a photo of that person wearing a weird outfit, see if that street performer will strike a pose for you. The possibilities are endless.

Any Advice?

Building a library of images takes time, but if you collect, sort, add your own images and use your image library to create art, you will get the great benefit of having a wealth of visual information on-hand to create your own fantastic art.

How have you collected a reference library? Some people have a clippings folder in a filing cabinet, others have a sorted digital library – let’s hear what you have in the comments.

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