Updated: Apr 27, 2021
Why Do Artists Need Reference?
When starting a new project, it can seem daunting, frustrating, and even a waste of time to find reference. You may think, "I'm an artist; I'm supposed to be able to draw anything." Perhaps you've seen a documentary on animators and watched them bring Mickey to life from blank page to suspender buttons without a single mouse. Here's a little secret: all artists use reference. Whether it was spending years drawing from life, learning to shoot good photos, or a combination of both, all good artists have a stockpile from which to compose their images. It even saves time in the long run and makes paintings more compelling and, more importantly, convincing.
Let's explore the difference taking the time to gather reference can make. Consider, for example, Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs versus Disney's Bambi.
Here we see an assortment of animals drawn by Disney's team. Lifelike is not the word I would use. We can tell what each furry creature is, but they are more filled with jello and fluff than bones. Of course in the animators' defense, all the efforts in this film were directed towards making Snow White as believable as possible, so perhaps we can forgive our animators in this instance. Blame, however, is not the point. We are merely here to consider what effect some attention to detail in the reference department can have. Now consider Disney's Bambi released five years later.
Here the animals are still stylized, but you can tell that a study of anatomy has been attended to for this heavily animal-populated production. Even the rabbits have a bit more structure than back in the Snow White years. How did they do this?
First of all the animals were deemed important enough to spend the time and money to get a good sense of how to draw them realistically. Disney's goal for this feature film was to be as naturalistic as possible. Consequently he sent animators to study deer and other animals in the woods. He hired a photographer to shoot photos of the forest in its seasons. He even brought live animals into the studio itself. What's more, "the animators painstakingly studied dear anatomy, making sure everything was just right" (www.ohmydisney.com).
Thousands of drawings of deer were done to hone in on the look for the movie. It's clear to see that "greater emphasis was placed on naturalism in the making of Bambi. Special art classes--an extension of the existing training program--were instituted so that Rico LeBrun could instruct the animators in the finer points of drawing animals. Real deer were kept on the lot as models for the artists. Books of photographic studies and innumerable model sheets were compiled, along with analyses of animal action and thousands of feet of live-action material to be used for reference" (Finch 257).
You can bet the artists had a stockpile of deer reference stored in their heads by the time this film was released in 1942. I know what you're thinking: "I don't do nearly enough preparatory work before beginning a painting!" Yeah, same!
To bring this point home, here is a picture of a toucan I drew from my head.
"Gee, don't quit your day job," I hear you say. Here's the thing: Unlike the Disney animators I haven't studied a bunch of toucans from life, so I don't have an experiential database to draw from. I've seen one or two. Could I get by in a game of Pictionary? Perhaps. Could I get published in National Geographic? Absolutely not.
Here's another shot at the toucan, this time using some reference.
See the difference? amateur's drawing, artist's drawing. Kachow.
You may not have all the time in the world to make 100 drawings of apples before beginning your picnic painting. I get it. But a little study or two can go a long way, and not just in your next painting, but in subsequent paintings down the road.
I hope this answers the question of why artists need reference. In my next post we will explore the first step in getting good reference, making preliminary sketches.
Here are the two sources I cite. If you're interested in learning more about the making of Disney's films check these out:
The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom by Christopher Finch