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Is using Reference Photos cheating?

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

When I started making art as a kid, I was fascinated with faces. I taught myself to observe features in faces, and copy them exactly as I saw them. With practice, I got better and my portraits had an uncanny resemblance to my subjects, and I was so happy! Everyone praised my work, and many requested that I draw portraits of them. But I remember that whenever someone would say to me, “You are a brilliant artist!”, I would feel terrible, like a fake, and quickly say, “Oh but I can only copy.” In my juvenile mind, I had no right to call myself an artist, because I was drawing from pictures. I was waiting for the day when I could just think of someone, summon a picture of them in my mind, and put it down on paper, exact till the last mole on their cheek. Ha! How stupid I was, waiting for something that was never going to happen. And more importantly, was not required to happen at all.

As an artist, you’ll come across a lot of people telling you that what you’re doing is wrong, it’s not real art. But guess what, there’s no cheating in art! (unless you are directly copying someone’s work and passing it on as your own. Don’t do that.) Reference pictures are an amazing resource that help you see things for what they really are instead of what you think they are. And if someone is paying you to draw a picture of their kid, it better look like their kid! I have now learnt to use reference pictures unabashedly, and call yourself an artist with confidence.

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