The reason why many introductory drawing classes in art school focus on drawing from observation is because no matter how good our memories are, they leave out a lot of information. For example: Chances are good that if I ask someone to draw a car without looking at references, I’ll get something like this:
The vehicle will have a body, doors, and wheels – and maybe one or two other details. Essentially, the sketch would be an abstract, symbolic representation of a car. There’s nothing wrong with this representation, in fact, this is how most of us start drawing when we are very young.
But let’s rephrase the request now…
If I were to specify the make and model (i.e. 1971 AMC Gremlin) and also provide a reference, I’ll get a drawing that somewhat resembles a Gremlin. And chances are good that I’ll get more visual information in the sketch that would ascribe to what was directly observed from the photo. In other words, instead of a symbolic representation, I’m getting a more actualized representation.
Image courtesy of Robert Spinello via Wikipedia Commons
When we only rely on our memory to draw items, we can quickly exhaust our “symbols”. Our drawings become repetitive and stale, and this can potentially lead to art block. By using references when we draw, we are not only taking in what we actually see, we are using that information to help us develop a more complete sketch. Using references is critical to developing our observational skills. We can measure our skills by drawing from reference whenever possible.
Drawing without references is like trying to play an instrument without any understanding of musical notes or song structure.
Case in point: When my daughter was very young, we took her to weekly piano lessons. In these lessons, she was asked by her teacher to play a piece of music. My daughter’s skill and proficiency on the piano could be easily measured by her teacher because there was a reference (the notation and the audio recording) to compare it against. Contrast that to learning how to play a piano by randomly striking whatever notes you wish. Odds are good you’ll make more noise than music. This also applies to drawing.
Bottom line: Regularly drawing from references (whether from real life or photos) can be an effective way to kill art block.