As many of you probably know, there is a well known fantasy artist who recently was accused of pasting elements of several other peers works into her own and painting over them. This artist has since sold these images in her books. Now this news did interest me as I was a fan of her work, but it interests me even more as one of the artists she is now accused of stealing from. Whether her affirmation that she hand painted everything is true or not, it did get me thinking that perhaps this is a great time for healthy discussion about the use of "reference".
Now there is a large divide in the world of art. Those who happily use reference images they find online and those that shun the practice. In case you wondering, I put myself in the "happily uses online ref" category. Let me explain why.
I define reference as some sort of imagery, whether perceived naturally or through photos/videos, which is used to help draw/paint/sculpt a new piece of art. Referring could mean a quick glance to establish a similar mood, color combinations, or to brush up on creature anatomy, or it could be in depth copying with methods such as "gridding" where the image looked upon is copied almost exactly. (Tracing is a different method and involves copying and pasting, projecting, and painting over other imagery and is another discussion altogether).
Now the debate isn't so much about either method, but whether or not the person using said imagery happens to have permission to use copyrighted images for reference or tracing/painting over. The answer may surprise you. Under most copyright laws in the world, as long as the imagery created is a "derivative" work and not a copy, it can be used as reference but copying and pasting someone's work into your own without permission is a much more dangerous practice. However it is important to mention that what is allowed under law is not necessarily looked upon with acceptance in prominent art communities.
Now I had a professor in college who does commercial art for clients based in California including Disney and other big name movies. As someone in the field, he explained to us that art directors don't care if you don't know how to draw a turtle from memory or not, if you have a project due at the end of the week you had better have an anatomically correct rendering of a turtle. Say there are no turtles around- you had better humble yourself and find some online reference. So how do you use online reference and still feel good about yourself at the end of the day? I find the key element to all of this, is to what extent you refer to something.
Referring to me, means looking at something, learning from it, and making something new. It means creating something similar with different angles and perspective, lighting, or mood. It's okay to look at online reference, and even other artwork. For example, below I have two images, one a reference image I used to create the other.
Character by ~akizhao on deviantART
Elven Concept by `lithriel on deviantART
Now if you look the images are almost identical in mood and color combinations but they are entirely different in every other way. This type of referring is usually called inspiration but it is reference all the same.
The best way to use exact reference, as my professor explained, is to build up your own library of stock photos, or buy them online if you must refer to something directly. No amount of reasoning can save your hind end should you use something copyrighted and get your publisher sued.
Now there are some times when copying directly can be a good thing, like when doing master studies. However studies are used for learning and not for making money. Even fan art, which I have done my fare share of in the past, can be a fun release provided you give credit where credit is due and don't profit off of your work.
So where do you draw the line with reference?