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I don’t know why but when I started learning to do game art I thought a good artist must be able to draw/model/sculpt anything by memory without using references.

That was stupid and took me nowhere. It just made me design boring stuff which is a logical consequence because where should all the knowledge about anatomy, mechanics, forms, colors, etc. come from when not by studying the real world?

When I finally understood this, I changed my statement:

Today I’d say: Almost always. I want to present you a small workflow trick for practicing art which (I think) is more rewarding and fun than “just” taking a reference and studying it.

I sketched a house by sitting in front of it and using it as reference (I could have used a photo just as well) which is the classic way of studying stuff I would say. But when I compared my sketch with the reference I saw only the mistakes: the perspective is off, the proportions differ from the original and so on.

I was unsatisfied and went to the “I’m a bad artist” phase. Using a reference surely created a better result than trying to come up with a house-design by my own, but the only thing I could compare my sketch to was the “perfect” original – not easy to compete against that.

But some day I was out with my drawing buddy and we did something interesting: We just started drawing a defined thing like e.g. a lobster without any reference! It wasn’t about creating great art but about how we imagine the basic structure and concept of the “thing” and bringing it on paper.

This is my lobster-concept:

After this initial test we looked up references on his phone, started sketching the lobster again (this time by using references) and simultaneously comparing it to the old sketch. Oh boy, it was eye-opening!

Have a look how wrong I was about the basic body-structure! I thought the body is separated in equally sized pieces but in reality the main body is one big shell and only the tail is flexible. I painted the eyes on some kind of antennas and the inner and outer claws almost equally big – both totally wrong.

You might think that this must be depressing but it’s the opposite! It’s fascinating to see how much you learn in just a few minutes of sketching and even if you only do one sketch after the no-reference-drawing you’ll see an enormous gain in quality and detail!
Sure, might still not be a perfect picture (like my house-sketch) but by delaying the use of a reference during making the first sketch you create a base to which you can your follow-up sketch compare to. You’re able to see your development and learning progress which – at least to me – is way more rewarding.

Of course I also learned something by drawing the house but without a comparable base it’s later hard to see what I’ve learned.

That’s all! :) In my experience this workflow brought the whole learning process to a new level of fun, greater reward and a never ending fascination even for simple things like a hammer, a streetlamp or more complex stuff like lobsters, deers or cars.

Now it’s your turn! I would love to hear your opinion and your ways of learning and studying! If you try this workflow out, I would love to see your sketch-results!

Have nice day!

11 thoughts on “Delayed Reference Method

    1. Simon Post author

      That might be true :) And if they do, I just need to look in my sketchbook and there it’s well documented :D

  1. Tororin

    Thank you for sharing your experience as an artist – it’s always nice to see things from other peoples perspective, especially ones possessing different skill sets.

    And as always thank you for putting the extra time to create and article and a video.

    Can’t wait for your next article :)

    1. Simon Post author

      Thanks you! What do you think about the Method? Would it something you could see yourself working with or did you already try and tend to use different approaches?

  2. Tororin

    About two month ago I did something similar, but in the realm of programming: I decided to write a simple genetic algorithm, but instead of doing research first and then doing coding I reversed it. First I wrote a very imperfect version using only the things I remembered from reading articles few yeas ago. Only after I finished the program, I did some reading and improved it to work more correctly.

    What I noticed wasn’t as much as about my development or learning progress but more about how much I remembered afterwards. What, in part, inspired me to try this it was a video I saw half a year ago or so. In this video there was mention about Effortful Retrieval – in a nutshell it’s a process of trying to “retrieve” an answer from your brain before looking it up (or in context of studding from a book – before or even instead of re-reading a chapter).

    Not sure if it works every time, but it did work for me this one – I do remember.

    1. Simon Post author

      Sounds like a very interesting method! I can totally imagine that this will make you things remember better the next time you need it. Thanks for your comment and watching the video. :)

  3. Tororin

    I meant to say: It did help me to remember more.

    I would even say a lot more – comped to just re-reading or even reading and trying to implement it at the same time.

    1. Simon Post author

      Wow, thanks for mentioning these. Have to watch them later but it sounds very interesting! Thank you! :)


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