While it might be true, if you are doing a 1:1 study from a photo, it might be nothing more than copying, it is essential for any progress. How can you paint from your mind, if you don´t really know how something looks?
You have to have a huge visual library in your head to create something completely without reference.
And to build that library, you have to observe how things look. The best way is making studies like this:
In studies like this, you observe the form, lighting and colors of the reference image (without using the color picker in Photoshop...).
You can also incorporate studies into your finished images, if you come to a subject, you are not really familiar with:
In my recent painting, I came across the problem, that I haven´t painted a sheep before. So I used reference and combine this study with the final image. Next time I have to paint a sheep again, it should be less of a problem.
The best way to use reference in my opinion is not copying it 1:1, but changing it. In another painting I ran across another problem: painting children. I have been studying anatomy for quite some time now, but a child´s anatomy follows totally different proportions. So I used a reference image, but changed it slightly and added missing parts on my own, not relying 100% on the reference image:
|Slightly altered reference|
Reference is especially important in learning about the human figure, whether it´s from a photo, a drawing or from life. It took me a long time to be able to draw the human form from my mind now, and I´m still only at the start of grasping it fully.
Here are some sketchbook examples of drawing with reference:
|Referenced sketchbook images|
And here are some examples of drawing completely from my mind:
|Sketchbook examples from imagination|
As you can see, my faces and head drawings from imagination are starting to get better. As for the full human figure it mostly still lacks that flow and rhythm a figure needs, to be dynamic and alive and not too stiff. I know how the anatomy should look like and how the proportions are suposed to be, but I still have trouble to capture a natural, dynamic pose
My goal is to be able to draw anything from my mind, especially the human figure, but it still takes a lot of time and foremost studies! So go out and study and observe everyone!