In the earlier years of my art journey I was stuck in limbo. Anytime I would put my pencil to the paper and tried to draw something, it would turn out like trash, and I'd get discouraged, so I would give up and come back a year or two later, only for the same thing to happen again. Nothing came out right, essentially. But there's one thing that I can say for sure was the cause of all of this:
Not using references.
For some reason I had this notion that if you used references, that it would be cheating. Using your mind was the only option, I thought. And honestly, I don't know who got that into my head, because it was a ludicrous concept. And as a result I would just spin my wheels, not getting anything done, because I was drawing things which looked terrible, because I didn't even know what looked good.
I typically try to accommodate for the opinions of others in all sorts of topics, because what do I know? Getting different perspectives on any sort of topic is useful, and my brain cannot account for everything. But if there's one thing that really gets my blood boiling, it's this idea that using a reference in your art is cheating. It's probably because it paralyzed me from doing any artwork and improving whatsoever for a few years, and it sucked and I regretted it immensely. So I'm here to tell to people that in fact using references is not cheating and why that idea in the first place is entirely ridiculous.
Where does this "draw only with your mind" mentality even really come from? Artists from even a few centuries back used references all of the time, whether it be nude models, or drawing directly from their surroundings. It wasn't until just recently that this type of mentality even surfaced.
What typically occurs when this type of idealogy is strictly adhered to is a lack of foundation and structure in anything. You just don't learn anything at all. I sure didn't learn anything when I was in this rut. And it's because of this fundamental issue: our imagination is not a substitute for our eyes. Not even close.
Our imagination is a powerful thing. But the thing is that it's not the same as looking at something with your eyes. While the imagination can look rather vivid, it's not a perfect representation of reality. It's sort of like having a 140p quality video in your mind, where you catch all of the important stuff, but the details just get disregarded entirely. And that's where the problem lies.
People often get discouraged when they try drawing because it's thought of as a straight translation from mind to paper. I'll tell you right now: that way of thinking is bound to get people really down on themselves. That's just not how we draw. The major key when it comes to drawing is to draw what you see, not what you think you see. A majority of individuals do the latter, because we're using our brain too much. I didn't think I would be saying that, but yes: drawing is not entirely brain games. Our eyes play a much bigger role in that regard.
When one draws a stickman, or a house which is basically a square with a triangle on top, we're using symbols. Our brain is extremely good at analyzing objects and then simplifying it into a symbol which is compact and gets the message across. Everyone can do that, even children. What is more difficult is drawing what we truly see. That is, the various abstract shapes that make up an object in space, the tones and the shades that make up the object, perspective, etc. We're essentially overriding an instinct to simplify and instead trying to draw with our eyes rather than our brain.
Because of this, drawing only from imagination is impossible. You need to have seen something in reality in order to get a grasp of what to even draw. A person who has never seen object X will never know how to draw it until they see it. They can't just will it to appear in their mind. And at most what you'll get is a rather crude assumption.
For those who are so good at drawing that they no longer use references: they would have had to have drawn said objects so many times that a reference is no longer needed. But they still needed references to get to that point. Artists like Kim Jung Gi are famous for drawing without references (and without sketches even) and yet they nail practically everything: perspective, foreshortening, anatomy, you name it. It's absolutely mesmerizing. But it's not like they just conjure it all up in their head and draw like this when they first started drawing. They needed to have observed so many things about perspective, anatomy, etc. to get to the point where a reference is no longer needed.
References aren't strictly just for studies and life drawing. You can use them for everything. When making original pieces, it's always recommended to get a few references just so you have something to work off of. I'll be honest in saying that a lot of my original works didn't use a reference, but the ones that I did use some references for, the quality shot up dramatically. Professionals use references for their work all of the time, and they are where they are for a reason.
The references doesn't necessarily have to be only poses, or objects, or clothing. Pieces from other artists can also work as reference, albeit with some limit of course (copying is not referencing: that's just straight up theft). A good way to use pieces from other artists is taking various aspects from many pieces and integrating it into your own work. Get a bunch of references to work from and take what's good from each of them and create something original from that.
One aspect which I often "steal" is the colour palette. Choosing good colours is hard. So what I do is find a bunch of pieces from different artists and look to see what their colour choices are in their work. If I'm maybe trying to get a certain atmosphere in my work I'll look for pieces that fulfill that vision and go from there.
To illustrate this example, I got together some references that I used for one of my more recent original pieces just so we can see how they can be used:
In this case, I referenced two pieces from the same artist for the colour palette: one to get the skin tones right for the given lighting, and the other to get the white tones for the paper that is to populate my piece. And lastly, the pose I referenced from a photo that I searched up. The references give me a solid framework to work off of, and overall just makes my job easier.
Essentially the reason we use references is to remove all of the guesswork. You don't have to guess what a certain pose looks like, or what looks good, just look for something to work off from and remove all doubt. Using only imagination is synonymous with guessing, because we can't directly reference from our mind. It's more of a vague vision than a reference.
What I believe the imagination is used for, in this case, is for creating ideas, not to reference from directly. Even if you're a rare breed of artist who can somehow draw entirely from memory (and there are some who can), you wouldn't be drawing from imagination - you'd still had to take in a reference regardless. When you start drawing, you're no longer drawing from your imagination, but from memory. And to remember something you must have seen it somewhere. Which, of course, requires a reference.
Either way, you had to have looked at something in order to draw it properly. So drawing using only one's mind and not one's eyes is straight up impossible.
References are just one of those things which you can't avoid. Looking at anything is taking a reference point in a visual context. To say that we should only draw strictly from our imagination because not doing so is "cheating" is an arbitrary, baseless, and dangerous claim that has made art seem even more inaccessible for those who are just getting into it. And it has made people think that if you're using references, then you are a "lesser" artist, whatever that even means. It's entirely stupid.
It kills me inside to know that there are many people who quit art because they were discouraged that their work doesn't simply materialize out of thin air from their imagination. I nearly was a victim of this, which is why this baseless perception of how we create art makes me very, very angry.
Just use a reference, please. It's not going to kill anyone.