Very often I’m asked by students and teachers if it’s acceptable to look at something as a reference while they are creating. My answer is always yes. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect students — or anyone for that matter — to be able to recall exactly what any given thing/animal/place, etc. looks like from memory. Using some sort of visual reference is a great support for the creative process. But here’s the thing… I think it’s imperative to make a distinction between the different kinds of visual reference materials available.
Of course working from life is the best of the best. But if one is trying to recall the facial details of a lion, for example, getting a peek at the real thing might not be possible or practical. As the next best thing, I strongly suggest using photographs — as opposed to drawings — when some type of reference is needed.
The reason I prefer photographs over drawings is simple. If I want to draw a flower for example, maybe even something like those pictured above, by using a drawing that someone else has done as my reference, all of the decisions have already been made for me by the person who created that drawing. Things like, color, shape, shadows, highlights, details, and on and on, have already been determined by the artist who drew that flower. By using a photograph for reference, everything is there for me — all of the visual information, and I — as the artist — can make the decisions for myself about what I want to include, add, or leave out of my piece as it suits me and my creative experience. The interpretation of that photo is mine and mine alone as I create.
As a classroom teacher, I would purchase books on sale that were filled with color photos of all kinds of things… birds, reptiles, mammals, fish, flowers, you name it, and then tear the pages out and keep them in files. This made it easy to pull them out and allow students to sort through them and find what they were looking for, and then take the individual photo(s) back to their desk to reference while they worked. Having computer access in the classroom provides a virtually limitless source of reference photographs as long as students can find what they need quickly without being distracted.