Not quite constructive criticism.
Drawing references are necessary tools for artists. We’ve seen everything from using chocolate as a reference for drawing rubble, to reference guides for what girls’ rooms look like (for people who have never been in one before).
References are necessary in order to convey realism through art. They help artists draw things that they’re unfamiliar with, so that they’re not just guessing at what something would look like, and the so that the final product doesn’t come out looking awkward or strange.
But here is an interesting question: at what point is something no longer a reference, but a “copy” instead? Japanese Twitter artist Harucha recently ran into this problem after posting this picture:
▼ “I found an incredibly beautiful ‘eagle’ photo, so I drew
Yuri [from Yuri!!!! on Ice] doing it. I’d like to see this for real!”
はる茶🐖 (@yk_hal00) July 25, 2017
For those wondering, the “eagle” is an ice skating move where the skater moves with their toes pointed out and their heels pointed together. The model that Harucha used is American ice skater J.J. Cassar, presumably using this photo:
▼ It is a pretty impressive move!
あくあまりん (@openaquamarine) January 23, 2016
Harucha originally posted that picture back in July, and the world seemed to move on. But just the other day, the artist posted this conversation that occurred behind the scenes with one angry critic: (translation of conversation below)
▼ “This made me think about if using photos as a reference for pictures is bad.
But if I’m called out for ‘tracing’ when I’m just using it as a reference,
then I won’t be able to draw skating pictures anymore.”
はる茶🐖 (@yk_hal00) August 29, 2017
Critic: “Hello Harucha-sama, my name is Nia. Sorry for the sudden message. I’m contacting you because your picture is trace-plagiarism.
Harucha: “Hello Nia. Thank you for contacting me with your concern! I received another message yesterday from someone else concerning that picture being trace-plagiarism, but I don’t see it at all. Like I said in my tweet, I only used it as a reference photo. It is a beautiful photo, and you should definitely check it out. Thank you very much.”
Critic: “But aren’t your pictures not supposed to be plagiarized? I can never forgive trace-plagiarism. I think you should provide proof.”
Harucha: “Just looking at it, the body proportions are different, so I don’t feel any need to provide proof. I appreciate your concern, but I don’t see the point in calling my picture a trace. Just doing a search for Cassar’s eagle should show you the original photo. Once you see for yourself, I think you’ll agree.”
Critic: “I saw it. So you’re basically admitting you trace-plagiarized the photo?
Critic: “I take your silence as a yes?”
Harucha: “I used it as a reference for the pose, but I did not trace it. Also, I’m working at the moment, so I cannot reply right away.”
Critic: “So it’s an ‘eye-trace’ then? You admit you traced it?”
Harucha: “I don’t know what ‘eye-tracing’ means, whether it’s ‘tracing’ or ‘copying’ or ‘referencing.’ I messaged you back with a throwaway account since you seemed genuinely concerned at first, but I will not be replying to you any further. Goodbye.”
Critic: You’re running away? Coward!!!! I am going to expose you.”
Oh man, I could feel my own anxiety levels rising just reading through that. It’s one thing to express a concern to someone, but it’s quite another to relentlessly attack them when you both have already clearly made your points.
Still, like Harucha said in their Twitter post, it does make you think: at what point does using a photo for reference go from “your own work” to “copying?” As a non-artist myself, I don’t feel qualified to give an answer, but Japanese Twitter chimed in with their own replies:
“I think this person is taking the definition of ‘trace’ way too far.”
“Do they also think you can’t use photos of bodybuilders or models to draw muscular characters?”
“The critic was just looking to argue. I mean, what the hell is ‘eye-tracing?'”
“They critic must not draw very much. There are people out there who think that computers just draw digital art themselves, so I guess there are those who think tracing and copying are ‘plagiarism’ too. I wish they’d understand that to get better at anything you have to use references.”
“The more professional you are, the more references you accumulate. I was told, ‘You only know what’s in your brain. To add new things to it, you must look at them.’ So yeah, don’t worry and keep drawing wonderful pictures. (Also, LOL ‘eye-tracing.’)”
It seems like the vast majority side with Harucha, and I have to agree. If I ever needed to draw schoolgirls pointing a gun, I’d use a reference for that; if I ever needed to draw two boys in love frolicking by a pool, I’d use a reference for that.
So long as the artist puts their own twist on the piece with backgrounds, colors, shape, tone, or any number of other ways, I don’t think it’s far to call it a copy… or an “eye-trace,” whatever that is.