One of the most important lessons that I teach my students in introductory illustration courses is to dispel their belief that illustrators always draw everything from their heads. They don’t. Illustrators imagine from their heads, but they draw most often from observation. That’s because visual communication is dependent on recognition. Viewers need to recognize what an artist is depicting literally and conceptually. Working from reference, be it from photographs, film stills or directly from life itself, is crucial for linking a viewers visual memory (“I know what that is!”) to a concept (“I know what you mean!”). Even imagined creatures and places are dependent on reference for their success because viewers understand things by what they have seen before, and in their own lives. Viewers must recognize what is being presented to them in order to “get” what an illustrator or artist is saying.
Not long ago, in the New York Times, I learned of a report in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that settled an old argument regarding some 25,000 year old cave paintings in southern France. The question was, are the spotted horses, painted in those caves imaginary? For years, scientist thought they were. Now, due to modern DNA testing of found horse bones and teeth, we learn that contrary to belief, there were indeed spotted horses at the time.
From the article: “Terry O’Connor, an archaeologist at the University of York who collaborated on the study, said spotted horses in particular had been used to argue that cave art was more symbolic than realistic, and that as a result the finding could cause a stir. But now it is clear that some horses had a gene for that coat color. “People drew spotty horses,” he said, “because they saw spotty horses.”
So, in the end, even cavemen used reference! They found wonder from the world that they lived in, and interpreted it through their paintings. Their highly stylized works are made more meaningful to us by being recognized after all these years! We see what they saw and our eyes are opened by that recognition.
In the new biography of the painter Carravaggio by Andrew Graham-Dixon it is mentioned that at one point in his turbulent life, the artist was evicted from his residence and a list of his possessions was made by the authorities. Among the items was a set of eagle wings.