Drawing from reference is essential to grow and learn as an artist/designer. When I was younger I thought using reference was cheating. I had the misconception that "legit" artists drew everything from imagination – a vast visual library that they had crammed into their subconscious. While that might be true for the .001% of people blessed with photographic memory, most of us have to rely on reference. Kim Jung Gi, a Korean artist, can create incredibly complex compositions while keeping in mind proportion, perspective, and scale. Most people assume he was born with the talent or a photographic memory, but it took him years and countless hours of drawing from...you guessed it, reference, to build that visual library. He was very methodical in his studies and chooses how to interpret what he references very carefully yet quickly.
That's the keyword: interpretation. Personally, I wish I could render things better. Im making baby steps toward gaining a better understanding of light, perspective, and anatomy but I have a long long long long way to go. But since I've been drawing from observation and studying the human figure, it's helped a lot and I've seen a spurt of growth in my work. Still a long way to go.. actually it will never end.
Photorealism and portraits that capture the essence of a person can be where skill and interpretation come into harmony because the artist is injecting their interpretation of the subject all while rendering the technical details. It gives the portrait life (see Sam Spratt). This can apply to landscapes and yes, even bowls of fruit if the artist stays true to their own interpretation.
The illustration above is the farthest thing from photorealistic, but it's my interpretation of the odd contraption I saw while on my trip to Vietnam in 2011. I wanted to inject my own narrative into it by placing it in the late 21st century. I stole the subject matter, some technical details in the motor, and some reference to perspective (although even that is slightly skewed) but that's about it. I didn't really have context of my subject matter; who the farmer was, his machine, or what he was doing, but that didn't really matter in the end - it probably gave me way more freedom in the end.
Im fortunate I was able to travel to Vietnam and see some wild sights that was a plethora of inspiration, but I get that not everyone has the opportunity to travel. But you don't need a plane ticket to gather reference and inspiration - take some time to explore your own city, neighborhood, or better yet take a car ride (or bus) outside to a different town. Just get out of your room and walk around - that's traveling. Take in the surroundings. Or take your everyday mundane experiences and try to twist that into something. Shitty jobs are perfect for weaving funny narratives (I worked at a daycare in high school, plenty of stories) There's no formula to this shit - simply draw from your experiences. And if you don't have any in particular you want to focus on then look to other sources like books or movies or other artists. I'm constantly reminding myself to do this from time to time.
Every creative has their own story to tell and it's important to convey that in your work - it's something that I'm constantly striving for and grabbing every reference I can to do so.