Coming from a very realistic way of drawing, I always needed a reference image to draw from. This meant that i felt nothing was truly "mine". The ideas were, sure, but then I could only express my artistic ideas through the combination of other people's, or my own, realistic reference imagery.
This was frustrating for me. The most frustrating thing is that I couldn't express even a small percentage of the ideas that I came up with daily. Brains floating in space listening to microwave frequencies from space aliens? No.
My creative mind was far more advanced when compared with my practical mind, which delighted in reminding my creative mind of the fact that "if there is no reference imagery to support such an idea, that idea will never come to fruition".
Stupid practical mind.
But now I am much happier basking in the naive glory of my creative mind. Colour! Irregular shapes! That rabbit couldn't sit like that and give you the side eye! Oh yes. Yes it can.
I have come a long way from thinking that a "proper" illustration must be drawn "properly". If you are still on this yellow brick road that you think is leading to you to a magician, prepare to realise he's a phoney. If, after this amazing metaphor, you don't believe me, look up the work of amazing illustrators like Isabelle Arsenault, or think of those cartoon characters you used to love as a child. There is a reason animators have drawn the characters in that way. They are particular to a certain TV show, aiding with instant recognisability, but we also have a connection to them. And it's not the Marge-style hair (at least I hope not).
Simply put, not using references has many advantages. I started drawing this rabbit hiding illustration a few hours ago. I had the idea while I was driving to Woolworths at 4:30pm to buy snacks. Every time, I drive past an amazing vista of National bush near my house, and every so often there are wild brown rabbits on the side of the road. I always look out for them. We haven't had much rain in the past few weeks, and it has been a hotter than usual summer here in Australia. Consequently, the grass is looking quite yellow brown.
"What if I drew a rabbit hiding in the grass?" my snack-deprived creative mind said. As my practical mind is still living elsewhere with distant relatives, there was nothing to stop me. I already had the basic perspective and composition in my mind when I returned home (bag of snacks successfully acquired) and started drawing. I was so pumped I just started drawing a basic rabbit head shape, and I was really happy with it. I kept drawing the body, and didn't want to change it. If I had looked up a "cute rabbit sitting" (tip: when researching animal reference imagery, ALWAYS WRITE "CUTE" AT THE START, unless you like looking at the slaughtered, roadkill, skinned, trophy version of animals. I do not) then I would have felt obliged to draw the ears this way, and the legs wouldn't bend that way, and the head is smaller with less neck. Get what I mean? My creativity would have been taken away from me just like that. Because that's not what the picture looks like. Which is the whole reason why you're drawing and not inserting a photo someone else took.
Also, it saves a bit of time. I used to have to spend heaps of time to find royalty-free images of the exact right animal with the right light direction, position, camera perspective, etc, because I was always scared someone would come at me for copyright. Well, no reference image, no plagiarism concerns, and no time spent looking for it either. I'm not talking about the quick use of an image just to see the perspective or characteristic of something, or getting used to drawing something unfamiliar, or sketchbooking. That's fine. What I'm talking about is painstakingly finding (or going out and taking) a photograph so you can copy the figure like they were a naked live model waiting for you to start copying their features.
Drawing from real life is amazing too, because it's like the reference image that never stays the same. You can learn all the different perspectives of something, how the light moves, how the colour is affected and so on. But I'm enjoying easing off the reference imagery at the moment and seeing what my naive mind is capable of.