Updated: Jul 23
I usually won't begin a picture until I'm able to draw each element from memory, be they animals, plants, or the environment.
Of course I'll make good use of the abundant reference material we have at our disposal nowadays to study a subject. But I find it's not until my subject - an animal for instance - has begun to be committed to memory that the imagination can begin to inform a drawing.
I personally don't find drawings slavishly copied directly from photos very interesting to look at. They tend to feel dry and literal. I do these, but only as part of my process, and for the purpose of learning. They are only a step on the way to creating something hopefully much more meaningful. Drawings that have generous amounts of artistic license have immensely more appeal to me. And for me that only comes from doing many drawings of a thing from reference or life, until it can be drawn from memory.
It's at this point that things get interesting, because the imagination will alter what we remember from all that study. This part of the process is hardest to unpack, because there's a kind of magic that happens when all that distilled knowledge comes back out from memory and onto the paper.
The result for me is far more appealing to look at. In a way it captures more of the essence of a thing, whilst being imbued with something personal of the artist at the same time.