Drawing From Imagination

Drawing From Imagination

Lately, I have been trying to challenge myself to draw more from imagination. And let me tell you, it uses a whole other set of artistic muscles that are not exercised when you are simply drawing from reality. At least, this has been my experience. And when I think about it, whenever I took my first art classes and even into college, most of the lessons were about rendering reality. I never had a specific class actually called “Drawing From Imagination.” Perhaps there is one out there but I would have to say that the best lessons I had for actually teaching you to use the imagination muscles were the ones I took when I studied animation. Animation involves character development. In fact, you are creating an entire world that does not exist. But even before I took those classes, I had to study regular drawing, which was from references or from life. 

I mean, it makes sense. Don’t start trying to draw what isn’t there until you know how to draw what IS there. For instance, you may think you know what a cat looks like. But then you start to draw it and realize, “Um…I don’t think a cat’s hind legs are supposed to look like that.” Truthfully, your mind can only recognize a cat. It doesn’t actually know what it looks like. That’s when you start googling cat anatomy and looking at how the animal is put together so you can make it look the way it’s supposed to. If you practice drawing this over and over and over, eventually, your mind will remember what a cat looks like. After that, you’ll be able to draw it without it looking strange.

So, how do you draw what doesn’t exist? You can’t look up the reference to that. 

Or can you? 

I don’t have any hard and fast rules for drawing from imagination. But I’d like share my own evolving experience with the process.

Reality vs. Fantasy

In my artistic journey, most of the people I have known who also do art simply try recreate reality. We look at a reference or life itself and try to capture that on paper or canvas or in clay. I rarely knew anyone who really worked at trying to draw from imagination. And I don’t mean just doodling some kind of odd creature in various places. I mean, those who really and truly tried to hone their skills to the point where they could draw something that did not exist and do it very convincingly. 

Drawing from reality is easier – at least it is to me. The thing is there, right in front of your face. All you have to do is copy it. When you are first beginning in art, of course, this is usually difficult. But if you love drawing or painting, you will naturally work at it until you improve. You copy things over and over and over until one day, you have totally and completely captured the subject. People look at it and say, “Wow, that’s terrific!” And if you’ve really mastered it, they might say, “I thought that was a photograph when I first saw it.”

For some artists, this keeps them completely content. They look at the natural beauty of life in some form and seek to capture it, just as it is. 

But for some others, this isn’t enough.

Drawing from reality has always been a source of real pleasure for me. To be able to make something look exactly the way it’s supposed to – whether it’s a rose or a bird or a human being, has always been something I’ve taken a lot of pride in. I love being able to do that. And I love that I took the years of practice to be able to do that. I have been told that most people quit trying to draw when they are a child, either because they don’t think they can or they just don’t want to. Because it’s always been a part of me and I love it, I can’t even imagine stopping.

But as time has gone on, I realized that the way I captured reality slowly began to change. Instead of being an exact replica, maybe I would start experimenting with the lighting. I would think that maybe I would like to have more light and so I would add that into the piece. This is imagination creeping in.

More time goes by, and maybe I decide that instead of making a baby zebra black and white like a real zebra, I’m going to do it in rainbow colors instead. 

After imagination has started finding me, I found myself actually getting a little bored when I tried to return to simply copying. Maybe it’ll come back later. But for me, once imagination started to play a little more, this whole other world slowly began to open up. It felt like, there’s more than just this world now. It’s no longer just whatever is right in front of me. 

I can “create” instead of “recreate”. 

That’s when I started my casual, on the side project, Abstract 88. To just let go and see where imagination took me. So far, it’s been great because now it’s started opening up even more possibilities for me in terms of what you can do with art.

Abstract Exercises

Some people look at abstract art and say, “Why?” Or maybe not even this – some can only produce blank stares. Even I do this sometimes. I don’t mean to be disloyal to my fellow artists but there is some stuff out there that I just don’t get. 

I have never been all that interested in creating abstract art. It has grown on me over time. Even in my Abstract 88 project though, I sometimes take long breaks from it. But I found it to be a great way to open up the imagination. Instead of trying to create what “is”, just let go and play with what “could be”. I listed several different exercises below for you to try and see what comes from your imagination and intuition. Don’t “work” at it too much. You really have to surrender to the process as much as possible. And don’t be critical of your results. 

You can use paints, pencils or markers. Whatever you feel comfortable with. 

1. Pick three colors. Just three. Now, simply spread them around on your paper or canvas and see if anything interesting emerges. Maybe you’d like a bunch of circles, or nothing but lines. Whatever you do, just stick to those three colors.

2. Choose a shape – a circle, a square, a triangle, whatever you prefer. You can use a lot of them or just one. 

3. Try painting a word or a concept or a feeling using only colors. That way you won’t get caught up in trying to make it look like an actual object.

This is just a start. But if you would like to exercise the imagination, I have found that abstract art is a good way to begin.

References Anyway

While abstract art helped open up my desires to draw from imagination, the feelings of wanting to make things that didn’t exist started long before that. I wanted to start producing things to felt more like “me”. I didn’t want to just develop a style but to speak from my heart, my soul. 

A time I really, really felt this was one night when I was listening to a classical music song that completely captured my attention. There was something about it that brought all sorts of images to mind. And suddenly, I was seized with a desire to show those images. I came up with my own personal name for the song and began sketching a scene in my sketchbook to fit the main image I had. Soon, other images to support it came along. And none of them were real. How did I do this?

Well, I used references anyway. And I don’t always use photos. If I have access to the real thing, I will use that a reference as well. There have been times I have posed in front of the mirror myself for projects in order to see how arms looked when crossed or how the legs bend when you are about to jump. So, references are very much a part of the process still.

For example, in part of my scene, I had a smiling turtle sitting on a smiling moon while he reaches out to touch a star. Now, I’ve never seen such a thing in reality before. That’s unfortunate because I think that it would make my day. 🙂 But anyway, before I drew it, I thought about the sitting pose I wanted it to be in and looked up a reference for that. Then, I looked at some turtles to see how they are put together. The moon and star I didn’t need to look up because I had drawn enough of those before to remember what they looked like. So, by looking at many bits and pieces of reference material, I was able to construct my drawing properly. 

The same process happened for the rest of the picture. Every animal and object was a result of looking at references and putting the pieces together in a way that fit my mind’s image best. Here is my picture below, titled The Enchanted Circus.

So, as you can see, drawing from imagination really just uses information that we already have. Eventually, as you practice creating something new more and more, you won’t even need to look at references much. Maybe not at all. I have thoroughly enjoyed the challege of trying to exercise my imagination more. But I feel like my years of drawing reality were crucial in getting to this point where I could effectively make something that really and truly didn’t exist.

Right now, I still need to look at reference material in order to bring my ideas into reality. I have to produce several rough drafts before I can transfer a drawing to its final surface. When I was studying animation, I did meet more advanced students who were able to just draw many things without needing to look at references. They’d just snap open their sketchbook and a minute later, boom, there were the claws of a dragon. It seemed impossible then. But I can see that with dedicated focus and practice, it could happen.

All You Need is Love…and Practice

Here’s an exercise that may help you in learning to draw from imagination. I did something similar in my animation classes as well as on my own.

Try drawing this at first without looking at anything for reference. 

1. Choose a simple object to draw like a rock or even just a circle. Now give it a hat and glasses. 

2. Draw several versions. Vary the hat and the glasses. Don’t add anything else though.

If at this point you feel that you just don’t like what you came up with, or that it doesn’t look right, go ahead and look at reference material.

3. Now, come back and draw the same thing – your simple object with a hat and glasses. Draw several versions again.

4. Last, put this away where you can’t see it. Take out a fresh piece of paper and try drawing it without looking at anything.

This should tell you how much you practice you need before getting to the point where you can draw the shape with its fine attire without looking at anything. And after this exercise, maybe you will even remember how to put hats and glasses on anything!

Art of any kind, whether it’s reality or imagination, isn’t for a select talented few who happen to possess a gift. I would have to say, as usual, all you need is practice. But most importantly, you need to have a love for this craft.



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