Drawing From Your Imagination - Dreaming on Paper




For a long time now, I've thought about the problem of drawing images from your minds eye.   Have you ever wanted to draw a cartoon for a funny idea or an image from a vivid dream?  Me too.  And I've always wondered why I could never find a class that would help you learn to draw from your own imagination.  All of them insist that you draw from life or photographic reference.  That is all very good for painting landscapes and portraits.  But I thought it was strange that there was never a comic drawing class or any instruction at all in how to tap into the reference available from one's inner movie theater.

Though I am by no means qualified to teach art to anybody and I'm certainly not "there" yet, over time I have discovered a few things which have helped.

Step 1: Dispensing With Some Old Notions

I believe that drawing is simply a learned skill.  It can be learned by anyone just like woodworking or electronics or anything else.

Words and alphabets are a more efficient form of communication, that 's why we use them.

People abandoned pictograms such as hieroglyphics because alphabetic writing is just quicker.

Once you get the hang of working with words, you can become every fluent in it. 

The same goes for drawing.  Once you do it enough, you become increasingly fluent in it.  Your mind learns that it can communicate that way and the more you let it do so, the easier it becomes.

Step 2: Adjusting Expectations

When I think of people who can draw anything from their mind, I think of the artists who create graphic novels, sophisticated comic strips.  I'd love to hear how someone like that learned to draw from their mind.   I don't know how they do it, ... although one person I talked to said they personally had a huge collection of reference material in the form of hundreds of old comics, super heroes in every conceivable pose which he could draw upon when necessary for the odd inspiration or angle.  And certainly, when you look at it from the 10000 foot view, there's a great deal of similarity from one comic to the next, one artist to the next.

Comics have their memes clearly, and styles that are considered marketable and acceptable to the masses.

However, I think its counter productive to try to force your mind to go down that particular channel if it's  not naturally inclined to do so..

Step 3: Letting Go of the Need for Reference

Its easier to get more realistic results when drawing from reference...  But this can result in a reference dependency.

Using reference is good for learning how to draw a particular thing, but when creating your own original take on the subject you've got to put it aside and trust your self.

Step 4: Dealing With Your Inner Critic

In order to let yourself draw freely, it's important to turn off your inner critic during the process.  If your expectations are too high out the starting gate, this can result in you not wanting to try at all.  Its easy to be dismissive, but the goal is to let your mind learn to express itself on paper with images.

Step 5: Draw a Little Every Day

To increase your drawing fluency, and get the energy flowing and the wheels turning, it's good to have a regular pattern of just drawing a little something. 

Pick out a time during the day, just 10 minutes or so, and draw anything you want.  Even if it's just a scribble.

Once energy starts to flow a certain way, it likes to keep going that way. 

I think the little at a time approach is better than throwing yourself into an immersive course, getting exhausted and then not doing it any more after that for a long while.

Step 6: Dreaming on Paper

Here is an exercise I like to do sometimes to help circumvent the inner critic and keep the ego from interfering with premature perfectionism.

Take a pencil and paper into a darkened room.  So dark that you can just see only a little bit. 

Relax and let your mind imagine something.  Draw with your pencil on the paper in the dark.

It's okay if it doesn't look like anything recognizable.

Forgive yourself for any outcome.  It's just a loosening up exercise, like stretching.

Step 7: Draw With Your Left Hand

Though the whole left brain/right brain theory has been discredited as of late, I still think there is something to it.

When you are really engaged in drawing, it feels like another part of your brain is being accessed.

Drawing with your left hand is thought to engage the right side of your brain and helps disengage the left side which is more concerned with logic, reason, symbol and pattern recognition.

As an exercise, try drawing with your left hand.   with eyes closed?

Step 8: Using Reference: Learning Vs. Copying

Definitely drawing from life or from photographs is an excellent way to learn how to draw a certain thing.  Drawing from reference will help you achieve more accurate results. 

But before you run off to look it up on Google Images, take a moment and just try to draw it from memory first.

Your mind knows what things look like, you can recognize faces, somewhere in there, you have a mental reference of how things look.

After you've made at least one attempt to draw the thing you are thinking of, then go look at some reference, draw from reference till you feel you've learned a bit more about it, then put the reference aside and redraw it again from memory.

This is a great way to validate your minds ability to recall imagery and relate them through drawing onto paper.

In the picture, I tried to draw Yoda from memory.  I remembered the diminutive stature, the ears, the scraggly hair and the cane.  Even though it's not quite Yoda, I'm pleased with it, I feel like I'm getting there.

Step 9: Accessing Your Minds Pictorial Archive

Here's an interesting experiment you can do. 

Ask yourself the question:  which is more green?  a grape or a lime?

Notice how you can immediately summon an image of a lime to compare it with the image you have in your memory of a grape.

Did you notice how detailed the imagery was?  Your mind is a vast storehouse of visual information, and it can instantaneously access imagery in order to answer questions like the one above.

This particular feature of our mind has been studied in depth by a researcher named Steven Kosslyn.

Try asking yourself other such questions like

Which is more red?  A strawberry or an apple?

Then, while you are accessing the mental files, take a moment and try to draw the image your mind presented to you.

Which is more yellow?  A pencil or a sunflower?

Other questions I find to be harder, for instance this one:

Who has bushier eyebrows:  Tom Cruise?  or Nicolas Cage?

I can pull up some assorted images of Tom Cruise, but in my mind, the eyebrows are obscured.  My mind is evading that particular detail.

I find that questions that have to do with counting don't work so well.  For instance:  How many petals does a daisy have? 

My guess is that the part of brain that deals with facial recognition or with abstract properties like numbers is different than the part that can recall colors and textures.

Can you think of some questions that work well and some that don't?

Step 10: Pretend You Can't Use Words

Pretend for 15 minutes or so that you can't use words to express an idea.  You can only draw it.

Perhaps you have some task in mind to do.  Try visualizing it without words.

Draw a sketch of the finished result.  As you think of the tools and materials you need, draw those in as well.

When the drawing is complete or the time is up, you may find that you have summoned the energy or desire to start or even complete the task itself.  And you may have found that you solved a few unforeseen problems in advance.  If not, pin the drawing to the frig or somewhere in sight and place a gold star on it when the task is complete.  Or some other reward of your devising.

Step 11: Inklings

Idle drawing, often called 'doodling', is a good way to allow your mind to work ideas out on paper.   Sometimes the most delightful and curious designs emerge unexpectedly

Step 12: Failure Is Just the Negative Space Around Success

I remember reading an interview with a Pixar luminary who said 'You have to honor your failures.  Failure is just the negative space around success.'   What a wonderful way to look at it. 

There is no shame in using the undo button on the computer, the eraser is just the undo button of drawing with pencil.  Its just another drawing tool.

If someone would invent a fine point eraser, I would run out and get one!

Step 13: To Be Continued...

to be continued...

Still sorting my thoughts out ....

(c) 2013 Julie Jones



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    33 Discussions


    1 year ago on Step 13

    This has been the best article I've read on the subject of imagination.
    Thanks a lot !


    3 years ago

    Foobear, I don't know if you will even read this, since I'm a few years late. But I have been looking for exactly this kind of advice. I really have been stuck for awhile now and I have such a need to create and really express my self with projects..but I have started maybe a dozen or more over the past year, and I just keep getting hung up on the idea for each individual project. I have been self teaching myself to draw and make jewelry, as well as sculpture and sewing. I have wanted to combine everything into a process that I can enjoy and feel good doing. But each time I start I think about how u original my idea is(especially if it's based on a reference) and I just stop and decide to find a new and personal idea before I go on. But I never put into words that I am really just wanting to find my very own style. The pictures in my head don't come out on the paper the same way I pictured them, but that's part of my style. I have had a goal of starting my own small business of jewelry and art stuff to sell, but when I think about creating for other people I lose my drive and it's not fun any more. I have always loved the kind of art that touches you based on your interpretation. I am not going to let fear keep me from creating things that everyone won't always understand. And that's all right.

    2 replies

    Reply 3 years ago

    I'm glad you found this helpful. I like your remark about how the way it comes out is your style. That's a great insight. Keep making art!


    Reply 1 year ago

    Sorry I'm so late!! But I read that whole thing, and now I feel inspired.


    1 year ago

    foobear tnx alot, jst started drawing recently and been very dificult drawing from my imagination, was begining to think i lacked creativity but i jst drew an apole and a guy lying down on a bed,although they're nò mona lisa but got me excited. very grateful.


    3 years ago

    I've just started drawing ideas and since im not the best artist mine always end up looking like a 2d mess, however this is helping quite a bit ;P


    3 years ago on Step 13


    these steps are great. I'm a beginner, but l do not like drawing from a reference!


    3 years ago on Introduction

    Thank you so much! I'm a really talented artist, and when I draw something based off of a picture, it turns out great, but I've been trying for so long to figure out how to draw something from my mind and have them turn out good. This has helped so much! Thank you!

    1 reply

    4 years ago on Step 10

    I haven't try it yet... but I found it the most useful article I have ever read for this matter! Nice!

    1 reply

    4 years ago on Step 9

    i think the mind sees in flashes and always distorted proportions in some way. don't try to force the mind to see correct proportions or hold on to an image. just let the flashes come. it can see vividly, but not always under your will.

    1 reply

    4 years ago on Introduction

    thank u but u knw there have been where I go into the drawing zone where draw and the shit looks awesome but thanks a ton u really helped


    4 years ago on Step 13

    those are some really progressive thoughts, and i really have to thank you, because you've given me some valuable ideas to ponder about... thank you ^_^

    1 reply

    4 years ago on Introduction

    I have just started art class and the teacher said to draw any picture I blanked out I need something to get me started. First I tried to draw a tree that I was really good at copying but without that picture in front of me my tree looked like tentacles :( Then a vase but even if I know what a vase looks like I just couldn't draw it :( I have no imagination but everyone says I do