Drawing what's not in front of me?
January 22, 2013 10:32 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn to draw from my imagination?

I'm pretty happy with my progress in drawing things that are right in front of me, but I'm having a much harder time drawing things from memory - and it's harder still to draw things that I've made up.

What are your tips for drawing things that don't exist - aliens, weird new machines, mutant plants, characters that live in your head?

All suggestions and resources (websites, books, drawing prompts and exercises) appreciated.

posted by kristi to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Start with a small detail (intricate wrinkles, unusual hair, etc.) and build your drawing around it.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:39 AM on January 22, 2013

Try drawing from memory something you've previously drawn from life. Can you recreate it? What is different about the two drawings? That may give you some insight into what aspects of an object/image you remember well, versus what aspects you can't recall.

Try to build up a dictionary of elements you are familiar with and can draw from memory reliably. Combine these elements to create new hybrid objects from memory and now imagination. Rinse and repeat!
posted by grog at 10:45 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Like, for me, I need to imagine the whole thing in my head first. Really visualize it, and then draw it.

Some of this comes from looking at existing art first. For machines and spaceships, I'll go on a bender and just look at nothing but spaceships, and then take the visual bits that are interesting to me and throw them into something. This works for just about every subject.

Characters that live in my head have been there for a long time sometimes (like, think the final scene in St Elsewhere) so by the time I draw them they're very fleshed out. Other times I need to draw a million variations of a doodle before I can fully realize something. It's a weird process.
posted by hellojed at 11:09 AM on January 22, 2013

Two points:

1) I wasn't able to draw from my head very well until I'd done a lot of observational drawing. Then things just clicked one day.

2) Illustrators who draw from their imaginations still use photo reference sometimes, to figure out the components.
posted by the_blizz at 11:19 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, I started copying artists I liked and learned their visual language. I memorized a million different eyebrow and eye combos. I memorized a few standard poses. I memorized a lot of gestures (important!). I memorized lots of different clothing and accessories and weapons. I memorized different types of eyes, mouths, hands, etc. Now I can sit down and kind of pull those elements from my mind and my muscle memory and stitch something original together.

I keep lots of reference materials like gesture and art books. Lots of comics. Tons of Moebius trade paperbacks.

After i while I went from a guy who could copy really well to a guy who would kind of draw. After even more practice I could improve the quality of my work by recognized what I was doing wrong. Its a totally different skill to draw original items as opposed to drawing what you're seeing. Honestly, no one wants to hear this but there are no shortcuts. You gotta put the hours in.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:28 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can you draw different views of a box or cylinder? Do you have a solid understanding of perspective?

A great place to start is at johnkcurriculum.blogspot.ca and dive into the exercises with something like Drawing Toys For Better Understanding.

If you want to draw realistic people from memory, you'll need to build a model in your brain.

Step 1 -break down the body's forms and hinges into simple, pivoting cubes and cylinders.
Step 2 -spend the rest of your life refining this mental construction.

The most fabulous artist's anatomy book is Die Gestalt des Menschen.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:41 AM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Drawing from memory is really tough - it's not often clear how tough it is until you try it, or see someone else's attempt. Unless you specialize (or you have an eidetic memory), you'll find that it's impossible to remember all the little details that make something come alive. You don't have to conjure believable objects from memory (not counting baseballs or simple objects like that) - when you draw a house, for example, you'll miss little details like wainscoting or molding or windowsills or a million other things. This is okay. Just practice. Grog's advice is good: draw from reference and build up elements and details that stick. But accept that you'll need to use reference.

For imaginary things: It can be hard to create something completely from scratch that looks like it can exist in a 3-D space, especially if you don't have a solid sense of what it is and how it would look if it were in front of you. Fortunately, the answer to this is the same as the answer to...pretty much every other drawing question, actually: Practice.

So, ALIENS: Start with animals. Get a sense of their anatomical elements and how everything fits together. Draw paws - dogs, cats. Tails: How is a dog's tail different from a cat's? A mouse's tail? Draw goats. Draw frogs. A chameleon. An iguana. As an exercise: Pick three mammals, a reptile and an amphibian, and do studies of them: two of each. Ten drawings. They don't have to be amazing or detailed; this is more about the way they're constructed.

Now move away from familiar animal shapes: Draw insects. A beetle or a praying mantis. Now a dragonfly. How are they different? Which body parts let them move the way they do? Draw a scorpion. Some spiders. Your exercise: Pick three insects and two arachnids (one of these can be a scorpion or a centipede if you like) and do two studies of each. Ten drawings, same as above.

Move even further away: Draw cephalopods. An octopus, a squid. Some jellyfish. Deep-sea ocean life. Hagfish. Same exercise as above. Pick five, do two studies each. BONUS ROUND: Do a lobster. Lobsters are fun to draw.

Next exercise: Pick three birds and do two studies of each. Birds are crazy.

As you're doing these, try to read about the animals you're drawing. Get a sense of their habits and ecology. This is to help understand the functions of their anatomy.

And now on to aliens. Let's imagine some. Come up with three, for now. For each one, ask yourself: Where will it live? Does it live in a desert environment? What are its natural defenses? Does it have a hard exoskeleton, like a beetle? Horns, like a ram or elk? Reptilian skin? Multiple eyes? Compound eyes? Feathers? Four legs? Six? Are those legs long and spindly, or study like an elephant's?

Maybe one lives in the ocean, or floats in the air on a planet with less gravity than ours. An airborne jellyfish would be a good starting point. Think about how it floats, how it moves, how it eats.

Go nuts. Scribble and see where it takes you. The goal is not to draw an amalgam of the animals you've studied, but to have a sense of anatomical functions and know how they work and appear in real space.

MACHINES: Do quick sketches of whatever machines you can find: Cars (car engines especially), industrial machinery, farm equipment, et cetera. It will take a while before you can combine elements in a way that looks visually cohesive, so just keep practicing. It helps to have a broad sense of how an imaginary machine would work, but don't get caught up in details unless your name is Masamune Shirow.

PLANTS: See animals. Find yourself some weird plants - pitcher plants, Venus flytraps, the Cape sundew - carnivorous plants are great for this, they're very alien looking. Draw corpse flowers and durians. Combine elements like you did for aliens. Imagine flowers and fruit.

CHARACTERS THAT LIVE IN YOUR HEAD: Here is your exercise: Pick five men. They can be celebrities, people from history, whatever. As long as you have a lot of photographs of all five. Do a few studies of each one. Then, swap facial features. Switch the noses on numbers two and four. Swap the eyes on numbers one and five. Give three and four each other's chins. Swap mouths.

Do the same with five women.

Pick up a dumb magazine with a lot of photos of people - People or Us Weekly or whatever - and go through it once, drawing from reference - but only drawing eyes (you can include eyebrows). You should now have a sketchbook page full of pairs of eyes. Now do it again, but only drawing noses. Page full of noses. Now again, but only mouths. Go through it again and draw hairlines and head shapes.

By now, you should have some very strange-looking sketchbook pages, you should be pretty sick of drawing face parts and incredibly fucking sick of the famous people in the magazine, and - this is the important part - you will have a broad vocabulary of lots of different kinds of eyes and noses and mouths and chins and hairlines and eyebrows and jawlines, and you can draw (ha) on that when trying to construct a person. Again, it'll look weird at first; the cohesion comes with practice.

Practice is the important part. It's discouraging to venture out of your comfort zone, drawing-wise, but it's the only way you'll learn. Accept that your goal is to learn, not to create a masterpiece, and keep at it.

Hope this helps.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:42 AM on January 22, 2013 [15 favorites]

Echoing bonobothegreat:

It is hard to tell without seeing your work, but if you are anything like me, you don't think too much about the anatomy (or other underlying structure) or the POV (as in 1-, 2-, 3-point perspective) of what you are drawing from observation.

These are the things that come in super handy when you are trying to create something that isn't sitting right in front of you.
posted by He Is Only The Imposter at 11:50 AM on January 22, 2013

In fact, there is a whole book on this subject: Drawing with Imagination (Amazon US link). I brought it a few years ago when I was going through the same stuff.

I would also suggest that you just chain yourself to your desk, grab some piles of paper (not notebooks, because you don't want to feel like these are things to keep) and crank out some drawings. Do that for a few hours a day, and you'll start to seem improvements. I kept a huge pile of drawings when I was re-learning to draw, a few years ago, and looking back on them really helped me feel like I was improving.
posted by The River Ivel at 11:59 AM on January 22, 2013

It helps me to draw something from memory until I get stuck - say, a pose looks stiff and unnatural no matter how many times I rework it, or I realize I don't really know how tree branches work, and then go look at the thing I'm trying to draw.

A good grasp of space and depth perception is crucial, I've found. A lot of people who are good at observational drawing have a tendency to flatten everything they see into one plane, as if they're trying to capture a photograph. Practice drawing the shapes of things without filling in the details: if you draw a box, imagine it's transparent; if you draw a person, imagine it's one of those poseable wooden figures. Cartoon model sheets can give you an idea, like this or this. (On preview, bonobothegreat puts it more succinctly.)

It also helps to build a mental library of different types of things - both real-life things and ways artists have depicted those things. Cars, houses, dogs, hands, eyes.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:05 PM on January 22, 2013

Another endorsement of bonobothegreat's comment!

I would check out any of the resources in the draftsmanship section of Marshall Vandruff's site, especially the books on perspective.

(Disclaimer: I have taken a few of Marshall's illustration seminars but have no connection to him.)
posted by Room 641-A at 12:12 PM on January 22, 2013

I've previously described observation and construction as twin pincers to drawing.

Stronger construction skills will improve your observation and vice versa. If you draw only from life (or worse, only from photos) then you can fall into the trap of just observing somehting as a 2D image. That's a crucial step; you're trying to draw a 2D image, after all. But to move past that, you need to start understanding how the 2D image relates to the 3D object that it represents.

Perspective drawing and John K's toy drawing are good exercises to strengthen your construction, as mentioned.

From there, my next suggested exercise is draw something from life, but draw it from a different direction than you're viewing it. When you draw something from the same direction you're viewing it, you can ignore what it is in 3D space. If you try to draw it from memory, you might run into the limits of your memory before you push your construction skills to their limit. This exercise will force you to observe 3D forms, and construct those into an image.
posted by RobotHero at 1:59 PM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Try to get into the habit of doodling while you're on the phone. During longer calls, you may be surprised by the crazy stuff you draw while you're distracted and your inhibitions are switched off.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:12 PM on January 22, 2013

These are all great answers - especially RobotHero's suggestion to draw from a different direction and FAMOUS MONSTER's fantastic bunch of ideas.

Thank you all!
posted by kristi at 10:56 AM on January 25, 2013

I've found James Gurney's Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist really helpful. It goes through the process of painting realistic images of the imaginary, including many excellent suggestions and tips to transfer real-world depth and plausibility into your made-up image.
posted by cupcakeninja at 8:14 AM on January 27, 2013

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