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Drawing from Imagination – Tips on Improving Visual Memory

February 21, 20178 Comments

I want to start by saying that I’m not a master at drawing from imagination. Not yet. It’s something I’m working on improving. I spent the first decade as a student learning to draw from observation. Depicting reality as it is in front of me. I got to a point where I was very proud of my observational drawings. Then I tried to draw from imagination and it looked horrible. It’s very frustrating.

So, this is something I’ve been working on lately. I’ve improved a lot at it since I started trying. That’s important – actively trying to improve at it.

BTW, I’m not knocking drawing from observation. I think it’s actually the first step. The first thing we should learn. If we can’t draw our world, how can we expect to invent new ones? Learning to draw from observation will help you draw from imagination. Drawing from observation is very important, but it’s only a portion of what I want to be able to do.

  1. Observation – Learn how to analyze and visualize. Learn how to represent reality.
  2. Memory and Recall – When drawing from imagination, you can only use your memory. Improve your ability to memorize.
  3. Imagination and Creativity – Develop your ability to imagine new things in your head AND to execute them successfully.

Drawing from imagination is kind of the final feat. You definitely can (and should!) practice it from the very beginning of your artistic development, but don’t expect it to fall into place instantly.

It’s hard!

In this video I’ll introduce some exercises that can help you if you’re also trying to develop your ability to draw from imagination.

Drawing from Observation

Understand the basics of art, like gesture, structure, perspective, light & shadow, color theory. Learn how to represent reality on a flat surface. You do this by looking at things, studying them, and trying to copy what you see. If you can’t draw it from reference, there’s no way you’re drawing it from your head.

Exercise #1 – Construct the drawing

When we draw from reference, we tend to use 2-dimensional observation-based drawing methods. We measure angles, compare proportions, observe the contour, observe the negative shapes. We look at the reference as a bunch of shapes, colors, and edges that come together to form a picture. We’re told to flip the photo upside down and pretend it’s not a specific object. Just copy what we see. This is great for developing our ability to see. I recommend doing it.

But this doesn’t help us when drawing from imagination. There’s nothing to measure. No negative shapes to observe. So for this exercise, let’s balance it out by also training with a construction-heavy method. We’re still drawing from observation, but instead of copying the 2-dimensional shapes, we’re breaking down the objects into their simple forms. Pretend the object isn’t there and construct your drawing from scratch, using simple forms as building blocks.

Exercise #2 – Draw it from another angle

Look at an object and try to draw it as if you were looking at it from another angle. This is half observation, half invention. It forces you to think critically and understand the 3D forms. It’s one step further than exercise #1 because now you can’t accidentally revert back to copying what you see. You are forced to construct. 

When you’re done, walk around the reference to check your work and make corrections.

You can also do this exercise with 3d objects. Sketchfab has a huge library of 3d models uploaded by their community of artists. Draw an object from another angle and then rotate it to check your work.

Drawing from Memory

When you’re drawing from imagination, really you’re drawing from memory. Your memory of what the world looks like. For some people it’s natural, they’re born with their brain wired a certain way, and their visual memory is amazing. Most of us don’t have that luxury. We have to develop it.

Study subjects you want to draw. Intentionally remember them. If you want to draw people from imagination, you have to memorize anatomy and proportions.

But there’s also unintentional memorization. Your brain puts things into memory as you go through your day. If you strengthen retention, improve your ability to draw from imagination exponentially. One day you can see an interesting building, and a week later draw it from memory perfectly. Well, that’s the goal. Easier said than done. Let’s aim high.

Exercise #3 – Draw from another room

Set up reference in one room. Sit down to draw it in another room. Walk back and forth as you look at the subject and draw it. This forces you to retain angles and shapes for 30 seconds as you walk back and sit down.

Exercise #4 – Draw again from memory

Go on an adventure and find something to draw. Go to a local landmark, the zoo, a park, a burlesque show. Whatever… Draw an object from observation for 5 minutes. Turn away and draw it from memory. Compare it to the reference. Draw it again.

Exercise #5 – Study it then draw from memory

Stare at and study an object for about 3 minutes. Turn away or put your reference away and draw it from memory for about 5 minutes.

Exercise #6 – Quick recall

Try observing for only 5 seconds! Capture images in your head instantly. Then draw it for 1-2 minutes or until you don’t remember anything else. This is useful for drawing things that move.

Exercise #7 – Long-term recall

Study an object for 5 minutes. Draw something else for 10 minutes. Then draw the original object from memory.

Or another version of this exercise.. Go to a cafe and draw what you see. Draw it again from memory when you get home a few hours later. Draw it again the next day. Draw it again three days later, and again a week later. Once more a month later.

If there’s something you want to move from short term to long term memory for permanent storage (e.g. human proportions), you need to repeat the information at increasingly distant intervals. This takes discipline. Don’t look at the reference between intervals. Only after each drawing to check your work.

Drawing from Imagination

Imagination – combining known things in new ways. Coming up with new ideas.

Creativity – Using imagination to produce artistic work. Actually creating something. Not just thinking about it.

If imagination is just combining things in new way, the more you know and experience the more you can connect.

But there’s the problem of actually drawing the things you imagine. Being creative vs having a wild imagination. You’ll have a vivis image in your mind, but when you try to draw it, it looks like crap. What’s the point of a wild imagination if you can’t execute.

Exercise #8 – Draw simple forms

The first step is to be able to draw simple forms from imagination. Imagine boxes and cylinders and draw them from any angle.

Exercise #9 – Draw blobs

We can also try a more raw approach. Rather than drawing super simple boxes, we can start with blobs. Some things are very organic and can’t be reduced to a box. Add cross-contour lines to the blobs to make them 3-dimensional.

Exercise #10 – Invent Light

Invent light and shadow for your boxes and blobs. Decide where the light source is and imagine which planes would be in shadow and which in light. With blobs, imagine where the core shadow would be. Invent the the reflected light, halftones and highlights based on your cross-contour lines.

Practice everything with as much care as if it was what you truly want to draw, because you’re going to take those boxes and blobs and turn them into real things.

Exercise #11 – Find faces in random shapes

Draw a random shape with a fat marker. If you’re drawing digitally, make your brush big and draw a random shape. Turn that shape into a face.

Try drawing a different face with the same random shape.



Filed in: Critiques / Q&AMisc.Videos

Comments (8)

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  1. Erin says:

    Thank you for this demo and conversation. I got my BFA in painting years ago and have worked only observationally and/or from reference and am trying to jump into imagination land. Your video was both encouraging and helpful in the process! Thanks again!

  2. Chris says:

    Great advice! Thank you 🙂

  3. Clori says:

    Excellent advice for practicing drawing from memory. I would like to ask if you have any advice for those (like me) who have poor imaginations. What I am referring to is visual imagination, or visual imagery, which scientifically is the faculty that generates what we see in the “mind’s eye”, and in some people that is very poor. I can barely imagine a simple cube or square in my minds eye, and that extends to my visual memory as well. I tend to draw from intuition instead because of this, which means a lot of trial and error.

    If you have any advice for people like me I would be grateful.

  4. Kalu Dickson says:

    Really good advice for imaginative drawing

  5. Joshma says:

    I’m also an artist. Bt i can’t draw from imagination. And thank you for your great helps me a lot. I will try it..

  6. Ebrahim says:

    Does this actually work?
    I mean how much improvement in a given amount of time do these practices make?

  7. Dante Isaac says:

    Thank you

    I will try it to. Also the 3d apps have the function to manipulate light, I mran our imagination maybe implies complex forms with shadows.

  8. henlo says:

    just do it if you really want and improvement will come 😀

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