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  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Drawing Theory
Design

Why Is It So Hard to Draw From Imagination? Here's How to Do It!

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

This is how it begins. You see a mighty dragon in your mind, its frightening head, shiny scales, marvelous wings, a long tail with a row of spikes... It's so real you can almost touch it! 

You grab a pencil, or a graphics tablet pen, you feel the creative energy coming through your fingers, and... nothing looks right. It just doesn't. And you would understand it if you were generally bad at drawing, but no, you can draw realistic things as long as you use a reference, right? Your lines are clean, you can control a pencil, you get the proportions right—but only when there's something you can look at in reality. 

Drawing from imagination seems to be a higher skill than simply re-creating reality. After all, this is a real creation—you're bringing to life something no one's ever seen before! All these amazing creatures and fantastic stories in your mind are only waiting for you to set them free. You want to observe them as they're being born on a sheet of paper, to see them come true, for everyone to admire them as you do. Why is it so hard? How to get a proper connection between the image in your mind and the lines created by your hand?

How Do You Draw?

This is the question you need to answer first. Drawing isn't as simple as you think—it's made of many different aspects (that's how different styles can be created even though there's only one reality). Therefore, the method you use for drawing from a reference may be (and probably is) completely different than the method you use for drawing from imagination. If so, no wonder why one of them is easy for you, and the other one seems impossible, even though they're both called "drawing".

The same effect can be reached using different methods. For example, you can get a realistic picture of a horse by:

  • taking a photo of a real horse
  • sculpting a realistic horse and taking a photo of it in appropriate lighting
  • using blobs of pigments to create a painting of a horse
  • using points of light to create a digital painting of a horse

All these methods, if used properly, will give you the same realistic picture of a horse. It's the same with your drawings—even though a reference-based drawing and an imagination-based drawing are both drawn with the same lines, the same hand, and the same mind, they are created in a different way. In other words, there are two different processes going on in your mind when re-creating and creating.

Drawing From a Reference: Copying

Take a reference, try to draw, and observe how you do it. How does it work? What are you actually doing, except "drawing"? Observe the processes in your mind, analyze them. What questions do you seem to ask yourself about the reference, and how do you answer them?

The most popular way of using a reference is to copy the lines. In order to do it properly one needs to master copying of proportions—seeing the distance and re-creating it in a different scale. It's relatively easy to practice and it gives fast results, along with an impression you are good at drawing. 

However, it makes you only good at copying lines and proportions. If you have a good memory, you can even memorize the lines and draw the same object without a reference later, but it still has nothing to do with skills you need for drawing from imagination. Not to mention how many lines there are to remember and how easy it is to forget them!

drawing from a reference line copying tracing
The reference (1) is visually converted to lines (2), and then the lines are copied (3)
drawing from a reference line copying tracing forget lines time
Such a precise set of lines is very prone to misrepresentation—with time it literally falls to pieces in your memory and you need to fill the gaps with your guesses

Drawing From Imagination: Seeing

Now try to draw something from imagination. What questions appear here? What do you do to answer them? 

A typical process of drawing from imagination looks like this: you see the image of something in your mind, you can feel it, and you proceed to draw it. The idea in your head is kind of elusive—you don't see it as clearly as a real picture, but there's a very strong feeling that if you only take a pencil, it will automatically fill the gaps in your vision. But then it doesn't, and you feel hopeless.

drawing from imagination cant see
The idea in your head can't be converted to lines like a typical reference

That's why drawing from imagination can't be created the same way as drawing from a reference. You can't copy the lines and proportions of something you can't see yet—it's only after you've drawn it that you can see whether it is what you wanted or not. But... why? Why do you have such a strong feeling you can see it in your mind, when you actually don't?

Images of Imagination

Imagination is a feature of your mind that lets you mix elements of reality to create new versions of it. Creativity represents your skill in this matter. The more creative you are, the more original structures you can create out of the same old things.

what is imagination creativity
Imagination makes it possible to create a new reality out of chunks of the original one

We are all creative to some extent, but some of us are better than others in this regard. What's interesting is that most children are very creative, because they can't fathom the concept of the absurd. They just create ideas without judging them and eliminating the craziest ones. As we get older, we learn more and our creativity often suffers for it, because we are so afraid of failing and making ourselves look ridiculous. 

A bonus hint: if you want to train your creativity, find a partner and ask each other hard questions that you're not allowed to answer with "I don't know." The crazier the questions and answers, the better!

Being creative is enough to create things in imagination, but not enough to bring them out. You need to know the elements of reality you've used to create this new vision in order to picture them. 

It doesn't matter that you want to draw a dragon, and dragons don't exist—because what does exist is a concept of the dragon (e.g. in Western culture: a big, scaled reptile with wings), live creatures, claws, the jaws of carnivorous animals, the construction of legs required for effective locomotion, the construction of wings required for their function, and so on. This is a huge amount of information you may think you possess—but do you?

Memory

We can tell there are two kinds of memories: passive and active. Passive memory is kind of read-only—you use it to recognize something. For example, object 1 is saved in passive memory with features A, B, and C, so when you see an object with features A, B, and C, it's labeled as object 1. It doesn't take much effort to store something in passive memory and it stays there for a long time, but at the same time you don't have direct access to it—you need to see the object it's linked to to use it. Without the object, the information simply doesn't exist for you.

Passive memory gathers all the information around you, without being asked for it. It's very detailed, but not directly accessible. You can only get the information from the outside, and then it's a matter of a simple equation (Do any of the objects stored in the memory have features A, B, and C?). 

Active memory is something more. It contains a copy of information you've once received and consciously decided to keep. When you make an effort to memorize something, you actually sculpt a copy of it. However, that sculpture melts with time, so you need to come back to it sometimes and fix it, making it harder every time. This is the mechanism of remembering and repetition.

Passive Memory

Let's take a closer look at the processes of remembering. Passive memory is fully subconscious—you look at an object (1) and then its features are saved in your memory (2). You are not even aware of this! In this way you "remember" the haircuts and faces of all your friends without thinking about it.

how do we remember things unconsciously passive memory
Passive remembering

Passive memory makes you feel a sense of familiarity when seeing an object that's already been saved—it's because your subconsciousness checks if it's already in the database, in case it should be saved. That's why a child is fascinated with everything it sees (its passive memory is almost empty), and an adult doesn't even notice these things. When we see something we've never seen before, it draws our attention, so that it can be saved properly in passive memory. Then it's not interesting anymore.

how do we recall things unconsciously passive memory
Passive recalling

Passive memory, though "lazy", is very useful and fast. It makes you recognize all the things around you without using the conscious mind. You just look at something, your eyes bring the information to the brain, and suddenly you know what you're looking at—without being aware there was a short moment you didn't. You have no idea you had any question, because it's already answered!

Can you dig to information stored in a passive memory without using this whole comparison-mechanism? Yes, but only subconsciously. Think about your dreams—in some of them, especially the lucid ones, you can see an incredible amount of details, and they're mostly true. All the dream world is based on your passive memories, though they may be mixed. That's also why you can recall something after a time of not thinking about it—your subconscious tries to answer the question even if you consciously decided to give up.

Active Memory

Active memory is more complicated than that. It requires your conscious effort to remember something. It works every time you try to memorize a name or a number; when you decide to remember something.

how do we remember things consciously active memory
Active remembering

That effort is worth it—active memory lets you re-create something from your mind using the same "recipe" you created when remembering it.

how do we recall things consciously active memory
Active recalling

Active memory, as the name implies, requires your consciousness, thus it's slower. You are aware of both the question and the answer (or lack thereof). You need to make an effort to bring the information back from your mind. 

Let's say your friend has a new haircut. Your passive memory says something's not right (something doesn't fit the template). Now you need to recall what your friend looked like before, using your active memory. If you've never asked this question before, chances are you don't have a copy of this information saved in your head—only a template made by your subconscious, inaccessible for your conscious mind. So, passive memory tells you you know it, but at the same time you can't tell what you know.

I Don't Know What I Know

Now, both passive and active memory are actually the same. It's the processes of remembering and recalling that differentiate them.

Let's imagine that memories can be stored in a container of a live membrane. It doesn't have any openings, so if you want to place a memory inside, you need to pierce through it. If you do it unconsciously, it comes in very easily. However, you can't consciously bring the memory back through the "unconscious" opening. The only thing that can use this channel is a short piece of information: "yes" or "no", as an answer to the question "is information X stored inside?" This is our passive memory.

unconscious learning remembering memory
It's easy to store the memory unconsciously—you don't even need to think about it!
unconscious learning remembering memory 2
"What is X?", you ask. "You know what it is", passive memory replies. And you have no choice but to believe it!

If you want to save some information consciously, it'll take more time and effort. Every piece of it must pierce its own opening, but if you manage to do it, you'll also be able to bring them back. This is our active memory.

conscious learning remembering memory
You need to be aware of the process of remembering to remember the information consciously. If it's easy, it's not working!
conscious learning remembering memory 2
Now you can retrieve the information in the form you put it there

The problem is that every opening heals with time, making it harder to bring any information back. Because "yes" or "no" are so small, they can make it through for a very long time after the act of remembering. Conscious openings heal at the same rate, but they become too small for their information very fast, making it impossible to bring them back. The only way to make the openings unhealed is to retrieve the memories just before the opening gets too small. The more often you do it, the slower the opening heals!

conscious learning remembering memory forget information
The more time has passed since the moment of remembering, the smaller bit of stored information is able to make it through the channel, until you get nothing but the feeling it is there

Of course, this is only one of many ways to simplify the processes going on in our mind. Human memory has not yet been fully understood, and it's surely much more complicated than what I'm explaining. Still, the metaphor of passive and active memory is all we need to understand and solve the problems with drawing from imagination.

Imagination = Mix of Memories

Now we know why sometimes, when we are so sure we know what something looks like, we can't draw it at all. But there's more to it.

It's not very likely the creature you have in mind has a visual form. Our memories are very complex—for example, when I say "keys", you can automatically see the shape of a key, but also feel the taste/smell of iron, hear the sound of keys bound together, feel the cold of metal in your hand, or the weight of a bunch of keys, depending on which of your senses is the most sensitive. 

Once again take a good look at the creature in your mind. Do you really see it? Or maybe do you feel the massive weight of its body, the warmth of its breath, the sound of the tail sliding on the pebbles? 

Maybe you can feel that weird feeling we don't usually call a sense, the feeling of motion, when the claws are open and ready to tear, or even the vibration in its throat when it's growling? 

All this information makes you sure that the image of the creature is complete, while the visual information—the one you need to draw something—is actually very poor. How does it work? When you can feel the claws, you don't need to see them, because they're part of the image anyway. However, you can't draw a feeling!

How to check if the image you seem to see is complete and ready to be brought to reality?

Test Your Imagination

There's an easy way. Treat all the elements of the image as if they were part of active memory, and then you'll learn if they really are. How? Simply ask yourself about them and answer with words, not with a sketch. The more detailed the information, the more chance you will get it right when drawing.

There's a trap waiting for you. Most likely you'll easily answer these questions:

  • How many legs does it have?
  • How big are its eyes?
  • How long is its tail?
  • How long are its legs?
  • What is its color?
  • What is its pattern?
  • Is it small or big?
  • Is it male or female?
  • Is it muscular or skinny?
  • What kind of feet does it have: claws, hooves, paws?

The problem is all these answers are still questions! What does "muscular" mean? What do "big" and "small" mean? What is the difference between "claws" and "paws", between "male" and "female"? More, what are "legs", "tail", "eyes"...? All these definitions are stored in your passive memory, so you get this deceptive feeling of knowing them, but it doesn't mean you will be able to access them actively when drawing!

how to draw wolf animals paws
Which of them is this "paw" you're talking about? Hint: they're not identical!

That's why there's such a strong temptation to draw the creature instead of answering the questions with words. You think: "I can't describe it, but if you only let me sketch it..." Your passive memory needs something to compare, so it tells you to provide it, and then it will be able to answer your question: "Do you want to know what X is? Show me something and I'll tell you if it is X". So you start drawing the claws optimistically, and you get the answer: "Nope, these aren't claws". Now it's obvious why it makes you feel so bad!

You can use another trick to test your knowledge. If you think you know what a proper wing looks like, you should also be able to describe a wing that's doesn't look proper. Chances are you don't really know anything about wings, and all you have is that elusive feeling of this structure in your mind.

Sculpt Your Memories

Now we know what kind of process lies at the base of our problems. How to overcome it? What can we do to easily draw from imagination? Well, the answer is simple: we need to replace passive memory with active memory. I'll give you a little advice that will help you reach this goal.

Focus on One Medium

First, don't make the learning process more complicated than it needs to be. Focus on one tool, one technique. If you struggle with drawing from imagination, don't combine it with your other problems like shading or blending. It's better to fight one enemy instead of a whole army! 

Use a simple pencil, not even a graphic tablet—because even a tablet may be a source of other problems. Also, if you're actually good at shading, coloring and other things like this, you may be tempted to use these skills to hide the one that's not so developed. It will not help you develop it either!

how to draw wolf animals paws 2
It's hard to tell what's wrong when there are so many things that can be wrong!

This is linked to another piece of advice:

Find Your Unskills 

"I can't draw" is the most dangerous thing an aspiring artist can say. Drawing has many aspects, and I'm sure you are able to master at least a few of them, like holding a pencil or pressing it to the paper. If you're good at copying (I don't mean tracing), you can feel very optimistic about your drawing skills. Problems with drawing from imagination are perfectly normal in this situation! 

You probably feel frustrated about it because you treat two types of drawing as the same thing, so you can't comprehend why one of them is easy for you, and one comes out terribly wrong. At the very moment you divide these two skills—drawing as a manual skill and understanding the object as a mental skill—you can relax and focus on learning the other one without this annoying feeling that there's something wrong with you.

Go on, draw something from imagination. Did something appear on the paper? Great, you've drawn it! Now, take a look at it. What is wrong with it? I mean, what exactly. "It looks like a mess" is not the answer. "The legs look wrong" is much better. You can't learn how to "un-mess" a drawing as a whole, but you can learn what the "right" legs look like. Now, it's much easier to solve the problem "I can't draw a leg from imagination" than "I can't draw from imagination at all".

how to learn drawing why looks wrong
It's easier to go step by step, instead of trying to grasp a whole concept at a time. Also, small successes will keep you going!

There are probably a lot of "unskills" you'll need to work on, but don't let it discourage you. Make a list and take them step by step, working individually on each one.

Observe, Ask, Answer

I'll repeat it once again to be absolutely clear: if you can draw from a reference, but not from imagination, it's not drawing you have problems with. When you want to write down your phone number, but you forget it, it's not that you "can't write it", because you can—you just don't have it placed well in your active memory. 

So it's not: "I can't draw a horse from imagination", it's: "I don't remember what a horse looks like." To draw something from imagination, you only need to memorize it, as you would with anything else you'd like to remember.

However, live creatures are much more complex than a word or a number. To draw them properly, you can't memorize a picture—they look different in every perspective, and they're not only about look; they also have a special way of moving and behavior that influences the final picture. 

It all needs to be learned, and apparently you can't use your copy-lines technique to do it. Theoretically, an animal you want to memorize could be converted to a form of lines and memorized this way, but it would be unbelievably hard. There's another method:

Step 1

Learn how to draw simple blocks, like balls, cubes, cylinders, and so on. This will require a basic understanding of perspective, and this is something you simply mustn't skip. Don't worry, you don't need to learn about vanishing points and converging lines—just understand where perspective comes from and what it does to the observable world.

At this level you should be able to draw any blocks you want from imagination, giving them the intended look. It may seem boring, but remember—you can't be good at drawing fantastic creatures, if you can't draw a simple cylinder. Take as much time as needed to get it right—otherwise it would be like trying to draw a picture made of thousand lines without knowing how to draw only one! Above all, don't lie to yourself. Not even the best tutorial will help you if you do.

how to learn drawing simple forms perspective
First try to understand the rules making the forms...
how to learn drawing simple forms perspective 2
...then use/modify them to draw the blocks quickly and effortlessly, without carefully measuring every line

Step 2

Learn how to build more complicated figures using the simple blocks you've mastered before. These structures don't need to resemble anything real, so just have fun with them. This is the time to make sure you feel completely comfortable using them, and that you can build any structure from imagination.

Again, if you can't imagine and draw block-based structures, how could you possibly imagine and draw extremely complicated live beings? Don't fool yourself, it will take you nowhere! I know you're eager to go further to the next steps, but believe me—this is what has stopped you for such a long time. Stay here, be patient, and don't get frustrated if it takes longer than you expected—after all, it's 80% of what you need to draw from imagination. If you manage to learn it, you will not say "I can't draw" anymore!

how to learn drawing simple forms perspective structures
If it requires a significant effort, come back to the previous step. Continue when you're ready to build anything you imagine in a form of blocks easily

Step 3

Now, time to observe. Focus on one topic at a time. If you want to draw horses from imagination, go see a live horse, find a realistic model of it, or just use a big set of photos with different perspectives of the same horse. Observe it carefully and imagine you're stuffing its whole body with all the simple forms you've practiced before. Answer every question you could ask about it. Learn the horse, pay attention to every detail, understand what makes it a horse. Measure with your eyes, understand the proportions, and imagine what the horse would look like if they changed.

how to draw from imagination horse animal blocks

Step 4

Make a kind of a reference sheet, with every side of the body shown as a structure of simplified forms. Note all the observations and measurements, every little detail you think is important. What's crucial, don't simply draw a horse using the one you're looking at as a reference. Your job is to describe it in detail, including all the information you need to re-create every perspective you wish, not to learn a single one you can observe at the moment.

Describe the look, the movement, the behavior, and sketch a few characteristic poses. If you ever think, "It's obvious, I'll remember it," note it anyway—it may be obvious now, but later you may struggle to remember it. This reference sheet is a letter to your future self, sitting at a desk and trying to draw a horse without looking at it. Do yourself a favor and answer all the questions your future self may have.

how to draw from imagination horse animal blocks reference sheet
Imagine you're trying to describe the subject to someone who has never seen or heard of it before

What's important, our brain doesn't like simple answers, like "red", "long", "sharp". It's much better when they're compound, linked to something we already know. Instead of asking (and answering) "what teeth does the horse have?" ask "what does the horse eat?". Try to write your answers in this form: "they have [feature X], because [function Y]." Our memory is a web of linked information, and it works best when used this way!

Step 5

On the next day after sketching the reference sheet, redraw it, cleaning it up. Make sure everything is obvious, even for someone who doesn't have your fresh memory of observing a horse. Draw a horse using the reference sheet and check if everything you need is there. If not, find the information somewhere else and update the sheet.

Get yourself a portfolio or a briefcase, or whatever you like storing papers in, and put the reference sheet in there. Congratulations, you've just finished the first phase!

Step 6

Give yourself two or three days of a break, but no more. Try drawing a horse using the information from the reference sheet, but without actually opening it. It may be very hard, but you'll see you already remember some of it. When you're done, get the reference sheet and fix the mistakes, paying special attention to them and noting in your mind why you made them. Once again check if there is any question left unanswered, and update the reference sheet if necessary.

how to draw from imagination horse animal blocks pose reference sheet remembering

Step 7

Repeat the previous step from time to time. Start with short intervals, and then give yourself longer breaks. Every time you will make fewer mistakes, and one day you won't need the reference sheet anymore, because your active memory of a horse will be fully sculpted! Do the same with every object/animal you want to master. As your portfolio gets filled, so will your active memory!

Notice that it would be very hard and time-consuming to create a perfect, complete reference sheet—for example, you'd need to learn the bones, tendons, muscles, and veins of the horse to draw it realistically from imagination. Fortunately, as long as you don't go for hyper-realism (which nobody expects from drawings from imagination), there's no need for it. On the contrary, the simplifications you make while analyzing the subject will create your own style!

Practice (Or You Lose It)

Now, your brain hates wasting space and energy for information you don't need, and apparently you don't need something you don't use. You can be great at drawing a horse from imagination now, but stop using your active memory of it for a while, maybe a month, maybe a year, and it's gone. Fortunately, if you followed the learning process properly, you should be able to easily refresh it with the reference sheet. Still, keep in mind that you can't learn "how to draw from imagination" once and for all—constant practice is essential!

Conclusion

There's a surprising conclusion arising from this article—you always draw from a reference, be it a reference in the form of a photo or a memory. 

Now you see that the romantic vision of a talented artist drawing amazing creatures from imagination is untrue—that artist must have had their share of drawing from a reference before reaching the level you're observing them at now. 

So it's not that you can't draw something from imagination—you just don't have a reference for it saved in your mind. And this is actually good news for you—no matter how talented (or not) you are, you can learn your way to free, creative drawing. It takes time, it takes effort, but the prize is worth it!

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