1. Design & Illustration
  2. Drawing Theory

Draw Your Mind Out: How to Create Without Thinking

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Artists are usually pictured as spontaneous, slightly crazy individuals. When they get inspired, they forget about everything and just... create. 

However, when you're merely a beginner artist, it doesn't seem to work like this. Yes, you get inspired, but you can't allow yourself to forget about everything—instead, you go and search for a reference or two, or a tutorial, or a set of tips. In the process you lose your primary idea and modify it to what you're learning. You want to draw a new species of big cats? Sorry, there's no tutorial for the vision in your head, but here's how to draw a tiger.

The problem is, you can't become that free-drawing artist before passing through the learning phase. "Senior" artists simply have their heads full of various memory-references created consciously at one time of their lives, and they use them while working without any visible reference. 

But that doesn't mean you're fated to draw only generic things until you reach this phase. Follow me to see a method of drawing your mind out, even when you have no idea what it is you want to draw!

Turn It Upside Down

When you start your picture from a reference, there's little chance you'll draw something truly original. A reference constrains you—be it a certain pose, or a perspective, or the lighting. You can change it, adjust it by using other references, but this very beginning is extremely important for the final effect.

Let's assume that your typical process of drawing looks like this:

  1. inspiration
  2. idea
  3. looking for a reference that fits the idea as closely as possible
  4. starting a picture
  5. adjusting details to your idea
  6. finishing the picture

There's a clash between steps 2 and 3—it's just impossible to find a reference that reflects your idea perfectly. That's why you use something more general and fix the inaccuracies later. But what about the situation when your vision isn't very clear? How to find a reference for that?

how to find perfect reference
What kind of a reference would I possibly need for this idea?

Let's shuffle the list a bit:

  1. inspiration
  2. idea
  3. starting a picture
  4. looking for a reference for what you've just started
  5. adjusting details to the reference
  6. finishing the picture

"Hey", you say, "This is what I did when I was at the very beginning. My pictures looked terrible and that's why I started using references in the first place!" Well, maybe you did, maybe you didn't. Take a look at steps 4 and 5. This is where the secret is hidden!

Inspiration and Idea

This one is the easiest, usually. Inspiration comes on its own, even when it's not expected. You're watching a movie where a dragon kills a unicorn, and you're thinking: "What if there were a unicorn that could stand a chance against a dragon? What would such a creature look like?" When you're inspired, you feel heat in your heart—the urge to go and bring the idea to reality. And the more things stop you (e.g. you're at work, or school, or there's dinner to be cooked), the stronger the heat and the more promising the idea looks!

how to get inspiration drawing
When it comes to inspiration, there's nothing more powerful than a "what if" question

Inspiration is pure, full of endless promises. Nothing can go wrong here. Then it gives birth to an idea, a child of yours. Your ideas are based not only on the inspiration, but on what you are—on your desires, fears, memories. They're perfect as they are, because they're yours.

However, as long as they're in your mind only, they don't seem real. You have a lot of things in your mind, right? A lot of imaginary stuff that nobody should care about. But this idea, it's something you're in love with. You want it to be real, and in order to do this you need to place it somehow in minds of others. You need to create it.

Starting a Picture

When you were a child, this phase was easy as pie. What's more, you didn't even need any prior inspiration to draw. You were given a sheet of paper and a pencil, and this was enough to start drawing. There was always something you could draw, after all! Without thinking, you proceeded to draw your family, your pets, a character from your favorite show. And if your picture didn't resemble it at all for others, you were happy to explain your parents or your teacher what they should see in it.

What has changed? When you were a kid, your audience was more understanding towards you. You were just too little to do any better. Now, you're not so little any more. A lot of other people of your age draw awesome things, and the same is expected from you, if you want to be considered a good artist. 

A plain sheet of paper and a pencil aren't enough to start drawing any more. You need an idea, something creative, because another drawing of flowers in a vase won't impress anyone. But it's something you're probably good at, creating ideas. If only bringing them out were easier...

how to start drawing photoshop
Artistic tabula rasa—the clean canvas that you can fill with anything. That's why it's so hard to start!

There is a time in the life of every artist when just drawing isn't enough. You can't just draw wolf paws forever and ever, waiting for them to become more realistic on their own. There's a time when you should suspend creating and start learning. This is when you understand how to find what you need in tutorials and references to complete the gaps in your knowledge.

But there's a problem in all this. Once you were able to draw your idea, even though others didn't recognize it. Now you're not able to draw your idea, even though others do recognize what you've drawn. You just wish they recognized what you wanted to draw, and not what it turned out as. And all you can do for now is to learn more and more, endlessly, waiting for the time when you'll be able to draw anything you want just as you want it!

Is there any way to fulfill this dream about "just drawing" without learning, and learning, and learning? Do you really need to learn wolf anatomy in detail when you want to draw a wolf-like creature once in your life? Can't you bypass it somehow?

Get Prepared

In order to picture your idea as accurately as possible, you need to draw it without any middlemen. The problem is you rarely know exactly what you want to draw, no matter how clear the idea is. That's where references come to help—but at the same time, they bring a lot of "noise" you didn't plan. I'm going to show you a method, step by step, to start your picture without a reference. Because the start is what really matters!

Inspiration Comes First

You can use many ways to get inspired, but I'll show you one that you may not know about. It works great if you need a fast inspiration with a clear idea. Do you recall any situation when you were doing a repetitive task all day, and then when you closed your eyes you were still seeing it very clearly? We're going to use it!

Visit the front page of your favorite online art gallery, something with a lot of great, mind-boggling artworks that you can see all at the same time. You can select a category that you're interested in, or use a mix of them all. Now, simply browse them. Spend at least 30 minutes looking and scrolling. Stay focused, don't let your mind wander. Pay attention to the act of observation!

DeviantArt page
DeviantArt will give you a variety of inspiration-inducing works

After seeing loads of them, maybe dozens, maybe hundreds, sit down or lie down comfortably. Close your eyes and stop thinking for a while. If you did this properly, you should still see the artworks before your closed eyes! This is because of the brainwash you've just experienced. Your mind tries to sort all this gigantic amount of visual information you have seen in a short period of time, and, obviously, it fails.

What you see now with your "third eye" (with your brain, not eyes directly, because your closed eyes see black only) is not a mix of artworks you have seen, but a mix of elements of them. And they get combined into completely new artworks. At the beginning you may only get fragments of ideas, which is enough to be inspired, but if you practice this way of seeing, you may observe it all with clear, colorful details—like in some dreams.

Stay sitting or lying down for some time, watch this new gallery, and when something draws your attention, observe it carefully. This effect is temporary—the longer and the more intensively you've been watching the gallery in reality, the stronger, the clearer, and the longer the visions will be, but they all will fade, eventually. Make the most of them!

To Be Inspired, or Not to Be Inspired

The problem about having a clear idea is it's very easy to get disappointed when it doesn't come out as we wanted. If you're not an experienced artist, it's much better to have a general idea, e.g. "a frightening beast", "a cute, fluffy creature with huge fangs", etc. If you decide to create without a clear idea, you can still use the method of browsing a gallery—it will stretch your mind like a muscle.

What's interesting is that you're able to draw things you could never imagine, if you only let yourself. In order to do this, you must start drawing without any idea. Keep on reading to learn how.

Exercise Short-Term Muscle Memory

You might have heard about muscle memory—if you use your hand in a certain way often, it learns this motion and then it takes less effort for you to repeat it properly. In drawing, it means that if you draw something from a reference, with time it'll become easier to draw manually, without thinking about it.

You also may know about short-term memory. It's when you read a phone number and "carry" it in your mind from a screen/paper to the keyboard of your phone. Then it's lost, because it's not needed. If you wanted to keep it for longer, you'd need to repeat it a few times and practice recalling it over a longer period of time.

When you draw from imagination (i.e. after long practice), you're using both long-term muscle memory and long-term "true" memory. When you draw directly from a reference, you're using "true" short-term memory, omitting muscle memory, as it has nothing to say about it yet. But there's also short-term muscle memory, and it's the basis of warm-up drawings.

Let's say you practice drawing wolves from imagination. You use references first, and then you try to draw a wolf without a reference and it turns out pretty nice. However, next day you'll probably need to start from scratch again. Even though you remember the details, your new wolves look clumsy and your hand doesn't seem to help you at all.

When you practice something intensively for a short period of time, your hand kind of learns to foresee your next movement. That's why your drawings may look better and better as the practice continues without breaks. But when you end it, that memory gets discarded, since you're not using it any more. A lot of these sessions are required for this memory to get "imprinted" in you.

But it's not always needed! You may not want to learn how to draw wolves—you just want your creature to have an anatomy similar to the wolf. Is there a way to learn it just for a while?

You've probably already realized it. The way is: use references to warm up your hand and to show it what kind of movements you expect from it. Then discard the references and draw what you want, using short-term muscle memory of that recent drawing.

warm up sketches drawing how to start
My warm-up sketches from the Draw a Werewolf Warrior tutorial

More precisely, when you're inspired and you have a more or less clear idea, instead of searching a perfect reference for it, analyze the idea. What does it consist of? Does it have any elements that you can borrow from reality? If so, find references for them. Any references, not necessarily perfect ones. If your creature is wolf-like, gather a bunch of photos of wolves in various poses and shapes. 

Then simply sketch them very fast, very loosely. Don't think too much, turn on good music, and make it as sweet and simple as a warm-up exercise before an intense cardio training. You can even talk to someone while doing it, or listen to an audio-book!

Do it for every element. If your creature is winged, sketch the wings of various birds, big and small, of sparrows, eagles, and vultures. If it has the eyes of a predator, find pictures of lions, crocodiles, hawks, sharks. Don't analyze, just draw right from a reference. You're teaching your hand, not your mind, so don't over-think it.

If your idea is more elusive than that, just look for pictures that have anything to do with it. If you only know it's some kind of a fierce animal, draw all the fierce animals you can think of. It will help you prepare not only your hand, but also your mind.

Just Draw!

Time for the most important part. You have your idea, you're very excited about it—or, you have nothing, but you're still very inspired—and your hand has just learned various movements you may need. There's no time to waste now—go and draw!

But... How?

This is the question, isn't it? Let's analyze it, step by step.

Step 1

If you had a finished picture, no matter how detailed, you could squint your eyes and see it become a dark blob of certain shape. This shape is usually present in your picture from the very start—your personal touch is hidden in it. That's why using a reference for this first step kills the spirit of the picture—it's as if you were borrowing the "personal touch" from someone else.

But this time is different! Use only your idea and your hand "charged" with useful movements to draw this general shape of your creature. Do it quickly, and the less you think over it, the better. Before you let your hand learn on its own—this time, let it draw on its own.

how to draw without reference

If you're struggling with creating anything, or you can't seem to find any attractive idea, find some kind of a pattern, something random. Have you ever looked at wallpaper or a floor and seen something that wasn't there? Our minds are great at this. Use this feature to find your idea along with its basic lines in any chaos.

how to draw without reference 2
Just relax and look—you can find it everywhere!

The fact is you don't need an idea to start a picture. Draw anything, a tangled thicket of lines and blobs. Let your mind find something in it—something you could never imagine consciously. Treat it as a "connect the dots" game—observe it and add lines that will make it complete.

how to draw without reference 3
There's no better way to fight art-block than to draw a bunch of chaotic lines! They take almost no time, so you can try as long as something promising turns out

Step 2

Congratulations, that was the hardest part! Now, add the limbs, all of them. Legs, wings, additional appendages... A tail, if present, may find its spot in this step, too. Just make them quick and simple, no paws, and even the joints may be rather figurative. Make them follow the rhythm you've established in the first step. 

how to draw without reference 4

Step 3

Your mind should now recognize something in this chaotic shape, and this will give you a direction to follow. Use this feeling to decorate that big blob with smaller shapes that roughly resemble something—maybe horns, maybe the silhouette of wings, maybe a mane, spikes, or hard scale-plates.

how to draw without reference 5

Step 4

We're diving into details now. Squint your eyes and try to tell what you see. If some of the elements resemble something, but not as much as they could, fix them. Add some smaller details like eyes, nose, paws with fingers and claws, smaller spikes here and there. You can refine the joints, and define the muscles roughly, just to establish the general shape of the body once and for all.

how to draw without reference 6

At this stage you should know what you're seeing, even though it may not be clear for others. Repeat this step as many times as needed until you're sure about all the elements. However, it should stay just a loose sketch—don't clean it up!

how to draw without reference 7

Now, an important hint. Although you may think there's only one way to picture your idea properly, there are probably thousands of them. You can use the fact that this phase is so quick and effortless to prepare a whole set of sketches. Then you just need to choose the one that "feels" the most accurate. If you prepare only one sketch, you'll never know if it's the best you could do!

While drawing, turn on some music that fits your topic. For example, epic orchestral pieces will be great for designing a knight, and African rhythms for drawing a lion-like predator. It's your subconscious that's really creating at the moment, so give it as much help as possible from every sense. Me, I like to get the same facial expression that I'm trying to draw (even if it's a dragon), so that I can feel it more clearly.

how to draw without reference 8

Find Your References

Oddly enough, we've survived that creation phase without any reference! Thanks to this, your sketch is truly yours, with your own style, and you may like it more than a super-refined sketch based on a reference.

But, as we mentioned before, this was just a workaround. We can't draw properly something we don't know. If we don't know how a wolf paw looks, we need a reference—otherwise you'll draw only what you think it looks like. However, with our base sketch established, we should know exactly what references we need. So, look at your picture, see what it is made of, and find its counterparts in real world.

how to draw without reference 9
I've searched for photos of "lizard spikes", "flint", "bark", "fern", and others to get this design right

If you did this traditional way, you would need to adjust your idea to a reference. Now you adjust a reference to your idea! What can go wrong?

Because you haven't used a reference for the anatomy, you might have made some mistakes that are revealed now. It's your job to separate stylization/exaggeration from harmful misconceptions. For example, a calf larger than a thigh may be OK, but redundant joints require some skill to be drawn believably. If you're a beginner, stay with safe solutions—go back to "crazy" anatomy when you have more experience.

Anatomy may not be the only thing that can look wrong in your sketch. Fix everything that needs to be fixed, but not more than this. This is what references are for—they let you draw things you have never learned to draw. Let them do their job!

Finish the Picture

Now I can't help you any more. There are so many things you can do with your sketch! But this is the most fun part. The idea is established and it won't go anywhere, no matter what you do now. What's important, you can use this sketch as a base for painting tutorials, like this winged hussar or this werewolf warrior. Simply skip the sketch-creation part and go learning!

Final creation


Drawing, as long as it's not your job (yet), should be fun. Focusing on improvement is very important, but it may weaken your creativity. Don't let your ideas rot in your mind—let them out from time to time. It will remind you why you started to learn how to draw in the first place, and will give you power for the harder lessons to come. It will also train your creativity, and that's an important skill to have in this job.

Why learn, then, if you can draw anything without it? The more references you have in your mind, the easier it is for you to start a "general shape" that resembles something real, and to guess the details you need to add to make it realistic. It's because the more elements you already know, the easier it will be for you to find them before they're complete.

So, as always, it's all a matter of balance. Keep on learning, but never forget why you're doing it. Use your creative sketches to find out what you can't do, and then focus on fixing it. Good luck!

Looking for something to help kick start your next project?
Envato Market has a range of items for sale to help get you started.