Drawing Out of Your Head

One thing I’ve heard a lot from people over the years that they can’t draw out of their head. Like, if the thing is right in front of them they understand at least in theory how to go about drawing it, but just making something up is a whole nother ball game that they can’t even begin to approach, but that creating out of the pure ether should be a goal. Hi, I’m a Real Artist and I’m here to tell you that someone is making images with a reasonable amount of realism, they’re probably using reference images and there is NO SHAME in doing so.

And then I thought, I’ll just explain how I draw, how hard could it be? Let me tell you, that was probably one of the most blithely optimistic things I’ve ever thought, but I’m still going to try. First, a quick disclaimer: Not everyone draws or thinks the way I do so your mileage may vary for any of this advice, and also not all of this will be relevant if your goal isn’t representational art.

There seems to be a common assumption that when you’re creating an image you’re either carefully copying a photo/scene exactly OR you’re making it up out of whole cloth with only your muse to guide you. But really it’s somewhere between. When I’m drawing or painting from a photo or a scene in front of me, even when my goal is an image will look like its source it won’t be an exact copy. If you’re painting from life, you are taking a three dimensional world and translating it on to a two dimensional surface. No matter how accurate you are, there will be distortions! Think about the difficulties of translating a globe into a flat map, and how all the different projections, even while they are in some way accurate, all look different from each other, because of the choices that were made in what to emphasize, what information was most important to convey. Visual art is exactly the same–no matter how “accurate” it looks, choices were made.

Right, but what if you’re painting from a photo? It’s already flat, surely you could grid out the photo and your surface and it should be a one to one match, yes? Nope. First off, photos are doing just as much distortion as your eyes are, just differently. Whatever medium you choose to work in (Graphite? Watercolors? Digital? Something else?) will have properties that’ll effect how the finished piece looks. if you’re not using color you’re deciding how to translate the color of your photo into black and white and still have it make sense, and that’s not even getting into the issue of how you are (or not) using color and how that changes things. To make an image is to improve on reality, and like I said your photo reference isn’t accurate anyways. Don’t like where that telephone pole is? Move it. Weird clutter-y shrubs messing up your lines? Kill them. Accuracy is not clarity or communication. At its heart all art should communicate something (I will die on this hill), and even what you think you’re communicating is just what a scene looks like there are still a lot of choices that have to be made about how best to do this, and what about the scene you’re trying to portray (the light? The mood? The thing happening?).

Even seemingly realistic drawing involves more imagination than might be immediately obvious, but what if you want to draw some amazing imaginary place? Well, it’s still helpful to have reference. I take a ridiculous amount of photos, mostly because I’m always keeping an eye out for something that someday I might want to draw. Places are hard, and a lot more detailed than you think, and at this point I’ve got a personal reference library of several thousand images. I’ll also use these photos to create reference, taking bits here and there to collage into a composition using Photoshop or another digital tool. All art is about choices, and learning to make art is learning to be more aware of the choices you are making.

If you want to just “make things up” it’s very helpful to build up your visual library. I’m sure this can be done in as many ways as there are people, but the main one I use is to just look at things. Like, really look at them. I know, I know. On the surface this is not exactly wisdom of the ages that I’m spouting here, but part of being able to draw something that isn’t in front of you is to have that mental library that you can pull from. And I don’t necessarily mean “oh I want to draw an elderly person, time to picture grandpa and draw him exactly” but how do wrinkles work, how does he stand, what makes this thing I’m drawing different from the Generic Human/Place/Object we all have in our heads? It’s assembling the visual toolkit that you grab from. So maybe it’s helpful to instead of thinking “Oh I want to draw a monster, time to come up with something out of the air” to think “Ok, let’s take a bird and give it human hands, stretch out the legs, add some extra limbs, a stabby tail…” I’m not saying this is necessarily easy, but it might be an easier way to start.

Celia Yost

Celia Yost is a graphic artist and painter by both training and trade. She's also prone to ill-advised craft projects and yelling about politics.

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