Do you have any advice on how artists can keep their imagination active while studying things like anatomy and observational drawing of casts and models?
I've noticed recently that I've become really scared of sketching things off the top of my head, which I used to do without much thought.
I find myself thinking "where's my photo reference?" or nitpicking every little flaw in a throwaway sketch when I should just be trying to have fun.
Sincerely, Stumped Imaginatively
You said it! This is a common feeling! Every pro has had it from time to time.
Anyone who works in the field of concept art or science fiction or fantasy has a passion to turn our dreams into something tangible. But most of the time the images always start out as hazy and hard-to-capture. The reality of the model or the photo is much more compelling.
When you set out to paint a scene from the imagination, like the scene above from the Slav Epics by Alphonse Mucha, you’re facing a whole different bunch of challenges than you would if you were painting a portrait or a landscape from observation.
Here are some suggestions to keep your imagination active, and to develop your ability to draw scenes totally out of your head.
1. When you do a painting from the model, for a change from the usual straight observational approach, try to imagine a story driving the pose. Add something to bring out the story: paint a forest background, a set of angel wings, or re-imagine the figure as a robot.
Howard Pyle used to have his students do that. He said: "Don't paint the model," Instead, "make a picture."
2. Keep a sketchbook just for image generation, rather than observation. Use it not only for creature designs and other stuff from your head, but also for quick copies from whichever old masters you like.
3. Try not give in to the desire for photo reference too quickly. Keep an idea in pure sketch stage as long as possible. Shoot (or better yet draw) your reference studies to fit your mental image as much as possible. Dean Cornwell used to project up his rough poses and mental-image composition onto the final canvas before he sought out models.
4. Learn to draw a mannequin figure out of your head. The Famous Artist’s Course from the ‘50s has a good mannequin formula made up of tapered cylinders. “How to Draw the Marvel Way” has another good system. Copy the figure work of comic art masters like Winsor McCay, Hal Foster, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jack Davis, or Mort Drucker. These systems help improve your imaginative drawing so that the ‘nitpicker’ guy in your head shuts up.
5. Work on memory drawing. Observe a face or a figure or an architectural façade and try to reproduce it only from memory later in your sketchbook. This is superb training for good imaginative work.
6. Since you’re in an academic program, remember that the original 19th C. Ecole and the ateliers weren’t just about drawing what you see. The students did a lot of sketch practice for the Prix de Rome, which was all about doing multi-figure compositions from the Bible and Greek mythology. Those students could draw the cast or the figure brilliantly, but they were always experimenting with sample multi-figure story assignments.
7. Remember the words of Howard Pyle: "You should not need models. You know how a face looks. How an eye is placed and the form of it and you should be able to draw it from your knowledge. That is very difficult with students from other schools. They say ‘That is a good draughtsman.’ Yet ask him to draw without the model and he is utterly helpless. He has learned nothing of real value, for you cannot draw until you can be independent of the model. And so I would advise you to draw your figures and carry them as far as you can without the model then get the model to correct by.”
Alphonse Mucha and his Slav Epics on Wikipedia