Sunday, February 6, 2011

Activating Your Imagination

A student in an academic atelier recently asked me the following question:

Dear James, 
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

Dear Stumped,
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


Studio at the Farm said...

Excellent ideas! Thank you, James.

Dave Lebow said...

Once again very informing, exciting and inspiring advice. I love this blog.

Colin Campbell said...

Thanks so much, Mr. Gurney. This was a great thing to read today. We're all very fortunate you're so generous with your experience and thoughts.

Unknown said...

Great advice James. One of the biggest problems I face with students is this same imagination block you describe. Many somehow cannot get past this to get ANYTHING out on paper. I feel this same block at times myself and it can be tough to push through. I find that the simple act of drawing (even if it's not the problem you are struggling with) loosens me up and lets me break though the block. I hardly ever begin a project working straight from photos or a model. I like to draw it out as much as possible and then shoot the models. That way I know what I want as well as what I still need.

My Pen Name said...

For those who want to know more about memory drawing fascinating article on Lecoq's memory drawing - students were so astute they could draw a classical statue from memory whistler and rodin were both lecoq students:

Lecoq's book:

Charles Santoso said...

Inspiring! Thanks a lot, James. :)

Austin Maloney said...

I really like this post of yours, you are so generous with your good advice.

Lauren said...

What a fantastic post, thank you so much James! As an artist who relies heavily on nature and the beautiful patterns and colours that it provides in it's animals and plants, I've become stuck in the 'must always look at reference' trap, and become frustrated when my drawings don't do justice to what I've referenced.
This has inspired me to start making things up's as if I've forgotten how fun it can be!! Thanks :D

Unknown said...

I think this is were people like I, who grew up drawing comics (or trying to :-) ), have an advantage.

When I drew in my childhood, it was all out of my imagination, because I wanted my figures to do poses I did not have reference pictures for.

What I sometimes do to train the memory and my imaginative drawing: having a quick look at a reference picture, and then laying it aside until the drawing is finished. When drawing, I fill up the holes on my paper or in my memory with my fantasy or my knowledge of anatomy.
Often the result is an interesting variation on the reference picture, but that's what makes it so interesting.

Petr Mores said...

Thank you for an awesomely insightful post! In my experience, there is a lot of information available regarding technical methods and materials, but such accounts regarding *mental* skills and methods in art are hard to come by, even though they go to the heart of the matter. I would love to hear more of your (and anyone's) thoughts on these subjects.

Libby Fife said...

What a generous and thoughtful response. Thank you as always. I particularly thought that the Pyle advice was useful; about knowing how a face looks or where the eye is placed. I suspect it is a matter of looking inward for reference rather than outward.

Unknown said...

Thank's James ! Was suffering the same problem for me, your post was very helpful.
Before I even reference, I'll focus on exploring the images to fit in my spirit.

Christian Schlierkamp said...

Most helpful and exactly the problem I just stumbled upon! Thanks a lot James!!

Gabriel said...

Excellent, this is a really inspiring post and cleared all the doubt in my mind, thank you so much!

jokergirl@wererabbits said...

Great advice.
One thing I would add is that any art student should work on sketching from moving models/targets as wel as static ones, to learn unbalanced poses and how to make motion look realistic - something sadly often forgotten in a world where most people work from photo references. There is no good replacement for actual knowledge of how a body in motion works.

David Glenn said...

That's really good advice.

PatternGhost said...

Love the advice. I'm currently watching David Finch's Figure Drawing DVD and it is full of mannequin drawing. He does it so effortlessly. He recommends being able to do it from memory in any position.

Joseph Miller said...

What about Burne Hogarth's books? Where do they fall in the arena of drawing human figures from imagination?

Lydia Burris said...

Thank you so much for posting this! I've been having a lot of the same thoughts lately, and need to be reminded of the balance between imagination and references.
(although, my problem lately has been patience)

Anonymous said...

Great inspiration, just a question James, where are you reading all of those wonderful Howard Pyle quotes? Are they from a book or from a collection of his essays or something? Keep up the great work. Cheers.

James Gurney said...

Greg, I've been collecting all sorts of quotes on Pyle, from early articles and books, and from unpublished sources. A great source for Pyleana is Ian Schoenherr's "Howard Pyle" blog:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link on Howard Pyle, I look forward to discovering much from reading the articles here. Cheers.

John Fleck said...

This is a great point to bring up!
And strangely enough, just the other day I decided to "allow" myself to do some drawing totally from my imagination. The results were pretty cool, and I believe show the benefits of all the drawing from life and reference images I have been doing otherwise. As if I have increased my internal inventory of references and conceptions of structure, light, texture, etc.

David Cuzik Matysiak said...

its best to train your imagination to see pictures.. read a daily book
or a short story.. it depends on what kind of artist you are.. some illustrators need references in front of them to begin..
however a good knowledge of books that are stimulators is a goodstart
i read charles dickens but any book that stimulates you to make marks on paper is a good book..
i draw ships and sea, ..eyes ,noses, heads, faces, body, and im off.. taking your pencil for walk..

also listen to musik can create pictures in your head ..beethoven makes me think of napoleon 18th-19th century europe and ladies dresses.. mendelsohn's musik for a midsummer nights dream is a real image maker..also an oldie but goody is have notebook by the bed you can sometimes catch a dream.. or if your on a tight deadline ..a nice nightmare

Jazz said...

I'm glad someone linked to your article here, Mr. Gurney. I struggle with worry when I need to do practice, but then I lose my passion for using my imagination. When I DO make a scene it can sometimes be so stiff!

I'm totally happy to read your advice because I feel assured to use some time and maybe work on improving my memory again. Remembering a face or a figure can be often tough for me, but practicing some of the techniques may just help me take the risks and try!