Monday, July 8, 2019

How do you develop imagination?

Lawrence Alma Tadema, A Kiss, 1891, 46 x 63 cm
Anthony asks:
I'd like to ask you, though you have plenty of information in Imaginative Realism on the subject, how one develops imagination. How have you stretched or enhanced your imagination? Or has it simply been there all along? What is the essence of that skill and how does one meet it? 

My answer:
It's a fundamental question, and there's no simple answer. I believe the imagination develops from several sources of practice or experience.

First, there's the inspiration you get from enjoying other people's art: reading books, going to museums, watching movies. To consolidate that inspiration, it helps to make copies, sketches, or notes, and think about them afterward.

The artwork of other artists serves your imagination best if it opens you up to appreciating previously unseen potential in the world around you. A pioneer in your field offers you a template for how you can begin to interpret the hazy ideas forming in your own mind.

Pages from the sketchbooks of movie director Guillermo del Toro
If you keep journals and sketchbooks of what you observe, keep another one for what you imagine. Draw designs for what you want to build. Try to capture your mental image of what you remember about an experience you've had.

Another way to develop the imagination is to harness your brain's natural image-making engine. Keep a dream log. See if you can accomplish lucid dreaming. Tap into your REM dreams and hypnagogic hallucinations, which are wonderfully non-directed, evanescent and hard to capture. Develop a meditation practice. I suppose you can also stimulate your imagination with psychedelic drugs, but I haven't explored that direction because I don't want to be seduced by the illusion that any of this comes for free, or in a pill. If you can develop techniques for encouraging your brain to generate images freely, you don't need drugs. As Salvador Dali reportedly once said, 'I don't do drugs. I AM drugs."

Albrecht Durer, Melencolia 1. Link takes you a
discussion of how Renaissance artists thought
about the sources of imagination and art.

Many artists that you may see on YouTube creating worlds from their imagination started out by developing a toolset of relatively standard techniques that you can learn and practice. Comic artists and storyboard artists in particular learn how to draw any situation from any angle. Learning the skills of imaginative figure drawing, perspective, and composition will reliably allow you to draw or paint a plausible image from your imagination, one that you can then take the next step of embodiment, by putting it though the process of sketches, studies, maquettes, models, and the rest.

In the comments, please share your thoughts on how you stimulate and develop your imagination.
Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist
Guillermo del Toro Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions
Oga Kazuo Animation Studio Ghibli Artworks 2 Japan Edition


Anthony R. said...

Thanks for the additional ideas!

Penn Tomassetti said...

It's sometimes helpful to imagine an action or series of actions while drawing. For example, when we were young, my brother and I would start with drawing a couple of space ships on blank sheet of paper. Next, we would start drawing all the action for an ensuing battle scene, such as, laser beams, explosions, fire from thrusters, flight paths, depris, and so on. I've found that ideas developed through building on top of other ideas on paper. Things would change and get reworked, and that was part of the fun.

Catherine said...

Writing down my dreams has made a big difference for me. I've always had vivid dreams--and have reasonably cohesive ones fairly often--but it wasn't until about five years ago that I started taking them more seriously and writing down the better ones, and, wow... it has been a treasure trove of ideas for me. I'd never seriously considered the idea of fiction writing until I started writing down those dream-sparked ideas, and since then, I have accumulated far more story ideas than I have the time to write. Now generating new ones from scratch is far easier than it used to be, too. I think using those dreams as a starting point has helped teach me how to identify key story/design elements that spark my interest, and pull apart and recombine them into new and different composites. Dreams are, after all, usually fragments, and contain so many surreal elements, that it would be difficult to rely on them as your only idea source, anyway. Though I imagine this is more the case for story writing than for producing standalone images.

For that matter, it has taught me about iterative design, too, as certain elements reoccur often enough that I have multiple variations of a given theme/character/etc to choose from, shown in widely different contexts.

Salty Pumpkin Studio said...

Thinking. For hours with only your brain voice and you looking at the world in real and mind time. Comparing how things might have developed within as well as from Nature, is a path that always makes me smile. Keep a pen and notebook handy to write and draw in because those brilliant ideas can drift away fast, and you may not find your way back to your revelations.

Tom Hart said...

Another wonderful and inspirational post, James. Thanks for this. One common theme among your recommendations is to DO something - read, observe, sketch, explore, DO. All too often we (myself very much included) put a lot of mental energy into thinking about what we wish we were accomplishing instead of taking some action toward that goal. Often what we do (imho) doesn't matter as much as THAT we do something.

Also, thanks for the introduction to del Torro's sketchbooks. A real revelation. And another example of the worth of putting pen or pencil to paper, and seeing where that takes us.

Keith Bond said...

Memory is closely linked to imagination and creativity. I don't have the sources handy, but I have read studies showing the strong correlation between memory, imagination and creativity. So any exercise strengthening your memory will help.

Of course all of the work you suggest does go into the memory bank and should be done often. But memory specific exercises are also huge help. There are many. Some include:
- turn your back on the subject as you paint. Look at the subject, turn around to place a few brushstrokes, turn back around to look at the subject again, etc.
- Paint a scene from life. Then the next day, paint the same scene from memory. I have done this and it is amazing how close the second painting was to the first. It was also interesting to see the differences.
- Take this exercise one step further. Paint it again the 3rd day and free yourself to change things, using memory only as a guide to influence the fundamental relationships. This will strengthen all 3 (memory, imagination, creativity).
- There are many more, this is just a few quick ideas.