Imaginative drawing—with and without reference


Imaginative drawing—with and without reference

Imaginative drawing—with and without reference

How do you draw something that you can't see directly—such as a Chasmosaurus, a Phoenician, or a bog troll? 

Alan North of Alan's Art Log came up with an interesting way to think about this problem.

There are two ways ways of imaginative drawing: with and without reference.

     • One way is to draw observationally from actual models, props, maquettes, and reference.
     • The other way is to draw the scene purely out of your visual imagination.

You get better at the first method by learning to sculpt maquettes, improvise costumes, and by building a reference file. When you draw and paint your final picture, you observe those reference elements and composite them together into the picture.

You get better at the second method by developing your visual memory, and by learning to construct figures and forms convincingly.

Alan presents his idea in this video review of my book Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist. You can watch the video on YouTube at this link.

I think that in practice an artist needs both skills working together. References, no matter how good, will only take you only 20% beyond what you can draw or paint purely out of your imagination. Having a good sketch that you did out of your head is really important for guiding the interpretation of the references and for keeping the statement unified.

Drawing or painting without any references whatsoever can lead to repetitive or mannered solutions, and to missing out on surprising nuances of lighting or foreshortening that would never have occurred to the imagination alone. Those nuances often carry the force of truth, and make the scene believable.
You can get a signed copy of Imaginative Realism at my website. It's also available on Amazon.
Alan did a blog post version of his video.
Follow Alan on Instagram or support him on Patreon

11 Comments on Gurney Journey: Imaginative drawing—with and without reference

  • Tom Hart
    on November 08, 2016 | 12:25 Tom Hartsaid :
    "James, in this digital age, is there any reason to build a paper reference file? I learned in an era when clipping, saving and filing paper images was the only viable method. These days I can find any image I can dream up (almost) with a few clicks. When I see something I want to work from or manipulate, I save it - for a while or indefinitely. "
  • James Gurney
    on November 08, 2016 | 13:03 James Gurneysaid :
    "Hi, Tom. You're right: internet images are great for their exhaustiveness and specificity. But I still I love clipped magazine photos, especially from the 1970s and '80s and from older National Geographics. One reason is that the images are not the ones everyone else finds on a Google search. Some images you can't find online at all. I have some photo reference books from pre-War Europe that look utterly different from Europe today. I also like the act of sorting them into my own mental categories, especially for color and light effects and textural effects.

    I also like older print photos for their high resolution and because they're not messed with in Photoshop. Modern advertising photography (and increasingly journalistic and nature photography) is totally unusable for reference because it's so fake / Photoshopped-looking. I like the fact that photos from about 1985 and before were shot on film with the images captured in the lens with only the help of filters and analog processing. "
  • Anonymous
    on November 08, 2016 | 14:13 Anonymoussaid :
    "I can't thank you enough for posting this. It's completely made my day, so thank you.

    The chart is really an oversimplification. As I said in the video, someday I'd like to be able to draw mostly without ref. I'm self-taught and when I was younger I thought learning to draw realistically (from observation) would allow me to draw from imagination. It helps of course, but I eventually realized that I was getting nowhere. I would fail the moment I tried to deviate from a ref. Even making my own 3d models only helped so much. They were white/untextured so I would get the values right then fail on the color. Something was wrong.

    So I thought long and hard and did a little bit of research into other artists, specially concept artists who need to draw mostly without ref. Really the info was there all along but I'd never pieced it together. Many of the artists I admired where drawing mostly from construction. If they used a reference they weren't just copying what the saw like I was, they were analyzing it and breaking it down. They could deviate from it, or study it for a few minutes then put it aside, because they understood it on a 3d level. Likewise they could forgo references to a large extent because they had studied some things like anatomy so many times that it was easy for them to visualize them without reference.

    I'm not quite sure how far you can push this, how much can you draw completely without ref, but at least Kim Jung Gi levels of awesomeness seem to be possible with enough years of practice.

    Most professional artists though, even really good concept artists, still need reference occasionally. If there's reference available for what you're drawing it's always better to use it. But I realized they were using reference in a completely different way than I was. To them it seems to be about getting information about an object, it's details, it's texture, whereas for me is was about nothing more than copying the value, color, and different shapes in proportion.

    I might be wrong about some things, hopefully this theory? will evolve as I practice more, but since I realized this I've approached studies in a completely different manner and have improved a lot. I started to be able to deviate from my reference better and I realized I would get a lot more out of your book now. It had always been on my wishlist but I finally scrounged together the money and got it. And it was so worth it :)"
  • James Gurney
    on November 08, 2016 | 14:46 James Gurneysaid :
    "Alan, I like the way you analyzed this. I think you need as many of the skills you mentioned as possible. And as many good references as possible. They all help. In fact I think you need a good memory and imagination to paint or draw well from observation, especially when the subject or the light is moving.

    Maybe another way to break all this down is to divide the skills into Observation, Memory, and Knowledge, and develop all of those in tandem with each other. You mentioned Kim Jung Gi, and I agree, he is totally amazing, but as he has said, one thing he does before he starts drawing one of those epic scenes is to study and commit to memory a lot of reference, so that he has it in mind.

    And while it's great to work from life whenever you can, there's nothing at all wrong from working from photos. Naturalistic painting took a big leap forward after photography was invented, and many of the artists we admire from the 19th century used every kind of reference they could get."
  • Bob
    on November 08, 2016 | 17:44 Bobsaid :
    " Mr. North's review embodies just about everything I might have said, if I had felt up to the task of reviewing this wonderful book. I'll just add one thought: You need not be a practicing artist to enjoy this book -- and your doodles will surely benefit!"
  • Anonymous
    on November 08, 2016 | 18:17 Anonymoussaid :
    "Yes, I completely agree. It's probably why drawing from life is better than images. I can't get out much to do it, but I try because there's definitely an extra challenge there with moving subjects and changing lights.

    Dividing it into Observation, Memory, and Knowledge is another interesting way to look at it. I will keep it in mind.

    I only just recently discovered Kim Jung Gi. I've read interviews where he says he draws a lot from life tries to memorize and look at a lot of reference everyday, but he gave the impression that it was not specific to what he was drawing. He said: "I don’t take references while I’m drawing, but I’m always collecting visual resources. I observe them carefully on daily basis, almost habitually. I study images of all sorts and genres." and "The difference between me and most other artist is that other artist try to draw things from looking at reference and copying what they see. I try to look at live objects and study them in front of me. I draw from real life. By doing that I become more capable of remembering them afterwards. ... I use memories as reference". He also places a lot of importance on using boxes in perspective (aka drawing from construction).

    I did not know he prepared specifically for shows. Do you have a link to where he said this? There's so little info about his process and I feel a lot gets lost in translation. I'm thinking of collecting a list of useful quotes he's given.

    Oh yeah, I have nothing against reference. Everything is a tool. Even tracing can be a tool. It's just up to the individual artist's goals, what they like to do, and how they like to work."
  • Mark Martel
    on November 09, 2016 | 00:08 Mark Martelsaid :
    "Who would be the best examples of artists who worked mostly from imagination? Frazetta claimed to but used at least some reference on occasion. Moebius went either way but usually without. Probably the vast majority of comics artists work either from their heads or their clip files of other comics artists like Neal Adams. Neal almost always pulled it out of his head.

    Rembrandt—sometimes? N.C. Wyeth? Early Norman Rockwell I think and you can see the transition, maybe when he's earning enough to afford models ca. early 1920s. Remington sometimes?

    How about Picasso post-cubism? David Hockney? "
  • Luca
    on November 09, 2016 | 00:27 Lucasaid :
    "I made a step further when i realized i needed to understand reality to make fantastic things look possible (the basic meaning of "imaginative realism",isn't it?). So i started with photos (both from the web and from books and magazines) but then i realized that the camera and the eye look in different ways. And now i try to study real things whenever i can (but of course i search for references for things i cannot find around). For example, mushrooms. i have books on them and many photos, but i had never understood how a mushrooslm actually looks like until i spent some time observing a real mushroom i found in a meadow.People looked at me in a strange way but now (and only now) i can render a mushroom by memory. Summing up,now i 'd use memory only after observing a real object. It's what works for me, at least!"
  • Warren JB
    on November 09, 2016 | 10:16 Warren JBsaid :
    "I might just bookmark this blog post. (both of 'em) I've run into some enthusiastic amateurs* creating things for a fantasy market, who think references, construction, observation, fundamentals, are all useless because 'it's fantasy'. And it tends to show...

    *not meant in a derogatory way, though. Especially since I count myself among them.

    Tom: I've heard the reference file referred to as a 'morgue', firstly by fantasy artist John Howe. His book, 'Fantasy Art Workshop', shows a photo of one fully-occupied wall in his studio. In his words: "The wall behind the computer supports a daunting set of shelves containing well over a hundred drawers, filled with photos, photocopies, and pictures cut out of books and magazines. Here, from top left to bottom right, is the whole list of categories: medieval graphics, postcards, medieval calligraphy, medieval tapestry/embroidery... [continues for half a page]"

    Alan: Kim Jung Gi's quote - 'I use memories as reference'. Must be nice to be able to memorise! My memory's shocking. While out sketching animals I can forget a particular pose or movement that I saw just a second before. I'm definitely stuck with references. Although one thing I do remember is an exercise or two suggested by James, some time ago.

    Luca: 'make fantastic things look possible'. It's one of my favourite ten-dollar words: verisimilitude. And I can relate to stopping and staring at something 'mundane' in public."
  • Luca
    on November 09, 2016 | 12:51 Lucasaid :
    "Warren: the thing i love more in James' works is the verisimilitude, how he blends fantasy and reality in such a natural way! :) And about John Howe, i've always found quite interesting the fact that when he started working on the LOTR movies, he made other concept artists start all armours designes from scratch, since they looked like not plausible and too fantasy-like and his knowledge of real medieval armory improved a lot the look and the feeling of the movies. . And if i remember correctly, one of the set designers (or a producer, i can't remember) of the movies said in the "making of documentary" that they lived for a while in the Hobbits' houses to make them look like real and not brand new set pieces. While Viggo Mortensen used to go around the country with Aragorn clothes to make them feel worn-out (and for entering the character i think). And when you watch the movies you can actually feel the result of all these little touches (that subtle but epic charm that the Hobbits movies are missing, i'm afraid). These things and reading James books) really ringed a bell in my mind about this subject. :) "
  • Anonymous
    on November 10, 2016 | 23:14 Anonymoussaid :
    "@Warren JB: I think like any skill it can be trained and improved. Something I find helpful is to test myself. Like I look at a reference for a few seconds, look away to draw it, then check what's wrong. And then gesture drawings help a lot when you have something that moves. With both ways first I take my time until I can do it correctly, then I shrink that amount of time again and again until I've gained enough speed, which is something that's not usually done when practicing gesture drawings, usually it's the reverse, but I find this works way better for me."
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