Mastering Figure Drawing from the Imagination???



  • Hi everyone, I’m just curious how people get to the point where they can draw the figure from your imagination on a professional level.

    I understand gesture drawing and figure studies and all that I’m just curious how to bridge the gap to being super confident in just drawing from your head. I do a ton of figure studies and gesture and some anatomy and form but I wonder how much I should do straight studies and how much I should be practicing from imagination and also if there are any useful exercises to get better with drawing from imagination.

    There might be an obvious answer that I’m missing but for some reason as much as I study the figure I still struggle so much with drawing it from the imagination.

    I’m not too concerned with learning it super fast or anything I’m more concerned with getting confident in my figure drawing for characters and stuff. Right now I’m trying to just devote a full year to practicing and practicing mostly learning the human figure and drawing characters.

    Just looking for tips and advice from any who feel that they can help. THANKS!



  • I'm far from being able to do this yet … but I would say Life Drawing!

    Get to the chopper … sorry, get to a Life Drawing class 🙂

    I had an ahha moment last week, while studying from the Posing Characters course, where I realised all of the issues that Will Terry was highlighting about drawing characters, can be solved and practiced, while at life drawing class.

    I never put two and two together. I always thought, drawing from imagination is one thing, drawing from life another … but I really feel now like both help each other. I think once you understand how it is to draw it from life, you can draw it from imagination.

    All the issues Will Terry said, well, most of them, where not about how you draw, but how you see, and Life Drawing is vital for improving how you see 🙂


  • Moderator

    I struggle with this as well. I feel your frustration--I'm right there with ya.

    Personally, I think I've realized that drawing from reference photos is only so useful. At a certain point, I stopped learning about what I was drawing and just learned how to copy better.

    Life drawing works differently, I think. It's not about copying. It's more about capturing. And that's a subtle but important difference.

    And somehow, when a person is capturing instead of copying things click in a different way.

    My personal plan of attack is to purposely make myself draw poses from imagination repeatedly. Study the photo, then put it aside and recreate it from my head. Note the parts I'm unsure about. Then compare/contrast. I'm hoping this might train me to remember specific details, but more importantly force me to extemporize and make logical leaps when the specifics are hazy.

    It seems to me that a lot of people who work from their imagination have either a firm understanding of specific anatomy, or they have developed a way of theorizing and inferring the visual information they don't know and successfully improvising it. It's my understanding that most artists badly disguise their lack of knowledge by burying it behind "style" or "symbolization" of the figure. (Like I can tell the difference yet--it all looks better than what I'm doing! LOL!!)

    I take solace in the fact that even successful figure artists like Stan Prokopenko have lamented this exact quandary--how to draw from one's imagination. He's lamented his own incapacity to do just exactly that many times when he's been interviewed.

    So scooch over--I'm grabbing a seat on your boat. The only thing I can think of is to practice practice practice until memory starts to gel and one starts to develop an anatomical shorthand that is sufficient for what ya need. At least, that's what I'm trying to do. And it's slow. WAY too slow. Achingly slow...



  • @Coreyartus yeah I already felt like it’s probably just one of those things that comes with literally thousands of hours of drawing and internalizing figures and anatomy and gesture and all that and maybe it will just SLOWLY SLOOOOWWLY get easier and easier to draw them from my head with confidence. I can draw a decent figure now but when I see pros do it in real time I just want to be on that level so bad.

    I recently just decided I’m gonna attempt a year of just mostly focusing on getting good at that while still doing a little other learning on the side and see what happens. I understand that may be a naive thing to say but I can’t see how it could hurt.


  • Moderator

    @Trevor-timms I think that's a good plan. It's hard to focus like that, especially when you have a lot of other things you want to work on, too, but I think you'll be better off. If you're like me, I want to practice everything at once and then I can't take it all in!! LOL! Ooh, shiny challenge here intriguing project there... Narrowing your field of concentration can't be a bad thing. Being strong enough to not try everything all at once is tough. And I bet, even though you're specifically working on just anatomy and figure construction, you'll end up developing other capacities as well in the process. (I know this is true because I've taught theatrical costume design in college for 20 years... hehe...)

    Onward! Share your work! Get feedback from trusted sources! Please don't ever feel like you're neglecting some things to examine others--it's all part of the learning process regardless. Lean into the hard stuff if you can, but don't frustrate yourself out of the journey. Art's hard.

    And I'm saying this as much for me as for you. LOL! 🙂



  • Is there a reason you want to draw figures without any references?
    Is it mainly for personal gain?

    Im wondering because even big name artists still use figure references. Alex Ross for example uses tons of figure references.



  • @Aleksey well I don’t mind using the occasional reference photo but for example I’m sure for a comic book(which is something I would like to pursue) I don’t think artists are using reference photos for every single pose in every single panel.

    It is mostly because it’s just something I want to be good at some day and I know for sure I’ve seen plenty of artists that are very good at drawing figures from imagination with no reference (at least not always using references)

    I also enjoy the feeling of working on the craft and watching myself get better and better at something I’m working hard at. Plus there’s not always perfect reference photos for things you want to draw.

    Again I’m not against reference photos lol



  • @Trevor-timms ah that makes sense. I know that comic book artists often take shortcuts when building the “skeleton” of their figures, which also helps me. This saves a lot of time and helps when it comes to space and proportions. They do it hundreds of times and they do it pretty small. If that helps you figure out how to practice. I use shorthand a lot.


  • Pro

    @Trevor-timms I don't think there's any such thing as drawing from "imagination". It's still coming from somewhere, and that somewhere is a mental library that we build in our head of how the human figure looks in different positions. The best way to build your mental library IS to draw from gesture or reference. That is why practicing drawing from imagination won't bring you any closer to your goal in my opinion. It's ironic but drawing from gesture is what will ultimately help you be able to draw from your "imagination".

    It does take a long time and it's not an all or nothing kind of thing. I've been drawing professionally for a few years and I still need reference sometimes for some things. I have some poses, hand poses, facial expressions, etc. that come more naturally to me because I've drawn them so much, they're like my "go-to". Those I could draw in my sleep, but if I do an angle or hand pose that I rarely draw, I will still need reference. But it is much less than it used to and it is very freeing and saves time.

    I remember a few years back when I was starting to rely on my mental library more than I had up to that point. Sometimes I would spend like an hour looking for the perfect reference, only to give up and draw it for myself in 5 minutes and wonder why I didn't just do this right away haha...


  • SVS OG

    I'm way at the beginning but, I would have to say, draw 9 million figures and get critiques and draw overs until you are able to visualize on your own. Also, as someone else said, I would think life drawing would be a great addition. Maybe you can hang out at a beach or pool and sneak in some gestures 🙂 I am working on the figure drawing class video but haven't done it for awhile. Such a challenge to draw good figures!


  • SVS OG

    @Trevor-timms I don't think it's naieve at all! It's a good plan. As you get better at figure drawing you will still be getting better at drawing other things, just because you're drawing a lot.



  • I would say along with figure drawing skills, train your visualization. I mean before you draw the figure. Visualize it in your head - to details. Of course, knowing gesture, anatomy, proportions, etc is necessary, but having a clear vision of what poses do you wanna draw is as important as other things + I think for comic book artist it is big plus as it saves you a lot of time instead of taking references as you said.

    and if you are talking about mastering. Don't stress yourself up with it. Mastering is lifetime pursuit. If you train long enough it will come 😃


  • SVS OG

    @Trevor-timms from what I know comic book artists use a lot of references for their work. Most of the times they even trace figures. Jason Brubaker a prolific artist outwardly shares that he traces. You don’t need to draw from imagination to prove your worth in comics. It’s all about the speed. If you yourself know that you can draw, you don’t need to prove that over and over by drawing from imagination. Plus, your audience will never know which piece is drawn from imagination from one which was done with a reference or traced. They’re going to gloss over that page faster than a few seconds and how it’s drawn really won’t matter. Again, it’s about the speed. The faster you can churn out beautiful images, the better. Your audience will appreciate that and your body will definitely like that too given the volume of images you have to illustrate.

    If you really want to get better at figure drawing (which is amazing and I still highly recommend), I can only suggest 2 things:

    1. Practice drawing various poses until it becomes second nature

    2. Don’t be afraid to use reference. There’s nothing bad with using reference. Amateur artists try to “wing it” but GREAT artists use reference.

    I hope this was helpful.



  • @NessIllustration

    So just to reiterate for everyone I’m not against using reference photos. But just like you said you can’t always find a perfect reference photo for what you are trying to draw.

    I think there must be some legitimacy to what I mean when I say drawing from imagination or imagining poses that you can’t find good reference for. Otherwise you wouldn’t have guys like Kim jung gi. Now I understand that he is truly a master and I’m not trying to say I need to be as good as he is at it but just on a lesser level I would like to be able to comfortably do with out reference every now and then just for efficiency sake.

    I also want to clarify that I am capable of drawing from imagination without reference I would just like to be better at it. Mainly I like reading what others have to say about their struggles with this issue cause I’m curious how other people deal with it. And thank you I am grateful for all the input!


  • Pro

    @Trevor-timms Oh I understood what you meant, I'm just saying the best way to become better at drawing from imagination IS to practice drawing with reference. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but practicing drawing from imagination won't really make you better at drawing from imagination. Drawing from imagination is basically recycling things that you have already mastered, but not learning any more new things. To become better at it, you need to master more stuff so you have a bigger pool of knowledge to recycle when you draw from imagination.


  • Moderator

    @NessIllustration Hm. I'm not sure I agree with you entirely... Accruing a bigger pool of knowledge doesn't necessarily happen from drawing from reference... I see it in my costume design students all the time--they learn how to reproduce the reference exactly, but not how to extrapolate from the visual information they're looking at and apply it to a different situational context or drawing. I even struggle with that myself.

    Fabric, for example, holds a special challenge when trying to draw from reference. Different fabrics behave differently, and finding the right reference of the correct fabric in the correct pose with the correct lighting in the correct time period is impossible. One has to work from imagination, and hypothetically invent what one surmises is the correct way to communicate a specific fabric's appearance and behavior in the context of the costume rendering.

    I would think comic illustration is in some ways quite similar--finding reference for some of those poses is impossible. One has to build from one's own deep understanding of the figure at some point and invent.

    @Trevor-timms I wonder if part of the challenge is learning how to use reference. If one doesn't use it to replicate or copy or reproduce but instead to inform and inspire one's choices, reference images become something very different indeed. We are often taught in our artist education that replication is what's necessary--but that just trains the eye to see and discern. Anatomy study is also required to train the brain to understand what one is seeing, so one can use both to create the marks on a page. Have you thought about turning your attention away from replication of references and toward anatomical studies for artists? That might help... I am learning, personally, that anatomy is something I really really need to do my own work...


  • SVS OG

    @Coreyartus in a way you are correct. When you don’t have reference, you need to dig into one’s understnading of the human figure. And how do you build this understanding? By studying and practing drawing the human figure over and over again using refrences/models until it becomes second nature. So basically, to get better at figure drawing, you need to practice and use references.

    Also even if you can’t find the exact pose you’re looking for, I bet you can find a lot of references that are similar though still not quite right. What do you do from there? Well, you use your reference as basis and you reach into your knowledge of the human figure which you have built up through practice and various observation from references.

    I understand what you mean about your students. What I can say is that they can improve this through practice and soaking in alot of references. I know the FZD School of Design uses this technique where they give students the front and side view of an onject (let’s say a truck) and the students have to draw the truck in a three-quarters view from an extreme angle. What happened here is that they used reference and their understanding of the form and design of a truck which again was build through observing a lot of references.

    On a more personal example, just a few days ago, I wanted to draw a cat pouncing straight foraward. However all the images I saw online were taken at a three-quarters view. So what did I do? I saved those images and went looking for more similar ones. I googled lions/tigers/leopards/etc lurching forwards front view and used that as reference. By using those, I developed an understanding of how a feline’s body would look like if it were to jump on its prey. I combined that with the cat images I have and I got my desired image.

    So, to sum it up, in order to be good at figure drawing, you need to practice and use references. Also, if can’t find what you’re looking for, find creative ways. Combine the figures that you’re familiar with and which are similar to what you want in order to achieve thatat pose you have in your mind.

    I know I’m repeating myself but there’s really not much to it but practing and using references.


  • SVS OG

    I also think looking at skeletons and muscle systems helps. I do a lot of animal drawings and often have difficulty deciphering what is going on in an animal's body in a picture unless I understand its anatomy. (Joints get hidden by fur etc.) Once I understand the skeleton, it's easier to create a different pose it in my imagination, I don't draw people as much but I know that Jake Parker posted some drawings to Instagram saying that he is trying to level up his drawing by understanding muscle groups. He was even color coding muscles groups in his sketches and it looked really helpful.


  • SVS OG

    Trevor, I understand what you're saying. You want to build your knowledge of figure drawing in a way that makes what you draw look natural, whether you have the right reference or not. You want the overall expressive needs of illustration to determine the pose, not your reference!

    I like what @nyrrylcadiz says here. There's kind of a cycle. You practice drawing from life generally, but maybe you can't always find a model to use as direct reference. You find online references, but they may not be exactly what you want either. You draw from imagination, and then work on making your figures more accurate. All three of these methods reach out and fill gaps that the others don't cover, but they are all important.

    When I started doing illustration, I was generally good at figure drawing, but I was rather dismayed at how realistic reference was limiting my illustration and how little confidence I really had without a model. So I am working a lot on drawing from memory and then filling in the gaps by looking in the mirror or with photos I take on my phone, translated into a more childish form. Sometimes I spend a lot of time imagining the pose in 3D, because that's also important. I use the Magic Poser app sometimes as well, but I get frustrated with it because it seems unnatural at times and it's also hard for me to use on my phone. Another hint is to draw something and then looking at it the next day, or get critiques to realize where the problems are. But I don't think there's one method, and which you emphasize may depend on where you feel your weaknesses are.

    It's like any other aspect of illustration in that it feels like doing sit ups. You feel weak at first but eventually you start to see progress! 💪



  • Im getting a lot of interesting opinions and advice and I’m thankful for all of it. This is the reason why I posted this in general discussion because as I might have my own opinions on this, I’m glad to hear others say what they think as well.

    I do want to say from my experience that I almost only draw from imagination when doing my art that’s not studies and what not, and I’d like to think I’m pretty decent at it. So I absolutely know it’s possible. It just takes a lot of tooling around and I know when I look back at these drawings there’s always something just a little off, whether it’s proportions, or slight anatomy inaccuracies. But I do this and even so feel great about the drawings I just know that down the road I could be better at this.

    And yes I have always believed strongly in drawing from life and studies to slowly but surely internalize the human form and feel it in three dimensions and all that. I’m sorry if anyone thought I’m just trying to never use reference to study or draw because that is absolutely not the case.

    I’m of the opinion right now that it’s just going to take some deep devoted work and hundreds of hours to really get that stuff in your bones and muscle memory. So that’s my plan for now.

    Also I don’t literally expect to be a master at this, I just like the term mastery as an aspirational thing. I like to think of people who fully devote themselves to their craft like that. But I’m more concerned with loving the process cause that’s all there is and there’s no real end to learning.


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