During your journey of learning to draw the figure, you’ll probably have pivotal, memorable moments. Maybe it’s a drawing that felt like a turning point. For me, I remember making the drawing below so vividly because I had a breakthrough moment where I thought, ‘I think I’m actually getting somewhere with this’.
Another such pivotal memorable moment was the next drawing below, because it went so badly. I had decided to do a drawing exercise where you remember what the person is doing but then you hide the reference and try to draw the pose from memory or from imagination.
At the time, I thought I’d be alright at this because I was getting more confident with drawing figures from observation – but when I actually did the exercise I was shocked at how little I could draw from my head! I realised how little I actually understood about how the figure was put together.
This was the moment that I realised that if I could figure out the construction of the body and a little bit of anatomy, then I’d be able to hold all of these forms in my mind. From there I could rotate them as I wished, I could take liberties with a pose, I could change it or exaggerate it, and adjust it so that the design was what I wanted it to be.
Drawing from imagination is such a powerful exercise – it was for me, and I think it will be for you too. I’m going to give you really specific steps for drawing figures from imagination in the following exercise, but just bear in mind that there are a few ways to approach it.
- Memory drawing – where you might draw the pose from reference, then hide the reference and hide your drawing, and then draw it again from your memory and see if you can reconjure up the pose from your head.
- Change the pose – another useful exercise is to have a pose in front of you but draw a different
pose. You could draw the same model doing a different pose or maybe just exaggerate the pose that they’re doing, so if they’re bending to one side, you really bend them to one side. See if you can adjust it using the information that’s in your head as well as the reference.
- No reference – finally, there’s just drawing straight up out of your head with no reference in front of you at all. In this article, I’ll be breaking down this approach in simple bitesize steps
Basic principles of drawing without reference
Let’s begin with thinking about a simple box. Let’s say we’re looking straight at the front plane of a box.
One thing we could do is change the angle of it one way or another
Another thing we could do is rotate it so that we see a little bit of the side plane:
Another thing that we could do is tilt it forward or tilt it back so we see the front top plane or the bottom plane:
Another thing we could do is just shift it to the left or shift it to the right, as we see in the example below. If we wanted to, we could combine all of these adjustments at once, so we could change the angle of it, tilt it forward, shift it to the left, and so on.
Breaking down the three major forms of any pose in this way can help us start to vary the forms in a variety of different ways. To get started, one thing that we could do is just change how these simple forms are rotated. So in the example below, we have rotated the head one way, the pelvis another way, while the rib cage is kept the same and now we have a pose with a big twist going up it.
Then we could make it even more interesting by tilting the head down, shifting the pelvis across to the side and tilt it forwards a bit more – and suddenly we have these three forms relating to each other in a really fun and interesting way, as you can see below. From here, you could start to build out the pose, but the three fundamental building blocks are what we’re really interested in first and foremost.
So let’s look at another example. This time, I have taken the same three simple building blocks, and I have built two different poses using the same configuration.
Putting it into practice
In the following demo, I’ll draw from imagination using these simple ideas. I start the drawing by using a blending stump because I want to put this down lightly. One thing that I’ve noticed with drawing from imagination is there’s a lot more trial and error with it: I work lightly at first because I know I will make mistakes that need correcting later. The first stage of my drawing is putting down my three building blocks: I’ve got the head looking down. The ribcage and pelvis are angled differently to each other, to make a nice squash and stretch in the torso.
Next, I make a small adjustment to the head placement so it’s a little further across from the ribcage. I also start to add legs. One of the great benefits of the pelvis-pants framework is that you can build a cylindrical form for the thighs out of the openings of the pants. Because the figure is standing on one leg, I make the standing leg comes in at an angle under the figure’s weight. For more guidance on balance, check out this tutorial.
I initially had both arms up but you’ll see that at this stage in the drawing I change my mind and drop one of the shoulders. Very often it’s fun and quite natural in a pose to have an action and a counter action: for example, if you have someone reaching forward with one arm and that shoulder comes forward it’s then nice to bring the other shoulder back.
At this point, I’m happy with the pose that I have and I decide to create a light source. I would recommend choosing one single direct light source that’s going to create really big simple shadow shapes. That way, you’ve just got to think about what planes are facing the light and
what planes are facing away. Remember that if you’re feeling uncertain about this (or really any part of the drawing) that is actually a good thing! The frustration of not knowing things is part of the learning process. It gives you questions that you can then go and find answers to, which is a really powerful way of learning.
Back to the drawing, at this stage I’m trying to firm up the drawing but also bring out those shadow shapes. You’ll also see that I’m really emphasising the squash and stretch of the torso. When it comes to the shoulders, there’s no getting around understanding the anatomy. Much like the ribcage-egg is based on an understanding of anatomy, a bit of shoulder anatomy will really help with this stage. You can check out our guide to simplifying the shoulders here.
In my next step, I work on the foreshortened thigh to shorten it a little so it looks more natural. Very often we draw foreshortened forms little too long, sort undoing the foreshortening, so it can be useful to take notice of foreshortened areas and adjust them as needed. I also adjust the length of the standing leg as I had made it a bit too long.
Next, I add the hair. Something really cool about drawing from imagination is that you can adjust things like hair movement and shadow shapes to best suit your design. Everything is in your control because it’s straight out of your head – you’re not a slave to the reference because there is no reference, and that is one of the great things about this exercise. It’s empowering you to use your design choices to draw instead of just trying to copy what you’re seeing.
The later stages are just me messing about with thing like edges. In some places I might reduce the strength of edges where I don’t really want that much attention, and in other places I might bring up the edges and bring up the contrast where I do want attention. For more tips on edges, check out this article. As I get towards the end of the drawing I’ll also take photos of my drawing with my phone and flip it to see if I can spot anything odd that needs adjusting. Here is the final drawing
Bonus Tips for Beginners
If you’re just starting out with figure drawing, I wouldn’t worry too much about this exercise. Instead, I’d focus on looking at actual people from photos or in real life and trying to figure out where those three major simple forms are – the head, rib cage and pelvis. Our fresh eyes mini course is free and it’s a fantastic way to learn how to do that – you can sign up to it here.
For those of you with some drawing experience, just remember that when you start to do this exercise in the beginning, it’s not going to be about producing beautifully designed drawings. Instead, it’s actually going to be about finding your weak points. So often we can draw things when we see them in front of us, but we don’t actually know what is happening: the gaps in our knowledge will reveal themselves when we start drawing from imagination. Remember that these gaps in knowledge are completely normal and are invitations to study further so that you can draw them from imagination later. Once you’ve filled a lot of those gaps, you’ll notice that your drawings from imagination start to become better and better. That is when you can really have fun with things like pose design and shadow shapes.
This is such a fun exercise! I hope you have enjoyed this tutorial. I’ve been neglecting drawing from imagination lately after falling into the habit of just bringing up some references and drawing them on repeat. But thanks to a whole month on this topic in our study group, I’m drawing from imagination so much now. It’s so powerful and effective – even if you just want to draw from reference, your ability to draw things from imagination is really going to accelerate your drawings from reference.
Useful Free Resources
- Shoulders tutorial HERE
- Ribcage tutorial HERE
- Pelvis tutorial HERE
- Fresh Eyes mini course (for the simple forms and how they work together in the figure) HERE
- Balance tutorial HERE