The contradiction of Reference vs Imagination

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    Alexander Shunko

    Hello, Matt!

    Very often I see an interesting recurring pattern in different artists’ behavior.

    I guess you see it too. Anyway, you described a similar situation in your article about the three desciplines. A student, mentioned by you in the article (David), learned how to draw from imagination actually long before you taught him how to draw from life.

    I know three young girls who draw from imagination, but they NEVER draw from life or from reference. In fact they hate that. I guess WHAT they are doing instead?! Even if they learn from someone else’s drawing, they never copy exactly what is there.

    It worth mentioning, that their ability to draw is limited to familiar things. Their imagination never becomes universal. For every new object they need to start over and go through some kind of mysterious learning path. I never seen them doing the same drawing twice, there is always some sort of creative variation.

    And it seems that training the imagination is a subconscious process, and it is very natural for some people, they need no theory. Even if they learn anatomy or perspective, it just adds to their existing ability to draw without reference. Probably there is something else, something that we can’t see, some psychological attitude or certain life observation skill or whatever.

    And on the other part, in my experience, people who does have art education and draw constantly from life or from reference, usually become addicted to the reference and they have very hard time drawing from imagination!

    Definitely there is a deep psychological gap between the two worlds.

    What are the reasons behind such paradox? How to naturally build the creative vocabulary? What will be your opinion on this?

    Wish You a happy 2018!


    Hi Alexander,

    Listen to tonight’s podcast. Happy New Year!


    Andy .


    As someone who is addicted to reference, I have thought about this question a lot. In addition to Matt’s comments, one of the best explanations I’ve stumbled across belongs to Monika Zagrobelna, a Polish artist who appears on various drawing tutorial sites across the web.

    Most of her postings are animal drawing tutorials, but if you dig around you see she’s something of a drawing theory Socrates. She has a number of articles about topics like why we draw, talent and a fascinating, complicated article about perspective. She also writes frequently about the question of imagination. You can read about it here:–cms-22967

    Or a lighter version here:

    How to Draw from Imagination Part 1: Why Is It So Hard?

    Her basic theory is that it’s a lot of very specific work in teaching your mind what things look like, not by drawing them over and over, but by learning how they fit and function and then drawing them over and over. The theory isn’t necessarily novel, but the way she explains it really is. I recall, though I can’t seem to find it now, an article where she described her own path from drawing from reference to drawing from imagination, and it is encouraging to think of it as a process rather than feeling that you’re either born Kim Jung Gi or not.

    In that article she is actually a little tough on reference drawing, describing it as more of a step in the process of learning to draw from your mind. I don’t agree — I think of them as two related but distinct branches of the same tree; probably half my instagram feed is artists who do stunning work from life, like Guno Park and Tito Merello. And I think the real world is a complicated mix — artists use reference in many different ways — Mort Drucker, the wonderful Mad magazine caricaturist, had a very original style, but would use the promotional stills from movie companies for his movie parody reference.

    Anyway, I recommend you check out her postings. They offer an interesting perspective.


    Alexander Shunko

    Thanks, Andy, I will check it out. It seems that there is a lot to read…

    To my belief, the core of the problem is that drawing from reference is a perception. You see the world, you use your senses… You feel.

    But when it comes to drawing from imagination, it is not an observation. It is a synthesis. It is a completely different practice!!! And drawing from life actually does not help, because it uses absolutely another “brain muscles”.

    I feel that it is like a difference between being a sound engineer and being a musician. No matter how many hours you spend in the studio practicing recording different sounds with the microphones and tape or digital recording equipment… No matter, how many music you’ve heard… No matter how clean or realistic your recordings are. Playing on the drums or violin or maybe singing – is a completely different practice!!! These activities are absolutely different, they do not affect each other, though they have something in common – the sense of sound.

    Of course, sound recording could possibly help you to become a _better_ musician, but it is not the way how the musicians learn and practice.

    And it seems that if one wants to draw from imagination, one should draw from imagination!!! The one skill is to perceive reality and another is being able to think and construct.

    We harvest what we plant, right? ))) Perception vs Synthesis. It is necessary to learn them differently.

    Thank you!

    Lucille Kreps

    interesting read – thanks for posting these!

    Andy .

    Hey Alexander (and hi Lucille!),

    Everything you’re saying makes sense and I have that frustration as well. I don’t know — maybe they are two separate paths, but maybe the things that you learn doing one inform the other the more you learn of either. Maybe it’s less like sound mixing and guitar and more like piano and guitar, different capabilities but with related skills (keeping time, reading music, understanding chord structure).

    Certainly great comic book artists do life drawing, but probably with an eye less toward perfect accuracy and more towards understanding anatomy, shading, form, etc. My goal is to try to work more activities that relate to imaginative drawing into my practice – drawing from imagination yes, but also memory drawing, sketching, perspective practice, adding to my mental library. One of these days anyway.

    Keep me posted and let me know if you figure anything out!


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