Learning to draw – from think bubble to a picture

You have a vision. There is a dazzling unicorn on a magical glade, a mighty dragon with gigantic wings and spikes on its back, and a striking silhouette of a heroic warrior. You know just how incredible it looks, you can almost touch it!

So you grab your pencil and let the inspiration flow, letting the creating energy carry you away as it spreads all over the paper. You feel the elation while your ideas run down from you, all the way from your head and into your arm and fingertips … until that thing looks back at you, and it looks nothing like what you imagined.

Who doesn’t know this feeling?

What went wrong? You’re not too bad when you’re drawing with a reference, why in the world didn’t it work this time?

Lack of technique? Skill? Maybe you are too stupid to be an artist? Before you know it, these questions sit heavily on your shoulders like fat cats of frustration. So what’s the deal with drawing without reference, and what is it that you are missing? To answer this, let’s start with a basic question.

What exactly happens while you draw?

We’re used to avoiding questions about whole processes, right? I’m used to it, at least. I put my laundry into the washing machine, it does it’s magic, et voilà; clean laundry, no questions asked! But if we want to understand why we are not as good at drawing things as we think, let’s take a look at the procedure taking place in our head. It can’t just be how we move the pen over the paper, that would be too easy. It has to be a combination of different, interlocked skill sets. Delicate motor manipulation is one of them, what about the rest?

The brain and the copy

Our brain does something completely different when we are drawing with an existing reference to when we are drawing without one. Let’s test that: pick a picture you want to copy, and observe yourself while referencing that picture and drawing. What questions are you asking yourself about the process, and how do you answer them?

The most common way of copying is finding contours. To do this, our brain examines the outer lines of the original image and puts them into proportion with one another, scaling the lines up or down, or as a whole if necessary. This is a relatively easy process, giving fast results and a satisfactory feeling of being quite the artist.

The truth is that you are only improving your skill in copying an image. If you have a good memory, you might even be able to remember enough about the picture to draw it without having the original in front of you. Still, this has nothing to do with representing an idea freely from our minds. Even people with the most retentive memories will start to forget the initial details. We will always begin to make inaccurate copies as we are less able to refer to the original picture.

Easy with a reference.

Free Drawing

Here’s a second experiment: try to draw something imaginary on the paper. It could be a mythical creature that has no direct reference, the only requirement is that you can imagine it. What questions come up? How do you answer them?

Typically, you will have an intuitive understanding of how the creature looks, and your hand will want to start drawing it automatically. You are sure that you can fill in any gaps as you see fit. But then, something goes wrong. Your understanding of the creature in your head does not allow you to convert it into a drawing as accurately as you would with a physical reference.

These experiments are a way to discover that there are two different skills that we can learn. Even if you begin to excel at copying proportions from an image, you will not be able to accurately reproduce the picture without the original image present. This raises more questions; is this what you wanted to draw, when you see it fixed onto the paper? Why do you have a better understanding of how it looks in your mind? Perhaps this has something to do with our imagination?

This should have turned out differently.

Behind the Scenes of our Memory

If we had no memory, our imagination would be empty. To imagine something combines the elements of what we knew and our desire to make something unique – without a pool of knowledge, we can’t whip up anything new. But knowing many people doesn’t make us better at drawing humans, right? That’s because there are two different kinds of memories – active, and passive. Passive memory is like a ‚ping‘, it’s instantaneous – we only need it to recognize something. Active memory involves our minds working to copy information so that we can access it more consciously.


What we imagine is in truth a combination of what we know.

Passive Memory – Introducing the Shinobi Brain

The passive memory operates completely subconsciously. Our brains store Object 1 with related information on A, B and C. The next time that the brain recognizes A, B or C, it retrieves what it knows about Object 1. This is something we do not notice at all, and it’s how we memorize the faces and hairstyles of our friends, for example.

Recognizing something that you have seen before gives you a barely perceptible feeling, something along the lines of “I know what this is”. In this moment where you see the object, your subconsciousness browses your passive memory. If your subconsciousness finds the object there, it’s labelled “not notable”, as it is already known to you. This is why children are so enthused about everything they encounter – their passive memory is almost empty. Children will notice what adults only marginally register.

This system for passive memory is incredibly fast and precise. It stores huge amounts of data without bothering your conscious mind, and it will initiate itself the instant your eyes see a known object. You won’t even note that there was a brief moment where you did not understand what you were looking at, as your subconscious mind already answers the question before your conscious mind even asks.

Active Memory – The Memorize Grind

The active memory works in another way. It requires you to consciously memorize information, like phone numbers and names. Accessing active memory requires our intention, and is much more challenging for our minds, especially with large amounts of information. It takes our active memory much more effort to ask a question, formulate an answer (or lack of one), and to store any information gained from this process.

Here’s an example: your friend has a new haircut. Your passive memory tells you that something is different about your friend. Then, your active memory takes over and retrieves the last visual recollection of your friend for comparison. If your mind did not previously make an effort in memorizing your friend’s hairstyle, you are unlikely to have a copy of it stored in your active memory. You are left with the vague feeling that “something does not match regarding the information I have stored on my friend”. This feeling is given to you by your passive memory.

I Don’t Know What I Know

The fundamental functions of both memory types are the same, but the mental process of saving and loading information in each instance is different.

Imagine if your memories were stored in a room inside your head, behind a doorway. Your shinobi brain constantly grabs all kinds of information and stores it all inside that room, without your conscious brain noticing. When it has finished doing so, it closes the door. Your active memory must now look through the keyhole to figure out the information inside that room. This method of ’staring through the keyhole‘ is very imprecise, offering very little information on what’s inside, and often offering nothing more than the answer to “Is that object in the room?”

Shinobi brain stores without our consciousness noticing.
Consciousness can only peek through the keyhole.

Get to Work

If you want to store sets of information that you can reliably retrieve, you must actively memorize as many details as you can. This is a task for your active memory, which can observe an object from all sides and store as many details as possible. Imagine your mind carrying an object back and forth through the door into this “memory room”, and every time it passes through the doorway, the door opens a little bit more. After a few trips through the doorway with the object, the door stays open, allowing for a full appreciation of the memorized object.

Memorizing is a hard grind.

Sadly, these doors will still close as time passes, making it increasingly more difficult to retrieve the full details on a given object. While we are still able to use the ‚keyhole‘ to identify that the object is still there, we must prevent these doors from closing by refreshing our memories over and over, otherwise they may become lost due to the massive amount of transitions that our minds make.

This is, of course, a greatly simplified explanation of what is really occurring inside our brains. The functions of our mind are still a mystery in many ways, and have complexities that are still to be discovered. The most important thing to understand are the basic concepts of an active and a passive memory, so that we can understand our problem of free drawing a little better.

Imagination = Memory Salad

I have hinted towards why we can’t accurately draw what we think we can, but I will also claim that the creature you imagined earlier has next to zero visual detail. Given the complexity of what we’re requesting our brains to struggle with, this is far from unlikely. Let’s demonstrate this using the following example.

If you think of a cup, you may be able to form a picture of what it looks like overall; the curve of the porcelain, the weight of the cup, you might even be able to associate the smell of coffee or tea with it. Now, let’s give our imaginary creature some more thought. What else can you observe about it? Can you feel it, or hear it? Can you imagine the weight of its body, what noise it makes when it moves across a stone floor? There can even be sensations that are not related to our sensory organs directly, like our reaction to what would happen if that creature suddenly attacked us.

Having all of this information can create the illusion of knowing how the creature looks overall. But the specific visual details required to reproduce the creature on paper are, in fact, scarce.

How to check your visual memory?

Test your Imagination

Ask yourself as many details about your imaginary creature that you can think of, and put these details into words, not into sketches. The more detailed your answers are, the more likely that you will be able to draw them out correctly. This next part is a trap. Let’s see if you fall for it!

How many legs does it have?

How big are its eyes?

How long is its tail?

How long are the legs?

What colour does it have?

Does it have any patterns?

Is it big, or small?

Is it male or female?

Is it strong or weak?

How do the feet look? Are they paws, hooves, or claws?

What was the trap, do you ask? It’s in your answers; they will draw out more questions! What does ’strong‘ mean? How big, and how small? What are the differences between paws and claws, between male and female?

Leg unequals leg!

All of these questions are connected to information in your passive memory, which is why you might think you know the answers, but you will not be able to access to the visual details!

This is why we have the urge to state that we can “not describe it, but draw it”. Your passive memory tells you to provide a sample based on the vague visual information you have stored. As you optimistically finish drawing your ideas, reviewing your results will make you think “nope, these are not paws.” The shinobi brain can be an ass.

You can test this the other way around, too. If you know what a wing looks like, you should be able to describe how it does not look. Chances are, you won’t be able to describe what anatomical features are wrong. Am I right?

Okay, but what can I do with this insight?

We’ve identified the problem, so now we can start solving it. How? It’s easy – you just have to replace your passive memory access with active memory access. Here are some first tips to get started.

Focus on One Medium

Don’t make it harder for yourself. Use one medium, one technique. If you are struggling with drawing freely from your imagination, don’t combine it with the difficulty of shading correctly, or mixing colours. Always face your enemies one at a time.

My advice would be to stick with a pencil and paper at first – even a graphic tablet can complicate things. If you have existing skills in colouring and shading, it becomes tempting to cover up your flaws with your talents.

Focus on one Enemy.

Find your Unskills

I can’t art” is the worst thing that you can tell yourself. Art has many aspects, and I am sure you already excel with some of them, like carefully moving a pen over paper. On the other hand, if you feel confident drawing from a reference, discovering that you can’t do very well without one can be frustrating.

Let that anger go by separating the different aspects of drawing from one another – use drawing as a manual, and apply the skill of actively comprehending each new object. Learning like this, you can improve naturally instead of being eaten up by feelings of generally being incapable.

Draw something, then pause to take a look at it. What could be wrong with it? “It looks weird” is not a helpful answer. “These legs are wrong” is more useful to you. You can’t correct much when all you consider is that “everything is weird”, but you can learn how legs look. “I can’t draw legs from my imagination” is a much easier problem to solve than “I can’t draw from my imagination”.

Can’t do everything at the same time.

In conclusion, if you can draw from a reference, the drawing itself is not going to improve your ability to draw without one. If you can’t recall a phone number, it’s not that you’re unable to repeat a sequence of numbers. It’s simply that you haven’t memorized that phone number.

It’s not that you “can’t draw horses”, it’s that you “can’t recall exactly what a horse looks like”. The solution to this problem is to actively observe horses until you have collected as much visual information as possible. Horses are an example of an extremely complex object – I will explain what steps we need to take to memorize one in the next article.

Thank you for staying with me so far! And special thanks to my friend Kyle who helped me with my weird English <3

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