When you don't know what to draw: learning to work from the imagination

everyday artistry drawing project

What I came up with for last month's 'draw a monster' assignment

“Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don't know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas is, which says to the painter, ‘You can't do a thing’. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of `you can't' once and for all.”― Vincent van Gogh

You've decided that you're finally going to start a regular drawing practice. You bought a nice sketchbook, sharpened your pencils, and have a nice collection of markers and paints standing by. You open the first page and... you don't know what to do next. You have no ideas, no inspiration, no inkling of where to start. When you feel a big expanse of nothingness staring you in the face, how do you take the first step? What do you draw when you don't know what to draw?

Last month's theme in the Drawing Project was drawing from the imagination. The goal was to pull images from our minds instead of using reference photos. The assignments were very challenging at first because, though they all gave a starting point, there was still nothing concrete in front of me telling me what to draw. I spent a lot of time staring at blank pages, wondering what to do next.

By the end of the month, however, I was completely hooked on drawing from my imagination. The freedom that came from making things up, experimenting and playing was so rewarding.

How did I overcome the struggle of the blank page staring up at me? Here are a few ideas:

When you don't know what to draw - everyday artistry drawing project

Iterate and experiment

In one assignment the instructions were to draw a scene from a dream. I wanted to draw this strange creature that was half mole, half badger that had broken into my kitchen and was terrorizing me and my boyfriend. Normally, I would have searched these animals on Google images to figure out what they look like, but I wanted to stick to the 'no reference image' rule and tried to come up with something based on what was in my imagination. I tried something and it didn't work at all. But there was one element that I did like - the snout. So I tried again, incorporating that element, but it still didn't look menacing enough. I added some surly cartoon eyebrows, and that brought it closer. I kept working on it until I had something that, while it didn't look exactly like my dream, was close enough.

In another assignment, the goal was to incorporate three random words in a drawing. My words were 'actor', 'suitcase', and 'castle'. I only had the vaguest inkling of what I could draw - something about a sad actor with a suitcase, maybe in front of a castle set. A fake castle was too hard to draw though. I tried drawing him on a road leaving Hollywood, but it was messy, and the castle didn't really fit in. Then I got the idea to put the castle on a poster for the play. Bingo. The sad actor was leaving with his suitcase because he didn't get a part in King Lear. It took many sketches and attempts, but I was really pleased with the final drawing.

Iterating means trying something, even if you know it's not what you want, just to get moving. Chances are this first experiment will lead to something else you can use. Every time you attempt something on paper, you learn and grow. You get new ideas, and your technique is refined.

When you don't know what to draw - everyday artistry drawing project

Look for what the page (or your intuition) is telling you

This is an unexpected and strange technique that I've used a couple of times. I first tried it when I was staring at a blank page, thinking about what I should draw. After a few minutes, it seemed like there was a line going across the page, with a dip in the middle. I don't know if my imagination pulled it out of the grain of the paper, or from thin air, but I decided to go with it. What followed was a bizarre, surreal landscape that felt like a dream. It was so much fun to draw! Again, I didn't let myself use reference photos so I just did the best with whatever came to mind. I never really know how to draw cars, and I wasn't sure at all what a ship looks like, but I put them in anyway, because they felt necessary.

Another time I looked at a blank page and the image of a cat's head seemed to float there, almost invisible. Somehow, the cat ended up playing the saxophone.

A really fun way to practice finding these seemingly random images is to pay attention to what goes through your mind when you're just about to fall asleep. These images that bubble up from your subconscious when you're walking the line between awake and dreaming are called hypnagogic images, and they are often a source of inspiration for me. It can take some practice to notice and remember them, but it's a lot of fun to see what comes up!

When you don't know what to draw - everyday artistry drawing project

Follow impulses and work through the cliche

A lot of the time we squash our first impulses because they seem cliched or unoriginal. "Anyone would choose that!" we think, "I need to come up with something better." However, as Keith Johnstone writes in his book about improvisation, often what comes to us first is the most authentic, original choice: "An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He's not making any decisions, he's not weighing one idea against another. He's accepting his first thoughts. Striving after originality."

A drama teacher I had told us that if we felt our work was cliché we needed to work through the cliché, instead of discarding the idea completely. We needed to find what was true or authentic about the idea, and what was unique to our experience. I did a series of intuitive drawings that all felt cliched to me when I started them, but they took on their own personality and depth as I continued to work on them.

“Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read the lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths.” Henry Miller

How do you overcome the fear of the blank page? Is there anything that helps to get you unstuck? Leave a comment below!