Drawing from imagination, why is it so hard?

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Creating a creature from scratch sounds wonderful. You wake up from a dream and have this wonderful impression of a great beast. But when you are drawing from imagination, it's nothing like that mighty beast you saw in your dreams. Why is that? It has little to do with your skills in art, the explanation is more complex and interesting than that.

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, art director, and creative project manager. I love to share my passion for this craft, nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

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Drawing from imagination

No matter if it’s a dream, a fantasy, or even a memory from a movie you once saw, or an impression of a book you read. Drawing from imagination proves to be a huge challenge. It may just be that you don’t have much experience with drawing yet or have little knowledge of effective creature or character design. But that’s not the whole story. It is however where most people start, stumble, and start to wonder why the heck it doesn’t work. Or worse even: Think art is not for them.

No matter the original source, we draw from our memory and imagination. I’m sure all of us did the following at least once: We have this great idea for a creature design, we grab pen and paper (or tablet and stylus) and just go for it, without using reference. And all you did was end up with a turd. But you don’t want to give up so you continue, just to end up with a polished turd… Why does this happen?

Visual library

Imaginination is fluid, not solid.
Imagination is fluid, not solid.
Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

Using references is extremely important. Drawing fro imagination may seem to come easy to the great masters, but they spent countless hours educating themselves. They have a so-called visual library. In other words: They practiced and studied so much that it became second nature to them. They both remember how everything looks and they have muscle memory which helps them draw the right shapes. Don’t expect that from yourself. Don’t expect it even after the famous 10.000 hours of art practice. Yes, you may be the source of a great idea, but this doesn’t mean that it technically makes sense. Drawing from imagination comes after years if not decades of drawing from reference. There is no other way. You will set yourself up for failure if you force yourself to go about it that way regardless.

Drawing from imagination vs drawing from reality

But don’t worry, that you can’t put your fantastic idea on paper, doesn’t make you a failure, or a bad artist. Our imagination plays tricks on us. Just like memories, it fills in the blanks. It does tricks your eyes won’t buy.
A memory or imagination is a vague depiction. A blurred image, sort of entangled with a feeling. Just like the smell of an apple pie can remind you of that wonderful spring day in your grandmother’s backyard. That too is a, likely glorified version of that particular day and, when you think of it, likely very vague as well. Our brains are great at filling in the blanks, even more so when things are somewhat vague, like in a dream or memory, or when you are in a dark room. That top hat and bunch of clothes on that chair in the corner of your room suddenly is a man staring at you from the edge of your vision. I know you have been there ;).

Why does this happen?

The reason our brain does this is that it would be very confusing for us human beings, and would put our brains in overdrive if we consciously tried to determine every shape and detail on every occasion. Instead, our brain just automatically goes like ‘Ah looks like this, I saw this before in that, so if I put a vague line there, and a vague blob there, whew, it’s a cockatrice!’ But unless you drew a cockatrice before, preferably more than once, you won’t be able to conjure it out of your hand. When this happens, and it will happen, don’t be hard on yourself.

Remember it’s just our brains trying to subconsciously help us out and it does so all the time, even when we’re awake. It’s why we are so effective in our daily lives and as a species. Drawing from imagination is hard because we humans are the way we are, but practice, reference, research, and repetition are key.

How drawing from imagination can work

Allow yourself to be inspired by all sorts of creatures, especially when you're drawing from imagination.
Allow yourself to be inspired by all sorts of creatures, especially when you’re drawing from imagination.
Photo by Uriel Soberanes on Unsplash

Use reference! Reference reference reference! But that’s not using your imagination, you say? But it is! It is, on a whole other level. Instead of drawing from a simple image in your head, you dissected that image into parts. Maybe you dream about a flying creature with translucent wings and clearly visible glinting bones in these wings. Maybe, when thinking about it, you realize that that creature has an enormous body, compared to its wingspan. That poses a problem. It looks weird because your eyes won’t fool you, unlike your brain. You will need to correct that or create some sort of explanation for that feature.

If your creature is birdlike, it would make sense. We know birds can fly because they have hollow bones. However, when it’s lizard-like, like a dragon, a design like that would only fit a movie like ‘how to train my dragon’. It won’t be your magnificent believable realistic creature.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with a design like that of the movie ‘how to train my dragon’. They are the best of the best designs out there. But if that’s not what you’re going for, you will keep fighting a design that doesn’t work for its purpose. In other words: You’re trying to polish a turd.

Analyzing the creature

This is something you need to do before you want to start drawing from your imagination.
So, you decided, your creature is birdlike and has a relatively large body. It can fly, but because of its features, it won’t be the most elegant and based on its shape, won’t be able to fly long distances. However, it’s a magnificent-looking creature. It has delicate translucent wings that glint in the sunlight. It’s predatory as well and large enough to carry a human. The creature only has back legs, a mix between that of a bird and a dragon, also known as a Wyvern type of dragon. The front legs are fused with the wings, this makes the front half of the body slightly lower than the back end when the creature is using all its limbs to walk.
The head is large but elegant at the same time. It matches the bulk of its body, but its features give it a streamlined feel. The mouth is a razor-sharp beak, fit to tear apart any prey it comes across.

Using real life animals as reference for your art is key.
Using real-life animals as reference for your art is key.
Art by AJ Ramos.

Using reference to accompany your drawing

So, what reference would one want to use for a creature like this? That’s where drawing from imagination really begins. There are millions of animal species out there you could pick from. It’s extremely useful to use keywords at this stage. Here are some examples that would fit an idea like the one above:

Streamlined and bulky

Streamlined and bulky at the same time: The penguin is both. On land it’s a plump unhandy creature, its small wings don’t allow for flight. But put it in water and it flies in the water like another bird would fly in the sky. They’re suddenly extremely agile and streamlined. Maybe your creature dives from great heights into the water to catch its prey, or maybe its wings just need to be bigger than you intended them to be.
If you like the idea of a penguin, look up the Alcidae family (Auks, Murres, and Puffins). They look a lot like penguins, but these birds can fly.

Other animals you could consider for this design:

Male frigate bird showing its gular sac.
Male frigate bird showing its gular sac.
Image by Aquaimages
  • Frigate birds: Use the gular sac to plump up your design. They have a bit too streamlined head for the design, but a nice short neck and large body.
  • Pigeon: Especially the ones that got fluffy plumage, they look bulky but can still fly great distances.
  • Snow panther: Odd one out? Not really. Did you ever see a snow panther in the wintertime? It’s a very agile, very strong animal, but extremely fluffy in the winter. It would make sense to use its body type in a design. An adult snow panther almost flies alongside the mountain ridges, trying to catch its primary food source: Mountain goats. If it needs to, it will hit its prey off a cliff hundreds of meters high and jump right after it without hesitation.
  • Whales and dolphins. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

The back legs

A mix between that of a bird and a dragon. A signature creature to pick would be the Velociraptor. Did you know chickens are one of the most dinosaur-like creatures of this day? Their paws resemble that of bipedal predatory dinosaurs. That’s an easy pick! The talons will make it an effective killer like that of a bird of prey. But it will also give extra grip when hunting from the ground or in mountainous areas.

The giant claws of the Therizinosaurus. This animal lived in what's now known as Mongolia in the Cretaceous period. The claws could grow over 50 cm in length.
The giant claws of the Therizinosaurus. This animal lived in what’s now known as Mongolia in the Cretaceous period. The claws could grow over 50 cm in length.
Image from: Von Krugerr

Other animals you could consider for this design:

  • Feline paws – but without the fur.
  • Any predatory bird, many other birds.
  • Predatory dinosaurs.
  • Reptile paws, think komodo dragon, monitor lizard, crocodile etc. Ask yourself if your design is that of a water-dwelling animal or not. If so: Pick the paws of water-dwelling reptiles like crocodiles.
  • Rats and other rodents.
  • Sloths.
  • Bonus animal: Check out the Therizinosaurus! It’s a herbivore with the largest known claws amongst land-dwelling animals.

The wings

Dragonfly, a wonderful creature to use for your drawings.
Photo by Mehdi Babousan on Unsplash

Again, this really depends on the nature of the creature. Is it an aquatic species? Look into fish fins. Be inspired by flying fish, or the hatchet fish, they have remarkably shaped fins that, if large enough, are ideal for gliding. Is it flying, but also largely a land-dwelling creature? Try the wings of cockroaches, cicadae, and grasshoppers. Is it an agile and/or long-distance flyer despite its bulky body? Try the wings of the glass butterfly, or that of dragonflies. You will have to make them larger though to make them believable.

More animals you could consider for this design:

  • Any insect.
  • Dragon wings (shape).
  • Fairy wings.
  • Fish fins.
  • Bird wings, but crystallized.
  • Translucent bat wings.

And so on. Any wings really, just modify them as you go so they meet your intended design. Just remember that shape can make a huge difference. Round shapes usually equal friendly while angular and sharp points equal danger. Don’t forget the nature of your creature!

Tip: If you know what animals you want to refer to, don’t only look for images, also look for (slow motion) video’s!

Don’t only make concessions in your drawing!

It may sound like you should make endless concessions when transforming your idea into a believable design but this is not entirely true. It partially depends on your own state of mind and how much you want to stay with the original imaginary idea. But when exploring your idea with real-life creatures, they may give you some wonderful inspiration.
A dream or imagination is usually just a snapshot. It tells you little about the creature, other than the way it looks, combined with a little moment in time and whatever it was doing at that time.

As mentioned before, maybe your creature isn’t truly a flying creature, maybe it glides instead and crashes into the mighty waves to catch its prey, only to create momentum underwater and break the surface to temporarily get airborne again. A creature from the land, the sea, and the skies. Your design doesn’t stop with your snapshot, it can extend way beyond that, and when you do it right, it will become way more than what you initially intended it to be. That’s how great new designs come to be.

Some examples

The underside of a manta ray. The cephalis lobes at the front of the body helps them funnel food to their mouths
Photo by Michael Bernander on Unsplash.
  • Some birds like the pelican, which are fish eaters, have a throat pouch that helps catch their prey, while also getting rid of excess water. Maybe that’s the exact way your creature hunts.
  • Changing wing size and shape greatly changes what an animal is capable of. That may feel like a concession, but in truth, it opens up many doors.
  • Have you ever looked at the shape of a manta ray? Your creature may look bulky, but maybe it’s only that from the side. Using the manta rays head as a body type would make your creature bulky, elegant, and lightweight.
  • Remember the Therizinosaurus? It’s a bulky type of animal, if it would roam on 4 legs, the front half of its body would be significantly lower than the back. Its huge talons could serve as wings when webbed, with a bit of imagination.

Just look for animals with similar features as your creature. Break it apart in little chunks so it’s easier for your brain to digest and find fitting animals. Maybe a specific color makes you think of a different animal species that will work well for your design too. Always stay open-minded, nature has so much to offer and your design can be so much more if you are open to that. Drawing from imagination will come over time. You will start connecting interesting features of different animal species in a way only extensive research and practice will bring. When you do that, things only can become easier.

Use thumbnails

While exploring your design and coming up with ideas, use thumbnails. These are little sketches, usually set up in a row of windows on a canvas. Just keep drawing until you find a design to your liking. A good design unmistakably jumps out. And from that point on, start working on the poses of your favorite design. This too you can do while working with thumbnails. You could even do this for colors and composition! Thumbnails are key.
When exploring something new, you have so much to choose from, you will have to narrow it down to make things easier for yourself and to find that one good design. Remember that for every great artwork, there are 10 that never see the light of day. Drawing from imagination requires preparation like any other artwork would.

Some great creature designers

There are many wonderful creature designers out there. Think of the designs for Lord of the Rings, or that of Avatar. Of the creature designs of all the games out there. It’s very valuable to study their art and workflow. Not to mention the knowledge they obtained in the field throughout time. Here are some artists that will definitely help you develop further!

Some great artists you should check out

  • Adam Duff (Disney, EA, teacher, and more).
  • Bobby Chiu (Pixar, Disney, owner of Schoolism, the movies Alice in Wonderland, and more).
  • Jerad Marantz (Worked on movies like The Amazing Spiderman, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and more).
  • Ken Barthelmy (Worked on movies like The Maze Runner, The Nun, Fantastic Beasts, and the Crimes of Grindelwald, Godzilla vs. Kong, and more).
  • Neville Page (Worked on movies like Avatar, X-men: The Last Stand, The Chronicles of Narnia (2005), and more).
  • Aaron Blaise (Worked for Disney on movies like The Lion King, Alladin, Pocahontas, Beauty, and the Beast, and more. Made the movie Brother Bear).
  • Daniel Falconer (Worked at Weta Workshop for Lord of the Rings and the first Hobbit movie, Avatar, King Kong, and more).
  • Terryl Whitlatch (Worked on movies like Star Wars ep 1 The Phantom Menace and accompanying game, Jumanji, and more).
  • Arnaud Valette (Worked on games and movies like Jurassic World: Fallen, The Mummy, Fantastic Beasts, Guardians of the Galaxy and more).
  • Alexander Ostrowski (Worked at studios like Weststudio, Ready at Dawn, and SixMoreVodka)
  • H.R. Giger (Worked on movies like Alien, Prometheus, Dune, and Batman Forever, also known for his IP covers).
  • John Howe (Worked on movies like Lord of the Rings and illustrated many books, like that of the Robin Hobb series).
  • Alan Lee (Illustrated many books and worked on the Lord of the Rings series. He also worked on movies like Legend, and King Kong).

And there are many more out there. Behind every movie or game is a creature designer and/or a creature design concept artist. Their names may not be well known like that of many actors, but they more often than not tend to steal the show with their amazing ideas and designs.

Check out the 10 teaching Youtube artists you don’t want to miss!

Making things a little easier

Making a good creature design is already extremely hard to do. After a huge amount of research and reference images, you still have to put it on paper. Creating thumbnails is one thing, actually drawing colors, values, textures and whatnot is the next challenge. This of course is part of your creature design, but it requires art fundamentals to do this effectively.

However, there are some ways to go about this that you may want to prioritize over other techniques. Remember that your creature design consists of many different creatures. How on earth are you properly going to put lighting and color on a piece like that? Well, again, practice would be the answer. We really can’t go around that. However, there are some extra things you can do to make it a bit easier for yourself.

  • Make sure that you have reference images that have roughly the pose, lighting angle, and textures you want. It will help you well on your way when building your creature.
  • First draw in grayscale. Color behaves in strange ways and trying to do so from the start with something like a creature design is something only the true veterans can do.
  • Dig into color-theory like no one else. There are some very effective ways to add color without ruining your grayscale. Think of this tutorial by Adam Duff or this one by Dave Greco.
  • Use a free 3D program like Blender. It will allow you to play with lighting angles, teach you how it works on different textures, and give away nice angles and where light hits in the first place. Magic Poser is ideal for character designs as it already has a bunch of models available for free. Note that the latter seems to work best on a mobile phone.

Going about it step by step

This is a big article so let me give you a quick overview so you know what to do step by step. Of course this is not the only way to go about it, but this is one of the best ways.

  • Know roughly what you want to draw (terrestrial or avian, predator or prey, furry or scaly, etc).
  • Allow its environment to dictate some of its features (tundra animals likely have fur, and desert creatures have adaptations for heat regulation like large ears or no fur). Check out this case study for more info.
  • Are there specific behavioral traits that can dictate the way your creature looks?
  • Create a bunch of thumbnails or simple illustrations that display your ideas. Pick out the best ones, combine the nicest traits to make it a balanced artwork, and go from there.
  • To play it safe, only work in grayscale to start with. That way you can fully focus on contrasts and lighting. And if you prefer, you can also pick another color to do this with, as long as it is just 1 color.
  • Carefully start adding color by using layer styles.
  • Refine the piece with a normal layer on top to make colors and contrasts pop where necessary.
  • Ask for feedback. Heh, it’s not easy, but it’s a very important step to learn more.


Drawing from imagination isn’t easy. Know that, when you make a design, it has to tell a story, and it WILL tell a story. If you plan to make A, but you draw B, people will see B. An image has to speak for itself. Don’t draw stubby wings if it has to be a long-distance flyer. Don’t draw gecko paws if it needs to kill with them, And keep in mind the form. If the animal is bulky but it has to look vicious, make sure you add triangular shapes, like sharp talons and teeth, vertical pupils, and angular wings. Things we as humans recognize as dangerous.
Nature is your best friend when it comes to reference. Your second-best friends are the great creature design masters, and the third are your fellow artists! Learn, use references and ask for feedback, those are the keys to a great design!

Art contributions by LtL members

Cover art by AJ Ramos.
Article art by AJ Ramos.

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