Can I be an artist with no imagination?

Since I was very young, and even when I had already started aiming to make art my primary occupation, I thought that I simply could not become a “true” artist because I felt I had no imagination.

I think this notion started when I was just a kid, getting more interested in making art and asking the adults around me how to create better-looking drawings and paintings. Because none of those adults was an artist, the answer was always similar:

Just imagine what you want to draw in your head, and put it on paper!

I got the image that the “learning how to draw” part was only for getting better at expressing what I should be able to imagine in my head—getting better at using pencils, paints, or digital tools. The creation part was supposed to naturally and almost subconsciously happen in my head, using the Talent of Imagination.

Well, this sucked big time because I couldn’t “just imagine” anything, really. I could not see a car, a horse, or a tree in my “mind’s eye,” and then, looking at this internal reference of sorts, draw what I saw. Somehow my brain would not work this way no matter how many hours I spent trying to force it to “display” things. This meant, I decided, that I didn’t have that Talent everyone was talking about, so I could not become a “true” artist.

An artist in his study, projecting onto canvas.

For a long time, this realization made me feel like a fraud, like someone who is just skilled enough at drawing that he can “fake” making art, hoodwinking the audience into thinking that the imagination was there. This feeling was especially fortified by people (including my teachers) outright telling me that “I will never be an artist” or “only the most talented, chosen few can become real artists” or asking me, “did you copy this from somewhere?” Yes, of course, I copied it—it’s a drawing of a castle in Germany! If you think that drawing from a photo reference is just copying, then yes! I guess I am a fraud who only draws from photos and can’t really imagine anything.

OK, so is this whole imagination requirement way of thinking correct?

After more than ten years of professional work and observing how other artists work too, I’m inclined to say that this image of an artist is wrong! Making art is not about being able to project pictures straight from your head onto paper or canvas.
(It’s good to mention here that a great part of what we consider “art” does not deal with “making things up in your head” anyway—you can, for example, be a plain air artist who is only concerned with capturing what they see and not “imagining” things.)

I can see where this romantic image of an artist comes from, though. When we look at a skilled person drawing, they seem to be able to render a car or a tree without any references, so obviously, they imagine it and see it in their heads, right? Not really. Maybe some artists with high-functioning imagination can just “visualize” in their heads things they saw somewhere or that they made up, but I don’t think that’s the case for most.

An example: On Polish ’80s TV, there was a famous artist/architect called Prof. Doc. Wiktor Zin. He had a program explaining traditional Polish architecture using sketches and drawings that he did live, in just a few minutes each, straight in front of the camera. It looked like magic! Buildings and cities appeared on paper while he talked about their history. Prof. Zin surely was one of those “real artists” with “imagination” to be able to perform this magic on live TV!

Recently I was delighted to find online an archive of Polish National Radio interviews with Prof. Zin. on various topics. In one of the episodes, he talked about how people who visited his atelier in Kraków were always surprised by how many almost identical drawings he had lying around. He explained that to get ready for the TV program, he had to draw the same thing many, many times until he got good and fast enough to perform live.

I also add that from his other interviews I learned that he had studied architecture since he was young, which included doing a ton of sketches and learning in-depth about each building and architectural element. Prof. Zin just had all those things memorized so he could make drawings later with no reference.

Example two: I think I already talked about this one, but Hayao Miyazaki, in his documentary about the movie Ponyo, was asked by the interviewer why he was painting the same building (the hero’s house) again and again, a bit differently each time. Wasn’t Miyazaki skilled enough to just draw what he saw in his head?

Miyazaki answered, somewhat amused: (paraphrasing) “If I had this in my head, I would not have to draw it so many times.” He then explained that the only way for him to visualize what he wanted was a trial-and-error process, getting closer and closer with each sketch to the atmosphere and idea he was aiming for.

OK, even Miyazaki does not have an imagination that allows him to “project” something from his head straight into a concept sketch. He has to draw something while trying to get close to his idea, then see what is wrong with the picture and try again until he gets it right.

I think these two examples demonstrate very well what does actually happen in the head of a skilled artist:

  • They have an “idea,” which is closer to a “word” than an actual image—something more like a phrase, “a cozy house on a hill,” than a concrete image of the house.
  • They can imagine the thing only very roughly. (This varies person by person: in my case, it is like seeing three to four grey, simple blurry shapes that I can look at from various angles and manipulate around, but nothing more. Kana says that she can only imagine small details, textures, facial features, etc., and can feel the overall atmosphere but cannot visualize the whole scene.)
  • They sketch and explore the idea while drawing or painting using experience, knowledge about the thing, a library of images and details, etc., that they gathered through years of studies and work. The more knowledge they have, the easier and quicker the process. (I can draw a Japanese store or a house fast and without any reference only because I memorized and practiced tons of them. Kana can sketch characters without thinking, especially ones wearing traditional Japanese clothes, because she researched and practiced them a lot, and so on.)
  • They iterate on what they made, building, refining, fixing, and exploring until they get something close enough to the original idea or something unexpected but nice enough. (It’s also important to understand that even though an artist looks like they knew what they were doing, the truth is that often they simply follow where the process is taking them and are surprised by what they created but don’t show it.)

The “imagination” skill helps a little on each step here, allowing them to create the first “blurry” image and also to make it more detailed in the iterative stage, but it’s not a straight “idea -> imagination -> picture” thing!

I believe that even artists drawing and painting simple things straight on, with no sketching or development stages, can do it because they practiced it a lot beforehand.

There are exceptions, of course. A flash of crisp imagination happens sometimes—for me, maybe one time out of a hundred pictures, I can clearly see what I have to draw—but it’s nearly impossible to be an artist who only waits for this. If I did, I would have made maybe only five pictures total in my entire career!

So, if you are a young artist—by which I mean someone starting out, no matter the age—and you are worried that you can’t imagine things like the skilled artists seem to be able to—don’t be. The good news is that rather than some kind of superb-imagining talent, it’s the skill, experience, process, and knowledge that mostly allow them to make great pieces, and these things can be learned and honed! Also, I think that the romantic image of an artist “projecting” images from their imagination is mostly untrue and highly overrated.

8 thoughts on “Can I be an artist with no imagination?”

  1. I found this article fascinating Mateusz, I think the realisation that mostly artists aren’t blessed with special powers and that continuous repetition leads one closer to perfection. I will share your article with my artist friends, many of whom feel they are not “true artists” because they don’t realise that practice is an important part of the process of learning to paint or draw.

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  2. Ja im bardziej oglądam czyjeś prace tym bardziej widzę jak przetwarzają rzeczywiste zdarzenia ze swoich czasów. Przykładem jest bohaterka erotycznych komiksów milo manary, dla mnie wyglądem przypominająca piosenkarki z kraju autora np. Patty Parvo https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=wchNjXXVYd4
    U nas np. okładka komiksu B.Polcha to wypisz wymaluj album Abby z twarzami ułożonymi jak winogrona.
    W którymś momencie komiksu Funky Koval bohater pilnuje wyborów miss w ubraniu cowboja ,gdzie w Opolu 78 aktor D.Olbrychski właśnie tak przyszedł na widownię…
    Z kolei jak się ogląda komiksowe filmy marvela i dc to widać MASĘ stereotypów kulturowych powtarzanych non stop np. wybraniec prowadzący do zwycięstwa i jego apostołowie pomocnicy.
    Niby ludzki, ale niezkazitelnie czysty w przekonaniach, obowiązkowo
    posiadający arcy-przeciwnika i kochającą kobietę…

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  3. This makes me feel very validated in pursuing art. I have aphantasia and always feel like an imposter when I’m trying to create something

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  4. Excellent post debunking a myth! I spent 10 years drawing every day, almost always from direct observation (not from photos). Finally this year I decided I wanted to learn to draw more from my mind (memory or imagination), so I used the 100 Day Project to focus on it. Tomorrow will be my 100th day, and it was probably the most difficult drawing challenge I have ever put myself through! It takes a LOT of study and work and focus to pull stuff directly out of the head and onto paper. Every day after I finished one of those, it was such a relief to go back to drawing from life because it feels so easy by comparison!

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  5. This post has exactly hit on something I’ve been quietly mulling over for a long while. I’ve always wondered if I’m an oddball, that I could never picture something perfectly in my head before putting it to paper! That everyone knew what they were going to draw, and execute it that flawlessly from their mind, every time. Literally a mind-beam.

    I never have a full picture of what I wanted to create, just a very blurry rough idea, and it gets built, refined, modified as I go along, till it’s completed. And yes, I noticed that you can get faster at drawing “from imagination”, but it’s all accumulated from tons of practice first. Phew. Thank you for your thoughts on this topic, it really was a comforting and validating read.

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  6. Hello Mateusz,
    I enjoyed reading about how you don’t count on imagination to create art. I find this blog helpful since you mentioned how having a clear picture of what you want to draw is untrue. I liked that you provided examples from artists to prove that you need more experience and practice to be good at drawing. This relates to my drawing niche since I draw usually by reference, I can use this blog to improve my drawing skills without using a reference. Reading this blog also makes me understand that practicing art is normal and a part of learning.

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