When used correctly, reference images can be a very useful tool artists use to capture exact representations of a subject. Recreating something using a photo or live model to reference is helpful in many ways, but restrictive in others.
This is because it provides an artist with structure. This can feel like both a set of detailed guidelines to follow and like rules they feel they have to follow in order for their piece to live up to the subject they’re referencing. However, sometimes the desired subject is not something you can reference with a photo or live model, because the idea came from your imagination.
Painting entirely from a mental picture, and doing it well, may seem very intimidating if you haven’t done it before. So how do you paint things that don’t exist outside of your mind? Learning how to paint an entirely imagined scene is challenging, but often opens up the door for artists to truly explore and connect with the depths of their creativity and identify their own signature style.
Study Other Artists To Help You Paint Without a Reference
Study other artist’s work to get a better understanding of what imaginative pieces look like. Observe the essence of the piece you’re studying. Your goal isn’t to directly copy someone else’s work, but to become inspired by the feeling it gives and then begin creating with your own imagination.
As you study, identify what about the piece makes it realistic. Ask yourself, why are those paint marks there, and why does it make sense? Thinking about these things helps you understand the artist’s thought process, and how to create a process that works for you.
An excellent example of an artist who has mastered painting without a reference is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who creates oil paintings of people who only exist in her mind. Her style, though not based on any particular era, uses a distinctive palette of dark colors contrasted by flashes of brightness to create a dramatic tone. Writing what she can’t express by painting is central to her work.
Learn How It Works
In order to create, you need to determine how the thing that you’re creating works. How does it walk? What are its limitations? Pinpoint the elements that categorically make up its personality so that you’re able to capture it effectively.
A good way to think of it is to compare it to a building. How is the building structured? How do people come in and out of it? In order for the thing you’re creating to truly feel believable, you have to understand it from a functional point of view. Identify the parts that make its movements and functions possible so that you’re able to wrap your head around it being a believable thing.
Then, learn what’s inside the anatomy. If you know how it works from a functional point of view, how do the different parts make that movement or function possible? Consider it this way: If someone asked you to paint a bag of groceries and you didn’t know what was inside the bag, how well could you paint it versus if you knew its contents?
A lot of times when you’re dealing with anatomy where it’s very specific of how things work and how things connect, these elements need to line up. If you see something poking out of the form, whether it’s a bone, or maybe a pipe leading from one section to another, only revealing itself in certain angles or movements, you should be able to identify it. Understanding what’s inside is extremely important to understand the thing you’re creating as a whole and be able to paint it.
Consider How the Light Will Hit
Remember, the only reason you can see the thing you’re creating is because of the light around it. No matter how dark the object or its environment is, if there’s anything visible to paint, that means there’s light somewhere.
As you may already know, lighting can get quite complex based on the type of light source that you’re working with. One light source can create very soft shadows, while another may create very hard shadows. Learning about the different types and colors of light and how they react to different surfaces, materials, atmospheres, and so on becomes essential.
Not only does lighting help something feel realistic, but it also creates a mood. This allows you to use lighting almost like a secondary character and enhance the presence of a specific mood in the scene that you’re creating.
This is frequently seen in films. For example, a child’s bedroom would probably have toys in the corner, a small bed with cozy blankets on it, and decor that is generally inviting. But with the right lighting, it becomes a completely different atmosphere.
Animated films and video games tend to use very realistic lighting. This is how animators are able to bring inanimate objects or made-up creatures to life. The goal is never to trick people into thinking this is a real scene with real creatures, but to personify these things in a “magical” and believable way.
Knowing how light influences a painting will assist you when figuring out how to make your scene look believable. The arrangement of colors and light you use can really tell a story as well. The entire idea of a story should always be part of your painting, so keep that in mind as you decide which colors to include.
Something that many artists forget to capture is how the texture in a scene takes light. Is it highly reflective, subsurface scattering, or perhaps somewhat translucent? If it’s metal, what kind of metal is it?
In Jonathan Hardesty’s course on understanding textures (“Understanding Textures with Jonathan Hardesty” on Schoolism.com), he explains all the different variables when it comes to different kinds of texture. He shows examples of how some metals are super reflective, others are completely not, and explains how light reacts to these various materials. This is a huge component of why he knows how to paint realistically.
Adapting Your Approach To Painting Without a Reference
Next, you have to learn how to design all of the things previously mentioned here. Without a reference, you are no longer restricted by certain proportions or shapes. This means you can and should design the scene to be any genre you want. Using realistic lighting and textures, you can make an imagined subject look convincingly real.
To get some practice on this, check out Tonko House’s course on painting color and light (“Painting with Light and Color with Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo” on Schoolism.com). In one of the assignments of this course, you will paint the same room four different times, with different lighting situations, creating different moods each time. This is an extremely helpful and wonderful exercise that you can learn a great deal from.
Theoretically, because the piece is not completely based on something that exists in the real world, you’ll easily be able to determine what works and what doesn’t, right? If only that were the case. Though easier said than done, try to not spend too much time overthinking every technique you used to determine what feels “off”.
You could try to identify your issue with it by examining the piece with a mirror, or turning the work 180 degrees and upside down, and then fixing those areas over and over. You may prefer doing that rather than taking this advice: Asking others for help.
Yes, this is your vision, but sometimes your imagination just can’t picture exactly what would make the object look realistic. Try finding an object similar to what you’re creating and having someone hold it from the angle you’re trying to capture so you can see exactly how the light should hit.
Another tip: Start small. You may already have an amazing world or creature in your mind that’s just begging to be painted, but don’t start with your most intricate idea if you’ve never painted without a reference before.
Try imagining a simple landscape or still life and start there. This will give you the experience you can use to further develop your visual memory, and (eventually) master the ability to make something imagined look realistic.
Don’t feel like you should immediately be able to paint from imagination, either. If you’re struggling to translate something into a painting, try sketching it out. Artists who are experienced in painting from their imagination often do this as a transitional phase between their mind and beginning the actual piece. To be successful, you have to find a process that works for you!
The ability to paint convincingly without using a reference requires a thorough understanding of realistic lighting and textures, and the ability to think visually. The process will test the communication between your imagination and execution. With the right preparation and technique, your result will pass with flying colors!
To learn directly from artists who have mastered this skill, take advantage of Schoolism’s great selection of online art classes. With access to 40+ different courses taught by some of the most amazing artists in the industry, Schoolism is basically the Netflix for artists!