How to Draw from Imagination
Updated: 01 Apr 2021
In this guide, I will focus on the minimum necessary basics you need to know for drawing from imagination.
Drawing from imagination means the knowledge to draw the basic shapes from different angles (in perspective), and the way to present them (rendering).
After getting the structure right, render is the final result with consideration to materials, lighting, texture (including color), shadows and reflections.
This guide focuses mainly on drawing objects, both for concept art and product design.
If you do not have some basic understanding in linear perspective, visit my beginners guide to linear perspective.
Here, I will highlight the important and most practical things you need to know.
Start by drawing some boxes in 1-, 2- and 3-point perspective.
Draw them above, on and below the horizon line:
Next, draw some boxes from imagination, but with attention to perspective.
They do not have to be perfect, just to get used to drawing in freehand style, meaning with no ruler or vanishing points (imagine where the vanishing points should be).
If you struggle with drawing boxes, remember that every set of lines (which are parallel in real life), will converge in perspective.
The following is an example of drawing simple boxes from imagination, and turning them into treasure chests.
Later we will learn how to render our drawings.
A very helpful thing to know is finding the center of a plane (rectangle) in perspective.
To do that, draw two diagonals from the corners of ANY rectangle:
Use this knowledge to draw a nightstand.
Start by drawing a box and find the center for one plane.
Use the center point to add a line (in perspective) to create two drawers.
Use the same center point to find the position for the handles.
Now you can design your own nightstands (or other box-shaped objects).
To see the supply and equipment I use for drawing, visit my guide for drawing materials.
When drawing with imagination, I rarely use vanishing points.
Learning linear perspective is important to understand how to draw objects in perspective from different angles.
With some practice, it is possible to estimate where the vanishing points are.
With more practice and experience, it becomes natural to draw anything from any angle.
There are two main rules for linear perspective.
1. The farther an object is, the smaller it will look.
2. Objects are subject to foreshortening.
Foreshortening, sometimes called "artist's nightmare", is not that scary.
It is the way we see things that are along our line of sight. Meaning, continuous.
When the top part of a box is in front of us, we see it as a rectangle with right angles (90 degrees).
When we rotate the box, its top part is starting to be along our line of sight and becomes shorter:
The more a plane is along our line of sight, the more it is foreshortened.
If we rotate a box sideways, one plane will start to get shorter, while the other will be less foreshortened.
At start, when drawing from observation, it is best to draw what we see and NOT what we know.
With time (meaning, with practice and knowledge), we can reverse engineer the process and draw what we know (draw from imagination).
We know that a table might have a rectangle top, but we also know the two rules of perspective:
1. Things get smaller the farther away they are.
2. Objects are subject to foreshortening.
We can apply these rules to our table in perspective:
Now we can draw boxes and planes in perspective, considering foreshortening.
The same works for ellipses.
An ellipse (in perspective) is a foreshortened circle.
It has a major axis (long axis) and a minor axis (short axis).
The major axis and minor axis are perpendicular to one another.
Both sides of an ellipse along the major axis should be equal.
The same goes for both sides along the minor axis.
The minor axis determines the direction of the foreshortening.
In other words, the direction of a cylinder.
It is a good practice to draw ellipses freehand.
If you struggle with drawing a perfect ellipse, draw a major axis and a minor axis inside your ellipse and correct it.
Alternatively, draw the axes first. Then, add some rounded indication to the axes. Lastly, connect the lines.
For a rounded elliptical edge, draw a smaller ellipse (in diameter), and place it a bit higher in the direction of the minor axis.
Connect the two ellipses and erase the overlapping part (which should be hidden).
For an elevated ellipse, draw an inner (smaller) ellipse.
Then, raise two lines and draw an ellipse (create a cylinder).
Finally, erase overlapping marks.
For a lowered (sunken) ellipse, draw an inner ellipse.
Then, draw a lower ellipse and erase overlapping parts.
When we want to draw elevated or sunken ellipses, there is one more thing to consider.
From the first rule of perspective (objects or planes look smaller when they are far away), we need to draw the far part of an ellipse smaller.
To draw a candle (or anything with a cylindrical body), we need to understand cylinders.
I will cover that next.
Use the knowledge you have on ellipses to draw some hats from imagination (or memory):
The top and bottom parts of a cylinder are circles (or ellipses when foreshortened).
From the first rule of perspective, we know that objects will look smaller as they are farther away.
Yet, they keep the ratio between height and width (there is no distortion):
The same is true for a cylinder body.
It will look smaller with distance:
From the second rule of perspective, we know that objects are subject to foreshortening.
The top part of a cylinder is a circle when in front of us.
When the angle of our sight is changing, the object starts to be along our line of sight (and becomes an ellipse).
The more it is rotated to be along our line of sight, the more it will be foreshortened.
Meaning, the distortion between height and width will be stronger:
This is super important because a cylinder has a long body.
A long body means that we see each part of a cylinder from a different angle of sight, and therefore with a different degree of foreshortening.
In the next example, a cylinder is moving to the left.
Our angle of sight will change to look at it when it is moving, and its top part will have less foreshortening.
Now that we understand that, we can draw a flashlight (for example) from imagination.
We know that the left side of the flashlight will have less foreshortening.
Consequently, the left ellipse will be less foreshortened than the right ellipse:
And vice versa when drawing a flashlight with direction to our right side:
The same phenomenon happens when we lower our cylinder (below the horizon line, which is our eye level when looking forward).
The lower it is, the less it is foreshortened:
So, ellipses will have less foreshortening as they are lowered below the horizon line.
And vice versa, less foreshortening as they are higher above the horizon line.
We can use this knowledge to draw a plant pot (for example):
With the combined knowledge of drawing ellipses and cylinders, we can draw anything cylindrical.
We can do it from observation, imagination or memory.
When drawing, rotate your drawing paper in a way that is most comfortable for you.
The last step is rendering, and I will explain it next.
Rendering is the final outcome.
The first step of drawing is planning. Meaning, choosing a topic and working on composition.
The purpose of composition it to create something interesting.
For more info on composition, read my guide on how to draw a still life composition.
Second step is designing (sketching and then drawing), and adding details.
Last step is rendering. It is the time to use shading, texture, depth, cast shadow and anything else for your drawing to be with a quality of a finished artwork.
Start by observing some basic materials like wood, metal, chrome, plastic, bricks, leather, etc.
Draw these textures and understand their patterns and relationships with light.
Next, draw them on some basic shapes like cylinder, box and sphere.
This practice will give you the confidence to draw basic textures for your concept art and product design.
When drawing, decide where the light is coming from and create a transition (gradient) from dark to light.
Remember that dark values will be darker in dark areas (and lighter in light areas), and light values will be lighter in light areas (and darker in dark areas).
In the next example, look how the wood pattern becomes darker in the shadow areas.
Different artists use different mediums to present (render) their artworks.
Any medium (oil paint, watercolor, gouache, colored pencils, acrylics, etc.) is acceptable. It is a matter of personal preference.
You can do the same practice with any medium. Here is an example with markers.
For recommended markers, visit my guide for markers for drawing.
A quick render with markers:
Rendering with pen and ink is a quick way to present your design.
Here is my list for recommended drawing pens.
My favorite render style is realism. With pencils (in this case) or with any medium.
Remember, there are no lines in nature, and therefore, no lines when we draw realism.
If you are unfamiliar with realism, visit my guide on how to draw in a realistic style.
Spheres are quite easy to draw. On paper (2D), their outline is a circle.
To change a circle to a sphere, we draw some lines, which will give us both (the illusion of) depth and direction.
When looking at a sphere, the middle of it is in front of us.
The parts of a sphere that are closer to the edge are starting to be along our line of sight and therefore, foreshortened!
What works for a sphere (circle), also works for other "spherical" shapes, like an egg shape, ellipses or a peanut shape.
By adding a couple of lines, it is easy to give it depth and direction (with consideration to perspective).
Sketches are meant to be quick.
The more you practice with quick sketches, the more natural the drawing process becomes, making it easier to focus on a design.
Once you are happy with a design, you can render it.
How to draw cars?
For drawing complex objects, we need to research, study and practice a lot.
That said, we can draw quick sketches for anything quite fast, when knowing how to draw the basic shapes in perspective.
Here is a common way of using spheres (or sphere-like shapes) for quick car sketches.
Start by drawing two ellipses for the body and for the passenger cabin:
Next line is super important.
This will define the direction of the car and divide the hood in half.
Remember that when drawing in perspective, the far part will look smaller.
Another important line is for the grille.
This will guide our next lines for the wheels.
Parallel lines in reality will converge when drawing in perspective.
Pay attention to the grille line when drawing the wheel lines.
These lines are the minor axis for our wheels.
While we know the minor axis for the wheels, we still need to figure out their degree.
The degree of an ellipse means how much it is foreshortened.
These are fast sketches, so we estimate the degree depending on the amount of foreshortening of the side of the car.
The rear wheel will be more foreshortened.
Add front lights and some details.
Lastly, some refinement.
This technique is for sketching cars in 2 or 3 minutes. It is great for drawing from imagination, and for trying new ideas.
Concept art is the process of creating new and unique ideas.
Together with a good story or theme, concept art is the basis for the video game industry.
Some genres in the film industry (like fantasy and science fiction), rely heavily on concept art, and so do comics and animation.
Arguably, the easiest shape to start with is a round plane (circle).
Draw some round items in perspective (ellipses with different degree of foreshortening and direction, which is determined by the minor axis).
It can be a plate, Frisbee, button or a shield for a fantasy computer game.
For a more complex concept weapon (a flying disc with shark teeth), I started by drawing two ellipses (an elevated ellipse).
Then, I added an ellipse in between them, for the position of the shark teeth (3).
A final bigger ellipse (4) for the position of the teeth tip.
Lastly, drawing and rendering.
Next shape to practice on, is a rectangle in perspective.
Once you are comfortable drawing circles and rectangles in perspective, try some cylinders.
Use the minor axis to determine the direction of a cylinder and pay attention to foreshortening.
Render your artworks with texture.
Lastly, introduce boxes.
When you are comfortable drawing box-shaped objects, feel free to combine them with cylinders.
Although it is tempting to draw complex objects, start by drawing the basic shapes (circle, square, sphere, cylinder and box), from different angles.
Drawing complex objects often begins as basic shapes that we refine while drawing several sketches.
In the following example, I designed something that might be in the James Bond movie category, which is something between concept art and product design.
I usually start with an idea, then some sketches and lastly, refinement and rendering.
Something to consider:
Drawing concept art is, in a way, inventing something that does not exist.
So, when I decided to draw a weaponized drill, I had to research both drills and guns, learning which parts they are built from and how they work.
It is a good practice to research the subject we draw, for ideas and direction.
In addition, it is also advisable to be very loose when sketching several designs and angles before committing to the final design and render.
Anything that is man-made has to be designed. Our tables, computers, cars, shoes, lamps, houses, etc.
Therefore, a more careful approach is needed when designing a product.
We have to think about comfortability, usage, materials, price, human factors, ergonomics, and other factors, depending on the project.
Cylinder shape products:
For designing products with a cylinder shape, we can start with a line.
This line is very important, it is the direction of our cylinder, but also the minor axis for our ellipses.
Draw a short line for a foreshortened body, or a longer line for less foreshortened body.
Now that we have the direction, we can add two lines for the body's width (remember that in perspective the lines will converge).
Next, we add as many ellipses as needed for our design.
The farther away an ellipse is, the less it is foreshortened.
Lastly, we finish our drawing and render it.
When an ellipse is in a different direction, the minor axis will guide us.
Now that we know how to draw boxes and cylinders in perspective, it is time to combine them.
For this example, I designed a classic joystick.
Start by drawing a box and find its center.
Draw an ellipse in the middle and raise a cylinder (for the handle).
Draw another ellipse for an elevated button.
I decided to add another button, on top of the handle.
In my first design, the vanishing point is in the middle of the cylinder (red lines).
In that case, we cannot see the top button because it is above the horizon line.
The solution is to raise the vanishing point (green lines), and correct the design accordingly.
Last step is rendering.
One way to approach product design, is to first draw some orthographic views.
Depending on the complexity of the object, sometimes just one or two views are enough. In extreme cases, we might need views from all sided (top, bottom, front, back, left and right), in order to draw an object from different angles.
In many cases, designing is easier with orthographic views.
For a remote control, I used side, top and front views:
Now it is easier to draw it in perspective, which is more interesting.
Once you feel comfortable drawing box-shape objects and cylindrical objects (and combining them), you can design complex objects.
Sometimes, we want to add context to our designs.
In the next example, I drew some SpongeBob bags and backpacks.
Although the bags are structured in a "square" way and have the SpongeBob color pattern, there is something missing.
That missing thing is context. In this case, SpongeBob figures.
Whenever I want to draw something for the first time, it can be challenging.
Regardless of my knowledge in perspective, I will use these two steps:
1. Search for reference images to understand the structure and functions of the object I want to draw.
2. Draw some quick sketches to explore different design ideas.
When I decide on a final design, I will render it:
Knowledge and experience in the craft of drawing is the basis for drawing from imagination.
Once you have the knowledge, you can use your imagination, influences and preferences to create your own unique artworks.
If you struggle with drawing from imagination, I suggest practicing first on drawing from observation (photos), direct observation (from life) and in perspective (learning linear and atmospheric perspective).
With practice, the process becomes natural and therefore, you will think less on how to draw and more on what to draw.
As mentioned above, when I draw from imagination, I like to do it freehand, with no rulers or vanishing points.
This results with some sacrifice in accuracy, but I prefer my drawing process to be flowing and enjoyable.
Where to go next:
To learn more about depth, check out my guide for drawing the illusion of depth. It teaches 15 methods to add depth and space to your art (including MANY examples).
Here are my recommended YouTube channels for learning to draw.