LifeDrawing VS MindDrawing

Often, when I buy a big hard-cover sketchbook, I’m intimidated to even draw in it at all. Instead, I do most of my drawing on bits of paper and glue these into the sketchbook. Using it more like a scrap book. I buy sketchbooks with the intention of drawing from life but instead mostly fill them with doodles.

Growing up, I always drew from my head. The rare times where I drew something the real world it was a copy of a cartoon seen in a magazine. I first started drawing from life when caricaturing coworkers. But even this was an attempt to cartoonify the real world. 

Japan 1987

Trying to accurately draw the real world, as it looks, didn’t start until I went travelling. Perhaps because I was seeing everything with fresh eyes.


When it comes to drawing realism, I have always admired people who can pull plausible images out of their minds, without resorting to reference. Even when the subject matter isn’t something from fantasy-land or a goof-ball cartoon. I enjoy seeing a personal stylisation in drawings of the real world.

My Nikon FG20 1987

That has made me want to be capable of the same. But I realise that part of the reason that people can draw from memory or imagination is that is that they have spent the time puting images INTO their heads first.

I can be sloppy about using reference though not always out of pure laziness. I have learned that I draw better caricatures from memory than I do from looking at a photograph. Memory seems to record a shorthand of a person’s dominant features and attitudes. A good place to start in doing a caricature.

Sly Stallone Rampage

Seeing myself as a cartoonist rather than an artist gives me a bit more licence to exaggerate and fudge the details…

I suppose that the reason I started drawing in the first place was that it was a form of escapism. It wasn’t about representing reality but coming up with an alternative.

A Friendly Monster

As much as I enjoy doodling from my imagination, I have been thinking that I need to more often feed it it with some reality. Life drawing or sketching from life. As I used to do, when traveling.

Tokyo Cafe 1987

So it might be time to practise more literal representations of things I see. Even copying photos from books and magazines, is something that I need to do more of. In order to find that balance of personal style and plausibility.

4 thoughts on “LifeDrawing VS MindDrawing”

  1. James

    I hear you re: cartoonery vs life-drawing. You make a good point in that one always informs the other. I too have been (perhaps) to cartoon-oriented, as I can’t even remember the last time I drew something (anything) via observation.

    • My natural inclination is simply to doodle. It has usually been the influence of friends that has led to sketch. Firstly a bunch of CalArts folk I met in Taiwan (including Tony S.) and other avid sketchers such as SEAN NEWTON. Lately, inspiration comes from MATT JONES & JULIA.

      Thanks for commenting George!

  2. I have come at it the other way–I draw from life (and reference) and wish I was a better cartoonist–and doodler! This is why I admire you and your work so much! (Btw, I love your life drawing, too!)

    I always tell anyone who will listen that there is no better path to improved drawing skills than life drawing. (Life drawing and art history–both were the Big Bang!) Having said that, in terms of making actual art I think your way is better. My struggle is forever about loosening up. I have a collection of art quotes and one of my favorites is from Edgar Degas: “A painting requires a little mystery, and some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.” Another comes from Ingres: “A good portrait always has something of a caricature.” Picasso longed to draw as a child does. (I gotta million of ’em!) The bottom line–I admire confidence and expressiveness. (Plus, literalness is the easiest thing for AI to plunder.)

    I wish I was more–much much more–of a doodler. Kids doodle naturally but that tends to calcify with age and “maturity”–so it did for me. I used to try to draw in sketchbooks but would always tear out pages I didn’t like. Which eventually made for gaps and a wonky book! I also despise sketchbooks that are artworks themselves–that shouldn’t be the purpose of a *sketch* book. And that was part of the problem for me–I was always too intent on these dribs and drabs being “correct”. So I adapted the attitude that you do, which is to doodle on scraps and paste them up (or leave them hanging around). This keeps them not-precious and more useful. The trouble is that I still don’t do that enough.

    Cartoons were the first things to excite the art virus in me too, which is why it confounds me that I don’t draw them as freely as I would like to. When I copy cartoons I tend to do it with slavish attention, not loose abandon. I have hangups, I guess!

    I recently joined the 21st Century and finally bought an iPad for sketching. I’m hoping this makes doodling more accessible by its being different. (I will always prefer traditional media so I regard this tech as a means to an end–I think ink-stained fingers are important!) I also teach caricature at my local library. “Those who can’t do, teach”! (Actually, I think that’s a pretty good way to learn a thing–by teaching it.)

    This is another great essay by you! Beginning with the title–emphasis on the “versus”. That’s the way it often is, but it shouldn’t be. Life drawing and Mind drawing should be heads and tails on a coin. And “Mind drawing”–that’s a far more elegant way of saying “drawing from your head”, and I’m going to use that from now on!

    PS: I still proudly own the original drawing of the kid running with the monster, seen above!! 🙂

    • Russell! great hearing from you, and WOW, what a long and thoughtful comment! I had forgotten that you bought the happy monster pic! ha ha!

      First off, YES! I should not have said VERSUS. It should be AND. Both LifeDrawing AND MindDrawing are equally important, I think. One to flex the observation & accuracy muscles, and another to train improv & creation. But at times I think I did see this issue as an either/or deal (“which way should I go?”)

      There have been times when I did a LOT of observational drawing, and others when I did none at all. I did most life-sketching in those years when I travelled. I also did a ton of life drawing when I was RE-learning to draw. Going out with Julia and sketching was invaluable training in those years. In fact, her influence was a big part of why I had already taken up life drawing again, years before my stroke.

      I have an iPad but never really use it to draw in. In my current one-armed state it has seemed trickier to draw in than an analog pad. But maybe I’ll try it again.

      Thanks for all of your thoughts!

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