Ask the Art Prof: How Can I Draw What I See in My Head?

Final Crit

“How can I really draw what I see in my head? I draw and everything always comes out differently than I want it to. Then I get mad and just give up because I don’t know how to make it come out the way I want. What do I do?”

When I sit down to draw, I like to have focused goals for myself, as well as an overall sense of what I’m trying to achieve visually. I draw a large quantity of preliminary sketches, (read this article I wrote about preliminary sketches)  and prepare myself both mentally and technically to deal with the upcoming challenges that I know the final work will bring.  I do a lot of experimentation and troubleshooting in the preliminary sketch process so that I will have a concrete sense of what I’m doing when I’m working on the final piece.

However, as much as I prepare myself, I intentionally never make firm decisions about precisely what I want my drawing to look like when it’s finished.  If I already know what the drawing is going to look like before I start, its a signal to me that there is going to be nothing creative about the process of making the drawing.   If you have only one picture in your head that you’re trying to reproduce, you’re basically setting yourself up for guaranteed disappointment. Go into the drawing prepared with your goals, but not to the degree that those goals actually strangle other creative options that might occur as you’re in the trenches of drawing. 

Pastel Portrait Drawing Assignment

One of the best parts of the creative process is that the results will never be predictable.  You really never know how things are going to turn out. Instead of resenting your piece because it’s not exactly as you imagined it, embrace the unpredictability and surprise yourself.   Be willing to relinquish some control as you’re working on the drawing, so that you’re allowing the drawing to breathe and evolve on it’s own. Welcome the opportunity for the drawing to transform into something different and unexpected. The most exciting pieces of art that I’ve worked on had results that were surprised to me.  These works shifted many times as I was drawing them and I ended up with results that I could never have dreamed of.

Naturally, there will be periods when the final results are not what you wanted. Remember that this is an essential part of being an artist, and that you have to make bad work if you want to make good work.   Be tenacious and don’t give up when things get rough, you have to force yourself to push through these difficulties if you want to get to the good work.  The majority of my work doesn’t even get exhibited, and only a small fraction of that is what I consider to be my strongest work. I accept that a large portion of my artwork never makes the final cut. 

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

Related Videos
Youtube Playlist: Video Critiques on Art School Admissions Portfolios
Youtube Playlist:  How to Draw a Portrait with Charcoal and Cross-Hatching
Youtube Playlist:  Crit Quickies, 1 min. critiques on artworks

Related articles
“What is a gesture drawing?”
“Is drawing considered an innate talent or a craft, which can be learned by anyone?”
“How can I learn to shade objects in my drawings?”
“What is the best way to practice my drawing skills?”
“How do you get yourself to practice drawing?”
“What is the most important mindset a student needs to have in order to create a successful drawing?”


Ask the Art Prof: How Do You Find Your Own Individual Art Style?

Accordion Bookbinding Project

“How do you find your own individual style?”

Style is important as a visual artist, it’s essentially what distinguishes you from other artists, and what keeps your work looking professional, cohesive, and focused.  The greatest artists throughout history had styles that were incredibly distinctive and unique. Think about someone like Hieronymus Bosch, who was so far ahead of his time in the 15th century with his surrealistic scenes densely packed with human figures doing all sorts of strange and bizarre acts. Once you’ve seen one Bosch painting, you can spot another a mile away.


The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch

Or, consider an artist like Giotto, whose frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel revolutionized the way that emotions were articulated through the form, lighting, and color of the gesture of the human figures. Many times, the cultural context and time period has a lot to do with whether art artist’s style is distinctive. Giotto’s frescos may not seem so unusual to the contemporary viewer. However, within the context of his time period, by comparison, no other artists were painting faces that expressed such an intense, outward pouring out of emotion. In this way, his paintings distinguished themselves from all of the other artwork being created in that time.


Frescos at the Scrovegni Chapel, by Giotto

In an artist’s style, there are usually defined characteristics, a specific means of handling a media, or repeated strategies in an artist’s style that are consistently visible in every artwork.  When I think about the great caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, whimsical, expressive, black and white portraits drawn with fluid, organic lines are signature visual features of his work. Once you’ve seen a few Al Hirschfeld drawings, his style is so distinctive that you can spot them from a mile away.


Ella Fitzgerald, by Al Hirschfeld

Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio was known for his startlingly realistic oil paintings which used chiaroscuro lighting and bold gestures in his figures to create an atmosphere of intense drama. Compared to the idealized and sanitized versions of figurative oil paintings that preceded Caravaggio’s work, Caravaggio’s oil paintings emphasized a grittier, more flawed view of figures.

For example,  Caravaggio’s depictions of Christ portrayed him as an ordinary man, looking as if he lived in our world.  This was a direct opposition to previous depictions of the time period Caravaggio lived in, where Christ was always painted to appear as an otherworldly figure who did not look like an real person. Caravaggio depicted the “ugly” side of real life:  he took the time to paint the dirt on someone’s foot, and heightened unflattering wrinkles in someone’s forehead with tremendous detail.  Given the environment and time period Caravaggio lived in, these visual decisions were incredibly different, and greatly distinguished his paintings from other works created during the same time period.  Think about any notable artist from art history, and it’s usually fairly easy to sum up their style with some key adjectives.


The Incredulity of St. Thomas, by Caravaggio

This may sound like a contradiction, but I strongly believe that the best way to find your own individual style is to try out as many different ways of working as possible.  I teach freshman drawing at RISD, where I encourage my students to explore and try out different identities for themselves.  Many students arrive at art school with very little experience working in diverse media and approaches, so this foundation is critical towards laying a premise for their artistic careers.

I push the students to dramatically shift their approaches within one semester. One week they’re learning how to make highly detailed and rendered images, the next week they’re working in a loose, painterly style. If you were to hang up all of the drawings by a single student onto one wall at the end of the semester, you would swear that you were looking at drawings by ten different people. For a first year art school student, that’s a wonderful accomplishment because what they’ve done is they’ve essentially learned multiple visual languages that they will have access to for the rest of their lives. This set of drawings below were all created by one student within a single semester, you can see that there is an incredible range of different styles, even though the pieces are all by the same student.

I want my students to achieve a versatility that will empower them to become anything that they want to be.  By directly experiencing all of these different languages, you can build an overall understanding of everything that is out there. Only by exploring the range of options can you then narrow your focus onto what it is you want to be.

If you’re looking for ideas for art projects, check out our Monthly Art Dares, where we assign a prompt to create an artwork each month. Often times many students who are interested in studying art have a strong desire, but are at a loss for where to even begin.  That’s why our monthly Art Dares are a great place to start:  we provide the launching pad and you decide where your final destination will be.

The most common mistake that I see all the time is people trying to force a style on themselves prematurely. I went to art school with a peer who was remarkably talented and seemed capable of doing just about anything. Throughout his time in art school, he experimented with many different media, and worked fluidly in contrasting styles. Everything he did was original, inventive, and beautifully crafted.  However, when he graduated and started working professionally after school, all of that changed immediately. He quickly forced this very commercial style on himself and did some of the worst work that I had seen him do in years.  The work lacked the same original spirit and enthusiasm and looked generic and derivative.

Style doesn’t develop overnight, it’s a gradual process that can take years to emerge.  The process of finding your style is very slow, and you need to develop serious skills in patience.  Allow your style to naturally evolve.  Attempts to force a style on yourself will end up looking contrived and dishonest.

Below are several videos that discuss how I developed my stylistic approach to a series of drawings of elderly figures.

Keep in mind that style is not just about the way your artwork looks, the subject matter that you communicate and represent in your artwork is just as important.  Artists are known throughout history for the interaction of their technique and the ideas they wanted to communicate.  The visual look of an artwork is meaningless if there is no concept, motivation, or purpose behind the creation of the artwork. That’s why it’s important that while you experiment and hone a diverse range of skills, that you also work on your ability to brainstorm, develop, and ultimately execute a finished artwork that has a solid and intriguing subject.

Below is a video tutorial where I demonstrate how to get started brainstorming an idea, transitioning an idea into thumbnail sketches, and then realizing that idea into a finished drawing.

Once you do find a style that works, it doesn’t mean that the creative process ends there.  If you only stick to that one style forever, you may as well be a trained monkey who can only do one trick. It certainly does work for some people, and there are definitely people out there who are very successful doing that one trick. Historically, the most compelling artists have been the ones who are constantly reinventing and transforming themselves.


Collage by Matisse

Look at Picasso:  even after the smashing success Picasso had with Cubism, he kept innovating, experimenting, and pushing new ideas.   He created new pieces that were vastly different from Cubism, like his bull’s head made from a reconfigured bike seat. Matisse went from oil paintings to paper cut outs at the end of his life. Degas switched from pastel drawings and oil paintings to figure sculpture when he started to lose his eye sight at the end of his life. These artists weren’t satisfied to be limited to one way of working for the rest of their lives, and were willing to take major risks with their work to transform into something new.


“Bull’s Head” by Picasso, 1942

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email


Ask the Art Professor: How do You Compose a Striking Painting with Color?


Pastel drawing by Edgar Degas


“How do you compose a striking painting with color? How do you create harmony with colors, contrast, etc., while at the same time creating interest?”

Color is such a monumental subject, so I’m going to boil it all down to this: Painting with color is about achieving balance.  That balance is defined by establishing relationships among colors.  I think about colors as people: when you have one person in a room, there is no one else to have a relationship with.  Once another person enters the room, you have the dynamic that occurs between the two people.  If a third person enters the room, the dynamics change, and so forth. Every time a new color is added to a painting, the dynamics shift.

I used to think when I was a student that if only I could mix the “right” blue, or the “right” pink that my paintings would be better.  It took me years of painting with color to realize that there was no “right” blue.  Instead what one should look for is a grouping of colors in which the colors play off of each other in a harmonious manner. The exact same color can appear to take on different characteristics depending on the color that is next to it.  If you take a red and place it next to a grey, the red appears to be very intense and brilliant.  Take that same red and place it next to a yellow, and the red will appear to be dark in contrast to the brightness of the yellow.

2 degas dancers

Pastel drawing byEdgar Degas

The two classic problems I see when people handle color in a painting is either painting with too many muted colors, or painting with too many intense colors.  Too many intense colors is overwhelming to the viewer, and too many muted colors makes for a muddy composition.  Degas’ pastel drawings are an excellent example of beautifully balanced, harmonious colors.  Actually, if you really analyze his pastel drawings, the majority of his images are dominated by muted colors.  His strategy in some of his pieces was to use his intense colors in moderation, so that when they made their appearance, their intensity burst outwards from the image. In the case of this pastel drawing above, the intense red flowers on the dancer’s dress seem to dramatically pop from the page because they are surrounded by soft, muted greys and pinks in the dancer’s dress. 

Another common problem is people overusing black to darken their colors, especially in shadow areas.  This approach generally produces colors that are flat and muddy.  I am extremely conservative when I use black because it’s like a nuclear bomb when it encounters other colors; black simply wipes everything else out.  When I paint with black, I don’t even use black straight from the tube, rather my favorite mixture to create black is to mix alizarin crimson with viridian green.  This combination creates a luscious, deep, dark purple that has the appearance of being black, without all of the drawbacks.


Oil painting by Edgar Degas

Light and dark contrast is another key to creating a balanced painting.  Many artists come to rely on color contrast to carry their pieces, so much so that they forget about light and dark contrast. One “test” that I always give myself when I’m working on a painting is to shoot a digital image of the painting and then to desaturate (make it black and white) in Photoshop.  If I look at the black and white image and it lacks a wide range of whites, greys, and blacks, it means that the composition needs to be improved in terms of light and dark contrast.

This Degas painting of an opera singer (see above) does an excellent job of establishing light and dark contrast, creating a dramatic, theatrical feeling to the painting.The sharp silhouette of the glove against the stripe of light, bright yellow in the background makes for excellent light and dark contrast.

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

Related articles
“How do you achieve a luminous effect in a painting through color and value?”
“Does painting what you see limit your artistic possibilities?”
“What is the practical meaning of color theory?”
“Is hard work and experimenting continuously such a bad thing?”
“What can a painting student to do be relevant in a digital world?”

Thursday Spotlight: Ghislaine Fremaux

Tell us about your background.

I’m from Washington DC. I left at age sixteen, acquiring my AA from Bard College at Simon’s Rock in 2003. I later pocketed my BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Tufts University in the winter of 2007. I’m currently pursuing my MFA in painting at Penn State.

Name some people, artists, artistic genres, etc. that have been influential in your work.

Jenny Saville’s corpulent bodies, Egon Schiele’s sawtooth bodies, Michelangelo’s bodies with musculature like “bags of nuts”; hagiographical imagery (saints in ecstasy); the musical projects of Mike Patton; the visceral, horrifying, and beautiful in work by Kara Walker, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Alina Szapocznikow, and Kiki Smith. I like to read Toni Morrison, Georges Bataille, and Umberto Eco. Genres that interest me are Magical Realism and Ero Guro Nansensu.

Where and how do you get your ideas?

I look at my friends. I think about them. I ruminate a long time over their faces, their voices, their physiognomy, and their meaning in my life. Their idiosyncrasies, the way the inhabit their bodies, and the specificity of their forms supply me with all my ideas. People are impossibly complex and very magical.

What materials do you work with? Describe your technical processes.

I use 51″x10yd 156 LB Arches watercolor paper. It comes on a roll, so I pin a big tract of it to the wall. To flatten it, I put a watercolor wash over it, and this sets a precedent or ground of tone for me to draw into. I begin every drawing with vine charcoal. Once I’ve made something of a blueprint, I get my pastels. I use pastels of a few brands – Neocolor, Rembrandt, and my favorite, Diane Townsend Terrages pastels. I block in areas of light first, and from there the language of the color begins to write itself.

What do you find to be the most challenging part of being creative? What is the best part of being creative?

Art-making becomes hardest for me when I dizzy myself with my own argument – that is, when I overthink an image not yet made, or talk myself out of every idea I come up with. It seems it’s better just to ‘put pencil to paper’ and make. It may fail but it can always be another rung on the ladder to some actualization. I love creating because it populates my world with “people” (what are really just images thereof, ha). Making a drawing is a testimony to the depicted, to the body, and to all humanness. That expels some kind of pain from me, and makes me feel happy and real.

What advice would you give to someone seeking advice about being an artist?

Chin up. If you have something to say, knead it, grow it, gird it with research, look behind you, and work all the time. Learn how to be with people and how to speak. If you keep your work close to your heart, its meaning can never atrophy.

Ghislaine’s website
Ghislaine’s blog

Want to be featured on Thursday Spotlight?  Get information on how to submit your work here.