Visual Library: Why you can’t live without it

What is Visual Library?

Visual library (short VisLib) are fragments and collections of images and experiences stored in your head. Think of it as a large library in your house containing different kind of books and for every new experience you can add a new book to the shelve. The bookshelves contain all your knowledge.
When drawing from our imagination, we use those books.

The bigger your visual library, the much more believable and understandable your end result will be. Remember, readability is key in good design principles.

How can I add more books to my shelve and build my Visual Library?

  • Study from life and references. But observe mindfully
  • Visit museums
  • Read books and specialized magazines
  • Watch documentaries
  • Build scale models
  • Go outside and use all your senses

Observe mindfully, it can’t be stressed enough. Let’s say that seven of the ten times when we study from references, we don’t observe fully and are mindlessly copying one shape after the other. Sadly enough, it still happens to me as well.
The end result could be a nice copied drawing or painting but we didn’t really learn from it. You should force yourself to really see and understand the object in front of you.

This phrase may sound familiar and is somewhat related: ‘Don’t draw what you think, but what you see’

Shortcuts have to be found and rules applied to remember certain shapes or forms, i.e. we have to break down and analyse the reference first before we can recreate it afterwards from our imagination.

Go outside and use all your senses. You don’t have to be drawing or painting to build your visual library! It can be done all the time and everywhere.
Look and observe. The colours of shadows, light patterns on the ground, values and proportions, feelings,…
Experience the here and now, take at all in and store it in your head.

I like to think of it like this: when a group of people is gathered, you can tell who the artist is by finding the person who is staring at the clouds or patterns on the ground. The person who may be acting a bit funny and weird at first but who is actually getting his hands dirty to understand more about life and everything in it.

It’s wearisome in the beginning but you’ll get better at it over time. Like everything in life, it takes practice and doesn’t come overnight. At certain times, it will even be relaxing. It allows us to take a step back from our hasty lives and just enjoy the small things surrounding us.

In practice

If possible, study from life first, from reference second. When drawing and painting from life, all our senses are used and the experience will last longer.
You can easily test yourself by studying from life or reference first, secondly hide the source and your study and finally draw the image again, this time from imagination.

To help my students in building their visual library, I created this Build your visual reference video and a Weekly Challenges Facebook group. It’s a place where people can post their studies and learn from each other. It’s open for everyone, even if you’re not in Digital Arts and Entertainment. Feel free to join and share you weekly sketches.



Be sure to check out this video about Visual Library by Feng Zhu made for his Design Cinema series on Youtube!
Another video on Youtube about Visual Library by Sinix Design.


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