How to Paint from Dreams

Mermaid in Isolation

Ever since I was a child I loved my weird dreams. I remember even as a teenager, I used to have dreams about visiting art galleries and seeing amazing paintings that were really not in existence – my brain was making them up. Sometimes I would get jealous in my dream, because I wanted to make a painting like the ones I saw in the dream galleries, but there was nothing I could do about it. Those unicorn paintings with the incredible chiaroscuro lighting were stuck firmly in the dream gallery. I did not have the skills to bring my dreams to the canvas. I saw the most amazing things, and I wrote and tried desperately to draw them, but it never came even remotely close. One time, in my 20s, I came very close to capturing what I saw in my dream. This is what I consider to be my single successful sketch in a whole decade of amazing dream imagery… This sketch actually caught a little of the dream’s atmosphere and look….

Mermaid in Isolation

I had just moved away from home and I felt like the mermaid, trapped in a small pool far from the ocean. It was beautiful in its loneliness somehow.

I kept trying to draw the things I saw in my dreams. Even when most drawings did not do them justice.

Illuminated Dragon

A good example is this illuminated dragon. This was a gem-eyed, gold-leaf and precious ink-papered dragon as if a medieval manuscript artist had decorated the skin of the dragon with the treasures of its cavern. This drawing is only the most bare bones capture of the idea, but I kept drawing anyway, enjoying that at least if it wasn’t very awe-inspiring, it was a portal to the memory of the dream. It jogs my memory even though it really doesn’t do the idea any sort of justice.

Finally, I feel like I have had a bit of a breakthrough in recent years. I was able to copy things realistically since high school, but I couldn’t make things up or change them. If it wasn’t right in front of me, I couldn’t draw or paint it. I can’t tell you how hard those two sketches above were for me to draw! They took so much longer than they seem. I was resigned to my inability to create surreal or fantasy imagery. I never stopped to think what skills I might be missing, and I was content enough to try to capture this beautiful world we live in anyway.

Instead, I learned how to bridge the gap through a roundabout way. I didn’t even realize how helpful this would be to other areas of my artistic practice, but I studied very hard to be able to mural effectively. I wanted to combine lots of different things from many photo references and change the lighting and make sure they looked in proportion to each other for a mural in my daughter’s room . She had requested a fantasy forest and I wanted to make all the disparate elements look like one real setting. I used Mural Joe’s many lessons on the way light and perspective work. I started with his free demos, and found out that he was an effective teacher for me, and bought his suite of videos. I like the way he explains things. My brain does not work like his, but if I watch him a few times, I can grasp what he is trying to convey and he has a really interesting way of understanding why things look the way they do. After I watched his videos, I did not stop. I watched more demos from a lot of different teachers and I also took some workshops at Zwick Academy of Fine Art to hone my paint application skills too. The extra boost of training and study filled in things I did not know I was missing. I am sure I still have many things to learn. Art is wonderful because you can keep improving without limitation. In retrospect, it all makes sense that a study of the basics: rules of perspective, light and atmosphere would help me make things look cohesive, even non-real things. Working on values and edges in paint would improve the realism in my work no matter whether it was staying close to the reference material or taking a departure. I didn’t know those key concepts were missing from my abilities – I just knew I couldn’t do what I wanted to do back then. Now it is easier for me to make things up from imagination and finally see things materialize from my dreams and daydreams into reality. Rather than being confined to a line drawing and never having quite the right look, I could find pieces of what I needed and mentally combine them to look plausible and change them to be strange but still believable.

This is a detail from the mural that motivated me to dive back into studying the basics of perspective, lighting, and atmosphere effects. You can see the full mural on my Murals page.

After practicing my various new painting skills for a few years, COVID happened. Lockdown was a time without appointments. My entire calendar and to-do list went dormant. I could sleep for as long as I wanted. My dreams became incredibly vivid. Unlike prior, I had tools to render my dreams on canvas. It was a bit scary at first – what if people thought it was weird or didn’t like it? It looked very different from my existing body of work, and sometimes that can be a bad thing. What if it was too different from birds and landscapes (the 2 genres I most visited in my work)? I decided to do it anyway because the inspiration was irresistible.

I woke up from a dream where stars were swirling like a waterfall from the sky to the sea. I painted it. After doing research to check on the archival properties of the materials, I ordered very small, fine crystals to add to the canvas. The effect is very beautiful in person. The stars really twinkle!

After that success I took another step into unfamiliar territory. I was trying to think of a way to represent the wonderful feelings of healing I was experiencing, and I had settled on a mandala, but it wasn’t working. Then I had a dream that a woman was healing and she was bursting into bloom. There were even crocuses growing from her cradled heart. I frantically sketched the allegorical portrait of the dream woman and kept referring back to the initial drawing to get the details right as I created the finished painting.

Blossoming by Wendy Roberts

Near the end of pandemic lockdown, I dreamed of mermaids. (Again.) I have had many different dreams with many different mermaids throughout my life. These aquatic women were athletic and worked in a pack, catching fish together cooperatively. The fish didn’t stand a chance. I was completely enchanted. I wanted to paint mermaids after that dream. I ended up painting a variation (exploring Hawaiian Mermaids). I really enjoyed bringing them to life and I want to paint a lot of different mermaids now. Someday I will depict my exact fishing mermaids with the unusual poses I drew when I first woke up. The biggest surprise of painting mermaids was that the tails were especially tricky to make up. I relied less on reference photos and more on the rules of light and form. With practice we learn, and with oil paint, it is possible to try again if it looks wrong at first too! I am ultimately very happy to be able to paint from imagination. I feel very free.

Mermaid Trio by Wendy Roberts
Mermaid Trio

This is where my artistic progress story lives right now. I have one foot in imagination land and one in reality and I am enjoying the blurring boundaries between the two realms. I can plein air paint and then return to my studio and paint a ghost, a dryad, or a mermaid. It makes me wonder what’s next. I love the limitless feeling of painting!

I have a few sketches from the past that I plan to bring to canvas. These are dreams I had in the past. I plan to go back in time and try to do justice for rough sketches like this dream which was one of the most spectacular from my childhood:

Waterlily Pond in the Sky. I climbed to it through my closet.

Or this, a reoccurring symbol of overwhelming emotions, but so beautiful visually that I was compelled to sketch the flooded jungle the moment I woke up:

A sketch of a beautiful flooded mountainous jungle in a dream.

Or this dream of a parade of whimsical striped moths visiting in moonlight in droves of fairy-like wonder:

The Day the Moths Came

I could turn a few of them into moth-winged fairies, or play with the angle to make it show the dramatic swirling paths of the moth procession. When I look at these sketches, I remember what I saw in my dreams and why it was inspiring. I know what you see isn’t very exciting yet, but I see so much potential in them to turn into a good painting. I hope I will be able to close the gap and make them come alive so that you can share my visions and dreams and I can hopefully convey what it is that I loved about each of these wild lands of imagination.

If you are an artist who wants to depict imaginative subjects, but you are stuck, I hope showing you the path I took will help you find yours! What skills do you need? Do you know what is difficult for you? If you can’t pinpoint it, no problem. Study anyway. Take the workshops or watch the videos that seem to leap out at you. Practice. Keep on trying. You can do it! Best of all, the years you spend improving your skills are years spent in a constructive and healthy creative pursuit! You do not have to be professional to benefit greatly from making beautiful things (or weird things)!