Drawing & Painting blog

EXERCISES TO IMPROVE YOUR DRAWING

Drawing upside down

This is an excellent exercise in improving your accuracy when drawing from photos. More than this however, it’s also a lesson which will re-frame your ideas about drawing in general, and teach a basic principle that can also dramatically improve your drawing when working from life

When drawing a portrait from a photograph there is often a time when I get a bit stuck. I can see that something isn’t quite right and can tell that I’ve drawn something inaccurately which is throwing the likeness off, but I can’t tell which particular shape or line isn’t right. When I find myself in this situation what I do is to turn my reference photo and my drawing upside down. 

Drawing upside down

Upside-down, I cannot recognise the features that I was drawing and as I cast my eye over them I’m no longer mentally naming the parts of the face as ‘nose’, ‘eye’ and so on. Instead I can only really see abstract shapes in different shades and colours and when copying these nameless forms, I find that I draw way more accurately. Suddenly, it becomes easy to identify which shapes or tones in my drawing don’t correspond to the reference picture and I can correct them. 

Why is it so difficult to draw faces accurately? Well we all have an idea about what we think the features of the face should look like, and these are usually based on the way we drew them as very small children. Our notion of what an eye should look like, or a mouth, is like a ‘symbol’ or an idea, and is not really based on true observation. But when we draw we allow these impressions to intrude, and therefore we draw what we think we see, and not what we actually see.

When we turn our reference drawing upside-down, we can make no assumptions and take no shortcuts. The only way to copy the picture is by really observing it accurately:  judging the relationship of each shape or line to each other, measuring with our eyes and noticing how areas of different tones compare. People tend to assume that an artist’s hand-to-eye coordination is why they can draw well and imagine this to be a sort of magical ability that they are born with. In fact when professional artists draw they are constantly measuring by eye and assessing distances, directions, and relationships.

There’s also a freeing psychological element to drawing abstract shapes rather than drawing a portrait of a face. It liberates us from the anxiety and self doubt we may encounter and our fears that our drawing won’t turn out to look like that person. We may have a particular block about one part of the face or body (“I can’t draw hands” is a common one) This anxiety limits us, and makes us less likely to really look and more likely to panic and fall back on received ideas. 

Drawing lips
Drawing upside down

Let’s take a a specific example, of a mouth. The famous painter John Singer Sargent once described a portrait as “a likeness in which there is something wrong about the mouth”! Imagine you’ve been asked to draw a mouth. Think of a mouth in your head –  what do you think the lips should look like? We usually have a very definite idea that lips are two shapes defined by hard edges.

Now look closely at the mouth above, or at your own mouth in the mirror. You will likely notice that in fact that lips are not bordered all the way round by a sharp edge but by an area of intermediate tissue which gradually feathers out. It’s not a hard line but a soft blurry one, particularly on the bottom lip. This tissue is not as thin and dark as the lips, but is softer and darker than the rest of the skin on your face. The lip tissue itself is rarely one single tone. It is usually redder and therefore darker nearer to your mouth, and lighter in the outer parts of the lips that meet the skin above or below them.

When copying a picture of a mouth oriented the right way up, it’s too easy to let our preconceived ideas dictate to us and to draw the hard-edged lips we expect to see. Holding our photo upside down make us bypass these old ideas and force us to scrutinise the mouth carefully and in much finer detail.

Approaching drawing a face in this way can seem counter-intuitive because we have such a strong emotional response to faces, and are usually taught that drawings should be ‘expressive’ rather than an exercise in drawing by numbers. However practising drawing upside-down teaches you principles of accurate measuring that you can then apply to drawing regular portraits, once you’ve gained in that confidence. These portraits will probably be even more expressive, because you’ll have a much better ability to control the marks that you make.

Looking at ‘negative space’

With your reference picture upside down, you’ll also find it much easier to accurately observe the shape of your subject’s head. To further free yourself from making any assumptions about what this shape should be,  focus ‘negative’ space around the head rather than on the head itself. Visualise this like a cut-out.

Negative space

What if I want to draw from real life?

I’m a pencil portrait artist who works entirely from photos. However, practicing by drawing from photos upside down is an exercise that will help immensely if you want to improve your life drawings. It teaches you to make that cognitive shift towards really looking with accuracy, whilst comparing the difference in the drawings that you make the right way up and upside down will demonstrate why this shift is so important. Practicing it repeatedly will improve your observational skills when drawing a live subject who is sitting in front of you.

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