Drawing & Painting blog


Drawing upside down

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

When drawing a portrait from a photograph there is often a time when I get a little stuck. I can see that something isn’t quite right about the likeness, but I can’t tell what it is! I know that I’ve drawn something inaccurately which is throwing the whole thing 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. Suddenly, I can no longer really recognize the features of  the face I’m drawing and as a result I can see the differences between my drawing and the reference image much more clearly.

Drawing upside down

As I cast my eye over the upside down photo 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 colours. Why does this help me? There are probably a number of reasons.

We all have an idea about what we think the features of the face should look like and these are ideas we have probably had since childhood, and school art classes. They are based very little in true observation. But when we draw we allow these impressions to intrude and we are likely to draw what we think we see, and not what we actually see.

When the parts of the face become unrecognizable we can only render them accurately by really observing them much more acutely:  judging their relationships 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 he or she is able to draw well and that this apparently magical ability is just something that they are born with. In fact when professional artists draw they are constantly measuring by eye and assessing distances, directions and tones.

We also likely feel liberated from the anxiety and self doubt we may encounter when trying to draw a portrait – what if it doesn’t look like the person? We may have a particular block about one part of the face or body (“oh, I can’t draw hands” is a common one) This little psychological panic dissipates when we work upside down, methodically judging and measuring what we see as an abstract collection of shapes.

Drawing lips
Drawing upside down

Let’s take a a specific example and look at how this process may work. Imagine you’ve been asked to draw a mouth –  what do you think a mouth looks like? We usually have a definite idea that lips are two shapes defined by fairly hard edges and this misapprehension is perhaps why John Singer Sargent once described a portrait as “a likeness in which there is something wrong about the mouth”

When you really look closely at a mouth you will discover that lips are not bordered all the way round by a sharp edge (sometimes there is a small dark shadow line under part of the bottom lip) but but by an area of intermediate tissue which gradually feathers out. 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. Instead it will likely appear darkest closest to the crease of the mouth and will become much lighter nearer to where it meets the skin above and below the lips.

When copying a picture of a mouth oriented the right way up, it’s too easy to let our preconceived ideas dictate our drawing and to draw the hard edged lips we expect to see. Holding our photo upside down however will disrupt this and make it easier to study what we actually see when we look properly.

Looking at ‘negative space’

With your reference picture upside down and unable to make any assumptions about what the shape of a head should be, you’ll find it easier to see the ‘negative’ space that defines the shape of the subject’s head.

Negative space

Sometimes I will carry on drawing upside down until the whole portrait is complete – I’ve been known to do nearly entire drawings the wrong way up! If you want to improve the accuracy of your drawing then I recommend having a go. Begin by trying to copy your photograph the right way up. Then turn it upside down and start the drawing again – I can guarantee you that the one you’ve drawn upside down will be twice as accurate.

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 (or another drawing) upside down is an exercise that will help immensely if you want to draw from life instead. It will teach you to grasp the principle of really looking, and that will hugely improve your observational skills when drawing a live subject who is sitting in front of you.

Useful material

This short BBC video from artist and illustrator Peter Field exemplifies the principle really well. It also gives a useful bit of advice: don’t ‘cheat’ half way through the drawing exercise by turning your page the right way up to see how it’s coming along!

And below is another demonstration that talks you through the principle very helpfully










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