|If you use Instagram post your drawings and tag them with #plpDrawingClass. It will be fun to see everyone’s work!|
I am following through “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards with the kids. The materials provided here are taken directly from the book and are the actual exercises and selected highlights. I highly recommend reading the book if you are interested in learning to draw.
In Lesson 5 we learned about proportion and perspective and a method of sighting to “see” them where we used our pencil as a guide to see angles and size.
In this lesson we will continue with our study of proportion and perspective but will study the proportions of the human head and learn about drawing portraits.
All of the following material was taken from “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards
Remember the 5 perceptual skills of drawing are:
- Edges (line of contour drawing)
- Spaces (negative spaces)
- Relationships (proportion and perspective)
- Lights and shadows (shading)
- The gestalt (the “thingness” of the thing)
From “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”:
In drawing your profile portrait, you will be using all of the skills you have learned so far:
• How to perceive and draw edges
• How to perceive and draw spaces
• How to perceive and draw relationships
• How to perceive and draw (a bit of) lights and shadows
(a future lesson will cover lights and shadows)
The importance of proportion in portrait drawing
All drawing involves proportion, whether the subject is still life,
landscape, figure drawing, or portrait drawing. Proportion is
important whether an artwork’s style is realistic, abstract, or completely
nonobjective (that is, without recognizable forms from the
external world). Realistic drawing in particular depends heavily
on proportional correctness. Therefore, realistic drawing is especially
effective in training the eye to see the thing-as-it-is in its
relational proportions. Individuals whose jobs require close estimations
of size relationships—carpenters, dentists, dressmakers,
carpet-layers, and surgeons—develop great facility in perceiving
proportion. Creative thinkers in all fields benefit from enhanced
awareness of part-to-whole relationships—from seeing both the
trees and the forest.
On believing what you think you see
One of the problems of seeing comes from the brain’s ability to
change visual information for the purpose of fitting incoming
information to pre-existing concepts or beliefs. The parts that are
important (that is, provide key information), or the parts that we
decide are larger, or the parts that we think should be larger, we
see as larger than they actually are. Conversely, parts that are
unimportant, or that we decide are smaller, or that we think
should be smaller, we see as being smaller than they actually are.
Let me give you a couple of examples of this perceptual phenomenon.
Figure 9-1 shows a diagrammatic landscape with four
men. The man at the far right appears to be the largest of the four.
But all four figures are exactly the same size. Lay a pencil alongside
first the left-hand man and the right-hand man to measure
and test the validity of that statement. Even after measuring and
proving to yourself that the figures are the same size, however,
you will probably find that the man on the right will still look
larger (Figure 9-2,9-3).
On not believing what you see
One more example: Stand in front of a mirror at about arm’s
distance away. How large would you say is the image of your head
in the mirror? About the same size as your head? Using a felt-tip
pen or a crayon, extend your arm and make two marks on the
mirror—one at the top of the reflected image (the outside contour
of your head) and one at the bottom contour of your chin
(Figure 9-5). Step to one side to see how long the image is in
inches. You’ll find it’s about four and one half to five inches, or
one-half the true size of your head. Yet, when you remove the
marks and look again at yourself in the mirror, it seems that the
image must be life-size! Again, you are seeing what you believe,
not believing what you see.
Drawing closer to reality
Once we have accepted that the brain is changing information
and not telling us that it has done so, some of the problems of
drawing become clearer, and learning to see what is actually “out
there” in the real world becomes very interesting. Note that this
perceptual phenomenon is probably essential to ordinary life. It
reduces the complexity of incoming data and enables us to have
stable concepts. T h e problems start when we try to see what is
really “out there,” for purposes of checking reality, solving real
problems, or drawing realistically. To accomplish that, we shall
try to prove in a logical way that certain proportions are what
The mystery of the chopped-off skull
Most people find it quite difficult to perceive the relative proportions
of the features and the skull.
In this introduction to profile-portrait drawing, I’ll concentrate
on two critical relationships that are persistently difficult for
beginning drawing students to correctly perceive: the location of
eye level in relation to the length of the whole head; and the location
of the ear in the profile view. I believe these are two examples
of perceptual errors caused by the brain’s propensity to
change visual information to better fit its concepts.
Let me explain. To most people, the eye level line (an imaginary
horizontal line that passes through the inside corners of the
eyes) appears to be about one-third of the way down from the top
of the head. The actual measure is one-half. I think this misperception
occurs because we tend to see that the important visual
information is in the features, not in foreheads and hair areas.
Apparently, the top half of the head seems less compelling than
the features, and therefore is perceived as smaller. This error in
perception results in what I’ve called the “chopped-off-skull
error,” my term for the most common perceptual error made by
beginning drawing students (Figures 9-6,9-7).
I stumbled on this problem one day while teaching a group of
beginning drawing students at the university. They were working
on portrait drawings and one after another had “chopped off” the
skull of the model. I went through my “Can’t you see that the eye
level line is halfway between the bottom of the chin and the top
edge of the hair?” queries. The students said, “No. We can’t see
that.” I asked them to measure the model’s head, then their own
heads, and then each others’ heads. “Was the measure one to
one?” I asked. “Yes,” they said. “Well,” I said, “now you can see on
the model’s head that the proportional relationship is one to one,
isn’t that true?” “No,” they said, “we still can’t see it.” One student
even said, “We’ll see it when we can believe it.”
This went on for a while until finally the light dawned and I
said, “Are you telling me that you really can’t see that relationship?”
“Yes,” they said, “we really can’t see it.” At that point I realized
that brain processes were actually preventing accurate
perception and causing the “chopped-off-skull” error. Once we
all agreed on this phenomenon, the students were able to accept
their sightings of the proportion, and soon the problem was
Now we must put your own brain into a logical box (by showing
it irrefutable evidence) that will help it accept your sightings
of the proportions of the head.
Drawing a blank to see better than ever
1. Draw a “blank,” an oval shape used by artists to represent the
human skull in diagrams. The shape is shown in Figure 9-8.
Draw a vertical line through the center of the blank, dividing
the shape in half. This is called the central axis.
2. Next, you will locate the horizontal “eye level line,” which
crosses the central axis at a right angle. Use your pencil to
measure on your own head the distance from the inside corner
of your eye to the bottom of your chin. Do this by placing
the eraser end (to protect your eye) at the inside corner of
your eye and marking with your thumb where your chin hits
the pencil, as in Figure 9-9. Now, holding that measurement,
raise the pencil, as in Figure 9-10, and compare the first distance
(eye level to chin) with the distance from your eye level
to the top of your head (feel across from the end of the pencil
to the topmost part of your head). You will find that those two
distances are approximately the same.
3. Repeat the measurement in front of a mirror. Regard the reflection
of your head. Without measuring, visually compare
the bottom half with the top half of your head. Then use your
pencil to repeat the measurement of eye level one more time.
4. If you have newspapers or magazines handy, check this proportion
in photographs of people, or use the photo of English
writer George Orwell, Figure 9-11. Use your pencil to measure.
You will find that:
Eye level to chin equals eye level to the top of the skull.
This is an almost invariant proportion.
5. Check the photographs again. In each head, is the eye level at
about the middle, dividing the whole shape of the head about
in half? Can you clearly see that proportion? If not, turn on
television to a news program and measure heads right on the
television screen by placing your pencil flat on the screen,
measuring first eye level to chin, then eye level to the top
edge of the head. Now, take the pencil away and look again.
Can you see the proportion clearly now?
When you finally believe what you see, you will find that on
nearly every head you observe, the eye level is at about the
halfway mark. The eye level is almost never less than half—that
is, almost never nearer to the top of the skull than to the bottom
of the chin (See Figure 9-12). And if the hair is thick, the top half
of the head—eye level to the topmost edge of the hair—is bigger
than the bottom half.
The “chopped-off skull” creates the masklike effect so often
seen in children’s drawings, abstract or expressionistic art, and in
so-called “primitive” or “ethnic” art. This masklike effect of
enlarging the features relative to the skull size, of course, can
have tremendous expressive power, as seen, for example, in works
by Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani, and great works of other
cultures. The point is that master artists, especially of our own
time and culture, use the device by choice and not by mistake.
Let me demonstrate the effect of misperception.
Irrefutable evidence that the top of the head is
important after all
First, I have drawn the lower part of the faces of two models, one
in profile and one in three-quarter view (see Figure 9-13). Contrary
to what one would expect, most students have few serious
problems in learning to see and draw the features. The problem is
not the features; it’s in perceiving the skull that things go wrong.
What I want to demonstrate is how important it is to provide the
full skull for the features—not to cut off the top of the head
because your brain is less interested and makes you see it as
In Figure 9-13 are two sets of three drawings: First, the features
only, without the rest of the skull; second, the identical features
with the cut-off-skull error; and third, the identical features,
this time with the full skull, which complements and supports the
You can see that it’s not the features that cause the problem of
wrong proportion; it’s the skull. Now turn to Figure 9-14 and see
that Van Gogh in his 1880 drawing of the carpenter apparently
made the “chopped-off skull” error in the carpenter’s head. Also,
see the Durer etching in Figure 9-16 in which the artist demonstrates
the effort of diminishing the relative proportion of the
skull to the features. Are you convinced? Is your logical left hemisphere
convinced? Good. You will save yourself innumerable
hours of baffling mistakes in drawing.
Drawing another blank and getting a line on the
Draw another blank now, this time for a profile. The profile blank
is a somewhat different shape—like an oddly shaped egg. This is
because the human skull (Figure 9-17), seen from the side, is a
different shape than the skull seen from the front. It’s easier to
draw the blank if you look at the shapes of the negative spaces
around the blank in Figure 9-17. Notice that the negative spaces
are different in each corner.
If it helps you to see, draw in some symbolic shapes for nose,
eye, mouth, and chin, making sure that you have first drawn the
eye level line at the halfway point on the blank.
Placing the ear in a profile portrait
The next measurement is extremely important in helping
you perceive correctly the placement of the ear, which in turn
will help you perceive correctly the width of the head in profile
and prevent chopping off the back of the skull.
On almost every head, the position of the ear doesn’t vary
much. On your own face, use your pencil again to measure the
length from the inside corner of your eye to the bottom of your
chin (Figure 9-18). Now, holding that measurement, lay the pencil
horizontally along your eye level line (Figure 9-19) with the
eraser end at the outside corner of your eye. That measurement
coincides with the back of your ear.
Putting that another way, the length from eye level to chin
equals the distance from the back of the eye to the back of the ear.
Make a mark for the ear placement on the eye level line of the
blank, as in Figure 9-20. This proportion may seem a little complex,
but if you will learn the measurement, it will save you from
another stubborn problem in drawing the human head: Most
beginning students draw the ear too close to the features when
drawing a profile. When the ear is placed too close to the features,
the skull is once more chopped off, this time at the back. Again,
the reason for the problem may be that the expanse of cheek and
jaw is uninteresting and boring, and therefore beginning students
fail to perceive the width of the space correctly
You can memorize this important measurement as a saying or
mnemonic, similar to “i” before “e,” except after “c.” To place the
ear in a profile portrait, memorize this mnemonic: eye level-tochin
equals back-of-the-eye to the back-of-the-ear.
Note that enlarging the features and diminishing the skull
produce strong, expressive, symbolic effects, a device you can
always use later if you wish. Right now, for this “basic training,”
we want you to be able to see things as they really are in their correct
Visualizing is another useful technique for teaching the correct
placement of the ear. Since you now know that two measurements
are equal—from eye level to chin, and from the back of the
eye to the back of the ear—you can visualize an equal-sided
right-angle triangle (an isosceles triangle) connecting these three
points, as shown in the drawing in Figure 9-12, page 170. This is an
easy way to place the ear correctly. The isosceles triangle can be
visualized on the model. See Figure 9-20, page 175.
Practice seeing proportional relationships now by looking at
photographs or drawings of people in the profile view and visualizing
the isosceles triangle, as in Figure 9-12. This technique will
save you from a lot of problems and errors in your profile drawings.
We still need to make two more measurements on the profile
blank. First, holding your pencil horizontally, just under your ear,
slide the pencil forward as in Figure 9-21. You come to the space
between your nose and mouth. This is the level of the bottom of
your ear. Make a mark on the blank.
Again, holding your pencil horizontally just under your ear,
slide the pencil backward this time. You will come to the place
where your skull and neck connect—the place that bends, as in
Figure 9-22. Mark this point on the blank. The point is higher
than you think. In symbolic drawing, the neck is usually placed
below the circle of the head, with the point that bends on the
level of the chin. This will cause problems in your drawing: The
neck will be too narrow. Make sure that you perceive on your
model the correct place where the neck begins at the back of the
Now you will need to practice these perceptions. Look at
people. Practice perceiving faces, observing relationships, seeing
the unique forms of each individual face.
You are ready now to draw a profile portrait. You will be using
all of the skills you have learned so far:
• Focusing on complex edges and negative spaces until you feel
the shift to an alternative state of consciousness, one in which
your right hemisphere leads and your left hemisphere is
quiet. Remember that this process requires an uninterrupted
block of time.
• Estimating angles in relation to the vertical and horizontal
edges of the paper
• Drawing just what you see without trying to identify or attach
verbal labels to forms (you learned the value of this in the
• Drawing just what you see without relying on old stored-andmemorized
symbols from your childhood drawing
• Estimating relationships of sizes—how big is this form compared
to that one?
• Perceiving proportions as they really are, without changing
or revising visual information to fit preconceptions about
what parts are important. They are all important, and each
part must be given its full proportion in relation to the other
parts. This requires bypassing the brain’s propensity to
change incoming information without “telling” you what it
has done. Your sighting tool—your pencil—will enable you
to “get at” the true proportions.
A warm-up exercise
To illuminate for yourself the connection of edges, spaces, and
relationships in portrait drawing, I suggest that you copy (make a
drawing of) John Singer Sargent’s beautiful profile portrait of
Mme. Pierre Gautreau, which Sargent drew in 1883 (Figure 9-23).
You may wish turn it upside down.
For the past forty years or so, most art teachers have not recommended
copying masterworks as an aid to learning to draw.
With the advent of modern art, many art schools rejected traditional
teaching methods and copying master drawings went out
of favor. Now, copying drawings and paintings is coming back
into favor as an effective means of training the eye in art.
I believe that copying great drawings is very instructive for
beginning students. Copying forces one to slow down and really
see what the artist saw. I can practically guarantee that carefully
copying any masterwork of drawing will forever imprint the
image in your memory. Therefore, because copied drawings
become an almost permanent file of memorized images, I recommend
that you copy only the work of major and minor masters of
drawing. We are fortunate these days to have reproductions of
great works readily and inexpensively available.
For how to do an exercise copy of Sargent’s profile portrait of
Mme. Pierre Gautreau, also known as “Madame X,” please read all
of the instructions before you begin.
What you’ll need:
• Your drawing paper
• Your # 2 B writing pencil and # 4 B drawing pencils, sharpened,
and your eraser
• Your plastic Picture Plane
• An hour of uninterrupted time
What you’ll do:
These instructions will be appropriate for either right-side-up or
upside-down drawing of the Sargent portrait.
1. As always, in starting a drawing, you will first draw a format.
Center one of the Viewfinders on your drawing paper and use
your pencil to draw around the outside edges. Then, lightly
draw crosshairs on your paper.
2. You will be using your new skills of seeing edges, spaces, and
relationships in this drawing. Since the original is a line drawing,
lights and shadows are not relevant in this exercise.
3. Lay your clear plastic Picture Plane directly on top of the
Sargent and note where the crosshairs fall on the portrait
drawing. You will immediately see how this will help you in
deciding on your Basic Unit and starting your copy of the
drawing. You can check proportional relationships right on
the original drawing and transfer them to your copy.
Ask yourself the following series of questions. (Note that I must
name the features in order to give these verbal instructions, but
when you are drawing, try to clear your mind of words.) Looking
at the Sargent drawing and using the crosshairs as in Figure 9-24,
ask yourself the following:
1. Where is the point where the forehead meets the hairline?
2. Where is the outermost curve of the tip of the nose?
What are the angles of the forehead?
3. What is the negative shape that lies between those two points?
4. If you draw a line between the tip of the nose and the outermost
curve of the chin, what is the angle of that line relative
to vertical (or horizontal)?
5. What is the negative shape defined by that line?
6. Relative to the crosshairs, where is the curve of the front of
7. What is the negative space made by the chin and neck?
8., 9., and 10. Check the position of the back of the ear, bend of
the neck, and the slant of the back.
Continue in this fashion, putting the drawing together like a jigsaw
puzzle: Where is the ear? How big is it relative to the profile
you have just drawn? What is the angle of the back of the neck?
What is the shape of the negative space made by the back of the
neck and the hair? And so on. Draw just what you see, nothing
more. Notice how small the eye is relative to the nose, and notice
the size of the mouth relative to the eye. When you have
unlocked the true proportion by sighting, you will be surprised, I
feel quite sure. In fact, if you lay one finger over the features in
Sargent’s drawing, you will see what a small proportion of the
whole form is occupied by the main features. This is often quite
surprising to beginning drawing students.