How to Draw Anything You See, Part I: Draw Upside Down

Upside-Down Drawing

There are at least a few effective ways to move past stereotyped drawing to accurate, representational drawing.  Probably the most effective of these methods is drawing your desired image while it is upside down.  This technique works because it is harder for you to stereotype what you see when it is less recognizable (e.g., by being turned upside down).  After some practice, you’ll stop stereotyping what you see and will be able to draw just as representationally while things are right side up.

This technique is so effective that, according to Betty Edwards, forgers turn signatures upside down before copying them.  To experience this technique in action, first try to draw this public domain image of a horse right side up:


Now, draw the same horse upside down:


You will most likely discover that your upside down drawing, when turned right side up, was more accurate than your right side up drawing.

There are two other exercises you should consider practicing in your quest to become a better representational artist:

Pure Contour Drawing

Contour drawing was popularized by Kimon Nicolaides during the early 20th century.  With this technique, you put pencil to paper while looking at some point along an outer contour of your subject.  Then, very slowly,  you trace over the contours of your subject with your eyes while moving your pencil in exactly the same directions.

Ideally, when you have finished tracing the object with your eyes, your pencil will also have finished drawing what you traced.  In practice, though, your initial pure contour drawings will look pretty terrible.  Over the following weeks or months, they will gradually improve as you learn to draw what you see.  In addition to pure contour drawing, there is also modified contour drawing.

Modified Contour Drawing

In modified contour drawing, you do exactly what you did in pure contour drawing, but you occasionally glance down at the paper to make sure you aren’t deviating too much from what the subject actually looks like.


In summary, you can learn how to create accurate line drawings of what you see by practicing the above exercises daily over the next few weeks.  Some artists continue to use these exercises to “warm up”, presumably by moving into a representational mode of perception, before working on their projects.


The #1 Reason You Can’t Draw What You See: Stereotyping

Stereotyping, or recording phenomena within the visual field symbolically instead of representationally,  is the primary obstacle standing between you and the ability to accurately draw what is in front of you.

The best examples of stereotyping are found in children’s art:  trees are sticks with green circles on top; houses are squares with triangles for roofs; etc.  Instead of drawing representationally, most young children draw symbolically:

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One of the main benefits of learning to draw realistically is learning to see things as they really are, instead of as you expect them to be.  You learn, for example, to not immediately typecast an eye as what you think an eye should look like, but to see it instead as a pattern of lines and values.  You draw these lines and values in relation to each other and end up with a much more accurate rendition of an eye than if you had relied on your preconceived idea of “eye”.

Here’s a photograph of my right eye:

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The person who draws symbolically will see this eye and will then draw their idea of what an eye should look like:


The person who draws representationally, however, will see a collection of lines and values and will draw each line or value in correct relation to the others:


While representational drawings are often technically more difficult to execute, symbolic drawings can be very powerful, too, so it is not useful to make value judgments about one style versus the other.

How I Developed a Drawing Practice

I wanted to learn to draw for years.  It was one of those primeval urges, a desire that had no clear origin but that persisted.  I had many such urges:  writing, drawing, music, programming, etc.  The common thread that tied them together was the desire to create.  Like most people I know, I never got around to seriously developing any of them.  In medical school, I chanced upon Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (henceforth referred to as DRSB), by Betty Edwards, and bought it immediately, only to flip through its pages now and then while studying for exams.

I made a brief, if brittle,  effort to tackle DRSB circa third year of med school.  I got so far as to produce this portrait of my girlfriend at the time:


As you might expect, she didn’t look anything like this in real life!

After this initial foray into drawing, my efforts were stunned by procrastination and then drowned in the turbulence of other priorities.

I graduated, moved to the West Coast for residency,  and brought DRSB along.  During the second year of residency, while completely absorbed by the intensive care unit, my toughest rotation, I decided that, unless I make a stand now and tackle drawing, I’ll never get around to it.  So, at age 31, I started DRSB again and produced this self-portrait (11/3/10):


You will notice the stereotyped features.  This self-portrait, while inaccurately executed, is actually better than the portrait above, if only because I made an effort at the classic 3/4-view and at getting the ears right instead of leaving them out altogether.

I kept trudging through DRSB, and, near the end of the book, produced the following self-portrait with pencil on cheap white paper:


I eventually finished DRSB.  Afterward, by watching YouTube artists, developing a daily drawing habit (crucial to growth and maintenance of any skill!), and reading other books, I gradually optimized my materials, refined my technique, and worked toward mastery of the fundamentals I had picked up in Edwards’ excellent text.  Her book is still the “highest-yield” book I’ve ever read, on any subject, and I’ve worked through innumerable medical, computer science, math, “hard science”, and self-help books, among others.  For lack of time, I was not able to take formal art lessons.

The culmination of this effort was my third self-portrait, produced shortly after residency graduation and which several friends thought was a black and white photograph of me until they looked more closely or I told them it’s a drawing (7/7/2012; charcoal on 11″ by 14″ paper):


Each of the above drawings was freehanded (no tracing or drafting equipment is used in any of my drawings or paintings).  The skill of drawing what is seen is not particularly rare; what is rare is for a creative practice to take root within a person and to grow steadily over time.  However, as Edwards puts it, drawing ability is (erroneously) seen as an innate or magical ability that some possess and others do not.  This “invisible script” of “some have the ability to do activity X skilfully while others do not” also hovers over other creative endeavors:  painting, music, math, writing, programming, etc.  Unfortunately, it oversteps the reality, which is that nearly anyone who puts in the time and right effort can become very good at any activity requiring great skill.

In this blog, I will attempt to knock down the “invisible script” mentioned above by exploring creative pursuits from the standpoint of an adult with a demanding but creatively unproductive day job.