Drawing the self portrait

1 Comment

Last night I bit the bullet and tried drawing my first self portrait. Here’s the result.


Here’s the original.


I asked my daughter if she thought this looked like me. She said ‘Nah.’ Guess I better keep my day time job.

Despite the fact that I look like ‘The Joker’ this exercise (applying everything I had learned so far from Betty’s book) was most rewarding. While the self portrait isn’t ‘great’, it was orders of magnitude better than anything I had ever drawn before.

Here are a few observations about drawing.

Eyes and hair are hard

Getting the eyes and hair on a portrait are hard. The eyes are the soul into somebody. Get those wrong, and it just doesn’t look right.

The hair I also find really tricky. If you try drawing every line, you feel overwhelmed. And the left hand side of the brain is always trying to take over and say ‘Just draw a bunch of lines somewhere in the area. That will look like hair’.

And that is exactly what most of us do when drawing. We just draw lines based on what the left hand side of the brain thinks they should look like. Which is why most people struggle initially to draw.

Spacing and proportion are everything

When drawing, especially faces, spacing is everything. You need to get the eyes, ears, nose and everything just right. Betty has a good chapter on this in her book and it helped teach me how to measure, grid, and get the spacing right.

The power of a single line

Lines are all drawings are. But lines are everything. A single line (especially in hair or facial expressions) can convey so much. I had a hard time filling in the hair (in fact I purposefully didn’t because I wasn’t sure yet how to do those thousands of lines without it ruining what I had already drawn).

Still. This was a great fun experience. And one I’ll continue to practice.

Happy drawing!

Other drawing posts in this series:

How Artists Draw the Hard Parts – Negative Spaces
Modified Contour Drawing Exercise
Drawing on the right side of the brain
Three exercises to get you going
Vases and faces
Drawing upside down
Use contour drawing to see things differently
Drawing the human face

Betty’s excellent book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.


Modified Contour Drawing Exercise


Building on the previous contour drawing exercise, this one brings things all together nicely by getting you to draw your hand as you see it.

Betty has a setup where you actually place your hand behind a clear background and then draw the hand as you see it, on the 2D plane.


The magic here is it forces you to focus on what you see, instead of drawing what you know.

I didn’t have a clear plane to draw through, so I scrunched my hand and draw what saw in front of me. The results were impressive.


The is perhaps the best real life drawing of anything I have ever done (a testament to Betty’s book and technique). One tip: close one eye when doing this exercise. It helps make your hand be viewed as a plane (not 3D) and easier to draw.


What’s fascinating about this exercise is as you are drawing your hand, you can literal feel the tug of war between the two sides of your brain.

When you see something you know (like a finger or a ring) your L-Mode brain (left) kicks in and instantly wants you to draw a finger or a ring like it knows how (a simple circle). But the right (or what we are trying to engage) fights this be instead saying

Don’t draw a finger. Focus instead on the lines you see (and the finger will emerge).

This to me is the secret of drawing.

Drawing what you see, instead of of what you know.

Easier said than done! But Betty’s book and my attempts at these exercises prove anyone can do it. So can you.

More drawing posts:

Drawing on the right side of the brain
Three exercises to get you going
Vases and faces
Drawing upside down
Use contour drawing to see things differently

Betty’s excellent book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

Art History – Why the picture plan method works for realistic drawings

Realistic drawing is producing a 3D image on a 2D surface. Prehistoric cave artists drew 2D images on walls of caves, but it wasn’t until Greeks and Romans worked out ways of drawing 3D forms that realistic art revived.

The skill was lost again during the dark ages and it wasn’t until the early 15th century Renaissance in Italy, that artists like Filippo Brunelleshi worked out a way to portray linear perspective, and Leon Batista Alberti discovered that he could draw in perspective the cityscape beyond his window by drawing directly on a glass plane.

Van Gogh used this technique in the 19th century to construct his own “perspective device” as he called it, when he was laboriously teaching himself how to draw. Eventually, after much practice, he could draw using an imaginary plane and was able to discard the 30 lb wood and iron one he carried around.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain



I have always wanted to learn how to draw. So it was with great excitement that the best book I could find on drawing arrived yesterday – Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.

I won’t go into why this book is so good (I have only read the first two chapters) but already this early in I know I am in good hands as this book was first published in 1979, is now on it’s fourth edition, and has stood the test of time.

First, it’s helpful to understand this general distinction between left and right brain.


The left brain (our dominate one) is used every day for most things. Language, analytic thought. Important stuff like that.

But it’s the right side of the brain that is used for drawing. And engaging it is not as easy as it sounds.

Fortunately, Betty has several exercises to help us get our right brains engaged and aid us in our drawing.

The Vase/Faces exercise is designed to acquaint students with the possibility of conflict between the hemispheres as they compete for the task. The exercise is setup to strongly activate the verbal hemisphere (L-mode), but completion of the exercise requires the abilities of the visual hemisphere (R-mode). The resulting mental conflict is perceptible and instructive for students.

The Upside-Down Drawing exercise (I remember an art teacher showing me this one in junior high) is rejected by the left hemisphere because it is too difficult to name parts of an image when it is upside down, and, in left-brain terms, an inverted image is too unusual – that is useless – to bother with. This rejection enables the right hemisphere to hump into the task (for which it is well suited) without competition from the left hemisphere.

The Perception of Edges exercise (seeing complex edges) forces slowness and extreme perception of tiny, inconsequential (in left brain terms) details, where every details becomes a fractual-like whole, with details within details. The left hemisphere quickly becomes “fed up” because it is “too slow for words” and drops out, enabling the right hemisphere to take up the task.

The Perception of Spaces exercise is rejected by the left hemisphere because it will not deal with “nothing”, that is, negative spaces that aren’t objects and can’t be named. In it’s view, spaces are not important enough to bother with. The right hemisphere, with its recognition of the whole (shapes and spaces), is then free to pick up the task and seems to take antic delight in drawing negative spaces.

The Perception of Relationships (perspective and proportion in building and interiors) forces the left hemisphere to confront paradox and ambiguity, which it dislikes and rejects (“this is not how I know things to be”), and which are abundant in perspective drawing, with its angular and proportional spatial changes. Because the right hemisphere is willing to acknowledge perceptual reality, it accepts and will draw what it sees (“it is what it is”).

The Perception of Lights and Shadows presents shapes that are infinitely complex, variable, unnamable, and not useful in terms of language. The left hemisphere refuses the task, which the complexity-loving right hemisphere then picks up, delighting, in the three dimensionality that lights and shadows reveal.

The Perception of Gestalt occurs during and at the close of a drawing. The main effect is a right-hemisphere aha, as though in recognition of the whole that emerges from careful perception and recoding of the parts, all in relationship to each other and the whole. This initial perception of the gestalt occurs largely without verbal input or response from the left hemisphere, but later the left brain may put into words a response that expresses the right brains aha.

This, then is the essence of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: five basic component perceptual skills of drawing, and an overall strategy to enable your brain to bring to bear the brain most appropriate for drawing.

I am so looking forward to studying this book. Stay tuned for more insights into the world of drawing and any other creative hacks I come across for drawing.

%d bloggers like this: