The Secret to Drawing Portraits (Hint: Don't Use Your Memory)

Updated on November 6, 2017
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Penny Lulich is a member of the Bloomington Watercolor Society, the Northwest Watercolor Society, and Lawrence County Art Association

Let Go of Your Natural Tendency

I recently took a course entitled, "Drawing From The Right Side Of Your Brain," which is based on a book with the same title, written by Betty Edwards. It was taught by a fellow artist in the watercolor group I belong to. I had never been instructed in drawing but I knew my art would improve if I learned how to draw something other then stick figures (which were pretty bad at that).

I knew nothing of Betty Edwards' assertions on drawing so it was a surprise to me that the first thing I was asked to do was to turn off the left side of my brain. That's the logical side, the side that knows what things are and where they belong. That side has a good memory and it serves me well, but apparently, not in art.

The type of drawing exercises we practiced from the book, were the kind that forces you, the artist, into drawing without looking at your paper, and without always even having your subject right side up in front of you.

We began by drawing our hands without looking at the paper. We drew people without looking to see if we were doing things correctly, and we were forced to start with the shoes and work our way to the top of the head. Of course, we didn't call things what they were.

Shoes were not shoes, and heads were not heads, and hands were not hands, and so forth. To call things by their names is to use our memory to draw what we know of those things, rather then to draw exactly what we see in the form of the shapes of things. Are you still with me?

Following Shapes, Both Positive and Negative, Allowed Me to Draw This Horse


These exercises were a bit grueling, and I have to admit that the left side of my brain was a distraction for me. It threw tantrums, it yelled at me and shouted out the the names of things, and chided me for trying to draw without its help. It made me question my abilities, and even at times, my sanity. But not long into the course I learned something very helpful about drawing from the right side (otherwise known as the creative side) of my brain. It helped me shut down the commotion coming from the other side.

Here's what I learned; You can follow shapes completely outside your object as well as inside. In other words, the negative space that surrounds your object has shapes as well. If you look for those shapes, where they begin and where they end, and how they go, you can follow them. Your subject will appear just by drawing the negative space. Well, that blew my mind but in a good way.

Drawing the negative space gets me away from the memory part of my brain every time, and helps me create the drawings I want. I don't need to remember how things are suppose to look. I can just move the pencil which is held in my hand but is actually moved by my eye, on the paper following the shapes I see.

I Drew This Portrait of My Three-Month-Old Granddaughter by Sight Rather Than by Memory

Portrait of Granddaughter Anna Lynn
Portrait of Granddaughter Anna Lynn | Source

Drawing Portraits the Easy Way

I have always harbored a desire to draw portraitures, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I might be able to do it one day. I not only learned how to draw portraits, but I also found how easy it can be when I learned how to close down, if not at least ignore, my very good memory skills that informed me of noses, eyes, ears and mouths, etc.

I drew what I saw, using both positive and negative space. I drew shapes, including the shapes of shadows which are actually really important in the drawing exercise. I surprised myself entirely, and now I draw people all the time. It's one of the highlights of my art studies, and one I won't give back. Oh, my logical brain wants me to come back. It still nags me all the time, but I know how to quit listening now and just enjoy the process. A good memory isn't always a good thing in art, and that's definitely something to remember!

I hope you, the reader, who may be harboring a desire to learn to draw, will pick up this book (and maybe take a class) and get started today.


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