Drawing upside down

nov 17, 2018

I am experimenting with drawing upside-down – copying drawings while looking at them upside-down so the image becomes unrecognizable for the left side of your brain. This is an exercise described in ‘Drawing on the right side of the brain’ by Betty Edwards. It is amazing how much more effortless it becomes to copy complicated drawings in this way. As Betty Edwards explains, the verbal system of your left brain rejects the task of interpreting upside-down images. It does not want to bother with the illogical information presented by them. (Edwards, 1999)

For instance, you will not recognize Einstein so easily while looking at an upside down picture of his face:

Fig.1: Halsman 1947. Albert Einstein (Edwards 1999)

Because of that, when you draw upside down the right side of your brain gets the chance to take over. It becomes easier to just draw what you see without worrying about the correctness of it. When you are finished and you turn your picture around, it is surprising to see how accurate it is. This is not only my experience but the experience of all the drawing students Edwards has worked with. Her teaching method is based on the fact that drawing is a global skill (like driving or riding a bike) that can be taught to anyone. All you have to do is to teach the brain to see how a thing really looks, instead of how the brain thinks it looks; and practice some basic drawing skills. As a child, you learn to symbolize things in a drawing: a circle for a face, sticks for arms and so on. Most adolescents don’t progress much from there. At the age where they want to learn how to draw realistically, they start to think they can’t do it and give up, thinking that drawing is for ’talented people’ (1999). This book provides ample evidence that it is not.

Fig.2: Picasso 1920. Portrait of Igor Stravinsky

and unknown German artist (Edwards, 1999)

In the context of ‘capturing the essential’, the thing that fascinates me most about this book is how the right side of the brain, as Edwards describes it, ‘seems to regard the thing as-it-is, at the present moment of the present; seeing things for what they simply are, in all of their awesome, fascinating complexity’ (Edwards 1999, p.40).’

The following are the right-mode characteristics as Edwards describes them: the right side of the brain uses non-verbal cognition, puts things together to form wholes, relates to things as they are without a sense of time, does not require a basis of reason or facts, does not judge, makes leaps of insight based on incomplete patterns, perceives overall patterns and structures leading to divergent conclusions (1999).

This seems to correspond with the approaches I described in my last two blogs: John Cleese’s ‘open mode’ and the intuitive way of seeing in Goethean Observation. It also corresponds with Danny Gregory’s method to ‘shut down your left brain so you can see more clearly’ (Gregory 2006, p.29). In his book ‘The Creative license’ he teaches you to see better by very slowly tracing the lines of the object you are drawing. Tracing the form of, for instance a mug (fig.4), with your eyes and following it with the pencil in your hand, without looking at your paper (or maybe just a glance every now and then). So slowly that your left brain gets bored and zones out, and you lose all sense of time, ‘feeling relaxed, refreshed, tranquil’ (2006, p28).

Fig.3: Gregory 2006. The Creative License

Just like Edwards describes the non-verbal quality of the right side of the brain, and just like the student who lost his words in Goethean observation (blog Goethean observation), Gregory emphasizes how language can stop us from truly seeing. He tells us how we label things through abstract thinking, calling a car a car and a dog a dog, but because we overdo it, we ‘completely miss going to the next level, where language fails us altogether, where things are so specific they can have no name, where they are absolutely real.’ (Gregory 2006, p44)

This reminds me of the definition of ‘quintessence’ which I looked up in a dictionary when I started my research on essence in illustration: the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form. I tried his method of tracing objects slowly, and it works just as well as drawing upside down, to quiet down your left brain. It is about spending time just seeing and doing, without judging.

These are two drawings I copied upside down for my practice 1 assigment:

Fig.4: Copies of Blake, 1998 The Green Ship and Kitamura, 1982 Angry Arthur

I copied them to experience the difference between two very different styles, the spontaneous and sketchy style of Quentin Blake (The Green Ship, 1998), and the solid outlined forms of Satoshi Kitamura, illustrator of Angry Arthur (1982). Drawing upside down helped to easily connect to the different styles and when I turned them the right side up, I was pleased with the resemblance to the originals. Blake’s style feels light and playful and open. You capture the essence of the situation and characters, by connecting to that essence and going for the direct rendering of gesture and movement without hesitation and with quite a lot of tempo. Trusting the essence will emerge without focussing on solid, precise forms too much. Kitamura’s style is completely different but the essence is captured just as well. The forms here are solid, with an unbroken, though lively contour line, precisely coloured in. You capture the essence by connecting to the boy and almost modelling his little boy’s body with your lines. It is very much ’there’ as a material body, compact and strong and from it have just burst enormous waves of rage, but it is also a very small and tired boy’s body drifting unavoidably to bed and sleep. That at least is how I experienced his drawing style, at which I will take a closer look in my next blog.


Blake, Q. 1998. The green ship. London: Jonathan Cape

Edwards, B. (1999) The new Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. New York: Tarcher

Gregory, D. (2006) The Creative License. New York: Hachette Books

Oram, H, Kitamura, S. (1982) Angry Arthur. London: Andersen Press