Week 3: Draw Upside down

ANNOUNCEMENT! I will be leading a web-based class from August 16-20 covering the first six weeks of drawing: showing you how to draw through the techniques CC highlights, how to break down art to simple processes, how to try different techniques for those who get frustrated. The cost is $25 for four 1-hour classes. While the live classes will be August 16-20, the recorded classes will be archived in the same place, allowing you to see how drawing is done in “real life”. Speaking as a student of art, I’ve only had a handful of teachers who drew in front of me, and who showed me, step-by-step, how to do a technique. And SEEING how to do something like this made a major difference in how fast I understood something and could add it to my skill set. I hope to see you there, either August 16-20, or later in the semester!


This is one exercise I have been through several times in my formal education. Never knew why.

Shortly after I drew my first “real” piece (a great horned owl, you can see him in this post on “Stages of Drawing Development”, my 5th grade art teacher made us draw this goofy-looking guy upside down. No idea why, took a couple of classes, but it didn’t turn out half bad, considering!

11th grade advanced art, my teacher handed out a new project:

I remember muttering, “Are we going to draw him upside down?” Sure enough, Mrs. C told us we were going to draw him upside down in order to improve our drawing skills. My table looked at me in surprise: “How’d you know?” “Not the first time I’ve drawn this guy, and last time it was upside down.” (Incidentally, we were a great table, but we sounded like a bit of a joke: ‘A Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Ba’Hai, an Agnostic, and an Athiest all sat at the same art table…” We got such glares from the other tables because we were constantly talking and debating things, but since we all did the work, Mrs. C wasn’t going to do anything about it, other than ask us to keep it down.)

I go to college to become a Biology Teacher. Two years in, while still a Bio major, I take drawing class, just for fun. Half-way through the course, guess who lands on my desk the day after a portfolio check?

And, guess what my new assignment was?

So…who is this guy? And why did I only see him when I had to draw him upside down?

Meet Igor Stravinsky…or at least Picasso’s impression of him.

At the time, I didn’t know if my three teachers were all taught in the same school, or what, but in my life, at least, this picture is THE “Draw this upside down” picture.

Then I read Betty Edwards book: “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”.

She recommends drawing upside down as an exercise too. She has several suggestions in her book, including…

So, apparently, this is THE “Draw this thing upside down!” assignment in the art education world.

Part of the reason this piece is so popular for this assignment might actually BE Ms. Edwards herself. Partly, it’s because it’s a Picasso, and Picasso is one of the “Greats” or “Giants” in the art world. Partly, it’s because it is both just complex enough, and yet simple enough (no scribbled shading, no textures, the lines are clean) to work really well for this exercise.

Mostly, however, it’s because this piece, in the United States, at least, is in the public domain, and schools, therefore, can use it freely. (Since Picasso died in 1973, most of his work won’t be in the public domain until at least 2023-2073, depending on where you live in the world. But the US has a public domain loophole, anything published prior to 1924, is in the public domain, no matter when when the creator died. This helps eliminate “orphan” works, but I digress…)

Drawing upside-down, like drawing symmetrical mirror images, is not something, I, as an artist, do very often. Blocking is something I do nearly every day, but these two exercises is not something I have to really do.

So why do it?

Because until you learn to see like an artist, these exercises and tricks help you get to the point where you CAN see like an artist.

For an example: I’m taking Taekwondo. It’s been quite the year. And for many months now, the various black belts in our school have been helping me with various tricks.

  • Striding through my basics with my feet on either side of a belt or tape laid out on the floor (no, not a belt we use, a special belt that isn’t used in our school at all) This helps train the width of my stance.
  • Making me do my forms just with my hands, or just with my feet, or combining two forms together, or with my eyes CLOSED. Training me to think my way through each move.
  • Making me go slow motion–but with power. Training precision of timing.
  • Performing a 6-point check every. time. I. move. Precision of placement.
  • Giving me specific instructions on what to do with my spars. “I’m going to pivot round kick, I want you, when I do it, to cross step to this side and try and punch me where I’ll be more open. Three…two…one…”

Now, none of them, the black belts, do this at all. But they don’t have to any more. Their bodies and minds have been trained to see how to do these things automatically, and with very little need to *think* before they move, they just do, combining techniques and patterns, and moves that make me dizzy just watching them. (I, on the other hand, have been told to stop (over)thinking multiple times!) These exercises are not as important to them, personally, as they are to a beginner like me.

But I need to train my body to perform the way theirs does. I need to train my mind to do these strides, moves, stops, with the same power and precision they do, if I’m going to be a black belt someday. And so, I do these exercises.

Drawing upside down and mirror image is like those exercises I go through in Taekwondo: they are necessary to help someone see their world through artist eyes. Part of doing that is, like I mentioned last week, getting the Local-Logic mode of thinking to get frustrated by the enforced difficulty, and get out of the way. Once it does, Global-Gestalt can come in and start working–and GG is the one who can see relationship like, “How long is that line?” “Where does this line curve relative to that curve?” “Where do these lines cross?”

I’ve done this assignment multiple times in different schools under different instructors. I don’t remember ever being told why, so I hope this explanation helps you understand why this is part of the rotation.

If it were up to me, I’d do blind contour drawing in addition, or instead of, but I’m not in charge. But if I ever designed a course to help people learn drawing, both upside down and blind contour would be in there–they help the mind see, and the hand and eye to work together, both of which are necessary tools.

Next up: Abstract Art…why?
The answer was quite interesting to me.

Upside Down Drawing, Abecedarians and Apprentices

 Upside Down Drawing, Journeymen and Masters (corrected!)

(Sorry about the mixup–both scripts were the same and somehow…I still have no idea how I did it, but I think I saved the same script under two names (abecedarian et. al.and Journeyment so when I finished and converted to PDF, there WASN’T a Master’s script anymore! (Yeah, makes no sense I know, but I finished these close to midnight, so that’s what I get for working late!) I had to re-do the Master’s script, and I think it actually turned out better! I hope it helps!