Don’t let your brain get in the way
Before looking at methods for getting the actual figure right, we need to understand why it’s crucial when drawing from life to turn off some parts of your brain. You have drawn before, and you’ve probably drawn people before without a real person as a reference. For example, when many of us were kids we were taught that you draw a face as a sort of oval, put the nose in the middle, eyes on either side, eyebrows above that, squiggle right at the top for hair etc.
Those old habits still have some sub-conscious impact on our drawings. Now we need to forget any drawing habits and try to draw what our eyes see. It’s often a mistake to think we’re drawing a person and go into person-drawing mode.
Further complicating things is our intimate visual relationship with the human figure. We have an emotional response to facial expressions that has been demonstrated by neuroscientists. We are much more acutely attuned to body language than we realise. We can determine whether we fancy someone within 2 seconds of seeing them. We are able to recognise faces and figures in the blink of an eye.
All this information has been invaluable for our survival, as we are able to rapidly and sub-consciously interpret what people and creatures around us are thinking and doing. However, all that rapid processing software can get in the way when you just need to draw what you see. If you were to try to copy a set of random shapes down onto a page, you might do quite well. But then drawing a person’s face is insanely difficult.
So you have a lot of baggage when it comes to seeing people. The light bounces off them and into your eye. Then your brain takes it and performs a zillion bits of analysis and processing on it before sending messages to your hand.
Here is a quote from CNN about the brain and its relationship with the face:
“… everyone can agree that this : -) is a sideways happy face, even though it doesn’t look like any particular person and has only the bare minimum of facial features. Our brains have a special affinity for faces and for finding representations of them (some say they see the man in the moon, for instance). Even infants have been shown in several studies to prefer face-like patterns over patterns that don’t resemble anything.
“That makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: It benefits babies to establish a bond with their caregivers early on, notes Mark H. Johnson in a 2001 Nature Reviews Neuroscience article.
“Our primitive human ancestors needed to be attuned to animals around them; those who were most aware of potential predators would have been more likely to survive and pass on their genes.
“So our brains readily find faces in art, including in Impressionist paintings where faces are constructed from colored lines or discrete patches of color. This “coarse information” can trigger emotional responses, even without you bearing aware of it, Cavanagh and David Melcher write in the essay ‘Pictorial Cues in Art and in Visual Perception.'”
Exercise 1: A simple way to disengage the processes that distort the information your eyeball takes in is the ‘landscape approach’. Simply tell yourself you are drawing a landscape, rather than a person. A landscape has valleys and hills and all sorts just like a human figure, but they are so varied that we have not built up a pre-conception of how they ought to look.
Exercise 2: Pick a photo of your favourite celebrity or person. Try to draw the photo. Now get another photo of the same person and draw it again, but this time turn the photo upside down and try to forget that you’re drawing a face. Just try to accurately get the lines and tone you see down on the page. Compare your drawings and think about the differences.