How to draw what you see, not what you think you see

Life drawing massively helped bring to life the drawing I do from my imagination. One reason is that it has helped to break down the preconceptions I had about the lines that define the human body.

Life drawing of man

Great foreshortening in this life drawing by Mayko

The lines that you need to portray a human figure in different poses during life drawing are often surprising. Our minds can become rigid and have set images for how limbs and features should look, how long they are in relation to each other, where they are and so on.

So when we see a figure in front of us, sometimes our brains rebel against the truth that our eyes are communicating to us. “Should the line defining the top of the arm really be that short?!” “Is that really the angle that the lower eyelid is in relation to the top eyelid?!” With life drawing practice, we can start to break away from rigid notions of how things should look and start to see the forms as they really are.


    The big mistake that led to all my other mistakes

So this is the first major lesson I learned from life drawing – try to dismantle what your brain thinks it knows about what the human body looks like and draw what you see.

Here are some of the major things that differ between our pre-conceptions about the lines of the body and the ones our eyes see when starting out.

  • our brains make incorrect assumptions about the way features and body parts are arranged. I tend to place the eyes above the nose, or have a separation between the head and the torso, or make the lines of the legs long. But of course, depending on the pose and our viewpoint, things can be completely different.
  • the body is a combination of 3D objects – some rigid and others malleable – which are more varied than our simplifying minds like to think
  • the way that parts and features of the body appear and align with each other varies dramatically depending on the angle we are viewing them from
  • people’s bodies and proportions vary more than we imagine

A wonderful life drawing of a woman lying by Mayko – great colours and lines

Here are some exercises and habits to help get started with training your eye and arm to draw what you see, while taming your brain so that it doesn’t get in the way.

1. Break down resistance in your mind to the effects of foreshortening

Overcoming what your brain is telling you about how things should be drawn and what your eyes are telling you is especially difficult with foreshortening. Foreshortening is when the size of an object’s dimensions along the line of sight are relatively shorter than dimensions across the line of sight. In other words, when you look at a pencil from a straight on angle, it has a much smaller width to your eye than when looking at it from the side, and the lines you would use to draw it should reflect that. This is very difficult with a human body where limbs are coming at you at all sorts of angles at once.

  • draw the figure like a landscape. Disengage the ‘drawing a person’ software in your mind and engage the ‘drawing a landscape’ software. To truly trick yourself into doing this, you have to first accept that your drawing may not come out looking like a human figure. If you still want to end up with a human figure, your brain will insist on making its unwanted adjustments.
  • constantly challenge yourself to overcome foreshortening. If you are free to move during a life drawing session, move to a heavily foreshortened angle during lying down poses. If you are choosing photo references to practise drawing from, resist the temptation to avoid tricky foreshortened poses. If anything, search out and purposefully do foreshortened poses.
  • try overcompensating. When you are drawing a foreshortened object, try a line that feels a little crazy. When you feel yourself think “the line for the leg can’t be that short – the leg is a long part of the body”, try an even shorter line than the one you were thinking. See how that looks. Start getting used to breaking what you think. The ‘crazy lines’ might not turn out that crazy once they are on the page!
  • use measurements to help you force your proportions and angles to be correct. We’ll go over measurements in the first steps mini-course.

2. Discover the variety of 3D shapes that make up the body

The head is not a circle or oval. A torso is not a rectangle. Even if we break them down into simplified forms, body parts are combinations of balls, cylinders, cubes and other 3D shapes. One thing that has helped me is to look, at family members while watching TV, while walking the streets or on the tube, at people’s limbs and features and trying to picture the 3D shapes they can be simplified into (remember to think 3D!). This means disengaging all preconceptions about the body and how it’s structured.

3. Broaden your mind to the variety of body types out there

Again while observing people, notice how different head sizes can be (this continues to blow my mind), how short or long legs can be in proportion to the torso, how wide or thin wrists can be in proportion to hands. If you make a habit of noticing these things, it’ll start to broaden your mind’s understanding of what human figures are like. If you are caught staring at people, just say that told you to ;)


I hope this introduction to drawing what you see has been useful – please leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts and how I can improve it.

To build a solid foundation of life drawing skills, have a look at our free beginner online course.

Avoid the big mistake that led to all my other mistakes

Get the free guide - 'Life Drawing Success'

You may also like