I’ve always painted upside down, right way up, on the side… standing on one leg…Well OK, I wasn’t actually moving – but my subject matter and my painting was.
One of the huge practical benefits of working from photographs is the fact that you can move the photo around (along with your painting) in a way you just can’t if you’re painting from ‘life’.
I’ve found that life models rarely want to pose upside down!
Often I move things about for convenience.
When I’m working on a large painting that’s orientated in ‘portrait’ mode (tall and thin), it’s just too awkward to keep reaching up to the top (especially as I’m usually sitting down nice and comfortably).
So instead I’ll turn my photograph and my painting on their sides, to ‘landscape’ mode – making the painting process much more comfortable.
Moving things around never made any difference to the painting process for me – I was still just seeing my subject in the artistic way – that is to say I was mentally breaking it down in to a series of shapes of colour and tone as I painted it, rather than thinking about the whole.
But when I started teaching I realised that students were often struggling to make the shift to seeing their subject in terms of shapes of colour (the shift to right-brain).
Instinctively I turned their photo and their work around and discovered that this really helped them to ‘see’ their subject.
And this was especially true when students were at a stage in their painting where they felt they couldn’t see what their painting needed next.
When they felt ‘stuck’.
The quickest way to unstick them was to flip their work – and their reference photo- around.
Sometimes people can look at a subject for too long.
Their left brain steps in and they can’t seem to ‘see’ the shapes anymore but instead start judging it by the standards of what they think it ‘ought’ to look like.
This is true for ANY subject but especially true of subjects such as birds and animals where there is a very definite ‘right way up’.
And we immediately look to the eyes in these subjects, relating to all that we have stored in our head about them (what they’re called, how big they are, how much we like them) rather than the shapes that make their physical appearance up.
It was only when I was writing my book that I researched painting and drawing upside down and what’s going on with our brains when we do this.
I came across Betty Edwards’ ‘Drawing on the right Side of the Brain’.
In it, Edwards recommends upside down drawing and explains how our left brain stops with its naming and other verbal processes when confronted with an upside down image – seeming to say:
I don’t do upside down. It’s too hard to name things seen this way, and besides the world isn’t upside down. Why should I bother with such stuff?
The right brain doesn’t care however – shapes are the same to it whatever way around a subject appears.
So with the left brain quietened the right brain is given a chance to take over and the flow of drawing and painting can take place.
Try this little exercise to make the right-brain shift for yourself…
You can download a PDF of this upside down American Robin here to print or view from your own computer (opens in a new window).
Try creating either a tonal drawing or a full colour painting working totally upside down.
Don’t try to figure out what bit is what – just lose yourself in the shapes of colour and/or tone.
And if you find you need tips on painting feathers check out my tip video here.
I think you’ll be surprised how well it turns out.
I’d love to see your results (right-side up!) and let me know if you’ve found working upside down useful in the comments below.