How to Transform a Basic Drawing Exercise into an Exciting Lesson

10 months ago

We all know the one thing we lack as art educators is time! There is never enough of it. So, each year I search for new lessons that will quickly teach my students a multitude of techniques. One of my favorite lessons of this kind starts with the well-known book Drawing on the Right Side of the BrainIn it, author Betty Edwards outlines an activity that has the reader recreate Picasso’s Portrait of Igor Stravinsky…upside-down!

student artwork

The Benefits of Drawing Upside-Down

According to Edwards, drawing upside-down helps students practice recognizing shapes and lines in a subject. By turning their reference photo upside-down, they can begin to draw with the right side of their brains. They don’t have to worry as much about the final product, and can focus more on the actual drawing process.

According to the book, this is because the left side of the brain processes visual cues, interpreting them as familiar patterns and symbols. By turning the reference photo around, it becomes unrecognizable. The right side of the brain is forced to see the lines, shapes, and abstracted details instead of the object as a whole.

It’s a fascinating concept, and one I use early on with my drawing students. I have found it to be a wonderful tool to aid them in drawing portraits as well.

I used to teach this lesson to my students as a one-day study. But then I began to think about the ways we could enhance this quick teaching activity and ended up turning it into a full week-long lesson complete with three learning objectives! Best of all? This lesson works with almost any grade level.

Here are the steps you can use to introduce the lesson to your students.

student artwork

1. Do a Quick Blind Contour Study

Give each student a copy of Picasso’s Portrait of Igor Stravinsky and a piece of 12” x 18” drawing paper. Have them turn the Picasso portrait upside-down. Then, have students do a quick blind contour study on their drawing paper using graphite. This warm-up activity gets them used to working upside-down and seeing the lines and the shapes in the work.

2. Do a Second Contour Study

Have students turn their drawing paper over and do another study. This time, have them do an upside-down contour study slowly. Remind them to really look at the lines they are drawing. Have them measure each feature, paying attention to the proportions. This activity can be frustrating, so remind students it’s about learning to see, which is often one of the most difficult things to do in art. However, it’s also the key to being a successful technical artist.

3. Experiment with Line Quality

The next objective is to teach students the importance of line quality. Have students take drawing pens and begin to go over their pencil lines. They can choose if they want to trace their blind contour or their regular contour study. Encourage students to add thick and thin lines until they create an interesting composition.

Line quality is often an important, yet overlooked art concept, so I allow students to spend some time on this and really experiment with the art of line. I also ask them to get creative and do something interesting in the negative space to enhance their work.

student artwork

4. Add Color

The final learning objective is to bring in color theory. Review primary and secondary colors, neutrals, complements, analogous and monochromatic schemes, along with tints and shades and any other concepts you like. If it has to do with color, review and discuss!

Then have students experiment with dry media such as markers, Art Stix, crayons, and oil pastels. Remind them this part is about finding textures that work well together and create an interesting contrast. Have students select a color scheme they enjoy, and add in their colors using the various mediums. The results are always outstanding!

5. Present Finished Work

Finally, have students mat and sign their work. I like to hold a critique and hang their work in the hallway as a class display. I still remember the first year I took this simple study and moved it to a full-blown art lesson. I almost cried happy tears to see the final exhibit. The creativity, the learning, and the art was a true testament to what a good, solid art lesson can ultimately teach our kids. Not to mention how successful my students felt about their work!

I have found the more learning objectives I can tie into each lesson, the more my students discover through the process. This is a tried-and-true lesson that always garners successful final masterpieces.

I love taking a traditional teaching tool and turning it into a successful lesson. If you’re interested in adding engaging drawing lessons that build skills to your curriculum, don’t miss the AOE Course Studio: Drawing. You’ll gain a fresh perspective and the inspiration to redesign and scaffold your drawing curriculum.

Have you considered using Betty Edward’s book to springboard new lesson ideas?

What lessons do you teach that help your students better understand contour lines?

Debi West


Debi West, Ed.S. and NBCT, is a retired art teacher with 25 years of experience. She loves sharing with others, and her motto is, “Together We ART Better!”


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  • Megan Gometz

    According to modern research, there is not evidence that supports “right brained” or “left brained”-ness. There are some minute differences, such as language, and attention, but largely speaking this component of the lesson is untrue and a myth, which I would either omit, or debunk.

    • Debi West

      Hi Megan and thanks for writing – I’m not sure why I’m just seeing this so forgive my tardy response.

      In the article I’m discussing the book as a whole and the book is “Drawing in the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards. Many people consider this the “bible” of drawing books but the original was written in 1979 and is now in its 4th edition. When you research this theory deeply, you’ll learn that Roger Sperry (1981) originated the work while studying the effects of epilepsy and Richard Bergland (1985) furthered the research in his book “The Fabric of Mind” claiming that we “have two brains; a left and a right” but over time research is now showing that “abilities in subjects such as math are strongest when both sides of the brain work together” (Cherry, 2018).

      Edwards (1979) claims that “when presented with an upside-down image as a subject to be drawn, the left hemisphere’s verbal system says, in effect, “I don’t do upside down. It’s too hard to name the parts and things are hardly ever upside down in the world. It’s not useful and if you’re going to do that then I’m out of here.” The dominant verbal system “bows out” and the sub-dominant visual mode is “allowed” to take in the task for which it’s well suited.”

      As an art educator for the past 25 years I have seen that when students draw upside down they learn, they see, and their work is significantly stronger…not to mention that they build their confidence as well.

      Thanks again for taking the time to write me – I hope you attempt this lesson with your kiddos so you can see how well it works as a teaching tool!

  • Tiffany

    I remember doing a similar project like this when I was in high school. I just forgot about it till now. You said you could do this project with any grade level. I teach to kindergarten through fourth grade. I was wondering if you have tried this will fourth graders? I was also wondering if you have used any other pictures to start with instead of Picassos Portrait of Igor? I love how you had them color it with all different types of dry media. You can tell you added a ton of learning objectives. Nice Job!

    • Debi West

      Not sure why I’m just seeing this but THANK YOU!! I have done this with kiddo’s in art camps and it’s always successful but when working with your younger students I would block off areas so it’s not quite as challenging.
      You could definitely use other images as well, but make sure they are loose contours so it’s not as intimidating!

      Have Fun!!