The mystery of the choppedoff skull

Most people find it quite difficult to perceive the relative proportions of the features and the skull.

In this introduction to profile-portrait drawing, I'll concentrate on two critical relationships that are persistently difficult for beginning drawing students to correctly perceive: the location of eye level in relation to the length of the whole head; and the location of the ear in the profile view. I believe these are two examples of perceptual errors caused by the brain's propensity to change visual information to better fit its concepts.

Let me explain. To most people, the eye level line (an imaginary horizontal line that passes through the inside corners of the eyes) appears to be about one-third of the way down from the top of the head. The actual measure is one-half. I think this misper-ception occurs because we tend to see that the important visual information is in the features, not in foreheads and hair areas. Apparently, the top half of the head seems less compelling than the features, and therefore is perceived as smaller. This error in perception results in what I've called the "chopped-off-skull error," my term for the most common perceptual error made by beginning drawing students (Figures 9-6,9-7).

I stumbled on this problem one day while teaching a group of beginning drawing students at the university. They were working on portrait drawings and one after another had "chopped off" the skull of the model. I went through my "Can't you see that the eye level line is halfway between the bottom of the chin and the top edge of the hair?" queries. The students said, "No. We can't see that." I asked them to measure the model's head, then their own heads, and then each others' heads. "Was the measure one to one?" I asked. "Yes," they said. "Well," I said, "now you can see on the model's head that the proportional relationship is one to one,

Fig. 9-6. A student drawing illustrating the chopped-off-skull error.
Chopped Off Skull Error
Fig. 9-7. The same facial features traced from the student's drawing with two corrections: the size of the skull and placement of the eye on the right-hand side of the draw ing.

isn't that true?" "No," they said, "we still can't see it." One student even said, "We'll see it when we can believe it."

This went on for a while until finally the light dawned and I said, "Are you telling me that you really can't see that relationship?" "Yes," they said, "we really can't see it." At that point I realized that brain processes were actually preventing accurate perception and causing the "chopped-off-skull" error. Once we all agreed on this phenomenon, the students were able to accept their sightings of the proportion, and soon the problem was solved.

Now we must put your own brain into a logical box (by showing it irrefutable evidence) that will help it accept your sightings of the proportions of the head.

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