Q&A: Why Do the Ellipses In My Drawings Always Seem “Off?”

Q: “One of the hardest things to do is draw ellipses. Why do they always seem off?”

A: Oh the dreaded ellipse. They can be an artists nightmare! They’re critical for perspective, yet difficult to draw. Even the best of drawings can seem “off,”  just because of an ellipse that fell short in its shape. The problem is that everything can be beautifully rendered but a slight error in perspective can make the viewer uncomfortable. You may not even know what it is, but something is catching your eye as an “error.”

Ellipses are hard, and it can take a lot of practice and reworking to get them right. However, all ellipses are easy to check for accuracy if you take the time. Here are some tricks you can use that may make your artistic life easier. It’s important to master this, for ellipses are seen in many, many things.

When you draw an ellipse, always keep in mind that each side is a mirror image of the opposite side. For instance, if you were to fold your ellipse in half, either lengthwise or widthwise, the sides would match perfectly. Sometimes if you’re struggling, you can take a piece of tracing paper and trace one side. Flip it over, and you’ll have what the other side would look like. Place it over your drawing and see how close you are. You can then make necessary changes.

One thing to always remember is that an ellipse NEVER has a point on the ends. An ellipse is an altered circle, and there are no points or edges. A circle is a continuous curved line. An ellipse is just a circle that appears different due to the angle in which you are viewing it.

How to draw an ellipse

You can see how the lines divide the ellipses into two halves. If folded, the halves will match.

Look at my examples. You can see in the line drawing of the watering can, I have drawn lines that divide the top and bottom into quarters. If the ellipses were folded bottom to top, or side to side, everything would match. These quarter lines can help a lot when freehand drawing an ellipse.

how to use the grid method for drawing

The line drawing of the sugar bowl (right) was more complicated because of the lid and all of the edges. In this case, I used the grid method to help capture the curves of the ellipse. By comparing the curved lines to the straight edges of the grid boxes, you can then see where the curves need to be.

How to draw an eye

One of the places I see a poorly drawn ellipse causing problems is in portrait drawing. You don’t really think of ellipses when you you ponder the face, but they are there, and they have to be done well for it to work–especially the eyes. The iris and the pupil of an eye are perfect circles. That is, until the eye changes it gaze. When the eye turns, what used to be a perfect circle now becomes an ellipse. If the eye goes to the side, it becomes a vertical ellipse. That is when the circle of the iris and pupil appears thinner, as if squeezed from the sides. If the eye looks up or down, the ellipse of the iris and pupil becomes horizontal ellipses. It appears to be squished  flatter from the top and the bottom. These examples are from my book How to Draw Lifelike Portraits from Photographs.  It explains it all.

When drawing an object that is elliptical in nature, remember these hints. And don’t forget to do the practice work. Practice will make these tips commit to your memory, and train your eye to see things as you are working.

I really appreciate my fans and readers asking me for advice. This was a great question. I hope this blog helped!

Keep the questions coming–I love being your teacher!

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One thought on “Q&A: Why Do the Ellipses In My Drawings Always Seem “Off?”

  1. Wendy

    Hi Lee, I’ve got lots of your books and couple of DVDs, I love your approach to teaching, it rekindled my passion to drawing a few years ago, that kind of wavered a little due to work, however I’m now trying to get a balance and decided to make time for me to get back into drawing. I purchased a couple of DVDs. In them you said you use a projector to do some of the drawings, can you tell me which projectors you use as there is so many out there? Thank you
    Wendy x