Rotating objects in your head

  • SVS OG

    I have a terrible sense of spatial relationships. I always failed those tests in elementary school where they'd show you an object and say, "What will this look like if you turn it 90 degrees to the right?" and if I'm reading directions on assembling something, I have to make sure everything is laid out exactly like the pictures because I can't turn them around in my head. (I can't tell you how many things I've put together backwards.) This obviously is a handicap when it comes to drawing and turning figures around to draw from different angles. Do other people have this problem and what do you do to work around it?

  • I have the feelings I had to work twice as hard as anybody else to turn stuff in my head. I have a similar problem as you have with instructions and also with maps and directions.
    I cannot say it ever goes away....but it does improve with practice and with some good solid models (the standard cube, cilinder and cone models you use in beginning drawing courses where my friends for a long time, as well as mannequins and skull models).
    I learnt 3D modeling in 2015 and that had a massive impact on improving my 3D perception....I can definitely turn characters and environments around more easily now. But I still use a lot of 3D models when I draw: self-made or from sites like Sketchfab. They are sometimes very crude and they don’t need to be even remotely similar to what I’m drawing - but they offer a springboard to help visualizing whatever it is I’m drawing. I also use perspective grids as a start of nearly all projects, and sketchup is a frequent tool in my workflow.

  • Are you breaking down an object into basic shapes, either on the paper or in your mind? That will help a lot to understand what will happen when they turn and rotate. I often use ellipses and boxes to help turn objects on the page. Practice drawing a bunch of cubes in different rotations and when you feel comfortable with those add something onto them, like a cone or a pyramid and continue rotating them. I hope that helps.

  • SVS OG

    @gary-wilkinson I do break them down into shapes but that doesn’t always help when the shapes are more complex. It’s definitely a brain thing — when my son was 5, he could look at the picture of a model on the cover of a box and put it together without instructions. I struggle even with the instructions!

    @smceccarelli I’ll have to check out Sketchfab. I debated learning to sculpt models to help out but didn’t know if I had time to learn yet another skill but I still toy with the idea. Maybe even crude clay models would be enough to help me visualize things better.

  • It's definitely something I struggle with, but it's gotten a lot better by learning and applying the basics of perspective, doing a ton of sketches breaking down objects into simple shapes, and learning head construction. I've been slowly accumulating this knowledge over a period of 4 years or so. Currently I have to do a combo of the breaking down objects into simple shapes and looking at a variety of reference. For reference: Using my kid's action figures or dolls is sometimes helpful in visualizing different angles. I take photo reference of whoever's available and willing to help, sometime's it's myself. My husband's poses have been turned into little kids and warrior ladies. Sometimes I'm looking at google reference, sometimes I have to see how other artists have turned their characters, put them on the ground plane, foreshortened the limbs, what angles the hands are in, etc.

    My basic construction knowledge usually gets me through the sketching stage, and then I have to fill in the gaps with reference.

  • SVS OG

    I came across an interesting study about this issue at

    A couple of points it made for those who don't want to read the whole thing --

    1. Studies across the board have found this to be a gender related issue. Women are worse at spatial relations then men though researchers argue about whether this is biologically or culturally based. I suspect at least some is cultural since it says, "Activities that have been found to develop spatial skills include: 1) playing with construction toys as a young child, 2) participating in classes such as shop, drafting, or mechanics as a middle school or secondary student, 3) playing 3-dimensional computer games, 4) participating in some types of sports, and 5) having well-developed mathematical skills." American culture, at least, tends to favor boys in all of the above though hopefully that is changing. (I'm 60 and when I was a kid, girls took home ec, not shop.)

    2. They conclude that spatial skills can be developed but the only sure way is by constantly sketching real life objects (blocks, etc.) from many angles. Learning rules of perspective or using computer programs aren't as effective as simply sketching -- rotating the object, sketching again -- rotating the object again, etc.

    In part of the article, they have examples of the kinds of questions they use to test spatial relations skills and I broke out in a sweat just looking at them!

  • Pro

    @demotlj That's very interesting, though if I may shine a ray of hope here, not always the case 100% of the time. I'm a girl who didn't play with all those toys and activities as a child, yet I've always had good spatial skills. First time I was given those tests where you have to rotate objects in your head, I aced it even though it was the first time I ever did anything like that. I can only imagine at least a part of it is innate?

  • SVS Team SVS Instructor Pro SVS OG

    depending on your project, I would recommend making a small sculpture of the object you are trying to draw (using sculpy, or clay, or even a kneaded eraser). Nothing very detailed, just a blocky representation of it. That way you can draw from it and then add the details. Many animators have done this as an aid to working with a character in many positions. Also book illustrators use this technique as well.

    Hope that might help some. : )

  • SVS OG

    @lee-white I've gone back and forth with this idea wondering if my lack of sculpting skills would just add to my frustration but I trust your advice more than my own so I think I'll give it a try.

  • SVS OG

    @nessillustration Since my son demonstrated these skills from the time he was a toddler, I suspect you are right that some of it is innate. I read a neurobiologist describe skills as roads in the brain. People are born with paths for all skills but some may have dirt footpaths and others paved roads. The person born with a dirt pathway can, with work, get a paved road and if the person born with a paved road puts in the same amount of work, they'll get a superhighway. (And conversely, if you never work on the road, it'll eventually grow weeds!) Right now, I'd settle for at least a gravel road when it comes to spatial relations 🙂

  • I think that it can be an innate skill (which will make life easier) but the ability to rotate an object in your head is also definitely a way of thinking that can be learned. Especially if you actively practice using some of the ideas mentioned in this thread. My favorite suggestion is to create the very basic 3D sculptures to draw from. I've used oil based clay, supersculpy, bits of styrofoam and a glue gun and most recently, learned to felt all to build drawing models to make rotating objects in space a bit easier.

  • SVS OG

    @davidhohn How do you use felt? Do you glue together felt boxes and spheres? I have a friend who felts and would be happy to teach me.

  • @demotlj Here's some in progress shots of the sculpture I made of one of my book characters. Wire frame base and then wool that just gets poked over and over again. As you can see I didn't include much detail in the felt sculpture, but having the big shapes blocked in really helped when drawing this guy from odd angles. Plus the wire armature allowed me to pose the figure in different ways.

    Note: Please ignore the mineral spirits in the background. That's not used for this at all, I just didn't bother to move it from when I was last oil painting.

    0_1539356719489_Screen Shot 2018-10-12 at 8.05.09 AM.png 0_1539356722102_Screen Shot 2018-10-12 at 8.04.53 AM.png

  • SVS OG

    @davidhohn That's pretty cool. Thanks for the photos.

  • SVS Team SVS Instructor Pro SVS OG

    @davidhohn you are such a crafty nerd

  • @lee-white Embroider that into a patch and I'll wear it proudly!

  • Pro

    @davidhohn I definitely agree! When I was working on my animation graduation movie, I sculpted my main character in clay and it was a tremendous help!

  • SVS Team SVS Instructor Pro SVS OG

    @davidhohn I'm getting you a bedazzler for christmas

  • @lee-white Whoo hoo!! And since I already promised you a painting smock -- well now it'll be the prettiest, most sparkliest painting smock ever!!✨😍✨

  • I definitely recommend using a site like and rough out how you think an object will look BEFORE you turn the model and then turn it to see if you are right and make corrections as needed.

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