Drawing Women, or: why it might not be sexist to say they’re hard to draw

Thursday, October 10th, 2013


There has been some buzz online about this quote by Disney animator Lino DiSalvo:

“Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, ’cause they have to go through these range of emotions, but they’re very, very — you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to — you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna (Kristen Bell) being angry.”

It was first brought to my attention by Sarah Mirk on twitter, as an item on Bitch Magazine’s weekly Feminist Roundup. The reason a lot of people are talking about this quote, understandably, is because it appears to be quite sexist. It’s harder to draw women, DiSalvo seems to be saying, because they need to look a certain (generally sexy) way but still be identifiable enough to sell action figures. This would appear to be the case not just for Disney animators, but for anyone who is representing a woman in popular culture. No doubt we have a women’s representation problem, and a quick look at Disney’s leading ladies – particularly from Ariel to whomever the stars of Frozen are – would indicate that Disney is one of the leading offenders. Coupled with his comments about women being sensitive, it really does sound like a slimy, chauvinist quote (albeit one without the benefit of its context), and to women who are already pissed off about the way their sex is portrayed, I can see how it would hit a few nerves.

So, did it hit on my nerves? After all, I’m a woman who is generally pretty disgusted by the portrayal of women in media. Well, for a moment it did. On first reading, I rolled my eyes and thought, “Great, another soundbite from Disney’s boys club.” But I couldn’t sustain that irritation, because, well… I could relate. It really is hard to draw women! And maybe he didn’t state it very eloquently, but I don’t think DiSalvo’s words were necessarily a slight against women, but possibly – at least from my perspective – the opposite.


Let me back up. I have always had trouble drawing women. When I was a kid I drew three kinds of characters: animals, robots, or boys. They were easier. Not because they didn’t have to be pretty (although they never were) but because they didn’t have to be nuanced. For a young kid just figuring out the anatomy of how a head attaches to a neck (which is a huge revelation for an artist whose heads previously sprouted limbs) it is a victory just to differentiate a human from a Mr. Potato Head. At some point, I imagine, other female artists my age would start drawing princesses with pink dresses and hats and lipstick, but I was a tomboy. If I was going to draw a woman it would be for narrative purposes only, and would probably be either myself, my mom, or my sister. Mostly I drew guys. And robots.



Throughout my art education, particularly in high school, I’d be embarrassed when people would mistake my drawings of women for men (especially my self portraits – eesh!) but it was easy to do. Too thick of lines in the eyebrow – it’s a man. Too prominent a nose – it’s a man. Too broad shoulders – it’s a man. It’s a cognitive miracle to trick someone into believing that pencil marks on a page represent a person, after all. For me to convince them those marks were a specific kind of person (here, a woman) was one step beyond the miraculous.

Over time I learned the tricks: A softer sloping forehead. Smoother angles. Rounded features. Of course real women don’t all look like that, but I learned out of necessity. If I tried to get creative and draw a woman who was wearing a suit and baseball cap and maybe had a strong jaw line, well, I was back to square one, explaining, “No, she’s the general manager of the winningest minor league baseball team in the midwest, and, oh never mind, I’ll give her a dress.” It’s not fair, but it’s not entirely sexist. As an artist your job is to use visual cues to instantly communicate just who the viewer is viewing. For better or worse, women require certain cues that – when not resorting to props or stereotypical hairstyles and costumes – are harder to capture.


In college I got the chance to learn anatomy from live models. A funny thing happened: for the first time, I found that women were much more enjoyable and much easier to draw than men. When working from life, the angles that define men were mathematical and, well, angular. They were unforgiving in the sense that a poorly rendered rib cage looked like an unstable house built out of sticks. Drawing women, however, was a much more gracious endeavor. Their curves were organic and pliable – I had room to be expressive and make mistakes. There was no confusing these women for men, and I didn’t need to put them in a housedress to make the distinction.


So what was it about drawing from life that made women – of all shapes and sizes – easier to draw? Part of it was their physical form, certainly. We can’t rightly go around drawing all our comics and cartoon characters without their clothes on, but I’m learning that the shapes we give to our characters can be very useful in communicating just who they are, and women especially can be very shapely! (A glance at Picket Line shows a homogeneity of body types that I would regret if I didn’t see it as a timestamp in my learning process.) The nuances are much subtler in the head and face, but they are there for the capturing. The more unique you can make them, the more believable they will be as characters.

The difficulty in drawing women for me has not been out of a desire to make them “pretty” (or sexy, or gorgeous, or stylish, or anything like that) it has been out of a desire to make them women, whatever shape, shade, or personality that may be. You could shrug all of this off by saying that I’m an amateur and an insufficient artist (at which I might bristle but cannot fully disagree) just as a lot of DiSalvo’s critics are dismissing his skills as an animator. I don’t know the full context or intent of DiSalvo’s comments, so I’m not writing this to say I agree with him, but I do think it’s okay to admit that certain things are simply harder to draw than others. I can’t draw cars or interiors or mechanical things without a whole lot of reference and practice. It’s not because I have reduced those things to mere machines, but because their beauty and complexity are far beyond my natural ability to capture a basic shape. And please don’t assume I’m comparing women to cars, but I think if we separate all the crappy stereotyping and minimizing and sexualizing that women have been put through, it’s okay to say that the true beauty of women can be very hard to capture. Feel free to submit your drawings and prove me wrong.


* All drawings and paintings in this post are by Breena Bard, at various ages.


  1. Posted October 10, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink