A Cure For Head And Shoulders Syndrome


If you’re an illustrator and you suffer from a condition I refer to as “Head and Shoulders Syndrome,” I’m here to say there is hope.

This is a condition that plagued me for many years until I had a revelation. First, let me explain the condition. Say, you sit down to sketch, and you rack your brain for something cool to put down on that blank sheet of paper. After thinking for what seems like forever, your inspiration to draw is slipping and you do the only thing you know to do. You draw a portrait of a character. A profile. His head and shoulders. That’s it. You go no further. No arms. Certainly no hands, because hands are a huge pain in the rear and frankly, it’s easier to pretend there are no hands in the world you are drawing.

I’m not poking fun at you. I’ve been through this for years with myself. I don’t know what the cause is, or if there is a singular cause at all. Is it possibly that, for most of us, the face is the most expressive thing we see each day? Every face we come in contact with? Maybe it’s that we see all of the expressions in a face and they make an imprint on our creativity.

We draw a creature. He has scales and dark, lifeless eyes, and a nasty sneer. We draw a weathered old soldier. His face is covered in scars and scruff—an expressive face that tells a story of his warring life. But I’ve come to feel that there is so much more of that character’s story to be told than can be told in just his face.

In the beginning of my relationship with my mentor, I’d share these character studies with him. He responded with, “These are great characters. Let’s see them doing something.” Several years ago, while I was courting Abrams Books for work, I sent character studies to the art director, and he said, “These are great, but what’s the story?”

I love following illustrators on Instagram. It’s such a great way to get inspired. However, one of the saddest things I come across is that there are so many artists out there who can draw really well, but daily they will not push themselves beyond the “creative block” and beyond the head and shoulders of the characters they create and share. Though they do share some really expressive heads and shoulders!

But if you read the rest of this post, will you agree to challenge yourself with what I’m going to propose? I promise you will grow as an artist. You will inspire others. You will surprise yourself.

Here is my challenge.

As you observe life around you each day, don’t look at the expressions in the eyes and the mouth for a while. Let those features take a back seat while you retrain yourself. You have enough mental images of those features packed away in your subconscious anyway. Instead, step back and look at the whole expression.

The hands. You might dread drawing them. They are tremendously expressive. They are talking. How many people you come in contact with talk with their hands? Why don’t your characters? I promise that once you realize how much character is in a hand gesture, you will look forward to adding the hands as an accessory to each character. Some are bony, crooked, chubby, stubby, missing fingers, crazy nails. You will discover how much fun it is to create expressive hands.

Clothing and accessories also tell a story. A weathered wanderer’s clothes will tell the story of where he’s been. If we never see past his shoulders, we won’t see that they are bearing the weight of a worn out bag, loaded with a bed roll, pots and pans and utensils, magical trinkets, and a string of dried fish for snacking along the trail. Sounds silly, huh? But that sure will make the viewer stop and wonder about your character.

Look at the arch of the spine as the character is arguing, pouting, thrusting a sword, taking a blow on the shield. That arch should tell the story of the emotion and power in the scene. The legs and feet should matter just as much. The weight of the character, not just physical, but emotional, rests on those legs and feet. And I could really dig into how expressive shoes can be! They tell a story. There is so much happening that talks and expresses emotion.

Once I got myself drawing more of the character’s body, I began to challenge myself in new ways. When I sit down to sketch from my imagination, the challenge I present myself with is “Draw something that tells a story.” I’m not saying you should never do a character study again, but let me give you an example of how I challenge myself.

11698653_10207725738607937_6313016876428846882_nI sat down a few weeks ago and sketched a mouse wearing a cloak in the rain. I liked his beaten down look. I wanted to continue drawing him over the next week for my ink warmups, but couldn’t just keep drawing him standing around looking at me. So, the next time I drew him squatting down and decided to have him talking to a fish whose head is out of the water. No explanation is needed. You begin to wonder up a story in your mind just looking at it. The next day I asked myself who the mouse was, and decided he was a cartographer, mapping a forest. I randomly drew him standing on a sawed-off tree stump looking shocked. I treated the stump as a character too. I began to recall images from my mind of sawed down trees on our property. There are saw marks in the wood. There is that big hunk of fiber that shreds off as the cut gets deep enough and the tree falls away. No photo reference needed. These images are in your memory. This caused a bit of a story to begin to grow, and it exercised my visual storytelling muscles, not just my character design abilities.

11218994_10207729290136723_626616681237276256_nI hope you feel encouraged by this challenge. You can begin by doing quick gestures of characters in action, then begin to tighten the drawing and erase lines you don’t like or need. You will become more and more familiar with expressive body shapes and lines. You will begin to tell a fuller story with your visuals. As a result, you will become a better illustrator.

I hope I get a chance to see some of your work once you challenge yourself with this mindset.
Together, we can defeat Head and Shoulders Syndrome.


  1. Peter B

    Joe, you make me want to be an illustrator. I love hearing the depth of knowledge and passion that a true craftsman expresses about his art.

  2. Amy L

    I’m not an illustrator — at all — but I loved this. I’m going to try and wrap my mind around what the writing counterpart might be.

  3. Joe Sutphin


    You guys are great! Thank you for the words. As a song writer and author as well, Im realizing how much this thought process translates to any creative venture. I think we can all get hyper focused on the things we enjoy most, or are most comfortable with, and maybe that causes us to never see our true greatness. The responses online to this post have been very encouraging to me to read! Im on your side!


    Thank you for your words, they are really inspiring to me, and I quite sure for my illustrators friends too. I´ll share this for them.

  5. Daniel Landerman

    I approve!
    I rarely do a simple bust myself, unless I’m specifically going for portrait/face practice. There’s far too much story potential in a gesture, in fashion and in the way the weight is distributed into the appendages. And storytelling is too fun to pass up 😉 Love those inks, by the way! Fantastic. And great little character. I’d read those stories.

  6. Doc Reed

    You hit me right between the eyes on this one. I’ve been trying to get back to drawing lately. Your “Head & Shoulder syndrome” explanation was exactly the feelings i had (have) sitting down to sketch. Look forward to implementing the advice here and see about crafting more story driven pieces. I’d love to hear more advice about reclaiming your imagination.

    Thanks for the challenge.

  7. Kaitlin

    Great advice! I love the name for it too.

    Please write stories to go with your pictures. They remind me of some of my favorite childhood books. Thanks for sharing them.

  8. Antonio

    Great advice, very inspiring. Also your drawings are wonderful. Reminds me of illustrations I saw in children’s book when I was little, but with a darker tone.

  9. Mythika

    Hey there, dear fellow artist!
    I just read your article and now I really want to grab my pencil and I don’t know if I am being overly sensible these days but it really made me stop and think. And somewhere deep within my heart and hands someone is crying out loud to me to accept this wonderful challenge. I will go and draw something today. And I will have grand fun doing so. Thank you very much for the time you took to let us have a look in your mind and passion. Your illustrations alone speak so many words. They are amazing. Thank you for being an artist. <3

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