Betty Edwards’ famous book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, contains a wonderful series of exercises for those who are convinced they can’t draw. I only picked it up after I’d read Edward de Bono’s Serious Creativity and discovered that creativity is a learned skill, not something that you’re ‘born with’ (or without). Edwards’ book taught me that drawing is also an acquired skill. Or, to be more precise, it’s an ‘unlearning’ skill, because it requires you to defeat our natural inclination to view objects as series of icons (a left-brain ‘shorthand’), and instead view them as lines, shades and spaces (a right-brain abstraction). The reason we think we can’t draw, says Edwards, is that when we try to draw, our left brain gets in the way, telling us that what we’re drawing when we draw a face is two eyes, a nose, a mouth etc., which our brain symbolizes in certain iconographic ways, so that our drawing turns out to be a drawing of these symbolic icons, rather than what we really see.

The most powerful exercise in the book, in my opinion, is the upside-down drawing exercise. Here’s what you do:

  1. Find a line drawing that you like. It can be the work of a master, a cartoon, anything.
  2. Turn it upside down.
  3. Now, without turning the page right-side up, draw what you see, trying to ignore the subject and focusing strictly on the lines, shades, spaces and proportions of the original. You’re disabling your left-brain, which can’t see or handle such abstractions, and allowing your right-brain to do all the work.

Most people are pleasantly surprised with the result. When I did this exercise I was blown away — I had been convinced I couldn’t draw, and immediately did five more upside-down drawings, some of which I still have, and treasure.

This exercise alone won’t make you an artist, but it’s a powerful first step. Now when I draw, I ignore the substance of what I’m drawing and focus strictly on lines, shades, spaces and proportions. Sometimes I use software to help defeat my left-brain: I take a photo of something I like, use graphic software (which has an ‘outlining’ feature) to make it into a black-and-white pseudo-line drawing, turn it upside down, and draw what I see. The results are amazing.

The book provides some other exercises to improve the strength of your right-brain and apply it to the art of drawing. What’s more important to me, however, is the realization of how the analytic left-brain, which our culture tends to favour and over-exercise, diminishes our awareness of the world around us. I remember in high school a poster with the caption Stand still and look until you really see. When I am trying to get in the frame of mind to draw, or photograph, or write poetry or fiction, I try to do just that. Here are some exercises that I’ve found can help left-brainers to ‘really see’:

  • Move in close, so you divert attention from individual objects and start to see instead colour, texture, shape, shadow, reflection, pattern
  • Find an unusual perspective from which to look — get down on the ground and look up, look at something through trees, through a microscope, or by candlelight, anything that will let you see things differently from usual
  • Look at things under unusual conditions — in the fog, at night, right after a heavy rain, just at dawn or dusk
  • Stimulate your other right-brain senses — get your nose up close to things, listen to birds, or insects, or train whistles, or music, walk in your bare feet
  • Walk or bicycle without a pre-determined destination, direction or time limit
  • Study something — birds at your bird-feeder, time-lapse of a flower over the course of a day or a week, a spider-web, how moving or dimming the lights in a room changes its character, how a bottle looks different when viewed from different angles

In the book Easy Travel to Other Planets, Ted Mooney describes a future world where people are so bombarded with meaningless information, abstract facts that don’t really matter, that they become psychologically paralyzed, unable to focus on anything, and succumb to what Mooney calls ‘information sickness’. In some ways we are already there. The trappings of our society and culture have already separated us from, and deadened us to, most of what is real in this world, and surrounded us instead with artifice — bland, manipulative, numbing ‘entertainment’, office and home lighting (and air conditioning, and jobs) that are artificial, news that shows wars as light-shows instead of people dead and dying, cars that insulate us from any exposure to real people or real weather.

Looking until we really see is important, and not only to artists. In a way it’s shock therapy, a test to prove to ourselves we’re still human, still real, still really alive.

Drawing above is by Canadian artist Pierre Surtes, from a print in my personal collection.

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  1. Jon Husband says:

    Thanks, Dave. A useful read for me early Sunday morning, and a great way for me to launch into that Sunday. I’ll keep it front of mind all day.

  2. mrG says:

    Ah, but as my good friend and award-winning photographer Skip Heine is fond of saying, “there is a big difference between composition and fine art” which can also be paraphrased in the biblical paraphrase bantered about my Michel de Notradam (Nostradamus) “He who is now called ‘prophet’ was once called ‘seer'”As experimental evidence I offer Rene Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”

  3. Betsy says:

    Yes, excellent.The whole discourse is that it is not a question of drawing but a question of seeing, of how one perceives. We have to re-learn the art of perceiving.

  4. Rob Paterson says:

    Hi DaveAs an-add on about right versus left brain, Julian Jaynes makes the case that the advent of the written word (reading is an entirely left brain world) has taken man from his most comfortable and productive place, the right hemisphere. Until say 3,000 ago we lived in a world where the Gods spoke to us via the intuition of the right brain. Where we lived outside of the “economy”. Since then not only have we lost contact with the right brain, lost contact with nature and our own nature but the chatter of the left has filled us up. There is a great passage in his book – The origins of Consciousness in the break down of the bicameral mind – where he makes the case that we don’t need a rational mind to do almost anything of imprtance. He adds that most breakthroughs in ideas have not arisen and the consequence of a rational grind but as a result of an intuitive vision.We need more artists like my son

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Hey, Gary, the ‘pipe’ link keeps timing out. Now you’ve got us curious, can you tell us what the .gif portrays?Rob: Is reading poetry entirely left-brain activity? The argument I have read is that language, and left-brain dominance, came about with the advent of agriculture, because it was the first human activity that was unintuitive (even counter-intuitive) and hence needed ‘instructions’ and ‘management’. And then we didn’t need the Gods any more ;-)

  6. Fiona says:

    Ceci n’est pas un weblog. It’s the contents of Dave’s brain. Another great posting. As an artist, someone who feels they were ‘born’ with creativity, I have to say I’m not sure that anyone can learn creativity. It often seems to me that I belong to a different species. My family could tell you about how I talked, wrote and drew, all very well, at a very young age. Maybe this is evidence of past lives, not creative talent! I don’t know. But I definitely feel that I think, feel, perceive differently than most. Explain. You have all the answers.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Fiona: Merci. I think some people are just naturally more artistic, perhaps because they have stronger right-brain orientation. But I think anyone can learn to be more artistic and more creative, by exercising that right brain. I think — I don’t have all the answers ;-)

  8. Rob Paterson says:

    Dave – Agriculture and writing came together = a rational view of the world that has to be controlled = left brain dominance?Hunting and horticulture demand hat we dance with nature = intuition and listening = right brain and contact with the gods?What do you think?

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Rob: Makes sense to me, in an intuitive way, if not a moral or rational one ;-)

  10. Doc Shazam says:

    Food for thought…I think that all left brain activities have a right brain counterpart. e.g. Calculus. Until one enters into the midst of integrations, derivatives and solutions, it is very left brained, but once you have stepped through, the right brain can be let loose.

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Hmm…well, Doc, I won a province-wide scholarship in Mathematics in my last year of high school, and then in 1st year university Calculus I failed my midterm and just scraped through. Guess it’s surprising I don’t fall over sideways… PS — I’d like to see some more pictures on your blog — birds, microscopic images of Gout, whatever takes your fancy.

  12. M. L. Foster says:

    The more you draw and paint the better you see the world. The more you learn to play an instrument the keener your hearing becomes. It is like beer. Once I thought all beers tasted the same. The difference between one and another is often subtle. But the more you drink beer the more you are able to discern the differences. Viva la BEER… *burp*

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