Drawing on the right side of the brain
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Armonah's avatar
By Armonah   |   
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When inspiration attacks (and when it doesn't)

Everyone is probably familiar with this scenario. You're trying to draw something, but you can't find the inspiration. Or maybe you're trying to write a story, or an assignment for school, but you just can't find the right words. Or maybe you have to tackle a creative problem and you just can't figure it out.

So you rack your brain for the right ideas, but they're just not coming to you. Or maybe some of them are, but they're lousy ideas born (at least in part) from desperation. Either way, you're just not really happy with them.

That evening, when you're standing in the shower, you suddenly get a burst of inspiration. Suddenly, you know exactly what you want to write, or draw. Or maybe inspiration attacked when you were in the bathroom, or when you were jogging, or on your way to work or school. Maybe it happened when you were lying in bed, halfway falling asleep.

This is a well-known enough phenomenom that guides for writer's block suggest taking a nice hot shower if inspiration is low, to "wash away the stress". Other guides dealing with creativity often recommend sports, yoga, or other activities. Either way, it seems these ideas never come to you when you need them most, when you're actually trying to get things done. What gives?

The Left Brain and the Right Brain

Betty Edwards wrote a book titled "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" that approaches creativity and drawing from the perspective of the brain. The book was written in 1979, when the idea that the brain was divided in a left side (the side that's logical, analytical, and deals with words and numbers) and a right side (the creative side that deals with images, emotions, intuition and creativity) had become very popular. It was suggested that people have different "dominant" brains, and that people with dominant left brains are more analytical and logical, while right brained people are more creative and emotional. Other ideas sprung forth from this, for instance linking certain mental illnesses to the brain halves, or how the dominant brains (and the connection between them) is different between men and women.

These theories have for the most part been debunked: the brain is for the most part symmetrical (i.e. both halves are creative ánd analytical), but different parts of the brain do flare up when we perform a different task, or experience different emotions. 

Despite that, Betty's theories are still very useful and relevant. There's definitely a dominant part of our brain and a subconscious whose ideas don't spring to light when the dominant part is given a pause, like when you're in the shower.

But that is only one example.

You know too much

(or: How to draw what you see instead of what you know)

For many artists - at least beginning artists - the things you know tend to hold you back. When we draw a person (or things such as perspective or foreshortening for that matter) we don't draw the things we see as they are - which is hard enough on its own - but we dig into our brains and draw what it tells us certain things look like.

The sets of pictures are made by the same people, but several days apart (in which they had drawing lessons). The pictures on the left side show certain commonalities. The lips, the eyes and the nose are all outlined and have similar shapes. Hair is often drawn in individual strands.

Betty Edwards calls these things symbols. This is a stumbling block for many beginners. Drawing a face with these symbols tends to make them look amateurish or ugly. Worse yet, in drawing class you don't always learn how to draw things properly, you just learn to refine the symbols to be more accurate - but they're symbols all the same. Thinking this way prevents many people from learning to draw what they see, which Betty calls "the tyranny of the symbol".

[Sidenote, I personally believe this is a big reason why manga is a very appealing style to many beginners. It replaces one set of symbols with a different one, but it's visually more pleasing while not being much harder to draw.]

These "symbols" are stored in the part of your brain that deals with logic, words and numbers; the part of your brain that always talks over the unconscious, visual, creative part. So in order to bypass the symbol system, you have to switch to a different mode of thinking. This isn't as hard as it sounds, and there are even ways you can practise this shift (and with enough practise, can do on command). You've probably experienced it before if you ever drew or painted something and find out the next moment one or several hours have passed. It's a meditative state of mind that allows you to get completely lost in the creation of art.

Learning to draw

If you know how to write, you already have all the motor skills needed to draw.

Drawing is made up of component skills that together form a whole. The same way the ability to ride a bike or drive a car is made up of components (like steering, using the brakes, switching gears, and so on), drawing is not a single entity, even if it's often seen or experienced as one.

As you learn those component skills, they become integrated as a strong, solid whole. There are five "global skills of drawing" to master: the perception of edges, spaces, relationships, lights and shadows, and gestalt (or "the whole"). The last one technically doesn't even count, because it emerges after you've mastered the other four. But the more important part is that these are all cognitive and perceptual skills.

Learning to draw is mostly about the conversation between your eyes, your brain, and your hand. 

These things mostly apply to life drawing, and the book focuses on life drawing (portraits in particular) almost exclusively. This because portrait drawing is seen as one of the most difficult aspects to master, and being able to see that you can draw a good-looking portrait can be a huge self-esteem boost. It takes on a radically different approach from many other drawing courses that start off with spheres and cubes on a plane. 

Even if you're someone who doesn't really care about realism, it's useful to consider these skills. Because in the conversation between your mind and the hand holding your pencil there are two more skills added for truly imaginative, expressive art: drawing from memory, and finally, drawing from imagination. 

Like any other skill, drawing this way does requires practise, persistence, and a degree of frustration to get it right. But what this book tries to teach you more than anything is that it's not as hard as it's often made up to be, and it's certainly not a God-given talent bestowed on a lucky few. In the words of Betty Edwards, "Everyone can learn to draw".

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Nonsensical-Inks's avatar
After trying to find it for a year to no avail, I finally stumbled upon the fourth edition at my public library. Definitely an interesting read for the person who believes they have no drawing "talent". Edwards states that drawing is a teachable ability, much like reading. Drawing is more about learning to 'see' things in a different light, and that anyone can draw successfully. I recommend it to everyone! 
Cutswolf's avatar
CutswolfHobbyist Traditional Artist
I have read Betty Edwards book some time ago and it was a big help.  I am learning the Charles Bargue system of drawing.  Two completely different ways of drawing.  Both have been helpful. Another book I have looked at is 
Drawing in the Digital Age by Wei Xu. He calls is the angle based system of drawing.  I found it difficult to understand.  Thats just me though. 
shnbwmn's avatar
shnbwmnStudent General Artist
This was the first book I picked up when learning to draw. I saw it in an art shop while carousing for supplies, and immediately snatched it while it was in sight because it looked very interesting. I went through the whole book in about 2 weeks or so, and I thought that I knew all I needed to know to draw well. Going into the drawing class of my art course, I again was taught this method of drawing, and it worked with some degree of success. Simply draw what you see, right?

BUT there is a serious shortcoming to this way of drawing, and it is that form and communication are not emphasized. Drawing only what you see rarely brings out the form of what is being drawn. This is why serous artists rely on more traditional teachings by people like Hale, Bridgman, Loomis, etc.

I'm not totally deriding this method; heck, I would still know nothing about drawing if I didn't start here. All beginners should start with Betty Edwards. But, in my opinion, people who are thinking of making art their livelihood should consider the works of the people I mentioned above, which focuses more on bringing out the form of what is seen ,and often bends reality to suit this form.
Armonah's avatar
Oh, I agree. I hope I didn't come across as if I was saying Betty's method is the one or only true method of drawing; it is, like you said, just another way to approach the topic. What made me write about this book in particular is the fact that many artists talk about the ability to see, which is a bit tricky to get a grip on if you're a beginner, and this book explains that concept in a very clear manner. It also allows you to tackle one of the more intimidating subjects in art almost right off the bat: realistic portraiture. I don't think this is useful in and of itself as much as it opens people up to a field that might otherwise be very intimidating, if your drawing skills are on par with that of a child.

I believe learning about drawing from different angles leads to a more well-rounded result. Plus, you're able to find more quickly a way of drawing that serves you well than if you were muddying around with the same or similar methods all the time. I wrote about Loomis before actually! Here's that article: armonah.deviantart.com/journal…
shnbwmn's avatar
shnbwmnStudent General Artist
Seconded! Lots of people would totally be in the dark (or at least really struggling) without this book. I just hope that those people go further in their "study" of drawing to more traditional and thorough approaches. I'm sorry if my previous comment was rash btw' its just that I feel strongly about the need to go further than only surface level observation :)
Armonah's avatar
Your comment wasn't rash at all, and it gave me an opportunity to explain myself. Don't worry about it, and thanks for your input :)
Chrissijulius's avatar
ChrissijuliusHobbyist General Artist
A few days after this was posted we started doing drawing exercises in art class where the teacher told us what is written in this article :D
pat71art's avatar
Good article! When a start drawing a portrait i begin with a lot of Logic in my mind but when i am bussy i get a sort of trance, not thinking but i start grabbing pastels without thinking and then time flys! It sometimes Goes wrong but i am drawing now for 8 Months and it Gents better every time. I like That trance stage, just like meditating. I hope it becomes an automatism in time. But i just love to draw so time is not a problem. Just be patience. Thanks for this article!
BabyOmochii's avatar
BabyOmochiiHobbyist General Artist
I took a class where this book was the required textbook. It was an interesting course, for sure.
Armonah's avatar
Glad to hear that :)
SimplySilent's avatar
Very interesting article! :clap: Thanks for sharing :heart:
Armonah's avatar
You're very welcome :meow:
conniekidd's avatar
conniekiddHobbyist General Artist
This is a really interesting article! :love: I've never read the book, but it sounds pretty cool 8-)
Armonah's avatar
Glad to hear that. Be sure to check it out some time :)
ElyneNoir's avatar
ElyneNoirHobbyist Photographer
I love this book and i think your article captures the quitessence of the book very well! :)
Armonah's avatar
I'm glad to hear that :)
Purouty's avatar
I've read that book and its awesome. :la:. I also bought the revised one. Hahahaha! Must read. :nod:
Armonah's avatar
Definitely :nod:
Qiirin's avatar
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is definitely a most amazing book. I learned a lot from it.
IceXDragon's avatar
IceXDragonHobbyist General Artist
Great article! I learned a few things reading this.:)

By the way, when you were explaining the thorie about the brain being divided into a left side and a right side, you got it mixed up on one of the parts. Because it says the the right side is logical, and the left side is creative, but then it says that people who are right brained are more creative, and people who are left brained are more logical.:giggle:
Armonah's avatar
Ah, thanks for pointing that out. I'll fix it now :)
sincebecomeswhy's avatar
sincebecomeswhyHobbyist General Artist
I dislike both sides of my brain so I try to do without it when I create something. :iconsaywhaplz:
anonymous's avatar
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