Drawing on the right side of the brain

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Armonah's avatar

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".

© 2013 - 2023 Armonah
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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!