Drawing on the right side of the brain by Betty Edwards

First time I encountered this book I was blown away. Why did no one ever tell me about this?!?! I was educated in art and I never even heard of it. Granted, art education in Croatia consists of “Here is the subject, draw it” and when you inevitably fail they tell you “Idiot, not like that!”. .

I wish I was exaggerating! .So anyway, I found this book in the Holborn library (how I love that library) and I tell you, I had my mind blown! It explained to me things I couldn’t figure out on my own and every teacher I ever had either didn’t want to or didn’t know how to say.

The gist

Well, according to Betty Edwards, and many more artists  with whom I happen to agree with, drawing is a skill that can be learned by every person with average eyesight and eye hand coordination. Drawing is a teachable, learnable skill!

She also teaches that the first step in learning to draw is learning to see. It means learning to access at will the system for drawing in our brain. Putting it another way, accessing the visual mode of the brain—the appropriate mode for drawing—causes you to see in the special way an artist sees.

Our brains have two modes of thinking: Left side of our brain verbalises, analyses, abstracts, counts etc. That is called right mode. On the other hand, if we are using our right side ( or a left mode- I know this is confusing, it will makes sense, it’s all explained in the book)  we can “see” things, imagine them in space. That’s the side of our intellect that is intuitive, relational and free of time.

Of course, the issue is that current education systems along with society in general, gives much bigger importance to our verbal, logical side, and almost completely disdains and neglects our more creative side.

This is fucked up and nothing new but how exactly does it apply to drawing, you ask? 

Well, that same mode of thinking that we use to live and do most of the things in our lives is highly efficient and throughout life creates symbols for much of everything we encounter. Think shortcuts or icons. What happens then, and very often we are not aware of this before starting to draw, is that we are literally unable to see the world as it is. This is the reason people draw an oval with a circle inside when drawing an eye even though it most definitely does not look like that. If we are thinking with our verbal right mode we just think of the word eye, our brain pulls the symbol from the memory and we draw the symbol. 

But if we can switch to our left mode of thinking (or right side of the brain) and not name the object, that process doesn’t happen: we know that we are looking at the eye but we also just see a shape and because we are processing the images with our right side of the brain we can literally see and hence draw what we see.

How to do it

The author first asks you to do a few drawing exercises that are designed to make you deliberately switch from one mode of thinking/seeing and drawing to another just so you can experience it and later make the same switch at will. These are quite awesome I promise you! It’s quite hard for people to believe they can draw complex things when their life experience is almost the complete opposite. But if you actually make them do it, experience it, show them, both you and them have proof that, YES, THEY CAN DRAW!

I think this is super important for so many people as I’ve seen in my workshops that the biggest obstacle people have in learning to draw is their absolute insistence that they can’t and that they are bad at it. 

Author also does the important task of actually breaking down the skill of drawing into 5 defined skills: 

1. The perception of edges (the “shared” edges of contour drawing)

2. The perception of spaces (in drawing called negative spaces)

3. The perception of relationships (known as perspective and proportion)

4. The perception of lights and shadows (often called “shading”)

5. The perception of the whole (the gestalt, the “thingness” of the thing)

I am not sure how much you can actually appreciate this, but I still find it a super important list. Whenever something looks or feels off in my drawing I can reference it to see where exactly did I go off. 

Pros and cons

Drawing on the right side of the brain  teaches you a few things about drawing and seeing that are absolutely priceless. Think lifelong knowledge to make your life easier. I love how it explains translating 3D world onto a 2D surface and how to help your brain in this process

Still, it’s just the beginning. You will still have to learn anatomy if you want to be great at figures and portraits. Same goes for perspective. 

Also there is a lot to drawing and art that someone can explain but you can only learn through numerous repetitions and use of different mediums.

However, as a starting point this is an excellent book and a perfect place to start. It will give you a really solid base on learning to see. This is super important especially in the beginning: a lot of people give up due to frustration and feeling of ineptness that drawing can create in us. If you are not a beginner, it won’t take you to any new levels or teach you anything groundbreaking, but some of the exercises  like blind contour drawing and continuous line drawing are really good to come back to every once in a while!

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