Seeing like an Artist

When did we lose our ability to see things for how they really are? And how do we get it back?


Think back to the landscape you drew as a child. What is on it? Is there a house in the center? Does the house have square windows with crossed lines through them? Or a door with a single circle on the right side? Is there a circular sun with radiating lines in the upper lefthand corner? Maybe the image has some thought bubble shaped clouds in the sky or thought bubble shaped trees on the ground. Or maybe, the house has a rectangular chimney billowing smoke that’s inexplicable for such a sunny day. Are there M-shaped birds? Ice cream cone mountains? Stick figures in the foreground?

Now take your imaginary childhood landscape and remove a single one of these features, for example the tree. Does that disturb the landscape? Or is each object distributed so evenly on the four corners of the page that the whole of the portrait remains undisturbed? Most importantly, why is this what your childhood self thinks a landscape looks like?

In her brilliant book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards uses this universal example to illustrate how our symbolic systems first infiltrate our drawing. The image of the pentagonal house and the circular sun do not come from observation or even our imagination, but rather from the left brain’s schematic shortcut for how these things should look. In many ways, this makes sense. The Western school system is bent on teaching children how to comprehend the symbols around them, from learning to read to manipulating numbers in math. However, our symbolic system fails us when it comes to drawing; the thought bubble tree of our left brain will never be as beautiful as the intricate tree our right brain observes. Yet in the school system and working world, we’ve developed our left brains to be so strong that it is often the only tool we use to solve problems.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain focuses on unlearning exactly this skill. When performing visual tasks such as drawing, how do we quiet our bossy left brain and explore the holistic view our right? I started this book a couple weeks ago and have since made it through half way (if you’d like to see what my drawings looked like originally you can check out my first post.) While I feel that I’ve significantly improved my drawing since starting, perhaps the greatest progress I’ve made has been on grasping this cognitive shift. I’ll now go through some of the exercises Edwards’ book has led me through and what I think their effect has been.

Exercise One: Stravinsky by Picasso

Copy an upside-down version “Portrait of Igor Stravinsky” by Picasso

Turning the original Picasso upside down made the image look like a mess of abstract lines, and that really quieted the voice in my head saying things like “this is a face. Draw what a face looks like.” The whole task took about an hour fifteen minutes and I was happy with how it came out. It was a nice reveal not turning it right side up until the end. I stressed out about fitting the image in the frame so I decreased the size of things as I went up. By Exercise Four, the book had gone into a method to size things correctly on the page (you choose a “basic unit” and build all your proportions off of that.) It sometimes felt futile to painstakingly copy lines that it look like they were drawn so casually.

Exercise Two: 16th Century Knight

Copy an upside-down version of a German knight riding a horse.

This took an hour and a half, but I felt much more confident about it. I couldn’t wrap my head around where the shading should go though — on the original picture it looked so subtly beautiful but I couldn’t put my finger on why. I also tried holding my pencil in a new way that I learned from a YouTube video and that helped a lot with the broader strokes.

Exercise Three: Talk to the Hand

Take a viewfinder with a cross hatch in the middle. Use a felt tip marker to outline your hand in an interesting position. Use the picture you drew on your viewfinder as well as your real hand to draw your hand.

This one involved a lot of arts and crafts. First I had to create a viewfinder out of cardboard and some plastic. Then I had to draw crossed lines through the middle of it and trace my own hand. The tracing came out rather sloppy because it’s difficult to draw one hand with the other, but it was really useful for sizing things correctly against the lines. When I finally got to the drawing, the whole thing took me two hours. This exercise was the first time that I got completely lost my right brain in the way Edwards describes it. She says that when you’re in the right brain zone, time slips by without you noticing and you become absolutely mesmerized by staring at your subject. Both of these happened to me — I felt a teenager on an acid trip, unable to get over just how interesting my hand looked.

Exercise Four: Chair-ing is Caring

Set up a chair and draw all of the negative spaces around it.

Drawing negative spaces is particularly exciting because it involves sort of a dizzying cognitive shift. After only a couple minutes, the space around the chair popped so much that the positive form of the chair simply disappeared. I’ve also had a lot of fun in real life looking at objects for their negative spaces (they can sometimes be much more beautiful than the positive ones.) The chair felt particularly satisfying to draw because the crossing legs and the pattern of the back made for a nice interplay of shapes. That being said, I found this to be the most frustrating drawing I had done so far and I’m the least happy with the results. Drawing the outside edges of the chair was tough to do with negative space because I had to imagine the frame around the edge.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain still has a lot left to teach a left sided fool like myself. When I have finished the book, I’ll post a third and final update. I’m excited to see what Edwards will have me doing next!

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