STEAM from Scratch
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STEAM from Scratch

Short-Circuit Education (3 of 5): When Right Side Up is Upside Down

The Magic Wand of Art

Imagine, if you will, that I have a magic art wand…one that will make you better at drawing instantaneously — assuming that you are not already an accomplished artist. One second, you can’t draw — next moment, you’ve experienced 300% maybe even 1000% improvement!

Sounds pretty great, right?

What if I told you it was REAL???

Before I discuss how this is possible — we need to discuss an art training book that you probably never heard of before that, in my opinion, everyone should know about…

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

When I was growing up, this fairly heady book was sitting on my mother’s bookshelf. Everyone in my family knows about it because it basically outlines the means to turn a non-artist into an artist in fairly short order. That’s right — if you or someone you know ever claims “I can’t be an artist…I don’t have fill-in-the-blank.” This book takes care of that fill-in-the-blank and does a frighteningly good job of it, too.

The Magic Wand Exercise

Okay, you ready to hear how the magic wand in this book works? It’s really really simple. Take a black and white portrait drawing like this one below, and let the novice-student copy it.

Picasso Drawing, right side up

Okay, now have that same novice-student do exactly the same drawing…only force them to copy it like this…

Picasso Drawing, upside down

And voila! You are better at drawing!

What? You don’t believe me? Well, look at this example of one student…

left was copied right-side-up, the left was copied upside-down

That’s right. Same student. Same day. No teaching in-between. Now, before you say “That’s anecdotal evidence” let me inform you that this same exercise has been given to people over and over with very similar results. In some cases, the difference between right-side-up and upside-down is so striking that without knowing what is happening, you would swear it was impossible.

How the Magic Wand of Drawing Upside-Down Works

It comes down to a simple premise, really.


In the average person’s mind, we have all kinds of symbols. Most of our symbols are for writing purposes, really, such as alphabets and symbols for numbers. But what about the symbols we create in our heads for the world outside of communication and math?

Such as the symbol for eyes, ears, nose, mouth, head? Surely if I asked you to draw an eye, you would have a certain approach to drawing one and if you aren’t a trained artist, your drawing would actually be a symbol for an eye…more like a cartoon than a drawing, right? Perhaps it’s even shaped like an almond, missing lots of features that all eyes have?

If this is you — it’s not your fault. It’s a natural response, really. Part of our brain tries to collapse down complex things around us into simplified concepts. The problem comes when it oversimplifies something that is actually far more complex — like the human face. Or the rest of the human body for that matter.

Upside-down allows you to draw what is there instead of symbols

When you have the elements of a face turned upside-down, most people have the symbols for a face completely disrupted. When this happens, we have no choice but to go without the symbols altogether.

That is the key to the magic wand. No symbols allowed means you are drawing what you see. When you draw what you actually see, you draw dramatically better…even to the point where it looks like an impossible improvement.

Perspective matters more than we realize

Think about it for a second.

If flipping a drawing upside-down vastly improves the ability to see what is in front of you, could we have, metaphorically and literally speaking, concepts in our lives that blind us to what we are actually observing?

My first article talked about Devon, my son, having a guessing concept-perspective on math that was causing failure in tests.

The second article showed how many Millennials have a poor concept-perspective on research and libraries.

And now we can see that a novice-artist actually draws better upside-down than right-side-up because the concept-perspective is reset.

We need to start seeing that we are creating artificial symbols and concepts for real things…and start challenging students to stop doing that.

How Digital Products Push the Concept-Paradigm

Don’t be too hard on these guys…it’s not completely their fault, really. Designers and developers (the people who are really creating the baseline for digital products) are actually very nice people who are honestly trying to help. But their entire world is made more efficient and cost-effective by collapsing ideas down into concepts and symbols. It’s only natural that the nature of their work would end up influencing the end-product.

It’s a lot to take in, really, but the difference between learning a concept and practicing a skill is very significant…and our products lean towards offering a concept instead of a practice. Think of concept learning like trying to learn how to be a carpenter by assembling IKEA furniture. I’m sure if you are bright and paying attention, you will get the concept behind how IKEA furniture is designed — but no matter how much furniture from IKEA you put together, even if it was 1000 projects…it doesn’t make you a carpenter.

Devon doesn’t become proficient at math by guessing his way through a thousand boards of a math game.

Millennials don’t become proficient at research simply by using Google since they were young.

And novice-artists can draw the same Picasso for 3 months straight and still not get the results they received from flipping the portrait upside-down.

What are some of your symbols or concepts?

If you think about it, the symbol/concept deception doesn’t stop there does it? It can affect even accomplished professionals under the right conditions, where they get caught up in a concept (or perhaps we can even call it a belief) that is inherently flawed and ignores what is right in front of them. Even human relationships themselves have a tendency to be reduced to concepts and symbolic expectations, right?

What concepts or symbols do you have in your life that may not represent the “reality” of the situation?

Next Up: Short-Circuit Education (4 of 5): The Digital Destruction of Practices



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Ryan Hemphill

Ryan Hemphill


Designer/Developer/Futurist/Entrepreneur who champions human rights. Specializing in digital & STEM|STEAM education.