Zen in the Art of Art:
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

Betty Edwards found a way to let almost anyone learn to draw -- specifically, anyone with average eyesight and average eye-hand coordination, anyone who can thread a needle or catch a baseball. Drawing realistically requires shifting to a different way of seeing, seeing the way experienced artists see when they are working.

"The key to learning to draw, therefore, is to set up conditions that cause you to make a mental shift to a different mode of information processing -- the slightly altered state of consciousness -- that enables you to see well. In this drawing mode you will be able to draw your perceptions even though you may never have studied drawing. Once the drawing mode is familiar to you, you will be able to consciously control the mental shift." -- Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

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In her books Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards presents her method for learning to draw realistically, and to enhance ones creative powers at the same time.

In the "Preface" of the First Edition of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, published in 1979, Dr. Edwards wrote: "... when I started teaching, I tried to communicate my way of thinking about drawing to my students. It didn't work very well, and, to my distress, out of a class of thirty or so students only a few learned to draw." For over a decade she worked on this problem: "how to enable all the students in a class instead of just a few to learn the skill of drawing." The book presents a sequence of drawing exercises designed to do that -- to guide the reader to "develop a new way of seeing by tapping the special functions of the right hemisphere...."

Her first preface tells the story of how she made this discovery, beginning when she first noticed that drawing involved a special way of seeing:  "I can still remember saying to myself, even as a young child, that if I wanted to draw something, I had to do 'that.' I never defined 'that,' but I was aware of having to gaze at whatever I wanted to draw for a time until 'that' occurred. Then I could draw with a fairly high degree of skill for a child."

She loved being praised for her "special gift," and was in danger of believing that she did have a rare natural talent. "But in the back of my mind, I felt that [the praise] was misplaced. I knew that drawing was easy and that all anyone had to do was to look at things in that certain way."

When she began teaching, she found that communicating her way of thinking about drawing to students wasn't going to be easy, and she started trying find a way. "I began to look inward, observing myself while drawing, trying to find out what I was doing when I experienced that different kind of seeing. I also began to ask questions of the students. One thing I noticed was that the few students who did learn to draw didn't improve gradually -- they improved dramatically. One week they would still be fumbling with stereotypic, childlike images. The next week, suddenly they could draw well."

When she asked them what they were doing differently, the successful students typically said that they were "just looking at things." None of them could describe specifically how their way of looking had changed.

Her next clue was something she noticed when she was demonstrating drawing to a class, and trying to give a verbal explanation of the methods she was using. She found that she often would "simply stop talking right in the middle of a sentence. I would hear my voice stop and I would think about getting back to the sentence, but finding the words again would seem like a terrible chore -- and I didn't really want to anyhow. But pulling myself back at last, I would resume talking -- and then find that I had lost contact with the drawing, which suddenly seemed confusing and difficult. Thus I picked up a new bit of information: I could either talk or draw, but I couldn't do both at once."

Later, she gradually discovered the exercises that are recommended in her books. For example, one day she told the students to copy an upside-down image of a drawing by a master. "To our great surprise (mine and the students'), the drawings were excellent. This didn't make sense to me. The lines, after all, are the same lines, whether right-side-up or upside-down."

Another discovery: Students could make more realistic drawings by trying to draw the spaces around the forms they were working with, rather than trying to draw the forms themselves. This was also another puzzle: "Why should looking at spaces produce good drawings of forms?"

Eventually it all fit together when she was studying the work of Roger Sperry and his colleagues, studies which showed that two sides of the brain make very different contributions to human cognition. She realized that seeing the way experienced artists see when they are working required shifting from the left hemisphere's verbal / analytic mode of processing to the global / spatial mode of the right hemisphere.

Why, she asks, can't people see things clearly enough to draw them?

A part of the answer is that, from childhood onward, we have learned to see things in terms of words: we name things, and we know facts about them. The dominant left verbal hemisphere doesn't want too much information about things it perceives -- just enough to recognize and to categorize. The left brain, in this sense, learns to take a quick look and says, "Right, that's a chair ...." Because the brain is  overloaded most of the time with incoming information, it seems that one of its functions is to screen out a large proportion of incoming perceptions. This is a necessary process to enable us to focus our thinking and one that works very well for us most of the time. But drawing requires that you look at something for a long time, perceiving lots of details, registering as much  information as possible -- ideally, everything....

The left hemisphere has no patience with this detailed perception, and says, in effect, "It's a chair, I tell you. That's enough to know...."

* * *

[A]dult students beginning in art generally do not really see what is in front of their eyes -- that is, they do not perceive in the special way required for drawing. They take note of what's there, and quickly translate the perception into words and symbols mainly based on the symbol system developed throughout childhood and on what they know about the perceived object. (Drawing on the Left Side of the Brain, pp. 77,78)

She discovered that the most efficient way to switch from the dominant left hemisphere 's mode of verbal categorizing to the right hemisphere's interest in visual details is to "present the brain with a task the left brain either can't or won't handle."

She went on to develop a comprehensive training program that lets students learn how to intentionally enter the right-brain mode of perception. Her method of drawing training is presented in her books, in classes given by people who have completed her teacher training program, and in workshops she gives around the world.

The sequel, Drawing on the Artist Within, expands on the techniques presented in DLSB, "using the visual language of drawing to unlock the full creative potential of the human unconscious and apply that power to everyday problems."

This page was written by Dr. Terry Halwes.

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Dr. Edwards -- Web Sites -- Classes -- Books

Dr. Edwards

Dr. Betty Edwards

The Center for the Educational Applications of Brain Hemisphere Research, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, CA 90840-3501 USA 
(310) 985-7905

"Dr. Betty Edwards is a world renowned educator in the field of art.... Her work has reached well over 3,000,000 people, world wide. Both books have been translated into over twelve languages and are used as text books in schools and colleges nationally and internationally. 

"She has presented over five-hundred workshops, seminars and lectures for public schools, art associations, university students, technical and scientific staffs and corporate groups. She has presented seminars in creative problem solving to corporations such as : The Walt Disney Company, Digital Equipment Corporation, Apple Computer Company, IBM, Polaroid, AT&T Bell Labs, American Advertising Associations, Saatchi & Saatchi, GE, American Dental Association, and the American Institute of Architecture. 

"Dr. Edwards is Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach. She continues as the Director of the Center for the Educational Applications of Brain Hemisphere Research at CSULB. Through her books, workshops and seminars Betty Edwards continues to make a huge impact upon the fields of art education and Creative Problem- Solving." -- from a description of a tutorial Dr. Edwards gave on her method in 1997.

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Web Sites

Brain Based Visual Education: It makes a difference. An on-line tutorial from the Department of Art and Design, Iowa State University.

Graphic Assignment: Pencil Exercise (upside down) -- an example of one type of exercise from Drawing on the Left Side of the Brain.

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Drawing on the Right Side of The Brain certificate programs given at the California State University at Long Beach:

                    Individual classes -- offered each semester 

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Links are to amazon.com listings, where the books are reviewed by readers, and can be ordered online. (We receive a small commission on items you order through these links.)

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence; Revised Edition, 1989. 

Drawing on the Artist Within: An Inspirational and Practical Guide to Increasing Your Creative Powers

At the amazon.com page for these book one finds unanimous acclaim from the reader reviewers: five stars from each reader who contributed a review. Most books reviewed get a mix of ratings -- some folks loved it, some didn't. Everyone who bothered to submit a review for either of these books by Betty Edwards (21 as of this writing) loved the book.

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The Old Way of Seeing: How Architecture Lost Its Magic - And How to Get It Back by Jonathan Hale

"We live in a time when only a few gifted and dedicated teams of designers can produce buildings that approach the beauty of these that eighteenth-century carpenters created all by themselves. What went wrong?"

"In The Old Way of Seeing, Hale shows us how we can recover a sense of the basics - light, shadow, and proportion - in our buildings and how we can begin to repair the damage that has been done to our visual environment." 

Recommended by Betty Edwards.

Italic Handwriting Series: A Comprehensive Handwriting Program for Children and Adults

"Legible, logical, easy to write, and easy to teach.

"Inga Dubay and Barbara Getty deserve the thanks of every teacher and every parent. It's a breakthrough at last!" -- Betty Edwards

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Revised on April 30, 1999

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