The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards – Extracts

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, I believe, was one of the first practical educational applications of Roger Sperry’s pioneering insight into the dual nature of human thinking—verbal, analytic thinking mainly located in the left hemisphere, and visual, perceptual thinking mainly located in the right hemisphere. Since 1979, many writers in other fields have proposed applications of the research, each in turn suggesting new ways to enhance both thinking modes, thereby increasing potential for personal growth.

Like other global skills—for example, reading, driving, skiing, and walking—drawing is made up of component skills that become integrated into a whole skill. Once you have learned the components and have integrated them, you can draw—just as once you have learned to read, you know how to read for life; once you have earned to walk, you know how to walk for life. You don’t have to go on forever adding additional basic skills. Progress takes the form of practice, refinement of technique, and learning what to use the skills for.

This was an exciting discovery because it meant that a person can learn to draw within a reasonably short time.

Five basic skills of drawing The global skill of drawing a perceived object, person, landscape (something that you see “out there”) requires only five basic component skills, no more. These skills are not drawing skills. They are perceptual skills, listed as follows:

One: the perception of edges

Two: the perception of spaces

Three: the perception of relationships

Four: the perception of lights and shadows

Five: the perception of the whole, or gestalt

I am aware, of course, that additional basic skills are required for imaginative, expressive drawing leading to “Art with a capital A.” Of these, I have found two and only two additional skills: drawing from memory and drawing from imagination. And there remain, naturally, many techniques of drawing—many ways of manipulating
drawing mediums and endless subject matter, for example. But, to repeat, for skilful realistic drawing of one’s perceptions, using pencil on paper, the five skills I will teach you in this book provide the required perceptual training.

Those five basic skills are the prerequisites for effective use of the two additional “advanced” skills, and the set of seven may constitute the entire basic global skill of drawing. Many books on drawing actually focus mainly on the two advanced skills.

In order to gain access to the sub-dominant visual, perceptual R-mode of the brain, it is necessary to present the brain with a job that the verbal, analytic L-mode will turn down. For most of us, L-mode thinking seems easy, normal, and familiar (though perhaps not for many children and dyslexic individuals). The perverse R-mode strategy, in contrast, may seem difficult and unfamiliar—even “off-the-wall.” It must be learned in opposition to the “natural” tendency of the brain to favour L-mode because, in general, language dominates. By learning to
control this tendency for specific tasks, one gains access to powerful brain functions often obscured by language.

In short, in the process of learning to draw, one also learns to control (at least to some degree) the mode by which one’s own brain handles information. Perhaps this explains in part why my book appeals to individuals from such diverse fields. Intuitively, they see the link to other activities and the possibility of seeing things differently by learning to access R-mode at conscious level.

Over the past decade or so, a new interdisciplinary field of brain-function study has become formally known as cognitive neuroscience. In addition to the traditional discipline of neurology, cognitive neuroscience encompasses study of other higher cognitive processes such as language, memory, and perception. Computer scientists, linguists, neuro-imaging scientists, cognitive psychologists, and neurobiologists are all
contributing to a growing understanding of how the human brain functions.

Interest in “right brain, left brain” research has subsided somewhat among educators and the general public since Roger Sperry first published his research findings. Nevertheless, the fact of the profound asymmetry of human brain functions remains, becoming ever more central, for example, among computer scientists trying to emulate human mental processes. Facial recognition, a function ascribed to the right hemisphere, has been sought for decades and is still beyond the capabilities of most computers.

Ray Kurzweil, in his recent book The Age of Spiritual Machines (Viking, 1999) contrasted human and computer capability in pattern seeking (as in facial recognition) and sequential processing (as in calculation): The human brain has about 100 billion neurons. With an estimated average of one thousand connections between each neuron and its neighbours, we have about 100 trillion connections, each capable of a simultaneous calculation. That’s rather massive parallel processing, and one key to the strength of human thinking. A profound weakness, however, is the excruciatingly slow speed of neural circuitry, only 200 calculations per second. For problems that benefit from massive parallelism, such a neural-net-based pattern recognition, the human brain does a great job. For problems that require extensive sequential thinking, the human brain is only mediocre, (p. 103)

This experience is often moving and deeply affecting. My students’ most frequent comments after learning to draw are “Life seems so much richer now” and “I didn’t realize how much there is to see and how beautiful things are.” This new way of seeing may alone be reason enough to learn to draw.

Drawing is a curious process, so intertwined with seeing that the two can hardly be separated. Ability to draw depends on ability to see the way an artist sees, and this kind of seeing can marvellously enrich your life.


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