"I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain." – The National

Month: March, 2012

Upside-Down Drawing

In contrast to the conflict generating “Vases and Faces” exercise presented in Battle in the Brain, “Upside-down drawing” is designed to minimize the mental conflict between the two processing modes, setting up conditions that support R-mode dominance.

The brain is not familiar with how things appear when they are upside down, making it more challenging for visual images to be itemized, categorized and compared to previously stored information, tasks at which L-mode excels. As a result, L-mode isn’t as interested and opts not to participate, allowing R-mode to take a rare lead.

The exercise involves copying an upside down drawing. (Both the drawing to be copied and the student’s drawing are left upside down for the duration of the exercise.) In an effort to sustain R-mode processing, the instructions encourage avoidance of naming the parts of the drawing that are still possible to identify despite the inversion, such as “face” or “hands,” and to instead simply view them as shapes.

The first drawing is a portrait of Igor Stravinsky drawn by Pablo Picasso, May 21, 1920.

Igor Stravinsky, by Pablo Picasso

"my" Igor Stravinsky

The task seemed overwhelming at first. I didn’t know where to begin. However, once I actually started, and relinquished my desire to wield a ruler and a protractor, I was able to relax into doing the activity and actually enjoyed myself.

For the most part.

Moments of crisis did arise. As the instructions would suggest, some of the most difficult parts to complete were the recognizable facets of the drawing.  I had a very strong urge to rip “my Igor” into many little pieces when I got to the hands and realized I had too much space.  And then, as per the instructions, I let go of thinking of them as “hands” and focused on their shapes and how they were interconnected with the whole. There was still too much space of course, but I wasn’t as concerned, and in the end, while by no means perfect, the outcome was acceptable by this beginner’s standards and I was grateful I hadn’t destroyed the drawing.

The second drawing is of a knight on a horse and is adapted from a sixteenth-century creation by an unknown German artist.

German Knight

"my" German Knight

Again, knowing where to start was daunting, but once the commitment was made, I became completely absorbed by what I was doing; I have no idea how much time it took to complete the drawing and felt the “calm excitement” described in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain as characteristic of the R-mode experience.

Now, if one decided to play a round of “Spot the Differences,” no doubt success would easily be had, but I have to admit I am pleased with the results of these exercises. I am more aware of what R-mode processing feels like and although looking at the drawings now, it is hard not to be critical of the many imperfections, I cannot deny that these drawings are significantly more complex than anything I have ever drawn.

And seriously, I drew a horse.

And it didn’t look like this:

Or this:

Now, if only everything could be so easily turned upside down…

Battle in the Brain

Vases and Faces:

This brief exercise is designed to create a cognitive conflict and to observe how it can be solved, as a shift is made from L-mode to R-mode. Using the famous optical illusion “Vase/Faces,” first one profile is drawn with corresponding horizontal lines. The second profile is then completed creating a “vase.”

The accompanying instructions serve to strongly reinforce the verbal L-mode, directing the student to trace over the lines on the initial profile and while doing so, to name each part of the face (forehead, nose, upper lip, etc…) and at the same time keenly focus on the meaning of these terms. Then, when the second profile is attempted requiring the use of the visual R-mode, feelings of confusion and conflict arise as the brain tries to process the action with L-mode.

Predictably, I did experience this conflict and was momentarily stymied as to which direction to move my pencil. I recovered pretty quickly by letting go of the descriptive language and used the shapes of the “vase,” rather than the parts of the profile to guide me, essentially “bumping” L-mode processing in favour of R-mode. Having now read a fair amount about the two types of processing, it was gratifying to tangibly experience the two modes in action.

For the Record

A kind of amnesia seems to set in as drawing skills improve. Students forget what their drawing was like before instruction. Moreover the degree of criticism keeps pace with progress.

Betty Edwards, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”

There are three drawings to complete before starting the instructional exercises in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.  The recommendation is to do the drawings, sign and date them, adding any comments about what you like or dislike about the drawing or about your experience while doing the activity.  Then, they are to be put away and not looked at until all the exercises are complete.

The main purpose of these drawings is to have a concrete record of drawing ability (or lack thereof) before instruction, and be able to recognize any improvement that has been made at the end of the program.

Makes sense.

1. “Self-Portrait”

This drawing will serve as the “before” to be compared with the “after” for the grand reveal at the end of the program. (Hopefully, it will not be too difficult to identify the post-instruction drawing.)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, over a year ago I completed a few of the early exercises in the book.  At the time, I was pleasantly surprised with some minor improvements I noted in my drawing. However, I was even more pleasantly surprised when I did my “pre-instruction” self-portrait a few weeks ago.

I wouldn’t expect that anyone would recognize me from either of these drawings, (although my toque looks vaguely familiar,) but in my opinion, the second is pretty clearly an improvement over the first.

"Self-Portrait" - Oct. 29, 2010

"Self-Portrait" - Feb. 11, 2012

What I find remarkable, is that since I shelved the book so many months ago, I have done very little drawing.  I have completed a few “craft-type” projects and although I am very proficient with tracing paper and using borrowed images, any real improvement in my drawing skills would have to be credited to previously completing some of the exercises in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

I find this encouraging.

2. “A Person Drawn from Memory”

This exercise, I did not find encouraging.

I hated doing this drawing. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember what my friend looked like. I couldn’t remember any details about his face. I forgot what side his hair is parted on. I even forgot that he wears glasses most of the time. And it’s not like I don’t see him often. I thought about picking a different friend, but all of a sudden I couldn’t remember what any of them looked like.

The same weird panic set in that I feel when I watch a crime show and the witness describes the “perp” and I imagine how I would perform in the same situation.  I wouldn’t have a clue: “Uh..yes officer…He looked…uh…you know…nice?” (I have a propensity for thinking that all people are nice.) I completed the drawing as quickly as possible to appease the anxiety.

Apparently doing a drawing from memory is difficult even for a trained artist.

Good to know.

"A Person, Drawn from Memory" - February 11, 2012

"A Person" - March 8, 2012, photo by Mike Elbow

According to Edwards, the reason for doing this drawing is that it exposes a memorized set of symbols we learned as children.

And it’s true.

This exact drawing could have appeared in one of my sketchbooks from ten…or twenty…or even close to thirty years ago. (Yikes, really?) I think it’s particularly noticeable with the eyes. At an utter loss as to how to create a remotely realistic representation, I reverted to drawing the eye “symbol” that I had drawn over and over as a child.  Notably, these are pretty much the same eyes as in the initial self-portrait I completed in 2010, (although it would seem my friend is sorely lacking in lashes), demonstrating how the “symbol system” is a force to be reckoned with even when the drawing is not from memory.  It seems that it is this system that is responsible for why many adults continue to produce drawings that appear immature or “childlike.” Admittedly, I am one of those adults.

Part of the process in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is learning to relinquish this deeply ingrained symbol system in favour of accurately perceiving and recording what you see.

3. My “Hand”

"My Hand" - Feb. 11, 2012

I’ve often wondered about the phrase, “know it, like the back of my hand” because how well do we really know what our hands look like?

Good thing this one wasn’t a memory drawing.

My “pre-instruction” drawings are now safely locked away in a vault, (and posted on the internet,) not to be seen again until I have completed all the exercises in the book.

Wish me luck.


I am finding that the more I read about the concept of left brain/right brain processing and associated functions, the more confused I become as to the current state of affairs.  What I gather is that it is a complex and evolving topic, and although there is a tendency towards lateralization of certain brain functions, many of the broad generalizations prevalent in pop-psychology are flawed.

My concern is that I am going to be following a method that may rely on outdated theory, and I hesitate to record information as “fact,” without first exercising due diligence, by verifying information with actual scientific research and refraining from using Wikipedia and random blogs as resources.

And, although I find this concept very intriguing and am interested to know more, I would prefer to spend my time learning to draw and sharing my experience, rather than sourcing out and reading scientific journals.

So, my disclaimer is this:
I am going to be working through the exercises in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and at times will be referring to the underlying theory as it is, as presented by Edwards, and if there are occasional holes present in her theory, I am not going to be too concerned. From what I have read so far, I believe most of what she has written is considered an accurate representation of the science; and indeed the most contentious issue I can surmise surrounding this topic is still the “location controversy,” which as noted in the preceding post, was pro-actively addressed in later editions as new scientific developments came to light. Although criticism regarding her application of scientific research does exist, I have yet to read a review that does not support the efficacy of her methods.  And ultimately, this is what is most important to me.

That all being said, I do very much appreciate fact-based knowledge and if I refer to theory that is outdated or erroneously applied, I welcome comments and critique highlighting more accurate information.

And now…To the drawing board!

A New Way to See

"the equipment"

The pencils are sharp. The eraser is ready.  “Pre-instruction drawings” are complete, (and will be posted soon.) I’m eager to put “Operation Learn to Draw” into effect but first a little about the theory underlying the method…

It turns out that drawing ability is far less about how you handle a pencil and more about how your brain handles information, which I suppose isn’t too surprising when you actually stop to think about it.

Our brains have two fundamentally different modes of processing. When Betty Edwards first published Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain in 1979, she referred to these two distinct modes of processing as “left brain” and “right brain,” as the research at that time postulated that each mode took place exclusively in either the left or right hemisphere of the brain.  Although the concept of two modes is generally still accepted, later research indicated that the occurrence of these modes could not be so neatly differentiated by right and left hemisphere locale.  In later editions, to avoid the “location controversy,” and still reflect two distinct modes, Edwards changed her terms to “L-mode” and “R-mode,” pointing out that ultimately, for her purposes, location was not important.

In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Edwards presents exercises aimed at supporting the student to make a cognitive shift–from the verbal and analytical L-mode processing to the visual and perceptual R-mode required for drawing. Unlike most activities, which require contributions from both modes, drawing is a task that relies almost solely on R-mode. By teaching the brain to disregard preconceived L-mode expectations and ideas, and perceive reality in R-mode, it is possible to alter how visual information is processed and “see” the way an Artist sees.

Although I was familiar with many of the characteristics associated with L-mode and R-mode, as the concept has become somewhat mainstream, I appreciated the informative comparison of the two modes included in the book, which can be viewed here.

In addition to facilitating the necessary mental shift, the exercises in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain are geared towards teaching the five component skills, notably all perception skills, that enable anyone “with average eyesight and average eye-hand coordination” (that includes me!) to learn the global skill of basic realistic drawing:

  • the perception of edges
  • the perception of spaces
  • the perception of relationships
  • the perception of light and shadows
  • the perception of the whole, or gestalt

Two additional skills are identified, “drawing from memory” and “drawing from imagination,” that are required for more creative and expressive drawing, but these can only be used effectively after the five basic skills have been acquired (and are not taught in the book.)

Perhaps, I’ll consider exploring these skills once I’ve mastered the first five.

 Baby steps…