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

Month: May, 2012

Without Judgment

The greatest lesson I have learned when it comes to meditation is that it should be practiced without judgment.

Minds wander; that’s just what minds do.

And if while doing a meditation that requires focusing on the breath, the mind wanders a thousand times, then it is gently brought back to focusing on the breath…a thousand times.

Without frustration.

Without judgment.

This understanding opened up the world of meditation for me. I no longer felt like I was doing something wrong if I couldn’t keep my mind where it was supposed to be. I no longer silently scolded myself for not doing what I was supposed to be doing. More significantly, I no longer felt that I didn’t know how to meditate. My wandering mind was simply part of the meditation experience and a function of being human.

It was a very important lesson.

Just as it is challenging to remain focused on the breath while meditating, I found it hard to stop drawing the lines of positive forms in favour of drawing the lines that create the space surrounding those forms. Frustrating, but not surprising. The focus in Western culture is on objects, not space. It makes sense that our minds, particularly our dominant L-mode, fight hard to return to what is familiar and can easily be processed.

“Studies of Arms and Legs” by Peter Paul Rubens

My Copy of “Studies of Arms and Legs” by Peter Paul Rubens

While I was working on these drawings, the battle going on inside my head and the ensuing self-chastisement were largely reminiscent of early meditation sessions. I would enthusiastically start by drawing the negative space, and then somewhere along the line, I would find that I had inadvertently abandoned spaces and was trying to draw the positive forms in front of me. Initially, I was extremely irritated and frustrated whenever I realized this shift had occurred and rapidly found myself slipping into a whole different kind of negative space.

But then, I recalled my experience with meditation and I decided to apply the “no judgment” principle. From that point on, every time I found myself focusing on the lines of an object, I calmly noted that my mind had wandered from the task at hand and simply returned to the drawing of spaces. Frustration averted.

It made for a much more enjoyable (and I believe successful) drawing experience.

And I only had to do it about a thousand times.

Drawing Chairs

When a person just beginning in drawing tries to draw a chair, that person knows too much, in an L-mode sense, about chairs.  For example, seats have to be big enough to hold a person; all four chair legs are usually the same length; chair legs sit on a flat surface, and so forth.

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

The time has come to share a page from a sketchbook past. I have not looked forward to this day.

Here goes…

“Sketchbook Past,”Circa 2010

I am not proud.

My drawings appear immature, and undeveloped and as can be seen, my attempt at drawing a realistic looking chair was not so successful.  And in the spirit of full disclosure, it wasn’t a more challenging “drawing from memory”—there was a chair right in front of me that I was trying to copy.

This page is from a sketchbook a couple years old, but the sketches are pretty indicative of most of my drawing attempts of the past 30 years.  It’s clear that I didn’t put much time or care into any of the drawings, far less a result of laziness or inattention, and much more from the sense of despair I have so often felt (as described in Drawn to Drawing, February 17, 2012). I couldn’t remotely recreate what I saw, or worse yet I had no idea what to draw, and what I did create provided no joy or sense of satisfaction. Rather, I found the experience dreadfully embarrassing, and stressful, and out of desperation, I gave up.

(And no, I have no memory of what prompted the drawing of druid-like ducks.)

The second component skill of drawing introduced in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is the “perception of negative spaces” and the first exercise presented to build this skill is to draw a chair.  The exercise directs the student to “focus only on the shapes of the negative spaces” while drawing the chair.

In drawing, the positive form is the object in the picture, for example, a chair.  The negative space is the space that exists surrounding the chair.  If the chair were to magically disappear, the edges and spaces remaining would represent the negative space.

Not surprisingly, L-mode isn’t really interested in negative space.  There’s nothing there, after-all. Nothing recognizable to L-mode, that is.  In drawing, the shapes of the negative space are just as real and important as the positive form, and with the opting out of L-mode, R-mode takes over.

By focusing on using negative space to draw, it is possible to relinquish established expectations of what an object should be like, as it is not the object that is being drawn at all. Because there are no expectations of how the spaces surrounding an object should appear, it is possible to see them as they really are and as a result, create a more accurate representation.

So, newly armed with this knowledge, I sat down to draw a chair.

Or rather, I sat down to draw the spaces surrounding a chair.

It wasn’t easy to let go of seeing the chair and to focus only on the spaces (or to use only the “language of relationships” as is always important for R-mode activities,) but I kept reminding myself of the exercise instructions: “Try to convince yourself that the chair is gone, pulverized, absent. Only the spaces are real.”

Eventually, I found myself focusing more on the spaces than on the positive form and completing the drawing became less challenging.  All in all, I was satisfied with the outcome–particularly later, when I dug up the old sketchbook and viewed my previous attempt at chair drawing.

For further practice using negative space, it is suggested that the student copies Winslow Homer’s drawing of “Child Seated in a Wicker Chair,” a drawing in which the use of negative space is very apparent.

And thus…I sat down to draw yet another chair.

“Child Seated in a Wicker Chair” by Winslow Homer

My Copy of Homer’s “Child Seated in a Wicker Chair”