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

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Detour

As mentioned in the previous post Trying to Find Some Perspective, I have chosen to take a break from working through an exercise that was causing me great strife and temporarily put my energy in a different direction. (A brief detour, if you will.) The new exercise, also from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, instructs the student to study and copy Charles White’s drawing, “Preacher.”

This drawing is a clear demonstration of a foreshortened view and once again highlights how what the artist sees may contradict what we know of the physical world. For example, in the drawing (and as it would appear on the imaginary picture plane) the man’s hand is larger than his head; obviously in reality this wouldn’t be the case. However, it is because of these unexpected proportions that the drawing maintains its realistic appearance.

“Preacher” by Charles White

My Copy of “Preacher” by Charles White

I was a bit at a loss as to how to mimic the artist’s masterful shading but I gave it my best shot. (I will greatly welcome the lesson on shading techniques, which I believe is a couple of chapters down the road.) Interestingly, by trying to copy the shading, I became even more aware of the exquisite details of the drawing, particularly the depiction of light, and experienced a whole extra level of appreciation for White’s creation.

This reminded me of my English degree undergrad years when I would read a required work for a course. Often I would initially appreciate what I had I read but it was only after studying the work that deeper meaning and understanding would emerge. Along with this understanding came respect, excitement and a true appreciation for the writer’s craft.

I have had little experience studying Visual Art, but I imagine it could be a similar experience and one that I hope I can open my world to as I continue on my path of learning to draw and learning to live.

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Trying to Find Some Perspective

My good friend, who is an excellent teacher, has assured me that there is often a plateau when one is learning a new skill, when it’s possible for progress to lag and for graduation to the next level to seem insurmountable. She cited learning a language as an example and pointed to the learning of prepositions as a point when students often become overwhelmed.

I am still slowly working my way through Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and I am finding the third basic skill of drawing, the perception of relationships, to be extremely challenging.  In this unit, the emphasis is on learning to sight, essentially learning how to draw using perspective and proportion.

The skill of sighting is made up of two parts, comparing angles to the constants of imagined vertical and horizontal lines and comparing sizes (proportions) to the constant of a basic unit chosen at the start of the drawing. All of this action takes place on the imagined picture plane and a pencil is used to measure proportions and angles.  Subsequently, this “sighting” is then applied to the drawing.  It’s hard to describe without visuals, so check out this link if you’re interested in having a look at this concept with a bit more depth.

I believe I understand the concept. However, I start the exercise (drawing a corner of my room) with great intention and anticipation, only to find that somehow, despite my best efforts to follow the instructions on how to sight, that things do not come together quite as expected. A portion of the drawing is way too big or way too small or at a completely wrong angle–why is my television floating in the air?–and by the time I realize my error, which is far too colossal to “work around,” the only logical resolution is to abandon the drawing and start over.

This wouldn’t be so bad and I’d resign myself to a “practice makes perfect” philosophy except I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing wrong so I feel like I’m potentially just learning how to execute the same mistake more efficiently.  (Not only that, but my drawings are less “in perspective” and more “out of proportion” than the drawings I was doing previous to this unit and it’s uncomfortable to feel like I’m going backwards.)

It would appear that I am stuck.

And I am also frustrated.

However, in my experience, learning and frustration often go hand in hand.  So, although I have experienced a decided increase in procrastination and resistance to this project, (I can’t blame my lack of recent posts all on illness,) and the voices of doubt seem to have significantly more to say than usual, I am determined to climb my way off this plateau some way or another.

I will learn my prepositions.

I have a couple of ideas to explore and will do so, but before I return to the task at hand, I am taking a small break in an effort to create some new momentum and am currently trying a different exercise, which also focuses on using the perception of relationships in its execution.

(To be posted soon.)

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”

On the Edge

Contrary to the common definitions of “edge” as a border or a termination of a surface, in drawing terminology an “edge” is a shared boundary–also known as “a contour line”–the line where two things meet.

The first component skill of drawing introduced in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is the “perception of edges.” An exercise designed to facilitate understanding and learning of this skill uses a plastic “picture plane” as an aid to drawing a “foreshortened” view of the hand.

 “Foreshortening” is defined in “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” as an art term meaning that “in order to give the illusion of forms advancing or receding in space, the forms must be drawn just as they appear in that position, not depicting what we know about their actual length.”

The “picture plane” is also an art term that refers to “an imaginary transparent plane, like a framed window…[that] enables the artist to ‘see’ the scene as though it were magically smashed flat on the back of the clear glass plane,” similar to the effect created by a photograph. Essentially, the artist uses this mental concept to convert images from 3-D, as they exist in reality, to the two dimensions of a piece of paper.

Because these important concepts are often challenging for the beginner, an actual plane is used to highlight how the abstract construct of a “picture plane” is used to draw images realistically.  To create this plane, I had a piece of Plexiglas cut at the art store and marked it with cross-hairs using a fine pointed sharpie. (Ah Sharpies… Sigh. It’s okay to be in love with a pen, right?)

For the exercise, the plastic plane is placed on top of the posed hand, and the edges of the hand are traced onto the plastic with a felt pen to easily produce an accurate representation of the foreshortened form.

In the subsequent exercise, the image drawn on the plastic plane is used as a guide to transfer the main points of the hand to drawing paper.  Then, by reposing the hand to mirror the positioning captured on the plastic, the rest of the hand is drawn by visually moving from edge to edge on the actual hand, and copying these lines to the paper.  The student is instructed to check angles with the felt-pen drawing on the plastic plane but also to imagine a picture plane “hovering” in front of the hand and to use its imagined cross-hairs as a helpful guide.

As in previous exercises, to suppress L-mode and promote R-mode processing, the instructions indicate that thoughts should focus on comparing relationships between edges, spaces and shapes rather than the naming of specific parts.

I think I can confidently state that the imaginary picture plane concept has profoundly changed how I will approach drawing from now on. It truly is a different way of “seeing,” which now that I have experienced seems so obvious, but was formerly completely inaccessible.

And although the instructions also clearly specify that an eraser should be used “whenever needed, even to make tiny adjustments in the line,” I eventually had to disregard this direction and commit to what I had on paper. As I drew and erased, and drew and erased again, in the pursuit of a more accurate angle, a more perfect line, I recalled the kids from elementary school who penciled and erased so many times that ugly black holes with silvery sheen appeared where their artwork should have been.

I thought of that one kid, in some classroom, who finally pushed her teacher over the edge and was responsible for the creation of the “no erasers” rule that was prevalent in the art classes of my youth. What a mess her drawing must have been.

And so, on the brink of disaster, I made a decision:

I surrendered the eraser in favour of accepting a far far from perfect, yet wholly intact drawing.

But it really was touch and go there for a while.

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.

Disclaimer

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…