What I learned from “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”

When I decided to make a serious, deliberate effort to improve my drawing skills (just like when I decided to learn sewing for real), I chose Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards as my guide. I approached it like taking a college-level drawing class and Edwards was my professor. For six weeks, every Monday through Thursday from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m. I’d sit down with the book and read through it until there was an exercise to do. I stopped to do each exercise, and made sure there were no distractions so it got my full attention.

In college I was an art major, and took as many art classes as I could. Whenever there was room for an elective, it was an art class. So it’s not like I was totally unfamiliar with drawing. But apparently I was very, very rusty! Even with all of the tips and videos I’ve been soaking up over the last year, they paled in comparison to what this book was able to teach me. Things like:

  • you get better by doing the work, not thinking about the work — put pencil to paper and experience the feelings of engaging your right-brain mode
  • how our brains can trick our eyes into seeing things incorrectly
  • how to quiet the left-brain mode and let the right brain do what it’s best at
  • there’s nothing wrong with using tools like viewfinders and picture planes — the masters used them, too!
  • taking the time to measure and plot out relationships in the beginning stages of the drawing will set you up for success with the rest of the drawing

One of the early exercises in the book was to draw a self-portrait. When I made mine, I was feeling pretty good about it. It was no da Vinci, but during the drawing process I had been keeping in mind proportion and value. I even thought I was “cheating” a little bit by having a head start with my art background. After drawing it I thought it looked good. Ha! Looking at the first and final self-portraits side by side is shocking. I truly feel like I learned so much from Edwards and while I’m sure I’ll continue to grow and improve, my drawing foundation is way more solid.

Pre- and post-instruction self portraits from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain - Amy Lamp
My pre-instruction portrait on the left, and final project on the right. I love drawing on the graphite-toned ground!

The perception of these five skills improves your drawings

The exercises in the book are well-organized around the five elements that Edwards believes are key to drawing, and each chapter builds upon the last:
  • edges (contours)
  • spaces (negative spaces)
  • relationships of angles and proportions (perspective)
  • lights and shadows (values)
  • gestalt (seeing the whole)
And they’re all based on the premise that drawing from a right-brain mode is more effective than drawing from a left-brain mode. She includes all sorts of data and examples of this notion in the book, and I had many moments where I felt myself in the right-brain mode. Things went so much better when I could do that. I didn’t feel pressured by time or agenda, I was just blissfully drawing what I saw. I’m a left-brain person by nature, so sometimes it was like pulling teeth, but when the switch flipped it was awesome.
These are my drawings from the exercises that I was most happy with:

negative shapes exercise from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Negative shapes exercise of a chair. This chair wasn’t a great model for the exercise because it didn’t contain any fully enclosed negative shapes, but when I could force myself to see what negative shapes there were, things really did start clicking into place better.

negative shapes copying exercise from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Copy of drawing from the book for another negative shapes exercise. This would have been much more complicated to draw if I’d approached it by focusing on the positive shapes.

one-point perspective exercise from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
One-point perspective exercise view down the hall into a bedroom. The shape against the far wall (in the middle of the page) is a treadmill. Without using a basic unit to locate elements, I certainly would have made that treadmill disproportionately large. In my mind, it’s a huge thing!

two-point perspective exercise from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Two-point perspective exercise. I split this into two sessions: one to draw out the contours and one to do the shading. The blinds took a ton of patience!

profile portrait warm-up exercise from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Profile portrait warm-up exercise. At this point I discovered I had incorrectly cut my viewfinders — this drawing is too wide (original here) because my viewfinder proportions didn’t match my drawing frame.

profile portrait exercise from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Profile portrait exercise. He wasn’t very patient with how long it was taking, so the hair is rushed.

three-quarter view profile self-portrait warmup exercise from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Three-quarter view self-portrait exercise. Notice the theme of positioning the subject too far to the left?!

Steichen self-portrait value exercise from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Value exercise copying the Steichen three-quarter view self portrait. Using the trick of turning the page and my drawing upside down helped get me out of a jam with this one. I really struggled to get the face shadows looking good, but the upside-down trick saved me.

final self-portrait exercise from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Final exercise: self-portrait. At one point I almost threw in the towel on this one and started over, but I powered through and was able to resolve the trouble spots pretty well. 

This book taught me so much about drawing. Really, it taught me that drawing is seeing. If I can slow down enough to focus on what’s right there in front of me and not what I think is in front of me, my work is better. And if I’m stuck, it provides tools for that. Some that I find particularly helpful:

  • turn things upside down for a new perspective and to quiet the left brain 
  • do pure contour drawings to loosen up and shift into right-brain mode
  • turn elements into abstract shapes instead of naming the positive shapes and assuming I know how they look
  • use a view finder and picture plane to flatten out what I’m seeing 
I can’t say enough good things about Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I highly recommend reading it if you have any interest in improving your drawing and perception skills! You can learn more at drawright.com.

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