Lines and Colors art blog

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Betty Edwards)

Drawing on the Right Side of the BrainI have long been a firm believer in the idea that drawing is a skill that can be taught and not a magical gift bestowed on some individuals and denied others.

We live in a culture (at least in America) that doesn’t value drawing as a worthwhile skill in the general sense. “Everybody can’t be an artist, why teach them drawing?” But everyone can’t be a writer, why teach them writing? Just like writing, drawing has applications and benefits that go beyond its use by professionals. Drawing is a method of understanding and dealing with information about the world around us, a means of solving problems and changing perceptions. Because we don’t value drawing in that way, most of us (who haven’t been told that we have “talent”) stop drawing at about age 9 or 10 and our drawing skills freeze at that level.

Not that I don’t believe in “talent”, I think I have just enough “talent” to know what it is and what it isn’t. I learned to play the guitar, but I will never play like Eric Clapton. I can write an essay, but I will never write like Tom Wolfe. My drawing skills, though, are probably beyond what they might be if I hadn’t always had an innate tendency to explore that avenue. I understand the difference between learning a skill in a creative area and having the “talent” to carry that skill further than you might otherwise.

So when someone admires my drawing ability and says “I wish I could draw…”, I’m quick to say “You can learn if you really want to.” and back it up by recommending Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Dr. Betty Edwards.

Edwards is professor emeritus of art at California State University. She was teaching drawing in the late 60’s, and struggling to convey what she also saw as a skill that should be teachable, when she had an impulse to have the students copy a drawing by Picasso up-side down. To her and the students’ surprise they did much better when drawing something they couldn’t recognize consciously.

Over the next few years she expanded on that idea and combined it with her fascination with a theory of brain usage that was popular at the time to create her signature method for teaching drawing. The fact that the right-brain/left-brain model is in dispute as a theory of brain physiology doesn’t devalue it as a useful metaphor for two different modes of thinking and perceiving. The “left brain” specializes in logic, speech, analytical thought and critical evaluation and is emphasized in our society largely to the exclusion of the “right brain”, which is intuitive, holistic and concerned with spatial perception and the creative process.

Edwards assumption is that the logical left brain, which is dominant, perceives in symbols and “recognizes” objects in the visual world as belonging to classes of those symbols; so it interferes with the right brain’s ability to simply see what things really look like when trying to draw them. Your left brain says “An eye is just an oval with two pointed ends.” and prevents your right brain from seeing that an eye is a much more complex and asymmetrical shape.

Her teaching system consists largely of methods of getting the left brain to shut up and let the right brain really see what the eyes receive. She uses exercises she’s developed as well as traditional drawing techniques that fit into her approach, like pure contour drawing (drawing without taking your eyes off the subject to look at the paper) and drawing the shape of a negative space instead of an object’s outlines.

The pairs of drawings above left (and more on the site for the book) testify to the effectiveness of her approach. They are “before” and “after” self-portrait drawings from students enrolled in her intensive course, a workshop consisting of 5 days, eight hours a day.

The process is also of great value to experienced artists and well worth the time it takes to do the exercises. (Obviously you can do them at a slower pace over a longer period.) The book has enlightening chapters on portrait drawings (and the common problem of perceiving the face as larger than it is in relation to the size of the head), perspective, shading and color.

My only caveat is that Edwards only really covers half of what drawing is, albeit the more important half when starting out. The book has long been lacking in the aspects of drawing that lift it into the realm of art: the nuances of line, tone, composition, and handling of the materials that make a drawing really come alive. She’s added more of this to recent editions, but I would still recommend a serious student supplement the book with one of the traditional drawing texts like Mendelowitz’s Guide to Drawing (expensive, look for it on or eBay). (If you’re really serious, also look for a copy of Kimon Nicolaides’ The Natural Way to Draw : A Working Plan for Art Study.)

Edwards also wrote a somewhat less successful (but worthwhile) book on enhancing creativity, Drawing on the Artist Within, and more recently created a companion workbook for for her original book: “New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain Workbook: Guided Practice in the Five Basic Skills of Drawing”. The web site also has begun to milk the whole thing a bit by selling pre-packaged “Portfolios” of basic art materials. The original book, though, is well worth checking out for anyone interested in drawing at any level. You can usually find older editions in most libraries.



26 responses to “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Betty Edwards)”

  1. Charley–
    You made my day with this one. I couldn’t agree more. One of the best things about Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is that it can be used as a self-study course for someone really motivated to learn how to draw. Like most kids, my son stopped drawing in his early years because he couldn’t make things look “right” and was hurt by criticism. In his early thirties he heard me praise the book and decided to see if he could teach himself to draw. Eventually, he went to the Boston Museum of Fine Art to draw from the sculptures and always chuckled when someone commented that he was a “real artist.” I’m going to put a direct link to your blog today.

  2. Thanks, Nita. Glad to hear your personal take on the book. I’d bet there are a lot people with similar experiences. I get a bit angry at the way most people in our society are actively discouraged from drawing as adults.

  3. I´m a 24 year old design student and professional (graphic and webdesign) in a small country called Portugal, close to Spain. I love to draw since I´m can remember myself. I´ve started to learn “how to draw” reading some books while I was a child and had about six different drawing teachers in my academic path. I´ve “spent” about 15 years (when I kind of gain some counscions about it) telling people around me – when they always said I was gifted for “it” when they saw my drawings – that it was all about seeing, trying, be disciplined and have fun.
    When you think, it´s really so simple. Drawing is more related to our way of thinking than writing, but there´s a lot of “preconcepts” in our unilateral society that tends to close altenative paths that lead to creativity and, ultimately, “self-thinking” (wich can be quite dangerous…). And that´s what drawing can offer, a system of comunication that is much more direct, because it speaks essencially to perception and emotion.
    I feel that, specially in “old” tradition coutries like mine, people that use this form of comunication, in a extent in wich it clearly overcomes writing (I have kind of a “special language” based on drawing with my girlfriend), are seen like strange and, in one hand, touched by the drawing god, and in the other, wasting time and stamina in something not usefull for society.
    I’ve writen this long post only to underline the importance of “Drawing on the right side of the brain” – to leave a statement of how such knowledge is important in any part of the globe, and finally to, some how, thanks Betty Edwards for such a work and for letting us know that we aren´t alone in the “fight” for a better general understanding about drawing and, in consequence, for the respect for it.

  4. Daniel, thanks for your comments. I had assumed that drawing was a skill that was valued more in Europe than it is in the US, but I guess there are mosconceptions about it everywhere.

  5. Thanks for reading my comment. Yes, unfortunately it seems that those mosconceptions exist everywhere. Now I can understand that. That´s why, sincerely, I enjoyed so much this blog. It is “simply” about drawing, painting, ilustration, etc..without mosconceptions. You´ve gain a frequent visitor =)
    good luck

  6. Thanks, Daniel. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog and I appreciate your comments.

  7. Renata Lourenço Avatar
    Renata Lourenço

    During all my life I have been wondering about that kind of differences between people. Since my childhood I realise that doing nice draws was an easy work and I remember that this was not true to all the kids in school. The same used to happen in maths, but in reverse, and my bad memories keep’s me remembering that I used to be inside finishing my math problems while most of the kids were playing outside…
    After that I started myself in musics, and realised that some people learned the same things that I do but in a very faster way… and that is not all, they were faster learners and they turned faster in best players.
    all my life I were wondering about this natural differences and I realised that we are not equal people, I realise that each one of us understands and interacts with reality around in different ways.
    my experience with drawing showed me this conclusion: there are two types of people , the ones who make terrible draws, and the ones who draw it good… the first ones don’t seem to have a general overview of the wole thing they are trying to dry , starting with little things, and finishing the little things like a people eye in a big crowd wile the second ones get a general overview of the relations between all the things in the picture, getting the job finished by phases, first the crowed then the bodys, then the heads, then the faces…
    Well my last conclusion I discovered this right day. It is that my all life problem with numbers and changing numbers in sequences is kind of natural for my bad left side prossessment…marking prices, making changes, working with credit cards for me is a terrible thing… I am always changing the sequences…453, is equal to 435; 291 is equal to 219…
    My boss used to get furious with me! haha…
    I have to learn how to get this side better

  8. […] If you think that you have no talent at all and are creatively challanged, read this post by Charley Parker. Charley reviews a must read book by Betty Edwards – Drawing on the right side of the brain. […]

  9. i have drawn all my life. if you check out my website, you can see samples of my artwork, and i feel that i am fairly well-accomplished in the drawing area. like you, though, i have always felt that it is something that you CAN learn. after all, i wasn’t always so good. yes, i was often more skilled than my peers, but it took a lot of practice and training of my eye in order for my work to improve. i think that proves that it IS a learning process. yes, some people are born naturally able to percieve things more accurately, but i don’t believe that closes off the possibility of ANYone being able to draw. if they truly want to, and have a good instructor, i believe anyone can be taught to SEE, as Betty Edward’s book shows. i was first shown this book when i was about 10, and to this day, i still use some of the exercises and tricks in it if i am having a particlarly hard time on a certain piece. her methods work. i currently have an 11 year-old student, and i’m using her workbook to teach him. and while his progress is not quite as fast as Betty’s students (he only comes once a week), i could see almost immediate improvement. anyone who wants to draw doesn’t need to take expensive classes or hire a tutor – just buy this book.

  10. Laurie Avatar

    Hi Charley,
    I stumbled upon your enlightening blog while doing a search for “how the brain understands drawing”. I quite enjoyed this post and exploring your site.

    Just wanted to chime in that after reading the book many years ago, in the summer of 2005 I finally was a student in Brian Bomeisler’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain in Soho, NY. So enabling was the process, that it changed my mindset and fed my creative juices. Just this past February I joined Brain at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for one of his Saturday skteching sessions and it took my visual eye and drawing aptitude leaps further. Brian offers his workshops in many US locations as well as in England. I encourage folks to take his sessions; they will find them most revealing.

    p.s. My article isn’t posted yet, but it contains a link to your blog.

  11. i like drawin but i dont love drawin all the time but drawin is still cool!! well g2g bye bye

  12. This is a terrible book. I can’t believe some schools actually teach from it. It doesn’t teach drawing or conveying form at all. It teaches copying a work in a clinical way that teaches them basically nothing.

  13. Sin,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Obviously I disagree and feel that it is a very worthwhile book. I agree, though, that it doesn’t do much to teach drawing in the sense of old master finesse. I point that out in my article (though she is adding a bit of that in recent editions). This is why I suggest supplementing it with a book like Mendelowitz’ Guide To Drawing.

    What she does teach about drawing, and possibly better than anyone else, is the seeing component of seeing/drawing, which is the part the most people who do not consider themselves artists have the most trouble with.

    I also think it is the most basc component of drawing, and the other component, finesse with line, form, tone, rendering, the use of the tools, etc., is what transforms drawing into art.

    Drawing is a basic communication skill available to all human beings at some level.

    The most apt analogy is with writing. Most of us can write to some extent, but not many of us are “writers” in the artistic sense. Most people in our culture, however, lack even the basic skills for drawing, and this is where her approach excels.

    I also find, however, that even experienced artists benefit from following her course of excercies and developing an understanding of the principles she teaches. Many other drawing books teach these as well (see my post on Dobson’s Keys to Drawing), but I think her approach is best for “non-artists” in learning the basics.

  14. […] artist Charley Parker’s blog, lines and colors, he has an article about Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which describes the class process quite accurately. I know first hand, having been a student in […]

  15. Sehr informative Seite. Vielen Dank für die Infos!

  16. […] lines and colors :: a blog about drawing, painting, illustration … – Every morning when I wake up, I experience an exquisite joy – the joy of being Salvador Dalí – and I ask myself in rapture,”What wonderful things is this Salvador Dalí going to accomplish today?” – Salvador Dalí … […]

  17. […] lines and colors :: a blog about drawing, painting, illustration … – Every morning when I wake up, I experience an exquisite joy – the joy of being Salvador Dalí – and I ask myself in rapture,”What wonderful things is this Salvador Dalí going to accomplish today?” – Salvador Dalí … […]

  18. […] shift into that mode of seeing that accompanies drawing and painting from life. (See my posts on Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, The Face of Leonardo? and Marie-Denise […]

  19. […] anyone can draw if they learn how to really see. Here is a slideshow of the five day process. And another review of the book that I […]

  20. Ray Saunders Avatar
    Ray Saunders

    Chap. 1 Response: A key point of Chap. 1 is that drawing, although it may appear to be a “magical ability” to the general public, is in fact a learnable skill. This proposition seems reasonable. My personal experience has taught me that skills can be acquired through training. Also, history teaches the same lesson. For example, the concept of “courage” is thought to be an innate attribute of character. Most people believe either a person is courageous or is not. The Roman Army, however, developed a rigorous training regime that once imposed upon rather ordinary human material, produced soldiers with uniformly predictable responses to stress. Once properly trained, the Roman soldier would respond to orders in battle with seeming disregard for his personal safety, thus exhibiting behavior that was virtually indistinguishable from that of an innately courageous person. Of course the distinguishing fact was that the ordinary Roman soldier was probably very frightened by the proximity of danger, but followed orders because the punishment for doing otherwise was invariably worse than the damage likely to inflicted by the foe. That is what he learned in training. Chap. 1 explains that this general concept (that one may be trained to acquire capabilities that seem at first glance to be unattainable) applies in art. Most people are aware that that there exist artistic protégées for whom no rigorous training is needed to bring forth the most awe-inspiring artistic creations. Chapter 1 suggests that it is reasonable to believe that through training less talented people (like, for example, me) may be brought to the point of creating art that begins to approximates the output of the natural prodigy.

    The other main point of Chap. 1 is that through the application of certain principles of training, the art student t will be brought into an altered state that will free the right brain to achieve its full level of capability. This proposition does not surprise. I work in a field that is extremely analytical and detailed, governed by a myriad of rules and principles. Yet through practice I am able to size up a particular situation as a whole (in other words, grasp the “gestalt”) and project a likely put come. This is not a conscious effort. Rather, I just know how a given situation will be resolved, and I can make quick decisions about how many assets to devote to the situation given its probable outcome (i.e., is it a “winner” or “loser.”). In a sense in my field I am able to achieve an altered state, one that is achievable only through long and hard practice, I look forward to attaining a similar state regarding the creation of art.

    Chap. 2 Response: I greatly enjoyed doing the pre-instructional self-portrait exercise. I recognize that it is intended t be a data point in the continuum of development as we gain skills in the class. Also, I realize that there are methodical approaches that will be taught in the class that are not available to me yet. My self-portrait was not guided by any of these techniques, and therefore has a rather free-form and amateurish appearance. All that is fine because I simply enjoyed the pleasure f the drawing exercise. But I do look foreword to honing my drawing skills.

    Chap. 3 Response: Much of this chapter was old news for me. I studied biology and understand the different characteristics of the brain hemispheres. Also, I am aware of the bias in society about “handedness” and the stigma generally placed on “lefties” in human history. (Hopefully things are changing since the invention of baseball that makes a left-handed pitcher with good speed and a decent curve ball a valuable commodity.) So, the biological aspect of the chapter I understand, and ditto the cultural aspect. The concept that drawing is essentially a right brain function that benefits from the suppression of the left brain’s influence seems plausible and I’m eager to give the theory a try.

    Chap. 4 Response: This chapter was fascinating. I see exactly the point that a simple shift in how we view an image changes our perception entirely. The face/vase conundrum I have seen before, and so it did not surprise me that my brain at one instant saw a vase and the next a face. I did the workbook exercise and tried to complete the complementary form to the vase/face. I found that if I viewed the object as a face, I had trouble tracing the complementary form. Once I saw it as a vase, I had no problem. I suspect that there might be some deeper significance regarding how I internalize faces, and that there is some related inhibition about easily copying a “face” in profile as opposed to an inanimate object. Of course, that might just be me.

    I do want to say that the upside down exercise was great. I drew the horse in the workbook, and was amazed at how I was able to concentrate on simply the form of the upside down figure, and ignore totally its “itness.” The figure, in my mind at least, was not really a horse while it was upside down; it was just a shape. And because it was, I was able to quickly and accurately render a similar likeliness. It was really amazing. I’m looking forward to Saturday’s class to do the other upside down drawing exercises. That may be very important for me because I want to do realistic art.

    Chap. 5 Response: Chap. 5 was more of a history lesson of the developing artist’s mind, and contained less functionally useful information than the preceding chapter. I did recognize the stages of development because I went through them myself, and in fact stop developing my drawing skills at about age 12. I did find interesting the section that discussed the considerations that interfered with seeing things clearly enough to draw them. I concur that our minds pigeonhole objects and then move on. We pretty much have to operate in that fashion just to get through the challenges in life – unless we want to be an artist. So I suspect a big part of this class will be re-learning techniques for seeing things as they are.

    Chap. 6 Response: I must admit that upon first read, the concept of pure contour drawing seemed an exercise in futility. Why bother the draw anything if you cannot see where your pencil is moving? But I did try it and did experience the brain shift. By moving my hand holding the pencil while looking solely at my hand, a sort of disassociation did take place in my mind as I lost all the usual points of reference (the spatial relationship between me and the “symbols” mentioned in Chap. 5). Once that occurred, I was able to concentrate solely on the physical features of my hand. I must say, however, that the resultant pictures did not strike me as particularly beautiful … just strange. I did not actually do the picture plane/hand exercise because the syllabus indicates that is an in-class exercise. But I see the concept and understand how the picture plane will be a valuable tool for learning to draw realistically.

    Chap. 7 Response: The discussion of negative space was enlightening. I “get” Bugs Bunny crashing through a closed door. Also, I followed completely the notion that by drawing the negative spaces adjacent to the positive forms of an object, a drawing of an object can come into being (almost as a process of elimination as all the negative spaces are accurately depicted). The Basic Unit concept (which I shortened immediately to the “BU”) resonated immediately – probably because it’s a catchy phrase for me since I follow baseball and there is a pitcher called the “Big Unit.” So the phrase stuck, and I was able to analogize the concept to the theory of relatively in physics. What I mean is that in drawing the first object depicted is the BU, and everything else is depicted relative to the BU. I am excited about doing the transfer operations in class whereby an object drawn onto the picture plane is transferred to paper via reference to the grid pattern on both surfaces. That is the type of artistic skill I hoped to gain when I signed up for the class.

    Ray Saunders

  21. Ray Saunders Avatar
    Ray Saunders

    Chap. 8 Response: I have taken courses in mechanical drawing, do I am familiar with the concept of perspective. I am totally unfamiliar with the practice of sighting, and I think it will take me many months to become skilled in reliably estimating points of perspective and ratios. I did take to heart the quote on p. 156 by Robert Henri. If you start becoming a sloppy artist, you’ll get comfortable being a sloppy artist.

  22. Ray Saunders Avatar
    Ray Saunders

    Ch. 10 Response: This chapter moves into the concepts of shade and light, which is a bit anticlimactic since we have been discussing color values for weeks. The key to grasping the concept of shade are the terms that are used to denote relative values of shading such as “highlights,” “full shade,” “crest shade,” and “reflected light.” These all describe relative values of light and shade that allow a 2-dimensional drawing to take on 3-dimensional appearance. The chapter also addresses the craft of properly applying “crosshatching” to a drawing, which is how shading is applied to a drawing. The chapter also discusses using the above concepts to realistically depict the human face. The full frontal view is perhaps the most readily grasped since it presents challenges of proportion, but not challenges of perspective. Ditto for the silhouette view of the human face. The ¾ view of the human face, however, requires mastery of both proportion and perspective, and separates the artists from the cartoonists

  23. […] For more, see my previous post on Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain […]

  24. […] For more, see my previous post on Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain […]

  25. is it possible to subscribe to your blog? i did not see an area where i could add my email address.

    thanks for the helpful posts.


  26. […] which is to draw a self-portrait. The task is somewhat daunting but luckily the internet is full of before-and-after drawings that Edwards’ actual students were able to complete during a week-long drawing workshop. The […]