I 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 Half.com 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.