Like the 1930’s Hollywood cliché of the civilized explorers wowing the backward and worshipful natives with the “magic” of a cigarette lighter held aloft at a dramatic moment, there has long been an assignment of magic to the ability to draw and paint realistically in our culture.
This comes from the notion that the ability to draw, and the other artistic skills that are built on that foundation, is reserved for those who have somehow been endowed at birth with “talent”, a magical cigarette lighter if ever there was one.
While not wanting to take away the special reverence that those who can draw or paint sometimes receive from the majority who “can’t draw a straight line” (since I’ve found that personally enjoyable at various points in my life, particularly as a teenager), I’m a firm believer that “talent” is a tarnished concept, and drawing is a skill, like playing a musical instrument, skiing, archery, flying a plane or performing surgery, that is acquired through hard work and diligent practice.
In fact, talent, that knack that makes acquiring a particular skill appear to come more easily, can be a hinderance as much as a help. After the initial boost, it can convince those that have it to be complacent and lazy, leaving them in a turtle and hare situation in which their hardworking counterparts quickly surpass them.
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is book by Betty Edwards that embodies the idea of drawing as a teachable skill. It focuses in particular on the most fundamental problem facing adults who are learning to draw — learning to see; specifically learning to see what is actually in front of them, as opposed to what their brain is telling them they recognize and should in essence draw a symbol for, e.g. an almond shape to represent an eye, which actually has a much more complex and interesting shape.
Edward’s book has been something of a phenomenon since its release in 1979. It became a bestseller and is one of the most popular drawing instruction books of all time. In it she puts forth a course of study based on exercises that encourage a shift in perception.
She bases her rationale on the assumption that there are two fundamental modes of human perception, that one of them is much better for drawing and related tasks than the other (which is better at the kind of rational linear thinking more valued in our culture), and that these modes are physically based in the two halves of our interestingly bisected brains.
Edwards puts a lot of effort into establishing the science for this, particularly in the subsequent revised editions of the book. I think the science for this idea is in question. However, the assignment of these states to physical parts of the brain, while central to her title, is to my mind unimportant to the underlying premise — that culturing a particular mode of thinking and perception is key to acquiring the skill of drawing.
Her course utilizes a series of exercises that encourage that shift, confusing the usually dominant “left brain” or rational/linear mode into submission and allowing the “right brain” to come out and play, pencil in hand.
Many of the exercises in her course were based on long proven drawing instruction techniques, such as pure contour drawing, sighting, the use of a viewfinder and drawing negative spaces instead of positive shapes; others were novel, like drawing from upside-down images; but the book as a whole was different from other drawing instruction books when it debuted in that it was obviously and overtly aimed at those are were in the “99%”, those without the magic of “talent”.
As such, I have long recommended Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain to anyone who says “I wish I could draw.”, as well as to artists who feel they need to rekindle their drawing fire, as the exercises can be particularly revealing to those who haven’t been in a dedicated course of study for some time.
Edwards has revised the book over several editions, including a fairly major revision titled The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, the latest version of which is the recently released 4th edition.
In this revision she has to some extent addressed my major criticism of the book, that it stops short at teaching seeing/drawing, and misses the other half of drawing — the nuances of line, tone, rendering, edges, value and other elements that elevate drawing to an art. It’s as if you found a remarkable course on how to speak a language, but that course stops short with forming coherent phrases and neglects how to speak in a natural or convincing way.
The before and after instruction drawings of students of her course, which have always been striking and a compelling argument for the strength of the book, also have a kind of flat and bland appearance, lacking those elements that we associate with sophisticated drawing.
She has added additional master drawings to this edition of the book, and places more emphasis on qualities of rendering than in previous editions, but I still recommend supplementing the use of the book with a “phase II” study of more advanced drawing concepts and more traditional drawing texts.
In the revised edition she also reorganizes the material a bit and attempts to codify the seeing/drawing shift into more a more specific subset of concepts.
She also places more emphasis on the perceptual shift involved in drawing as a key to creativity enhancement. This is actually her central theme; the book is subtitled “A course in enhancing creativity and artistic confidence”, but I find this aspect less compelling than the more specifically drawing related content. Your milage may vary.
There is a website for the book and related materials. Unfortunately it has not seen a major update in years, has a kind of stuck in the 90’s look to it, is poorly organized and does a terrible job, if at all, of explaining the book or the concepts it embodies. The site seems focused on convincing those who have already purchased the book to buy Edward’s other titles, workbooks, workshops and a pointless “portfolio” of prepackaged drawing supplies.
There is a sample chapter, but you would do better to look at the Amazon.com “Look Inside” feature for various editions (some of which have a more extensive preview than others).
Unfortunately, I am reviewing from a pre-publication uncorrected proof, and I don’t know how well it represents the final edition of the book. If the printing is the same, I have to say that the publisher has followed the recent self-destructive tendencies of the U.S. publishing industry as a whole and gone with cheaper, thinner paper and a poorer overall production quality to squeeze a few more pennies out of each copy (other reviews I’ve seen back this up).
Regardless of the sad state of American publishing, this remains a valuable book, in several of its editions, for both non-artists and artists alike — codifying the drawing-as-seeing skills that are so fundamental, and easily overlooked, in our pursuit of the magic of drawing.
For more, see my previous post on Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain