Thursday, August 23, 2012

The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, 4th Edition

The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, 4th Edition
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.

The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, 4th EditionShe 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 “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

10 thoughts on “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, 4th Edition

  1. Daniel van Benthuysen

    Well done, Charley.

    I agree that Edwards attempt to parse the science in all this is somewhat beside the point. Left brain, right brain; it was a selling point that she was being methodical about examining how we learn to draw when the book first came out at the end of the 70s.

    More useful has been her distinction between drawing what we know and drawing what we see. The instinct for beginners is to draw what they know since they have little practice drawing what they see. And what we know is primitive: Eyes are shaped like almonds so I’ll draw them that way, etc.

    But it has been an important contribution on her part to identify drawing as a skill that nearly anyone can learn. Although in a way it seems like this contribution is made repeatedly by nearly every popular drawing book down through the ages.

    In the 19th century, particularly before photography took off and become increasingly portable, anyone who had a college education (admittedly a tinier minority then) had learned to draw. In fact drawing was a skill particularly prized in our military academies: survey parties exploring the western United States wanted not only to map but to portray what they had found.

    A number of recent writers (Daniel Coyle, for example, in The Talent Code) have explored the idea that talent itself is a modern — and debilitating — myth. Research suggests that talent is something anyone with patience and practice can create for themselves.

  2. Dave Dubé

    Well done, Charley. But – I also see a bit of a “storyteller” in my art, and that isn’t what this particular book is about.

    She is correct – practice makes perfect. If Realism is your game, you better be good at it.

    Seeing is Believing.

  3. Armand Cabrera


    Say it isn’t so! I respect you and your blog but I have to disagree about the usefulness of the Edwards book. I wonder how many people have been ruined by this book compared to those it has “helped”. There are so many better books for interested parties, especially now that the Loomis books are being reprinted.

  4. Charley Parker Post author

    Thanks, Armand, but I have to say I don’t share your concern that those wanting to learn to draw are likely to be “ruined” by this approach. More likely, as I’ve expressed in my review, my concern would be that their foray into drawing would be left incomplete, missing the elements that elevate drawing beyond simple observation and recording.

    If you’ve seen my reviews of the new releases of the Andrew Loomis books, you know that I hold Loomis and his teaching method in high regard (and though I haven’t gotten around to a post yet, I admire your work and respect your opinion as well), but I think the intention of the Loomis books is distinctly different; he is teaching you to understand the figure and invent it from that understanding. Edwards is teaching something else entirely: to observe reality without the filter of “recognizing” and communicate that to paper.

    Edwards has not revolutionized or reinvented the teaching of drawing (despite hype to the contrary). Aside from a couple of novel ideas, the majority of her techniques are tried and true methods of drawing instruction that have been used in art schools, ateliers and academies for over a century — contour drawing, sighting off a pencil, use of a viewfinder, drawing negative spaces — all are traditional drawing instruction methods.

    The value that Edwards brings is in codifying, packaging and popularizing the approach in a way that encourages those who might otherwise feel locked out to enter the practice.

    As Daniel van Benthuysen describes in his comment, above, contemporary Western society (particularly in the U.S.) does not consider drawing a universally valuable skill that should hold a place alongside reading, writing and math. Instead, drawing is assigned to the archetypal outsider figure of the artist, i.e. the provenance of those outside of mainstream society.

    This actually suits many artists just fine, but deprives the majority of people the pleasure and revelation that drawing can bring to the perception of the world (ask Leonardo what kind of scientist he would have been if not for drawing).

    It’s true that there are better overall sources of drawing instruction than Edwards’ book, but they are aimed at those who already have some confidence that drawing is a skill they either have or can achieve proficiency in; while Edwards’ approach is ideal for those who say “I wish I could draw.” from a conviction that they cannot.

    (For the benefit of other readers, here is Armand Cabrera’s website, and his excellent blog, Art and Influence.)

  5. Daniel Sponton

    Hello Charley,

    is a good new that the Edwards’ book is still being reprinted, and thanks for posting about it. I read it, and I think it is very good; even if it is not all that drawing can bring to us… But anyway the exercises of the book are very good and a good work revealing a good way to enjoy how to see and draw. Greetings!

  6. Glenn Simmons

    I studied with Betty Edwards, briefly, when she was doing her research at Cal state Long Beach. I agree that it is mostly a good book. The science IS debatable. She said something that I remember, and that i read in the first edition of her book, that is JUST PLAIN WRONG. The statement was something to the effect that one cannot talk and draw at the same time. This is demonstrably false. I studied with Burne Hogarth and he became my friend. What I noticed about him was that, during his demos, he was constantly talking. Later, I studied with Glenn Vilppu. He also talked during his demos. In fact, Both Vilppu and Hogarth were highly critical of Betty Edwards’s assertions. Vilppu and Hogarth both went so far as to say that drawing is a whole-brain process. Don Lagerberg, one of my other teachers that i esteem, said he thought that people who put too much stock in her theories were members of “a cult.” This was said jokingly, but I have seen what I think of as nascent fanaticism in some of the people who teach her methods exclusively. Later, when I started teaching drawing, I found myself talking and drawing when I was giving demos. still, I would recommend this book to any beginner. I have recently found myself in sharp disagreement with people who don’t draw. These people speak authoritatively about how drawing ability is “a talent, a gift from God.” One either has it or doesn’t. They know nothing about it, yet they speak with assumed authority. I’m sure you know that, in the Victorian era, drawing was part of the education of young women (homeschooled) and many men. This was the teaching of a skill. It is all very frustrating to me. I have told people who tout the “gift” theory that I could teach them to draw, if they are willing to learn and to follow directions. I get so much resistance from some people when I say this. The idea is very intrenched in this culture that one either has it or doesn’t. Still. I would recommend the book as part of a larger curriculum for people who want to learn.

  7. Chris

    Thanks for the review of what I consider a good book to use to start learning how to draw. As you say, it is suited for people who do not think they can draw – without an older version of this book I would still be one of the majority who think they can not draw a straight line. I have read lots of negative stuff on the www about the book, but the exercises work – thanks to Betty Edwards I am now on an enjoyable journey of learning to draw. I do not think I would be drawing if I had tried to use Loomis or any other book as a first attempt. The book is limited (any book that isn’t??), but luckily there are a lot of generous people (like yourself, and Armand) who have exposed me to other important facets of art and drawing, so I know there is a lot more to learn. I am now turning to Loomis and other books to extend what I know and to improve since I have limited access to tuition.

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