A number of years ago, an artist-friend of mine recommended Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain to make me feel less anxious about drawing. I perused the book but soon set it aside in favor of other reading. Then, this year the Nature Study workshop at the ChildLight USA conference that Mom and I teach was all a-buzz with talk of Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Several conference attendees asked me what I thought of the book, especially as it connects to nature study. Curious, I ordered a copy of the book and started reading.
Edwards’s thesis is simple: “Ability to draw depends on ability to see the way an artist sees . . . . most people never learn to see well enough to draw” (Edwards, 2). Therefore, if they can learn to see, they will be able to draw. So, how does one learn to see? Edwards insists the secret is in learning about the brain and, specifically, the functions of the right side of the brain (Edwards, 26). “R-mode,” referring to the use of the right side of the brain, “is the ‘left-handed,’ right-hemisphere mode. The R is curvy, flexible, more playful in its unexpected twists and turns, more complex, diagonal, fanciful.” This is all in contrast to the “foursquare, upright, sensible, direct, true, hard-edged, unfanciful, forceful” left hemisphere of the brain (Edwards, 38). Put simply, the left side of the brain is word-oriented while the right side is picture-oriented.
The challenge to the art student is that the left brain tends to be dominant. Therefore, Edwards lays out suggestions for “tricking” the left side, the verbal side, of the brain into rejecting a task so that the right brain is forced to take over. The most common technique used to do this is to turn the picture one wishes to draw upside down. When the image is inverted, the left side of the brain cannot name the parts of the picture, gets frustrated, and passes the task of deciphering it to the right brain (Edwards, 42, 50, 100). Because the right brain sees things in shapes, line, and space, it doesn’t matter if the image “makes sense” in the way defined by the word-oriented left brain. The right brain enjoys the challenge of mysterious detail (Edwards, 46, 101).
Edwards guides students through a lengthy series of exercises that explain and demonstrate line, space, and color. “Modified contour drawing” focuses on the detail of the subject by keeping the eyes in nearly constant motion between the model and the drawing. Before drawing, the students spend several moments studying their subject and begin to take in and admire the details. This helps them focus the right side of their brains and turn off the chatter of the left side (Edwards, 90). The students then begin to slowly move their eyes along every detail of the lines and curves of the subject while simultaneously capturing them with their pencils. They continue this careful observation and drawing across the whole of their subject, paying careful attention to the space between each curve and line as well as the shape of the negative space around the object (Edwards, 90-91). Just as the right side of the brain specializes in seeing relationships between lines and shapes, it is also skilled at seeing relationships between colors and subtle changes in color. Furthermore, the right brain can analyze a color to see what colors were used to make it (Edwards 206).
When I began reading Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, I was looking for ways to improve the way we teach nature study. Instead, I found that right brain psychology explains why nature study works. Increased access to the right side of the brain enables students of all ages and levels of artistic experience to admire and capture with detailed watercolor the beauty of God’s creation. Without even knowing it, we encourage students to use the right side of their brain through the one-minute observation and through continued observation while painting.
Edwards made it clear that the dominant left side of the brain struggles to quiet down and allow the right side of the brain to work. The left side of the brain prefers to use symbolism to draw (ie: a tree looks like a stick with a cotton ball on top) rather than to take the time to truly see things as they are (Edwards, xiv, 42), “‘But I can’t stop thinking; I can’t make my mind sit down!’ Poor little girl. . . . Set the child to definite work by all means, and give [her] something to grind. But, pray, let [her] work with things and not with signs—the things of Nature in their own places, meadow and hedgerow, woods and shore” (Mason, 55-56). Charlotte Mason’s “poor little girl” sounds much like a child whose left brain is stuck in a system of symbols and struggles to take interest in the details of life around her. Nature study breaks this pattern of thought and draws the attention of the mind to the vein patterns of a caladium leaf or the intricate coloring of a pansy. It awakens not only the curiosity of the right brain but also, and more importantly, the curiosity of the child.
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and nature study seem very different because Edwards focuses on drawing people while nature study focuses on watercolors of nature. However, they use the exact same skill—making use of the right brain through the habit of observation. There are several benefits to reap from both methods of right brain learning.
Careful observation enhances the student’s brain by increasing neural pathways. First, observation vastly increases knowledge about the subject being studied. It is only through looking that students will realize red maple leaves typically have three large points, two small points, and jagged edges. Observation also trains the mind to pay attention to and realize the importance of details. Children typically draw horses with straight, square legs. As they look closer, however, they will see that the legs have curves that form the joints and muscles. If horses truly had straight, square legs they would not be able to walk, much less run. In the classroom, students who have practiced attention to detail will absorb more material and be more likely to faithfully follow complex instructions.
The habit of observation also enhances a student’s sense of wonder and beauty. “I don’t think I ever actually looked at anyone’s face before I started drawing,” one of Edwards’s students remarked, “Now, the oddest thing is that everyone looks beautiful to me” (Edwards, 8). Charlotte Mason readily supports such a reflection. “‘The aesthetic sense of the beautiful,’ says Dr. Carpenter, ‘of the sublime, of the harmonious, seems in its most elementary form to connect itself immediately with the Perceptions which arise out of the contact of our minds with external Nature’” (Mason, 68). The right brain and nature study enable students to see God’s artistry with open eyes.
Edwards, Betty. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Putnam Publishing
Group: New York. 1989.
Mason, Charlotte M. Home Education. JM Dent and Sons Ltd: London. 1954.
© HollyAnne Dobbins 2010