Course: Drawing On the Right Side of your Brain
Instructor: Brian Bomeisler
Location: Fort Mason, San Francisco
Long before Dr. Betty Edwards wrote The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence, she gave birth to her son, Brian. From whom, I had the great pleasure of learning this past week. Brian teaches workshops across the country based on his mother’s book.
I learned of the workshop and Brian in Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Pink's theory is that right-brainers or creatives will rule the future; a concept that gives me great hope. Still, I am the product of a lot of left brain influence and training. I was an investment banker for God’s sake. So I decided to sign up and see how drawing could help me access my right brain, what I consider to be the pathway to my soul.
From day one, it was clear that this was not painting with Bob Ross, the guy with the Afro on PBS. As Brian immediately pointed out we’re not making “happy little trees.” The idea is to “discover your voice in drawing.”
The class began with a smattering of art history. Major artist names spewed from his mouth, Mary Buckley, Jackson Pollock, and Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, to name a few. He showed some slides and then asked us to dig into the big black portfolios placed on the tables in front of us. Each of the students, 16 in total, received all the tools we would need for the week – drawing pads, pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners and my personal favorite, a pencil box.
He then turned to the hardest and most common part of any class I’ve taken as an adult: the introduction. He asked each of us to introduce ourselves and share our experiences with drawing. I was first up. Thankfully, I didn’t break into a sweat. I gave my spiel and then waited for him to move on to the next student.
Instead, Brian asked me when the last time I had drawn was. I draw all the time, I answered. I have a chalkboard up in my den and I draw many a stick figure there.
“So there wasn’t a time in your life when you stopped?
“Nope,” I said.
He paused and commented to the class, “Something usually happens to you – at around the age of 12 that causes people to stop drawing.” He looked back at me.
I turned my body to the student next to me, signaling Brian to move on. Mercifully he did.
The rest of the class consisted of a 14-year old (or eighth grader), 2 high school students with their fathers, a make-up artist, a management consultant, software engineers and a couple of career transitioners. Only a handful of the 16 students were actually from the Bay area.
Our first task was to draw a self portrait. “The biggest hurdle you will all face,” he warned us, “is yourself. Now how many of you are thinking you’ll be the only one who doesn’t learn to draw? Well, I’m going to be your waterloo.”
We all pulled out mirrors provided to us in our portfolios and set about drawing ourselves. Mine is below.
Brian then went on to explain drawing. “Turns out,” he said, “it’s just a skill.” He elaborated that drawing is not a motor skill problem, but a thinking issue.
He clarified that the left hemisphere of the brain controls the right side of the body and the right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body. LMode refers to left hemisphere thinking and RMode refers to right hemisphere thinking. LMode is verbal, analytic, symbolic, abstract (as in taking abstractions), temporal, rational, digital (likes to count) and logical. RMode is nonverbal, synthetic (sees the big picture/the forest from the trees), concrete, realistic, timeless, nonrational (intuitive), and spatial.
To draw realistic depictions, we have to learn to pull away from the symbolic representation of things (supplied by our left brains) and instead try to see things in terms of shapes and relationships – to see what’s there – not what we imagine is there. To do this you have to access RMode or your right brain. His methods and the class exercises were meant to enable us to do just that and to quiet down the language center of our brains (the left brain), which generally gets in the way.
In the meantime, examples abounded of LMode thinking – a common question was “How much time do we have to complete this?” His frequent response, “You have enough time to finish.” Brian commented that students always want, “spit it out, tell me how do you do this so I don’t have to think about it.” But he’s interested in our self-discovery through drawing. “No imagining allowed right now – copy what’s given to you and it gets filtered through your brain and comes out quite unique,” he said. “The drawing should be coming from what you’re looking at – not your head.”
In order to gain access to the subdominant visual perceptual Rmode, it is necessary to present your brain with a task your Lmode will turn down. Turning a picture upside down is one way.
Hence, the next drawing exercise of the day was to replicate a drawing that Picasso made, upside down. I started out by measuring the lines of the drawing very precisely, but by the fourth line, I was impatient. So I started eyeballing it. I was very frustrated. I felt confined and unhappy. I decided that I didn’t like copying things.
When I finished my drawing and turned my copy right side up I found the subject, a man in a wrinkled suit, was way out of proportion. A metaphor for my issues?, I thought.
Before I could think too much about it, Brian had collected all of our drawings and hung them at the front of the class so we could see our work among others. I struggled a bit drawing the exercise but I didn’t realize exactly what my left brain was saying until I saw my picture hanging in the front of the room with all the others. Then there it was, People are doing a better job than me.
I saw my Picasso drawing up there among all the others and it looked terrible to me. My pencil strokes were light, my confidence minimal and my strokes unsure. Others were bold and heavy. I would even have said it sucked, except the 17 year old high school student two seats down from me used those very words when Brian asked her to review her own drawing. Great, I thought, I’m emotionally 17. Anxiety it seems is also part of the creative process. Brian acknowledged this and said “anxiety also means you really want to know about this stuff.”
When he finally reviewed my Picasso drawing in front of the class, he noted that the man in my drawing looked like he was ”staring off into the clouds.” Brian added I had a very natural line style – he described it as subtle, repeating lines – “softly feeling your way.” My personality was so essentially a part of my drawing that I felt I had been laid bare.
My drawing’s problems were my problems. I was upset and cried the whole way home because so much hit home. I found, that after everything, I am still incredibly judgmental of myself. To top it all off, he was right. Something did happen to me around the age of 12 that stopped my artistic progression and the reopening of that Pandora’s box on a sweltering Monday evening, walking home hurt.
Day Two – Learning how to see “The problems of drawing,” Brian reiterated, “are psychological.”
He then introduced us to a ViewFinder – which is designed to reduce the input of verbal information and help with the idea of composition, which is basically positive form and negative spaces in some pleasing arrangement. The object of the drawing is the “positive form” and anything around it is the “negative space,” or using the context to understand the subject. Emphasis on negative space, like words unspoken, tends to unify the drawing.
Our first exercise of the day was to draw our hands on a viewfinder and then pass our drawings forward to be hung in preparation for the daily discussion of our work. Of course, when I saw my hand up there again with the others, all I could do was compare and judge myself – unfavorably. But I did notice a few that were a bit worse than mine –progress from the day before, I suppose. Or maybe not.
When Brian reviewed my hand drawing he said, “You really get a sense of the delicacy of your touch.”
I was again stunned by how much my personality came through in my picture – and it was even clearer when lined up next to other drawings. It was amazing to see how distinct our drawings and therefore our points of view were. By the end of day two, the 8th grader and I had graphite on our faces.
Day Three- Perspective
Perspective: it’s all flat information. Drawing is essentially creating a two dimensional illusion of a three dimensional space.
One of the students asked Brian, “Is this what real artists do?” As if Brian wasn’t an artist. I was embarrassed for her. He was incredibly gracious. He went on to say that there are tons of misperceptions and misconceptions about art. Often, these are propagated by art historians. They seem to like to paint the picture, if you’ll forgive the pun, of a crazy artist.
He related that Van Gough taught himself to draw. Van Gogh drew almost exclusively for 2 years – he really wanted it. He also showed us a retrospective of Picasso’s drawings, who was taught to draw at a very young age by his father, to drive home the point that to be a great artist takes hard work and a solid grasp of the fundamentals as opposed to the often bandied word, “talent.” Picasso himself said, “I used to draw like Raphael, but it has taken me a whole lifetime to learn to draw like a child.”
To teach perspective, Brian pointed out that in architecture, lines below the horizon line will ascend up and lines above your horizon line are going to descend. For the doubters among us, he ushered us all into the hallway with our angle finders, pencils and viewfinders. It was illuminating – what you think is a straight line when looking at it, is actually angled when you put your pencil up to it.
The last exercise of the day was to choose an item of architectural interest and set about drawing it. I chose a window inside of the classroom and in the end wasn’t happy with my drawing. I felt frustrated and struggled with the details. In the immortal words of Eminem, I “guess that’s why they call it window pane.”
“This drawing,” Brian said, “is about power over space. You’re not creating the real thing. You can’t recreate it, you’re creating an illusion.”
When he reviewed my drawing he said I got the angles and perspective and commented that my drawing had “a mysterious quality.”
I learned that placing angled lines in your drawing, requires an intense amount of trust of yourself. Because, at first, it looks very wrong or doesn’t seem possible. But eventually you start to see. You gain perspective.
Day Four - Relationships
Brian began by talking about what the class is and isn’t. The class is about drawing a recognizable object and the qualifications of that. It’s not about Art with a capital A. It’s about teaching you the fundamentals of perception and from those you can run with it where you want to.
The exercise of the day was to draw a side profile portrait of a classmate. He explained that the human head often gives students the most trouble, but it requires constantly checking the relationships between the various parts of the face. Invariably, students never realize how large the head is in proportion to the eyes, nose and mouth because the eyes, nose and mouth get so much attention.
The exercise was difficult. Brian noted, “The left hemisphere says, ‘Drawing is supposed to be fun! And checking for relationships is not fun.’ But you have to do it and the more you practice, like anything, the easier it will be for you. It will start to feel natural.”
When many of us stumbled on the eyes, he added, “You can’t trust your eyes. Well, not so much your eyes but your brain gets in the way of your eyes – it mixes in symbols with which it is familiar.” In drawing, as in life, I was discovering.
We reviewed our work again at the end of the day. The personalities continued to pop off the pages. It was unconscious and unavoidable. I was starting to see that’s also what makes it art.
Day 5 – Putting it All Together
Brian opened Day 5 with “You’re now all ready to take drawing classes.” He then went on to describe how we could all practice – which is required for all this to come easier.
He emphasized “you can learn from misconceptions if you don’t get freaked out about them.” Starting over can be debilitating or demoralizing but I learned you can adjust stuff. In the end, he advised, “Whatever works is what you have to do to make things work.”
The final day’s assignment was to draw another self-portrait, pulling together all we had learned. Brian warned, “The difficulty is that you’ve being seeing yourself all your life,” but consoled, “the drawing you do today is simply going to be the drawing you do today.”
Here is my Day 5 Self-Portrait:
My self-portrait looked so painful to me – there was something in the eyes. Something I got right on the first day, too but my pencil marks on day five were so much darker, bolder – more confident.
During the final review discussion, one of the high school students commented, “Funny how I started off smug [day 1] and ended up looking tragic.” I could relate.
After I finished mine I went outside. The sun was shining for the first time that day and people were setting up tables for Off the Grid. I saw the Kara’s Cupcake van pull up and I got so excited. Then I flashed on a picture of myself at the age right before I stopped drawing, when I stopped pursuing art.
That child-like joy. I was in touch with it again and it was so good, it hurt.