Drawing hasn’t been the same since B. Edwards published her 1979 book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, in which she refutes the mythology that the ability to draw is a genetic gift and proves it is a global skill, much like driving, that once learned is known for life. According to Edwards, drawing requires five basic skills of perception: edges, spaces, relationships, lights and shadows, and the whole, or gestalt (meaning the ability to perceive the character, or essence, of the subject). Edwards has since revised the book twice and believes as strongly as ever that, as she said recently, “Anyone of a sound mind can learn to draw well.”
Not everyone agrees with her premise, namely many art educators and neuroscientists, but Edwards claims it “simply works.” She first encountered the idea while teaching art at Venice High School in Venice, California, near Los Angeles, in the late 1960s. She had trouble understanding why her students had such difficulty learning how to draw, no matter what techniques she used. When questioned, the students would say, for example, that they could see that in the still life the apple was in front of the glass, but they didn’t know how to represent it in a drawing. One day, on impulse, she asked them to copy a Picasso drawing upside down. To everyone’s surprise, the drawings were excellent; the students claimed it was because they didn’t know what they were drawing.
“Completed baffled,” as she says, by this response, Edwards became intrigued by the research of Roger W. Sperry, a neuroscientist who had investigated human brain-hemisphere functions. His finding that the brain uses two fundamentally different modes of thinking, one verbal, analytical, and sequential (left side) and one visual, perceptual, and simultaneous (right side), led Edwards to theorize that the brain shifts from one mode to the other when drawing, and that drawing well is primarily a matter of accessing the part of the brain best suited to that activity. “Sperry’s research provided an explanation for my own experience in the classroom,” Edwards points out. “I noticed in myself that I couldn’t talk to anyone while I was drawing, and I didn’t want anyone to talk to me. From my students, besides their perceptual difficulties, I noticed that they drew childlike symbols related to the names of the objects–a symbolic vase, a symbolic daisy–and then they were disappointed when those things didn’t look like what they Were seeing.” Edwards began to see how language, centered in the left side of the brain, interferes with drawing, which requires the visually oriented right side.
In first discussing Sperry’s ideas with her students, Edwards recalls they soon stopped saying they had no talent for drawing. “They felt freer to try new ways of seeing,” she comments. As she experimented with exercises that focused on the perceptual skills of the right side of the brain, the students’ drawings improved rapidly. “The question of whether they had an inborn talent dropped out, and they learned how to draw,” Edwards asserts. She began to think of learning to draw in the same terms as learning how to read. “The myth that if your mother can draw then you can is like saying that if your mother can read then you can because you’re lucky enough to have inherited the genes. If we regarded reading as we do drawing, we would spread books around a room and see which kids picked them up. We would provide materials but teach no basic skills. In my classes, I assumed that if I gave the students proper instruction, all of them would learn to draw, and this proved to be true.”
Today, Edwards conducts workshops across the country and has just produced an instructional video accompanied by a portfolio that includes all the art supplies and tools for the exercises she prescribes. Edwards’ instruction is not about drawing techniques, but about acquiring the perceptual skills to see as an artist sees, “not naming or categorizing what’s there,” she adds, “but actually seeing what’s there.” The workshops are for people who have never learned to draw and also for people in nonart-related fields who want to find more creative ways of solving problems. As Edwards writes in her second revised version of the book, “My hope is that Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain will help you expand your powers as an individual through increased awareness of your own mind and its workings.”
The exercises Edwards teaches are cumulative, structured in a similar format to learning how to drive. “As in driving you learn how to brake and steer and the rules of the road until they are integrated into a smoothly running skill, in my workshops we teach all the requisite skills for drawing and build upon them,” she says. After some warm-ups to get acquainted with the materials, the first exercise is a contour drawing. “We use contour drawing as a way to get people to slow down and observe complex details,” Edwards continues. She explains that if a person is forced to linger and look at an object, the left hemisphere of the brain becomes bored. “As the dominant verbal side, it insists that it’s already named what you are looking at,” she says, “and you should move on. If you persist, it rejects the task.” As a result, the right hemisphere takes over and the person begins to see the subject with an acute clarity. This experience permanently changes one’s ability to see in the way an artist sees, and the skills of seeing and drawing progress rapidly. The other exercises teach students how to draw negative spaces and choose a “basic unit” for sizing proportions, the mechanics of sighting, rendering lights and shadows, and how to perceive the gestalt of the subject, which is the culmination of the first four skills.
For most of Edwards’ students, the most difficult exercises are the ones on Sighting, which encompasses perspective and proportion. “As in learning to read or write,” says Edwards, “you can’t leave out grammar. Perspective and proportion are comparable in terms of how important they are in learning to draw realistically.” Edwards tackles these difficult lessons with tools that help clarify the concepts, such as a plastic picture plane with crosshairs and a viewfinder. She also gives students a proportion finder, which is shaped like a wrench with a movable jaw that is used for taking sights, and an angle finder, two pieces of plastic fastened with a brad that can be adjusted for accurate measurements. “Eventually students discard the tools,” explains Edwards, “but sighting is a terrifically complicated skill and the tools help them overcome the initial obstacles.”
Despite her success, Edwards has faced severe criticism from some art educators. They claim that she is not teaching art, but just realistic drawing, mining a child’s creativity. Responding with an unequivocal “Nonsense!” she asserts that nothing in the history of art substantiates such an argument. “It’s only been in our century that a person who knows nothing about drawing can become a renowned artist,” she says. “It’s my view, and many others, that the truly great artists of the 20th century, such as Picasso and De Kooning, were masters because of their classical training in drawing. I think criticism from the art education bureaucracy is founded on the fact that many art teachers themselves don’t know how to draw well because realistic drawing skills have not been taught for 30 years.” Edwards points out that she feels this is evidenced in the dozens of art teachers who have taken her course to acquire or repair these basic skills. As for her justification for basing her instruction on realistic drawing, she says that doing so provides a check for how well students perceive what’s in front of them. Later, these skills can be translated into nonobjective and abstract art. “Students can move into any field–sculpture, photography, design–if they have basic perceptual skills,” she adds. “If they don’t, their choices are much more limited.”
Criticism has also come from neuroscientists. “They become very disturbed when educators like myself take research and develop educational sequences from it,” Edwards says. “They believe that since I’m not a scientist I cannot do that, but my argument is that my application of Sperry’s work explains how the processes of the brain relate to drawing.” Edwards, in fact, hopes that scientists will conduct more research to find out precisely why her approach is so effective.
An educator herself, with doctoral degrees in art studies, education, and the psychology of perception, Edwards holds strong opinions on art education and how it is failing students. “The symbolic drawing of childhood has a function with language acquisition,” she asserts. “I do not recommend teaching perceptual skills at age 3. Kids should be encouraged to do symbolic drawings as long as they are still interested in them. Around 9 or 10, however, they want things to look real. They yearn to depict three-dimensional space.” Edwards believes that if children are taught the perceptual skills they need as they mature, they will continue drawing and using the skills as part of their thinking strategy. “If we never taught them to read, they would try tirelessly and then just give up,” she contends. “Without teaching perceptual skills, the same thing happens. We are not meeting their needs.”
Edwards’ ideas on how the brain functions while drawing is important for artists to consider because it suggests ways of maximizing creativity. “The best art is done when the skills are on automatic and the right hemisphere of the brain is doing the work,” Edwards says. “The job of the professional artist is to remember this and set up conditions that allow the mental shift to take place. This often means working alone and without time pressure. It also means that you set up routines that get you into the painting mode. Bring the process up to a conscious level so that you don’t occasionally suffer from artists’ block, which is the left hemisphere having you in its grip, telling you to phone the gas company and balance the checkbook. If you work out a routine and have faith that it will work, you will accomplish a lot. It’s about taking control of your brain.”
Edwards was pleased when the publisher of her book asked her to revise it for a new edition. Over the past 20 years that she’s led the workshops, she’s devised new teaching techniques, recorded observations, and collected data. All this helped to reline and further substantiate her initial theory, making her case for the right side of the brain even more convincing. “Most artists know what I’m talking about at a gut level,” she says. “They’ve experienced it.” And now so have others who may have always wanted to be more artistic, but thought they had no talent. “Teaching drawing has never lost its charm,” says Edwards. It’s easy to see why.