“In oneself lies the whole world and if you know how to look and learn, then the door is there and the key is in your hand. Nobody on earth can give you either the key or the door to open, except yourself.”
— J . Krishnamurti
You Are the World
“The life of Zen begins with the opening of satori. Satori may be defined as intuitive looking into, in contradiction to intellectual and logical understanding. Whatever the definition, satori means the unfolding of a new world hitherto unperceived.”
— D. T. Suzuki, “Satori,”
in The Gospel According to Zen
“Set yourself to practice drawing, drawing only a little each day, so that you may not come to lose your taste for it, or get tired of it_
Do not fail, as you go on, to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is, it will be well worth while, and will do you a world of good.”
— Cennino Cennini
Il Libro Dell’Arte, c. 1435
“It is not to be despised, in my opinion, if, after gazing fixedly at the spot on the wall, the coals in the grate, the clouds, the flowing stream, one remembers some of their aspects; and if you look at them carefully you will discover some quite admirable inventions. Of these the genius of the painter may take full advantage, to compose battles of animals and of men, of landscapes or monsters, of devils and other fantastic things.”
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
The Zen of Drawing Drawing Out the Artist Within
Source: The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
At the beginning of this book I said that drawing is a magical process. When your brain is weary of its verbal chatter, drawing is a way to quiet the chatter and to grasp a fleeting glimpse of transcendent reality. By the most direct means your visual perceptions stream through the human system— through retinas, optic pathways, brain hemispheres, motor path-ways—to magically transform an ordinary sheet of paper into a direct image of your unique response, your vision of the perception. Through your vision, the viewer of the drawing—no matter what the subject—can find you, see you.
Furthermore, drawing can reveal much about you to yourself, some facets of you that might be obscured by your verbal self. Your drawings can show you how you see things and feel about things. First, you draw in R-mode, wordlessly connecting yourself to the drawing. Then shifting back to your verbal mode, you can interpret your feelings and perceptions by using the powerful skills of your left brain—words and logical thought. If the pattern is incomplete and not amenable to words and rational logic, a shift back to R-mode can bring intuition and analogic insight to bear on the process. or the hemispheres might work cooperatively in countless possible combinations.
The exercises in this book, of course, encompass only the very beginning steps toward the goal of knowing your two minds and how to use their capabilities. From here on, having caught a glimpse of yourself in your drawings, you can continue the journey on your own.
Once you have started on this path, there is always the sense that in the next drawing you will more truly see, more truly grasp the nature of reality, express the inexpressible, find the secret beyond the secret. As the great Japanese artist Hokusai said, learning to draw never ends.
Having shifted to a new mode of seeing, you may find yourself looking into the essence of things, a way of knowing tending toward the Zen concept of satori, as described in the quotation of D. T. Suzuki. As your perceptions unfold, you take new approaches to problems, correct old misperceptions, peel away layers of stereotypes that mask reality and keep you from clear seeing.
With the power of both halves of the brain available to you and the myriad possible combinations of the separate powers of the hemispheres, the door is open to your becoming more intensely aware, more capable of controlling some of the verbal processes that can distort thinking—sometimes even to the extent of causing physical illness. Logical, systematic thinking is surely essential for survival in our culture, but if our culture is to survive, understanding how the human brain molds behavior is our urgent need.
Through introspection, you can embark on that study, becoming an observer and learning, to some degree at least, how your brain works. In observing your own brain at work, you will widen your powers of perception and take advantage of the capabilities of both its halves. Presented with a problem, you will have the possibility of seeing things two ways: abstractly, verbally, logi-cally—but also holistically, wordlessly, intuitively.
Use your twofold ability. Draw everything and anything. No subject is too hard or too easy, nothing is unbeautiful. Everything is your subject—a few square inches of weeds, a broken glass, an entire landscape, a human being.
Continue to study. The great masters of the past and of the present are readily available at reasonable cost in books of drawings. Study the masters, not to copy their styles, but to read their minds. Let them teach you how to see in new ways, to see the beauty in reality, to invent new forms and open new vistas.
observe your style developing. Guard it and nurture it. Provide yourself with time so that your style can develop and grow sure of itself. If a drawing goes badly, calm yourself and quiet your mind. End for a time the endless talking to yourself. Know that what you need to see is right there before you.
Put your pencil to paper every day. Don’t wait for a special moment, an inspiration. As you have learned in this book, you must set things up, position yourself, in order to evoke the flight to the other-than-ordinary state in which you can see clearly.
Through practice, your mind will shift ever more easily. By neglect, the pathways can become blocked again.
Teach someone else to draw. The review of the lessons will be invaluable. The lessons you give will deepen your insight about the process of drawing and may open new possibilities for someone else.
Drawing skills six and seven
In the Introduction, I mentioned that I have proposed two additional skills beyond the five basic component skills of seeing edges, spaces, relationships, lights and shadows, and the gestalt. My colleagues and I have not found more than these seven skills over the past decade, and it’s possible there are no more. Again, mediums, styles, and subject matter form an endless study, and all seven of the basic skills benefit by a lifetime of practice and refinement. But for basic understanding of the perceptual processes of drawing, the seven skills seem sufficient at this time. I’ll briefly review skills six and seven.
Perceptual skill six: Drawing from memory
Skill six is essentially drawing from memory. Students yearn for this skill, but it is difficult. Drawing is a visual task and most artists have great problems drawing from memory except for those images they have drawn before. If someone asked me to draw a picture of an antique railway engine, for example, I could not do that because I don’t know what it looks like. If I could see a picture, or go to view the object, then I could draw it. Curiously, this occasionally comes as a surprise to people who don’t draw. They seem to think that an artist is someone who can draw anything.
Drawing from memory can be trained. The nineteenth-century French artist Edgar Degas, so the story goes, forced his students to study the model posing in the basement of a building and then climb to the seventh floor to do their paintings of the posed model. No doubt this was effective visual memory training!
For training yourself in visual memory, the key is to decide to remember—in a sense, to take a visual “snapshot” of an image you want to retain in memory. This means developing your ability to image—to see something with your mind’s eye well enough that later you can “look at” the image. Then, using the first five skills, you draw the image “seen in the mind’s eye.”
Additionally, whatever you draw will etch itself into your memory. Call up those images; see again the master drawings you have studied, the faces of friends you have drawn. Image also scenes that you have never viewed, and draw what you see through your mind’s eye. Drawing will give the image a life and reality of its own.
Perceptual skill seven: The “dialogue”
Skill seven takes us all the way to the art of the museums, I believe. I briefly outlined some main aspects of this skill in Chapter Ten, page 221. The artist has a vague idea, let’s say, to draw a creature that never existed, perhaps a winged dragon. The artist has a vague imagined image and begins to draw, making a few marks that perhaps indicate the head of the dragon. Those marks trigger an imagined extension and elaboration of, say, the head and neck. The artist “sees” or envisions these elaborated details on the paper. The artist then draws in the imagined extension with new marks. That triggers an expanded image, perhaps the body and wings, now “seen” on the drawing. The artist is now able to draw those parts. And so the drawing progresses as a result of this “dialogue” between the imagined creature in the drawing which the artist makes real with the pencil marks. This dialogue continues until the artwork is finished.
You experienced this skill to some extent in your light/ shadow drawings, and you can now nurture this beginning. You will find it most satisfying, I assure you. one way to practice the dialogue is to find or make stained paper, stained perhaps with spilled coffee or smeared paint or even mud. Let the paper dry and then try to “see” images in the stains. Reinforce these images with pencil or pen or colored pencil. This is the so-called “da Vinci device.” Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci recommended that student artists should practice seeing fanciful images in the stained walls of the city in order to improve their imaging abilities.
Clearly, these skills have other applications. Use your imaging ability to solve problems. Look at a problem from several viewpoints and different perspectives. See the parts of the problem in their true proportion. Instruct your brain to work on the problem while you sleep or take a walk or do a drawing. Scan the problem to see all of its facets. Image dozens of solutions without censoring or revising. Play with the problems in the antic/serious intuitive mode. The solution is very likely to present itself nicely when you least expect it.
Drawing on the capabilities of the right side of your brain, develop your ability to see ever more deeply into the nature of things. As you look at people and objects in your world, imagine that you are drawing them, and then you will see differently. You will see with an awakened eye, with the eye of the artist within you.
Forgers copy signatures upside down. This trick probably works for the same reason that upside-down drawing works. As an exercise, try copying the signatures above upside down.
Have soft eyes and a gentle manner. Shodo painting by William Reed.
As children grow and change, so will their handwriting. — Ornella Santoli
How to Read Handwriting
Student example of “pure” or “blind contour” handwriting.
Afterword: Is Beautiful Handwriting a Lost Art?
Today, handwriting is no longer a subject of interest. Like the times tables, moral sayings, and polite manners at tea parties, handwriting—if it is thought of at all—is relegated to quaint customs of the past century. Yet when I ask a group of people, “How many of you would like to improve your handwriting?” nearly all the hands go up. If I ask “Why?” the answers vary: “I want my handwriting to look better … to be more readable … to be good enough to be proud of.”
This response has surprised me. Handwriting has virtually been discarded as a school subject, at least beyond the third or fourth grade. Out of curiosity, I scoured my home library of books on the topics of education, school art programs, drawing, painting, art history, the brain and brain-hemisphere functions for index entries on handwriting. I found nothing, not a word on the subject.
Next, I searched the university library: indexes of books on art education, drawing, and brain function—again, nothing. Early education books, of course, had entries on teaching the alphabet letters and words, and I found a few books specifically on handwriting—most of them published in England, where handwriting skills apparently still receive considerable attention. When I opened these books and skimmed through them, however, I was struck by my immediate reaction of sinking dismay at the tedium of the exercises. All of the worst aspects of public education came flooding back to me as memories of boring tasks, boringly taught, with no possibility of escape.
And yet I know that handwriting is important, and the group response I described above indicates that others feel that way too. In fact, of all the ways we express ourselves nonverbally, none is quite so personal as our handwriting— so personal and important that our signatures are legally protected as a mark of identity. Unlike other ways we use to express our individuality, we have sole ownership of our handwriting. It is a personal possession that no other person is allowed to use or imitate.
In past centuries, handwriting was considered an art. Every school had its master or mistress of penmanship, and in the nineteenth century much time and attention was consumed in perfecting the extravagant loops and swirls of Copperplate script. In America in the early decades of this century, our schoolchildren assiduously studied the venerable Palmer method, derived from a beautiful Spencerian script. By the late 1930s, however, the Palmer method had given way to an unlovely manuscript printing called “ball-and-stick” lettering for very young children, with a shift from lettering to cursive, or “real,” writing by around fourth grade. This shift was mainly a matter of making joining marks between the “ball-and-stick” letters.
Responding to educational theories in the 1940s and 1950s about encouraging individuality and avoiding rote learning, teachers encouraged each child to use the style of writing that felt comfortable, within limits of legibility and correctness of letter forms. Children had a choice of size and slant of letters, sometimes even the choice of staying with printing, and teachers expected that each child’s handwriting would more or less settle down to a legible form. Beauty was not an issue. Legibility was sufficient.
But writing is an art form. Using line, one of the most basic elements of art, handwriting can function as a means of artistic self-expression. Like drawing, handwriting employs certain conventional forms that have agreed-upon meanings. Over centuries, the letters of the alphabet have evolved into shapes of great beauty that communicate verbally, yet at the same time can convey subtle nonverbal intentions and reflections of the mind of the writer/artist. This is what we have lost. In my opinion, legibility is not enough. Educational theorists have sold handwriting short.
Can we regain this lost art? I think we can, by linking writing once again to the esthetic purposes of drawing. There is little difference between making a drawing in line and “drawing” a signature, sentence, or paragraph. The purpose is the same: to convey information about the subject and to express the personality of the writer/artist. This nonverbal expression is subconsciously perceived and understood by the reader/viewer. Consider what William Reed, an expert on Japanese calligraphy, has to say:
Shodo paintings [cursive calligraphy] are like pictures ofthe subconscious mind. They are not final statements, but rather instant snapshots of the personality at the time of writing. That personality can be developed and strengthened through Ki practice. On the other hand, careless calligraphy is also a form of practice, reinforcing bad habits and stunting the growth of the personality.
While we may never attain the disciplined aesthetic of the Oriental mind, surely we can bring beauty back into handwriting—not the ornate beauty of past centuries, but rather a modern beauty of ease, clarity, and coherence. I will recommend a few general principles and a few exercises, and I will hope against hope that you won’t get that awful sinking feeling of boredom. I urge you, at the least, to give the exercises a try.
The basic perceptual skills of writing/ drawing
1. First, review the short section on handwriting in Chapter Two. Then, on a sheet of plain paper, write your signature just as you usually sign your name.
2. Underneath that signature, write your name again, this time using your most beautiful
“hand.” Write slowly, drawing the letters with care.
3. Last, write your name one more time underneath the second version. This time, however, use the other hand: If you are right-handed, use your left hand, and if lefthanded, use your right hand.
Now, compare these three “drawings.” The line expresses everything, and the communication is very clear. All you have to do is ask yourself, “If three people of equal qualifications were to apply for a position and these were their signatures, who would get the job?”
To improve your handwriting, therefore, the first step is to decide that it does matter; your writing sends a distinct message. The next step is to think about what message you want to convey. Reliability? Intelligence? Masculinity? Femininity? Humor? Sophistication? Clarity? (These, of course, are all positive messages. Writing can also convey such negative messages as carelessness, indifference, deviousness, laziness, instability, and egotism. But I’ll assume you won’t choose one of these qualities.)
Keeping style in mind as a final goal, let us see how the perceptual skills of drawing can help your handwriting to become more beautiful.
Drawing the contours of the alphabet
1. The perception of edges: Try a Pure Contour Drawing of your handwriting. Tape a piece of paper down. Choose a pen or pencil that you like, with the width of line that feels comfortable to you. Turn away from the taped-down paper, so that it is out of sight. Holding the pen or pencil, place your writing hand on the paper and hold this book in the other hand, open to this page.
2. Choose one of the alphabets illustrated here and copy each letter, first the lowercase, then the capitals. Draw each letter very slowly, millimeter by millimeter, at the same slow pace that your eyes move along the contours, paying attention to each detail and observing the beauty of each form.
3. When you have finished the alphabets, lowercase and capitals, write your name three times, very slowly, visualizing in your mind’s eye the ideal forms of the letters. Then, turn and look at your writing. I think you will be surprised. Even unable to see what you were writing, and even with the awkward position of Pure Contour Drawing, you will find your handwriting improved immediately, because you were paying close attention to details of the letterforms. Notice how beautifully spaced your letters are, and how you stayed “on the line,” even though you couldn’t see what you were doing.
4. Next, using the technique of Modified Contour Drawing, repeat the exercise above. Place your plastic grid or a sheet of lined paper under your writing paper, to provide a guideline. Place this book where you can see the examples of alphabets. Choose one and copy it letter by letter, drawing very slowly. Then, write your signature again three times, or copy a few sentences from the text.
When you have finished: Compare your last “drawings” with the first. You will have made progress already, simply by paying attention and slowing down.
In drawing, different styles of line have names: the bold line, the pure line, the repeated line, the lost-and-found line, the nervous line, the hard line, the soft line, and many others.
Handwriting can stand considerable mauling before it becomes entirely illegible, but why make it so hard for others to read?
Using the negative spaces of handwriting
In Japanese as well as in European/American calligraphy, the negative spaces of the letters are as important as the lines we generally think of as constituting the letters. Examine the alphabets, first for enclosed, rounded negative spaces: a, b, d. go.p.q.
1. Practice these rounded negative spaces. Try not to think that you are drawing the letter o, for example. Think—decide!—that you are drawing the space inside and that it is a beautiful shape, embraced by the line with its precise closure. Write your signature again, paying special attention to any closed, rounded negative shapes.
2. Next search the lowercase alphabets for closed, elongated negative shapes, some above the line, some below: b,f,g,j,k,l,q,y,z. Draw these letters now, again focusing on the negative shapes. Try to make all the closed, elongated negative shapes the same in size and in shape. Write your signature again, paying special attention to closed, elongated negative shapes.
3. Continue with each of the main shapes of spaces—for example, the negative shape of n, m, h, v, w, y. These letters have mounded negative spaces. Draw a series of m’s and n’s, really concentrating on the negative mounds. Make each negative mound the same—same size, same shape.
4. Try the open negative space of the letters c, k, v, w, and z. Check the margin model for the exact shape of these spaces.
5. Try the pointed negative space of the letters
i,j, t. Make sure that you place the dot over the i so that it precisely lines up with the tip of the letter.
6. Try the negative shapes of the “odd” letters s, r, x. Note that each letter can be visualized in negative space in two ways:
a. The interior negative spaces: the spaces inside the letters.
b. The exterior negative spaces: the spaces outside the letters.
For exterior negative spaces, imagine a format drawn around each letter. For the “short” lowercase letters, the basic format is a square. For letters with ascenders (“tall” letters), imagine a rectangle two boxes high, resting on the line. For letters with descenders (g,y, etc.), the two-box rectangle drops half of the rectangle below the line.
The key point about the exterior negative spaces is that each letter needs its space (its format). Notice how the slanted letter fits inside the format. To practice exterior negative spaces, obtain a sheet of graph paper for ready-made formats.
Sighting a beautiful hand
In art, the word relationships expresses a constant theme. As you have learned, art is relation-ship—parts brought into beautiful relationships with one another and with the whole, thus creating that most treasured attribute of art, unity. The same holds true for the art of handwriting. Precisely the same skills will shape your handwriting into closely related parts, fitted into a rhythmic, coherent, unified whole, thus creating beauty—beautiful handwriting.
Recall that in learning to draw, you learned the skill of perceiving relationships of angles (angles relative to the constants, vertical and horizontal) and proportions (in relation to one another). Let’s apply that skill to handwriting.
The main task is first to decide on a slant— an angle relative to vertical—and, second, to use the slant without deviation. This gives your handwriting a beautiful rhythm. More than any other aspect, consistent slant will give your writing coherence and unity.
It doesn’t really matter what angle you choose, but be aware that slant conveys a message, subconsciously understood by your reader. A slightly forward slant conveys energy and measured, forward action. A backward slant conveys caution, a conservative pace. An extreme forward slant conveys eagerness, or perhaps a bit of recklessness. Perfectly vertical writing conveys sobriety, a bias toward formality.
(Please be assured that these ideas are not taken from graphology. Graphologists have gone off into fanciful theories; for example, “Large loops on the letter y indicate that the writer is greedy, because the loops look like money bags.” This is nonsense.)
Slant of line is part of the language of art and, without question, the language of line used in handwriting is related to the principles of art—the basic precepts of composition, balance, movement, rhythm, and placement. Just as art expresses the intent of the artist, so does handwriting.
Consistency is the key
To control consistency of slant and proportions, try the following exercises:
1. Place one sheet of lined paper over another, with the lines of the bottom sheet running vertically, at right angles to the horizontal lines of the top sheet. Adjust the bottom sheet until the angle seems right to you. (You may want to try several different slants.) Practice writing your signature, or copying a paragraph of text, aligning the slant to a perfectly consistent angle. At the same time, focus on forming the negative spaces of the letters.
2. The second part of sighting relationships is sighting proportions. In handwriting, this aspect is second in importance only to consistent slant. The main task is to decide on size relationships for your writing and to use the proportions consistently.
There are several proportions you will need to decide on. First, try out some alternatives, then decide on a proportional space to leave between words (the width of the letter o is one possible choice). Then, use that proportional spacing consistently. Decide on the size relationship between short and tall letters, and use that relationship consistently. Decide on how far down the descenders will drop relative to the tall letters and the short letters, and use that relationship consistently. The key word, of course, is consistency. But also keep in mind that these relationships carry subtle messages, as you can see in the examples on page 263.
3. Practice sighting angles and proportions. Write your signature and copy a few sentences from the text. As you write, allow your eyes to scan the whole picture you are creating with your “drawing” to check that the relationships are consistent.
Seeing the lights and shadows in handwriting
This aspect of handwriting emerges from the “value” of your hand, the lightness or dark-ness—that is, fineness or heaviness—of your line, the closeness or distance of the individual letters to one another.
Your writing tool, of course, affects the line. The most important point here is that you should use a certain pen or pencil by choice, not by accident.
I find it so odd that art students are often extremely fussy about having just the right pencil, perfectly sharpened, for drawing. But when it comes to writing, they will unthinkingly use the dullest, scratchiest pencil or pen. Each activity deserves the same care. Drawing, sketching, handwriting—it’s all the same. In each, you are expressing yourself.
Therefore, I recommend that you try out the lightness or darkness of various kinds of pencils or pens, then decide on one that fits your style of writing and conveys the message you want to send. A heavy, dark line, for example, conveys power and muscular (or intellectual) strength. A thin, fine, precise line conveys a fine sensibility and elegance. A medium line that varies in width (from a flexible pen point, for example) conveys an aesthetic, almost poetic, personality, a person aware of the nuances of meaning in visual information. A wide, sturdy line conveys a rugged, natural personality, close to the earth.
Another means by which the lights and shadows are conveyed in handwriting is through the closeness of the letters. If you write the letters of words very closely, with the lines of writing spaced closely, your writing will be dark and close. If you write letterforms that are spaced more openly and your lines are far apart, your handwriting will be full of light and air.
Dark writing is neither better nor worse than light, but it is different. Again, the point is: What do you want to convey to the viewer of your handwriting? Dark writing conveys intensity and passion, like someone whispering intensely in your ear. Light writing conveys openness and enthusiasm, like someone calling “Hello!” from across the room. The choice is yours, but it should be a conscious choice.
Once you have absorbed and practiced the basic fundamentals of beautiful handwriting, you will be free to develop your individual style. As your handwriting changes to a more artistic style, you will find it interesting to observe the reactions these changes cause. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
I hope this brief review of the expressive qualities of handwriting is helpful and inspiring. I believe the Japanese are right in their insistence on the importance of nonverbal messages and in their conviction that the way we write affects our personalities.
I urge my readers who are parents to let teachers know that you are interested in beauty, wherever it might be encouraged. Help teachers to understand that you want your children to experience handwriting as an art form so that they will know the joy of creating beauty in simple acts of daily life.
I believe teachers will welcome your interest in beauty. Teachers, after all, are the very ones whose eyes and sensibilities are assaulted by ugly handwriting, the very ones who must struggle with illegibility and with nonverbal messages of disunity, carelessness, and indifference.
Making one’s handwriting more beautiful may seem a very small way to increase the total amount of beauty in the world. But, still, the widest ocean is made up of very small drops of water.
“To me, moving into more naturalism was a freedom. I thought, if I want to I could paint a portrait; this is what I mean by freedom. Tomorrow if I want, I could get up, I could do a drawing of someone, I could draw my mother from memory, I could even paint a strange little abstract picture. It would all fit in to my concept of painting as an art. A lot of painters can’t do that—their concept is completely different. It’s too narrow; they make it much too narrow. A lot of them, like Frank Stella, who told me so, can’t draw at all. But there are probably older painters, English abstract painters, who were trained to draw. Anybody who’d been in art school before I had must have done a considerable amount of drawing. To me, a lot of painters were trapping themselves; they were picking such a narrow aspect of painting and specializing in it. And it’s a trap. Now there’s nothing wrong with the trap if you have the courage to just leave it, but that takes a lot of courage.”
— David Hockney
For teachers and parents
As a teacher and a parent, I’ve had a very personal interest in seeking new ways of teaching. Like most other teachers and parents, I’ve been well aware—painfully so, at times—that the whole teaching/learning process is extraordinarily imprecise, most of the time a hit-and-miss operation. Students may not learn what we think we are teaching them and what they do learn may not be what we intended to teach them at all.
I remember one clear example of the problem of communicating what is to be learned. You may have heard of or gone through a similar experience with a student or your child. Years ago, the child of a friend whom I was visiting arrived home from his day at school, all excited about something he had learned. He was in the first grade and his teacher had started the class on reading lessons. The child, Gary, announced that he had learned a new word. “That’s great, Gary,” his mother said. “What is it?” He thought a moment, then said, “I’ll write it down for you.” On a little chalkboard the child carefully printed, HOUSE. “That’s fine, Gary,” his mother said. “What does it say?” He looked at the word, then at his mother, and said matter-of-factly, “I don’t know.”
The child apparently had learned what the word looked like— he had learned the visual shape of the word perfectly. The teacher, however, was teaching another aspect of reading—what words mean, what words stand for or symbolize. As often happens, what the teacher had taught and what Gary had learned were strangely incongruent.
As it turned out, my friend’s son always learned visual material best and fastest, a mode of learning consistently preferred by a certain number of students. Unfortunately, the school world is mainly a verbal, symbolic world, and learners like Gary must adjust, that is, put aside their best way of learning and learn the way the school decrees. My friend’s child, fortunately, was able to make this change, but how many other students are lost along the way?
This forced shift in learning style must be somewhat comparable to a forced change in handedness. It was a common practice in former times to make individuals who were naturally lefthanded change over to right-handedness. In the future, we may come to regard forcing children to change their natural learning modes with the same dismay that we now regard the idea of forcing a change in handedness. Soon we may be able to test children to determine their best learning styles and choose from a repertoire of teaching methods to ensure that children learn both visually and verbally.
Teachers have always known that children learn in different ways and, for a long time now, people who have the responsibility for educating youngsters have hoped that the advances in brain research would shed some light on how to teach all students equally well. Until about fifteen years ago, new discoveries about the brain seemed to be useful mainly to science. But these discoveries are now being applied to other fields and the recent research that I’ve outlined in this book promises to provide a firm basis for fundamental changes in techniques of education.
David Galin, among other researchers, has pointed out that teachers have three main tasks: first, to train both hemispheres— not only the verbal, symbolic, logical left hemisphere, which has always been trained in traditional education, but also the spatial, relational, holistic right hemisphere, which is largely neglected in today’s schools; second, to train students to use the cognitive style suited to the task at hand; and third, to train students to be able to bring both styles—both hemispheres—to bear on a problem in an integrated manner.
When teachers can pair the complementary modes or fit one mode to the appropriate task, teaching and learning will become a much more precise process. Ultimately, the goal will be to develop both halves of the brain. Both modes are necessary for full human functioning and both are necessary for creative work of all kinds, whether writing or painting, developing a new theory in physics, or dealing with environmental problems.
This is a difficult goal to present to teachers, coming as it does at a time when education is under attack from many quarters. But our society is changing rapidly, and the difficulties of foreseeing what kinds of skills future generations will require are increasing. Although we have so far depended on the rational, left half of the human brain to plan for our children’s future and to solve the problems they might encounter on the way to that future, the onslaught of profound change is shaking our confidence in technological thinking and in the old methods of education. Without abandoning training in traditional verbal and computational skills, concerned teachers are looking for teaching techniques that will enhance children’s intuitive and creative powers, thus preparing students to meet new challenges with flexibility, inventiveness, and imagination and with the ability to grasp complex arrays of interconnected ideas and facts, to perceive underlying patterns of events, and to see old problems in new ways.
What can you, as parents and teachers, hope to accomplish right now in terms of teaching both halves of children’s brains? First, it’s important that you know the specialized functions and styles of our hemispheres. Books such as this one can provide you with a basic understanding of the theory and also with the experience of making cognitive shifts from one mode to another. I believe that this personal experiential knowledge is extremely important, perhaps essential, before teachers try to transmit the knowledge to others.
Second, you need to help students to become aware of the different ways they can respond to the same material. For example, you might have students read one passage for facts and ask for verbal or written responses. The same passage might then be read for meaning or underlying content accessible through imagery and metaphoric thought. For this learning mode, you might require as a response a poem, painting, dance, riddle, pun, fable, or song. As another example, certain kinds of arithmetic and mathematics problems require linear, logical thought. Others require imaginary rotations of forms in space or manipulations of numbers, which are best accomplished by mentally producing patterned visualizations. Try to discover—either through noting your own thought processes or observing your students—which tasks utilize the style of the right hemisphere, which require the style of the left, and which require complementary or simultaneous styles.
Third, you might experiment with varying the conditions in your classroom—at least those conditions over which you have some control. For example, talking among students or constant talking by a teacher probably tends to lock students fairly rigidly into left-hemisphere mode. If you can cause your students to make a strong shift to R-mode, you will have a condition that is very rare in modern classrooms: silence. Not only will the students be silent, they will be engaged in the task at hand, attentive and confident, alert and content. Learning becomes pleasurable. This aspect alone of R-mode is worth striving for. Be sure that you yourself encourage and maintain this silence.
As additional suggestions, you might experiment with rearranging the seating or the lighting. Physical movement, especially patterned movement such as dancing, might help to produce the cognitive shift. Music is conducive to R-mode shifts. Drawing and painting, as you have seen in this book, produce strong shifts to R-mode. You might experiment with private languages, perhaps inventing a pictorial language with which the students can communicate in your classroom. I recommend using the chalkboard as much as possible—not just to write words but also to draw pictures, diagrams, illustrations, and patterns. Ideally, all information should be presented in at least two modes: verbal and picto-graphic. You might experiment with reducing the verbal content of your teaching by substituting nonverbal communication when that mode seems suitable.
Last, I hope you will consciously use your intuitive powers to develop teaching methods and communicate those methods to other teachers through workshops or teachers’ journals. You are probably already using many techniques—intuitively or by conscious design— that cause cognitive shifts. As teachers, we need to share our discoveries, just as we share the goal of a balanced, integrated, whole-brain future for our children.
As parents, we can do a great deal to further this goal by helping our children develop alternate ways of knowing the world— verbally/analytically and visually/spatially. During the crucial early years, parents can help to shape a child’s life in such a way that words do not completely mask other kinds of reality. My most urgent suggestions to parents are concerned with the use of words, or rather, not using words.
I believe that most of us are too quick to name things when we are with small children. By simply naming a thing and letting it go at that when a child asks, “What is that?” we communicate that the name or label is the most important thing, that naming is sufficient. We deprive our children of their sense of wonder and discovery by labeling and categorizing things in the physical world. Instead of merely naming a tree, for example, try also guiding your child through an exploration of the tree both physically and mentally. This exploration may include touching, smelling, seeing from various angles, comparing one tree with another, imagining the inside of the tree and the parts underground, listening to the leaves, viewing the tree at different times of the day or during different seasons, planting its seeds, observing how other creatures—birds, moths, bugs—use the tree, and so on. After discovering that every object is fascinating and complex, a child will begin to understand that the label is only a small part of the whole. Thus taught, a child’s sense of wonder will survive, even under our modern avalanche of words.
In terms of encouraging your child’s artistic abilities, I recommend providing a very young child with plenty of art materials and the kind of perceptual experiences described above. Your child will progress through the developmental sequence of child art in a relatively predictable manner, just as children progress through other sequential stages. If your child asks for help with a drawing, your response should be, “Let’s go look at what you’re trying to draw.” New perceptions will then become part of the symbolic representations.
Both teachers and parents can help with the problems of adolescent artists, which I discussed in the text. As I mentioned, realistic drawing is a stage that children need to pass through at around age ten. Children want to learn to see, and they deserve all the help they require. The sequence of exercises in this book—including the information on hemisphere functions in somewhat simplified form—can be used with children as young as eight or nine. Subjects that suit the interests of adolescents (for example, well-drawn realistic cartoons of heroes and heroines in action poses) can be used for upside-down drawing. Negative space and contour drawing also appeal to children at this age, and they readily incorporate the techniques into their drawing. (See the illustration of a ten-year-old fourth-grade student’s progress over four days of instruction.) Portrait drawing has a special appeal for this age group, and adolescents can do quite accomplished drawings of their friends or family members. Once they overcome their fear of failure at drawing, youngsters will work hard to perfect their skills, and success enhances their self-concept and self-confidence.
But more important for the future, drawing, as you have learned through the exercises in this book, is an effective way of gaining access to and control over the functions of the right hemisphere. Learning to see through drawing may help children to later become adults who will put the whole brain to use.
For art students
Many successful contemporary artists believe that realistic drawing skills are not important. It is true, generally speaking, that contemporary art does not necessarily require drawing skill, and good art—even great art—has been produced by modern artists who can’t draw. They are able to produce good art, I suspect, because their aesthetic sensibilities have been cultivated by means other than the traditional, basic teaching methods of art schools: drawing and painting from the model, the still life, and the landscape.
Since contemporary artists often dismiss drawing ability as unnecessary, beginning art students are placed in a double bind. Very few students feel secure enough about their creative abilities and about their chances for success in the art world to dispense altogether with schooling in art. Yet when they encounter the kind of modern art shown in galleries and museums—art that doesn’t appear to require traditional skills at all—they feel that traditional methods of instruction don’t apply to their goals. To break the double bind, students often avoid learning to draw realistically and settle as quickly as possible into narrow conceptual styles, emulating contemporary artists who often strive for a unique, repeatable, recognizable “signature” style.
The English artist David Hockney calls this narrowing of options a trap for artists (see the quotation in the margin). It is surely a dangerous trap for art students, who too often force themselves to settle into repetitive motifs. They may try to make statements with art before they know what they have to say.
Based on my teaching experience with art students at various skill levels, I’d like to make several recommendations to all art students, especially beginning art students. First, don’t be afraid to learn to draw realistically. Gaining skills in drawing, the basic skill of all art, has never blocked the sources of creativity. Picasso, who could draw like an angel, is a prime illustration of this fact, and the history of art is replete with others. Artists who learn to draw well don’t always produce boring and pedantic realistic art. The artists who do produce such art would no doubt produce boring and pedantic abstract or nonobjective art as well. Drawing skill will never hinder your work but will certainly help it.
Second, be clear in your mind about why learning to draw well is important. Drawing enables you to see in that special, epiphanous way that artists see, no matter what style you choose to express your special insight. Your goal in drawing should be to encounter the reality of experience—to see ever more clearly, ever more deeply. True, you may sharpen your aesthetic sensibilities in ways other than drawing, such as meditation, reading, or travel. But it’s my belief that for an artist these other ways are chancier and less efficient. As an artist you will be most likely to use a visual means of expression, and drawing sharpens the visual senses.
And last, draw every day. Carrying a small sketchbook will help you remember to draw frequently. Draw anything—an ashtray, a half-eaten apple, a person, a twig. I repeat this recommendation given in the last chapter of the text because for art students it is especially important. In a way, art is like athletics: If you don’t practice, the visual sense quickly gets flabby and out of shape. The purpose of your daily sketchbook drawing is not to produce finished drawings, just as the the purpose of jogging is not to get somewhere. You must exercise your vision without caring overly much about the products of your practice. You can periodically cull the best examples from your drawings, throwing out the rest or even throwing out everything. In your daily drawing sessions, the desired goal should be to see ever more deeply.