A puzzle: “If one picture is worth a thousand words, can a thousand words explicate one picture?”
— Michael Stephan
A Transformational Theory of Aesthetics, London: Routledge, 1990
Crossing Over, Experiencing the Shift from Left to Right
Source: The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
Vases and faces, An exercise for the double brain
The exercises that follow are specifically designed to help you understand the shift from dominant left-hemisphere mode to subdominant R-mode. I could go on describing the process over and over in words, but only you can experience for yourself this cognitive shift, this slight change in subjective state. As Fats Waller once said, “If you gotta ask what jazz is, you ain’t never gonna know.” So it is with R-mode state: You must experience the L- to R-mode shift, observe the R-mode state, and in this way come to know it. As a first step, the exercise below is designed to cause conflict between the two modes.
Following is a quick exercise designed to induce mental conflict.
What you’ll need:
- Drawing paper
- Your #2 writing pencil
- Your pencil sharpener
- Your drawing board and masking tape
Figure 4-1 is a famous optical-illusion drawing, called “Vase/ Faces” because it can be seen as either:
- two facing profiles or
- a symmetrical vase in the center.
What you’ll do
Your job, of course, is to complete the second profile, which will inadvertently complete the symmetrical vase in the center.
Before you begin: Read all the directions for the exercise.
1. Copy the pattern (either Figure 4-2 or 4-3). If you are righthanded, copy the profile on the left side of the paper, facing toward the center. If you are left-handed, draw the profile on the right side, facing toward the center. Examples are shown of both the right-handed and left-handed drawings. Make up your own version of the profile if you wish.
2. Next, draw horizontal lines at the top and bottom of your profile, forming top and bottom of the vase (Figures 4-2 and 4-3).
3. Now, redraw the profile on your “Vase/Faces” pattern. Just take your pencil and go over the lines, naming the parts as you go, like this: “Forehead … nose … upper lip … lower lip … chin . . . neck.” You might even do that a second time, redrawing one more time and really thinking to yourself what those terms mean.
4. Then, go to the other side and start to draw the missing profile that will complete the symmetrical vase.
5. When you get to somewhere around the forehead or nose, you may begin perhaps to experience some confusion or conflict. Observe this as it happens.
6. The purpose of this exercise is for you to self-observe: “How do I solve the problem?”
Begin the exercise now. It should take you about five or six minutes.
Why you did this exercise
Nearly all of my students experience some confusion or conflict while doing this exercise. A few people experience a great deal of conflict, even a moment of paralysis. If this happened to you, you may have come to a point where you needed to change direction in the drawing, but didn’t know which way to go. The conflict may have been so great that you could not make your hand move the pencil to the right or the left.
That is the purpose of the exercise: to create conflict so that each person can experience in their own minds the mental “crunch” that can occur when instructions are inappropriate to the task at hand. I believe that the conflict can be explained as follows:
I gave you instructions that strongly “plugged in” the verbal system in the brain. Remember that I insisted that you name each part of the profile and I said, “Now, really think what those terms mean.”
Then, I gave you a task (to complete the second profile and, simultaneously, the vase) that can only be done by shifting to the visual, spatial mode of the brain. This is the part of the brain that can perceive and nonverbally assess relationship of sizes, curves, angles, and shapes.
The difficulty of making that mental shift causes a feeling of conflict and confusion—and even a momentary mental paralysis.
You may have found a way to solve the problem, thereby enabling yourself to complete the second profile and therefore the symmetrical vase.
How did you solve it?
- By deciding not to think of the names of the features?
- By shifting your focus from the face-shapes to the vase-shapes?
- By using a grid (drawing vertical and horizontal lines to help you see relationships)? Or perhaps by marking points where the outermost and innermost curves occurred?
- By drawing from the bottom up rather than from the top down?
- By deciding that you didn’t care whether the vase was symmetrical or not and drawing any old memorized profile just to finish with the exercise? (With this last decision, the verbal system “won” and the visual system “lost.”)
Let me ask you a few more questions. Did you use your eraser to “fix up” your drawing? If so, did you feel guilty? If so, why? (The verbal system has a set of memorized rules, one of which may be, “You can’t use an eraser unless the teacher says it’s okay”) The visual system, which is largely without language, just keeps looking for ways to solve the problem according to another kind of logic—visual logic.
To sum up, the point of the seemingly simple “Vase/Faces” exercise is this:
In order to draw a perceived object or person—something that you see with your eyes—you must make a mental shift to a brain-mode that is specialized for this visual, perceptual task.
The difficulty of making this shift from verbal to visual mode often causes conflict. Didn’t you feel it? To reduce the discomfort of the conflict, you stopped (do you remember feeling stopped short?) and made a new start. That’s what you were doing when you gave yourself instructions—that is, gave your brain instructions—to “shift gears,” or “change strategy,” or “don’t do this; do that,” or whatever terms you may have used to cause a cognitive shift.
There are numerous solutions to the mental “crunch” of the “Vase/Faces” Exercise. Perhaps you found a unique or unusual solution. To capture your personal solution in words, you might want to write down what happened on the back of your drawing.
Thomas Gladwin, an anthropologist, contrasted the ways that a European and a native Trukese sailor navigated small boats between tiny islands in the vast Pacific Ocean.
Before setting sail, the European begins with a plan that can be written in terms of directions, degrees of longitude and latitude, estimated time of arrival at separate points on the journey. Once the plan is conceived and completed, the sailor has only to carry out each step consecutively, one after another, to be assured of arriving on time at the planned destination. The sailor uses all available tools, such as a compass, a sextant, a map, etc., and if asked, can describe exactly how he got where he was going.
The European navigator uses the left-hemisphere mode.
In contrast, the native Trukese sailor starts his voyage by imaging the position of his destination relative to the position of other islands. As he sails along, he constantly adjusts his direction according to his awareness of his position thus far. His decisions are improvised continually by checking relative positions of landmarks, sun, wind direction, etc. He navigates with reference to where he started, where he is going, and the space between his destination and the point where he is at the moment. If asked how he navigates so well without instruments or a written plan, he cannot possibly put it into words. This is not because the Trukese are unaccustomed to describing things in words, but rather because the process is too complex and fluid to be put into words.
The Trukese navigator uses the right-hemisphere mode.
—J. A. Paredes and M.J. Hepburn “The Split-Brain and the Culture-Cognition Paradox,” 1976
Charles Tart, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, states: “We begin with a concept of some kind of basic awareness, some kind of basic ability to ’know’ or ’sense’ or ’cognize’ or ’recognize’ that something is happening. This is a fundamental theoretical and experiential given. We do not know scientifically what the ultimate nature of awareness is, but it is our starting point.”
— Charles T. Tart
Alternate States of Consciousness, 1975
“The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture—however unreasonable that may sound . .. The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being [Henri’s emphasis], a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence. [The picture] is but a by-product of the state, a trace, the footprint of the state.”
From The Art Spirit by American artist and teacher Robert Henri, B. Lippincott Company, 1923.
When you did your drawing of the Vase/Faces, you drew the first profile in the left-hemisphere mode, like the European navigator, taking one part at a time and naming the parts one by one. The second profile was drawn in the right-hemisphere mode. Like the navigator from the South Sea Island of Truk, you constantly scanned to adjust the direction of the line. You probably found that naming the parts such as forehead, nose, or mouth seemed to confuse you. It was better not to think of the drawing as a face. It was easier to use the shape of the space between the two profiles as your guide. Stated differently, it was easiest not to think at all— that is, in words. In right-hemisphere-mode drawing, the mode of the artist, if you do use words to think, ask yourself only such things as:
“Where does that curve start?”
“How deep is that curve?”
“What is that angle relative to the edge of the paper?”
“How long is that line relative to the one I’ve just drawn?”
“Where is that point as I scan across to the other side—where is that point relative to the distance from the top (or bottom) edge of the paper?”
These are R-mode questions: spatial, relational, and comparative. Notice that no parts are named. No statements are made, no conclusions drawn, such as, “The chin must come out as far as the nose,” or “Noses are curved.”
A brief review: What is learned in “learning to draw”?
Realistic drawing of a perceived image requires the visual mode of the brain, most often mainly located in the right hemisphere. This visual mode of thinking is fundamentally different from the brain’s verbal system—the one we largely rely on nearly all of our waking hours.
For most tasks, the two modes are combined. Drawing a perceived object or person may be one of the few tasks that requires mainly one mode: the visual mode largely unassisted by the verbal mode. There are other examples. Athletes and dancers, for instance, seem to perform best by quieting the verbal system during performances. Moreover, a person who needs to shift in the other direction, from visual to verbal mode, can also experience conflict. A surgeon once told me that while operating on a patient (mainly a visual task, once a surgeon has acquired the knowledge and experience needed) he would find himself unable to name the instruments. He would hear himself saying to an attendant, “Give me the… the… you know, the… thingamajig!”
Learning to draw, therefore, turns out not to be “learning to draw.” Paradoxically, learning to draw means learning to access at will that system in the brain that is the appropriate one for drawing. Putting it another way, accessing the visual mode of the brain—the appropriate mode for drawing—causes you to see in the special way an artist sees. The artist’s way of seeing is different from ordinary seeing and requires an ability to make mental shifts at conscious level. Put another way and perhaps more accurately, the artist is able to set up conditions that cause a cognitive shift to “happen.” That is what a person trained in drawing does, and that is what you are about to learn.
Again, this ability to see things differently has many uses in life aside from drawing—not the least of which is creative problem solving.
Keeping the “Vase/Faces” lesson in mind, then, try the next exercise, one that I designed to reduce conflict between the two brain-modes. The purpose of this exercise is just the reverse of the previous one.
Upside-down drawing: Making the shift to R-mode
Familiar things do not look the same when they are upside down. We automatically assign a top, a bottom, and sides to the things we perceive, and we expect to see things oriented in the usual way—that is, right side up. For, in upright orientation, we can recognize familiar things, name them, and categorize them by matching what we see with our stored memories and concepts.
When an image is upside down, the visual clues don’t match. The message is strange, and the brain becomes confused. We see the shapes and the areas of light and shadow. We don’t particularly object to looking at upside-down pictures unless we are called on to name the image. Then the task becomes exasperating.
Seen upside down, even well-known faces are difficult to recognize and name. For example, the photograph in Figure 4-4 is of a famous person. Do you recognize who it is?
You may have had to turn the photograph right side up to see that it is Albert Einstein, the famous scientist. Even after you know who the person is, the upside-down image probably continues to look strange.
Inverted orientation causes recognition problems with other images (see Figure 4-5). Your own handwriting, turned upside down, is probably difficult for you to figure out, although you’ve been reading it for years. To test this, find an old shopping list or letter in your handwriting and try to read it upside down.
A complex drawing, such as the one shown upside down in the Tiepolo drawing, Figure 4-6, is almost indecipherable. The (left) mind just gives up on it.
Uncle Sam’s arm and hand are ’’foreshortened” in this Army poster. Foreshortening is an art term. It means that, in order to give the illusion of forms advancing or receding in space, the forms must be drawn just as they appear in that position, not depicting what we know about their actual length. Learning to ”foreshorten” is often difficult for beginners in drawing.
“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness, as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.
We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation.”
— William James
The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902
An exercise that reduces mental conflict
We shall use this gap in the abilities of the left hemisphere to allow R-mode to have a chance to take over for a while.
Figure 4-7 is a reproduction of a line drawing by Picasso of the composer Igor Stravinsky. The image is upside down. You will be copying the upside-down image. Your drawing, therefore, will be done also upside down. In other words, you will copy the Picasso drawing just as you see it. See Figures 4-8 and 4-9.
What you ll need
- The reproduction of the Picasso drawing, Fig. 4-7, p. 58.
- Your #2 writing pencil, sharpened.
- Your drawing board and masking tape.
- Forty minutes to an hour of uninterrupted time.
What you’ll do
Before you begin: Read all of the following instructions.
1. Play music if you like. As you shift into R-mode, you may find that the music fades out. Finish the drawing in one sitting, allowing yourself at least forty minutes—more if possible. And more important, do not turn the drawing right side up until you have finished. Turning the drawing would cause a shift back to L-mode, which we want to avoid while you are learning to experience the focused R-mode state of awareness.
2. You may start anywhere you wish—bottom, either side, or the top. Most people tend to start at the top. Try not to figure out what you are looking at in the upside-down image. It is better not to know. Simply start copying the lines. But remember: don’t turn the drawing right side up!
3. I recommend that you not try to draw the entire outline of the form and then “fill in” the parts. The reason is that if you make any small error in the outline, the parts inside won’t fit. One of the great joys of drawing is the discovery of how the parts fit together. Therefore, I recommend that you move from line to adjacent line, space to adjacent shape, working your way through the drawing, fitting the parts together as you go.
4. If you talk to yourself at all, use only the language of vision, such as: “This line bends this way,” or, “That shape has a curve there,” or “Compared to the edge of the paper (vertical or horizontal), this line angles like that,” and so on. What you do not want to do is to name the parts.
5. When you come to parts that seem to force their names on you—the H-A-N-D-S and the F-A-C-E — try to focus on these parts just as shapes. You might even cover up with one hand or finger all but the specific line you are drawing and then uncover each adjacent line. Alternatively, you might shift to another part of the drawing.
6. At some point, the drawing may begin to seem like an interesting, even fascinating, puzzle. When this happens, you will be “really drawing,” meaning that you have successfully shifted to R-mode and you are seeing clearly. This state is easily broken. For example, if someone were to come into the room and ask, “How are you doing?” your verbal system would be reactivated and your focus and concentration would be over.
7. You may even want to cover most of the reproduced drawing with another piece of paper, slowly uncovering new areas as you work your way down through the drawing. A note of caution, however: Some of my students find this ploy helpful, while some find it distracting and unhelpful.
8. Remember that everything you need to know in order to draw the image is right in front of your eyes. All of the information is right there, making it easy for you. Don’t make it complicated. It really is as simple as that.
Begin your Upside-Down Drawing now.
After you have finished:
Turn both of the drawings—the reproduction in the book and your copy—right side up. I can confidently predict that you will be pleased with your drawing, especially if you have thought in the past that you would never be able to draw.
I can also confidently predict that the most “difficult” parts, the “foreshortened” areas, are beautifully drawn, creating a spatial illusion.
Yet, see what you have accomplished, drawing upside down. If you used Picasso’s drawing of Igor Stravinsky seated in a chair, you drew the crossed legs beautifully in foreshortened view. For most of my students, this is the finest part of their drawing, despite the foreshortening. How could they draw this “difficult” part so well? Because they didn’t know what they were drawing! They simply drew what they saw, just as they saw it—one of the most important keys to drawing well. The same applies to the foreshortened horse in the German drawing, Figure 4-13.
A logical box for L-mode
Figure 4-11 and Figure 4-12 show two drawings by the same university student. This student had misunderstood my instructions to the class and did the drawing right side up. When he came to class the next day, he showed me his drawing and said, “I misunderstood. I just drew it the regular way.” I asked him to do another drawing, this time upside down. He did, and Fig. 4-12 was the result.
It goes against common sense that the upside-down drawing is so far superior to the drawing done right side up. The student himself was astonished.
This puzzle puts L-mode into a logical box: how to account for this sudden ability to draw well, when the verbal mode has been eased out of the task. The left brain, which admires a job well done, must now consider the possibility that the disdained right brain is good at drawing
For reasons that are still unclear, the verbal system immediately rejects the task of “reading” and naming upside-down images. L-mode seems to say, in effect, “I don’t do upside down. It’s too hard to name things seen this way, and, besides, the world isn’t upside down. Why should I bother with such stuff?”
Well, that’s just what we want! On the other hand, the visual system seems not to care. Right side up, upside down, it’s all interesting, perhaps even more interesting upside down because R-mode is free of interference from its verbal partner, which is often in a “rush to judgment” or, at least, a rush to recognize and name.
Why you did this exercise
The reason you did this exercise, therefore, is to experience escaping the clash of conflicting modes—the kind of conflict and even mental paralysis that the “Vase/Faces” exercise caused. When L-mode drops out voluntarily, conflict is avoided and R-mode quickly takes up the task that is appropriate for it: drawing a perceived image.
L-mode is the “right-handed,” left-hemisphere mode. The L is foursquare, upright, sensible, direct, true, hardedged, unfanciful, forceful.
R-mode is the “left-handed,” right-hemisphere mode. The R is curvy, flexible, more playful in its unexpected twists and turns, more complex, diagonal, fanciful.
”I have supposed a Human Being to be capable of various physical states, and varying degrees of consciousness, as follows:
”(a) the ordinary state, with no consciousness of the presence of Fairies;
”(b) the ’eerie’ state, in which, while conscious of actual surroundings, he is also conscious of the presence of Fairies;
”(c) a form of trance, in which, while unconscious of actual surrounding, and apparently asleep, he (i.e., his immaterial essence) migrates to other scenes, in the actual world, or in Fairyland, and is conscious of the presence of Fairies.”
— Lewis Carroll
Preface to Sylvie and Bruno
”I know perfectly well that only in happy instants am I lucky enough to lose myself in my work. The painter-poet feels that his true immutable essence comes from that invisible realm that offers him
an image of eternal reality….
I feel that I do not exist in time, but that time exists in me. I can also realize that it is not given to me to solve the mystery of art in an absolute fashion. Nonetheless,
I am almost brought to believe that I am about to get my hands on the divine.”
— Carlo Carra
”The Quadrant of the Spirit,” 1919
This sixteenth-century drawing by an unknown German artist offers a wonderful opportunity to practice upside-down drawing.
Getting to know the L->R shift
Two important points of progress emerge from the upside-down exercise. The first is your conscious recall of how you felt after you made the L—>R cognitive shift. The quality of the R-mode state of consciousness is different from the L-mode. One can detect those differences and begin to recognize when the cognitive shift has occurred. Oddly, the moment of shifting between states of consciousness always remains out of awareness. For example, one can be aware of being alert and then of being in a daydream, but the moment of shifting between the two states remains elusive. Similarly, the moment of the cognitive shift from L->R remains out of awareness, but once you have made the shift, the difference in the two states is accessible to knowing. This knowing will help to bring the shift under conscious control—a main goal of these lessons.
The second insight gained from the exercise is your awareness that shifting to the R-mode enables you to see in the way a trained artist sees, and therefore to draw what you perceive.
Now, it’s obvious that we can’t always be turning things upside down. Your models are not going to stand on their heads for you, nor is the landscape going to turn itself upside down or inside out. Our goal, then, is to teach you how to make the cognitive shift when perceiving things in their normal right-side-up positions. You will learn the artist’s “gambit”: to direct your attention toward visual information that L-mode cannot or will not process. In other words, you will always try to present your brain with a task the language system will refuse, thus allowing R-mode to use its capability for drawing. Exercises in the coming chapters will show you some ways to do this.
A review of R-mode
It might be helpful to review what R-mode feels like. Think back. You have made the shift several times now—slightly, perhaps, while doing the Vase/Faces drawings and more intensely just now while drawing the “Stravinsky.”
In the R-mode state, did you notice that you were somewhat unaware of the passage of time—that the time you spent drawing may have been long or short, but you couldn’t have known until you checked it afterward? If there were people near, did you notice that you couldn’t listen to what they said—in fact, that you didn’t want to hear? You may have heard sounds, but you probably didn’t care about figuring out the meaning of what was being said. And were you aware of feeling alert, but relaxed—confident, interested, absorbed in the drawing and clear in your mind?
Most of my students have characterized the R-mode state of consciousness in these terms, and the terms coincide with my own experience and accounts related to me of artists’ experiences. One artist told me, “When I’m really working well, it’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. I feel at one with the work: the painter, the painting, it’s all one. I feel excited, but calm—exhilarated, but in full control. It’s not exactly happiness; it’s more like bliss. I think it’s what keeps me coming back and back to painting and drawing.”
R-mode state is indeed pleasurable, and in that mode you can draw well. But there is an additional advantage: Shifting to R-mode releases you for a time from the verbal, symbolic domination of L-mode, and that’s a welcome relief. The pleasure may come from resting the left hemisphere, stopping its chatter, keeping it quiet for a change. This yearning to quiet L-mode may partially explain centuries-old practices such as meditation and self-induced altered states of consciousness achieved through fasting, drugs, chanting, and alcohol. Drawing induces a focused, alert state of consciousness that can last for hours, bringing significant satisfaction.
Before you read further, do at least one or two more drawings upside down. Use either the reproduction in Figure 4-13, or find other line drawings to copy. Each time you draw, try consciously to experience the R-mode shift, so that you become familiar with how it feels to be in that mode.
Recalling the art of your childhood
In the next chapter we’ll review your childhood development as an artist. The developmental sequence of children’s art is linked to development changes in the brain. In the early stages, infants’ brain hemispheres are not clearly specialized for separate functions. Lateralization—the consolidation of specific functions into one hemisphere or the other—progresses gradually through the childhood years, paralleling the acquisition of language skills and the symbols of childhood art.
Lateralization is usually complete by around age ten, and this coincides with the period of conflict in children’s art, when the symbol system seems to override perceptions and to interfere with accurate drawing of those perceptions. One could speculate that conflict arises because children may be using the “wrong” brain mode—L-mode—to accomplish a task best suited for R-mode. Perhaps they simply cannot work out a way to shift to the visual mode. Also, by age ten, language dominates, adding further complication as names and symbols overpower spatial, holistic perceptions.
Reviewing your childhood art is important for several reasons: to look back as an adult at how your set of drawing symbols developed from infancy onward; to reexperience the increasing complexity of your drawing as you approached adolescence; to recall the discrepancy between your perceptions and your drawing skills; to view your childhood drawings with a less critical eye than you were able to manage at the time; and finally, to set your childhood symbol system aside and move on to an adult level of visual expression by using the appropriate brain mode—the right mode—for the task of drawing.