1. Right Side Drawing and the Art of Bicycle Riding

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Fig. I-I. Bellowing Bison. Paleolithic cave painting from Altamira, Spain. Drawing by Brevil. Prehistoric artists were probably thought to have magic powers.


Roger N. Shepard, professor of psychology at Stanford University, recently described his personal mode of creative thought during which research ideas emerged in his mind as unverbalized, essentially complete, long-sought solutions to problems.

“That in all of these sudden illuminations my ideas took shape in a primarily visual-spatial form without, so far as I can introspect, any verbal intervention is in accordance with what has always been my preferred mode of thinking…

Many of my happiest hours have since childhood been spent absorbed in drawing, in tinkering, or in exercises of purely mental visualization.”

— Roger N . Shepard

Visual Learning, Thinking, and Communication, 1978


“Learning to draw is really a matter of learning to see—to see correctly—and that means a good deal more than merely looking with the eye.”

— Kimon Nicolaides

The Natural Way to Draw, 1941


Gertrude Stein asked the French artist Henri Matisse whether, when eating a tomato, he looked at it the way an artist would. Matisse replied:

“No, when I eat a tomato I look at it the way anyone else would. But when I paint a tomato, then I see it differently.”

— Gertrude Stein

Picasso, 1938


“The painter draws with his eyes, not with his hands. Whatever he sees, if he sees it clear, he can put down. The putting of it down requires, perhaps, much care and labor, but no more muscular agility than it takes for him to write his name. Seeing clear is the important thing.”

— Maurice Grosser

The Painter’s Eye, 1951


“It is in order to really see, to see ever deeper, ever more intensely, hence to be fully aware and alive, that I draw what the Chinese call “The Ten Thousand Things” around me. Drawing is the discipline by which I constantly rediscover the world.

“I have learned that what I have not drawn, I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing, I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle.”

— Frederick Franck

The Zen of Seeing, 1973


“If a certain kind of activity, such as painting, becomes the habitual mode of expression, it may follow that taking up the painting materials and beginning work with them will act suggestively and so presently evoke a flight into the higher state.”

— Robert Henri

The Art Spirit, 1923


My students often report that learning to draw makes them feel more creative. Obviously, many roads lead to creative endeavor: Drawing is only one route. Howard Gardner, Harvard professor of psychology and education, refers to this linkage:

“By a curious twist, the words art and creativity have become closely linked in our society.”

From Gardner’s book Creating Minds, 1993.


Samuel Goldwyn once said:

“Don’t pay any attention to the critics. Don’t even ignore them.”

Quoted in Being Digital by Nicolas Negroponte, 1995.


“To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large—this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone.”

— Aldous Huxley

The Doors of Perception, 1954


“When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressive creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and opens ways for a better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it and shows there are still more pages possible.”

— Robert Henri

The Art Spirit, 1923


“… at the time when you spoke of my becoming a painter, I thought it very impractical and would not hear of it. What made me stop doubting was reading a clear book on perspective, Cassange’s Guide to the ABC of Drawing: and a week later I drew the interior of a kitchen with stove, chair, table and window—in their places and on their legs—whereas before it had seemed to me that getting depth and the right perspective into a drawing was witchcraft or pure chance.”

— Vincent Van Gogh,

in a letter to his brother, Theo, who had suggested that Vincent become a painter. Letter 184, p. 331.




Drawing and the Art of Bicycle Riding

Source: The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards

Drawing is a curious process, so intertwined with seeing that the two can hardly be separated. Ability to draw depends on ability to see the way an artist sees, and this kind of seeing can marvelously enrich your life.

In many ways, teaching drawing is somewhat like teaching someone to ride a bicycle. It is very difficult to explain in words. In teaching someone to ride a bicycle, you might say, “Well, you just get on, push the pedals, balance yourself, and off you’ll go.”

Of course, that doesn’t explain it at all, and you are likely finally to say, “I’ll get on and show you how. Watch and see how I do it.”

And so it is with drawing. Most art teachers and drawing textbook authors exhort beginners to “change their ways of looking at things” and to “learn how to see.” The problem is that this different way of seeing is as hard to explain as how to balance a bicycle, and the teacher often ends by saying, in effect, “Look at these examples and just keep trying. If you practice a lot, eventually you may get it.” While nearly everyone learns to ride a bicycle, many individuals never solve the problems of drawing. To put it more precisely, most people never learn to see well enough to draw.

Drawing as a magical ability

Because only a few individuals seem to possess the ability to see and draw, artists are often regarded as persons with a rare God-given talent. To many people, the process of drawing seems mysterious and somehow beyond human understanding.

Artists themselves often do little to dispel the mystery. If you ask an artist (that is, someone who draws well as a result of either long training or chance discovery of the artist’s way of seeing), “How do you draw something so that it looks real—say a portrait or a landscape?” the artist is likely to reply, “Well, I just have a gift for it, I guess,” or “I really don’t know. I just start in and work things out as I go along,” or “Well, I just look at the person (or the landscape) and I draw what I see.” The last reply seems like a logical and straightforward answer. Yet, on reflection, it clearly doesn’t explain the process at all, and the sense that the skill of drawing is a vaguely magical ability persists (Figure I-I) .

While this attitude of wonder at artistic skill causes people to appreciate artists and their work, it does little to encourage individuals to try to learn to draw, and it doesn’t help teachers explain to students the process of drawing. Often, in fact, people even feel that they shouldn’t take a drawing course because they don’t know already how to draw. This is like deciding that you shouldn’t take a French class because you don’t already speak French, or that you shouldn’t sign up for a course in carpentry because you don’t know how to build a house.

Drawing as a learnable, teachable skill

You will soon discover that drawing is a skill that can be learned by every normal person with average eyesight and average eye-hand coordination—with sufficient ability, for example, to thread a needle or catch a baseball. Contrary to popular opinion, manual skill is not a primary factor in drawing. If your handwriting is readable, or if you can print legibly, you have ample dexterity to draw well.

We need say no more here about hands, but about eyes we cannot say enough. Learning to draw is more than learning the skill itself; by studying this book you will learn how to see. That is, you will learn how to process visual information in the special way used by artists. That way is different from the way you usually process visual information and seems to require that you use your brain in a different way than you ordinarily use it.

You will be learning, therefore, something about how your brain handles visual information. Recent research has begun to throw new scientific light on that marvel of capability and complexity, the human brain. And one of the things we are learning is how the special properties of our brains enable us to draw pictures of our perceptions.

Drawing and seeing

The magical mystery of drawing ability seems to be, in part at least, an ability to make a shift in brain state to a different mode of seeing/perceiving. When you see in the special way in which experienced artists see, then you can draw. This is not to say that the drawings of great artists such as Leonardo da Vinci or Rembrandt are not still wondrous because we may know something about the cerebral process that went into their creation. Indeed, scientific research makes master drawings seem even more remarkable because they seem to cause a viewer to shift to the artist’s mode of perceiving. But the basic skill of drawing is also accessible to everyone who can learn to make the shift to the artist’s mode and see in the artist’s way.

The artist’s way of seeing: A twofold process

Drawing is not really very difficult. Seeing is the problem, or, to be more specific, shifting to a particular way of seeing. You may not believe me at this moment. You may feel that you are seeing things just fine and that it’s the drawing that is hard. But the opposite is true, and the exercises in this book are designed to help you make the mental shift and gain a twofold advantage. First, to open access by conscious volition to the visual, perceptual mode of thinking in order to experience a focus in your awareness, and second, to see things in a different way. Both will enable you to draw well.

Many artists have spoken of seeing things differently while drawing and have often mentioned that drawing puts them into a somewhat altered state of awareness. In that different subjective state, artists speak of feeling transported, “at one with the work,” able to grasp relationships that they ordinarily cannot grasp. Awareness of the passage of time fades away and words recede from consciousness. Artists say that they feel alert and aware yet are relaxed and free of anxiety, experiencing a pleasurable, almost mystical activation of the mind.

Drawing attention to states of consciousness

The slightly altered consciousness state of feeling transported, which most artists experience while drawing, painting, sculpting, or doing any kind of art work, is a state probably not altogether unfamiliar to you. You may have observed in yourself slight shifts in your state of consciousness while engaged in much more ordinary activities than artwork.

For example, most people are aware that they occasionally slip from ordinary waking consciousness into the slightly altered state of daydreaming. As another example, people often say that reading takes them “out of themselves.” And other kinds of activities which apparently produce a shift in consciousness state are meditation, jogging, needlework, typing, listening to music, and, of course, drawing itself.

Also, I believe that driving on the freeway probably induces a slightly different subjective state that is similar to the drawing state. After all, in freeway driving we deal with visual images, keeping track of relational, spatial information, sensing complex components of the overall traffic configuration. Many people find that they do a lot of creative thinking while driving, often losing track of time and experiencing a pleasurable sense of freedom from anxiety. These mental operations may activate the same parts of the brain used in drawing. Of course, if driving conditions are difficult, if we are late or if someone sharing the ride talks with us, the shift to the alternative state doesn’t occur. The reasons for this we’ll take up in Chapter Three.

The key to learning to draw, therefore, is to set up conditions that cause you to make a mental shift to a different mode of information processing—the slightly altered state of consciousness— that enables you to see well. In this drawing mode, you will be able to draw your perceptions even though you may never have studied drawing. Once the drawing mode is familiar to you, you will be able to consciously control the mental shift.

Drawing on your creative self

I see you as an individual with creative potential for expressing yourself through drawing. My aim is to provide the means for releasing that potential, for gaining access at a conscious level to your inventive, intuitive, imaginative powers that may have been largely untapped by our verbal, technological culture and educational system. I am going to teach you how to draw, but drawing is only the means, not the end. Drawing will tap the special abilities that are right for drawing. By learning to draw you will learn to see differently and, as the artist Rodin lyrically states, to become a confidant of the natural world, to awaken your eye to the lovely language of forms, to express yourself in that language.

In drawing, you will delve deeply into a part of your mind too often obscured by endless details of daily life. From this experience you will develop your ability to perceive things freshly in their totality, to see underlying patterns and possibilities for new combinations. Creative solutions to problems, whether personal or professional, will be accessible through new modes of thinking and new ways of using the power of your whole brain.

Drawing, pleasurable and rewarding though it is, is but a key to open the door to other goals. 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 multiple effects of the exercises in this book are intended to enhance your confidence in decision making and problem solving. The potential force of the creative, imaginative human brain seems almost limitless. Drawing may help you come to know this power and make it known to others. Through drawing, you are made visible. The German artist Albrecht Durer said, “From this, the treasure secretly gathered in your heart will become evident through your creative work.”

Keeping the real goal in mind, let us begin to fashion the key.

My approach: A path to creativity

The exercises and instructions in this book have been designed specifically for people who cannot draw at all, who may feel that they have little or no talent for drawing, and who may feel doubtful that they could ever learn to draw—but who think they might like to learn. The approach of this book is different from other drawing instruction books in that the exercises are aimed at opening access to skills you already have but that are simply waiting to be released.

Creative persons from fields other than art who want to get their working skills under better control and learn to overcome blocks to creativity will benefit from working with the techniques presented here. Teachers and parents will find the theory and exercises useful in helping children to develop their creative abilities. At the end of the book, I have supplied a brief postscript that offers some general suggestions for adapting my methods and materials to children. A second postscript is addressed to art students.

This book is based on the five-day workshop that I have been teaching for about fifteen years to individuals of widely ranging ages and occupations. Nearly all of the students begin the course with very few drawing skills and with high anxiety about their potential drawing ability. Almost without exception, the students achieve a high level of skill in drawing and gain confidence to go on developing their expressive drawing skills in further art courses or by practice on their own.

An intriguing aspect of the often-remarkable gains most students achieve is the rapid rate of improvement in drawing skills. It’s my belief that if persons untrained in art can learn to make the shift to the artist’s mode of seeing—that is, the right-hemisphere mode—those individuals are then able to draw without further instruction. To put it another way, you already know how to draw, but old habits of seeing interfere with that ability and block it. The exercises in this book are designed to remove the interference and unblock the ability.

While you may have no interest whatever in becoming a fulltime working artist, the exercises will provide insights into the way your mind works, or your two minds work—singly, cooperatively, one against the other. And, as many of my students have told me, their lives seem richer because they are seeing better and seeing more. It’s helpful to remember that we don’t teach reading and writing to produce only poets and writers, but rather to improve thinking.

Realism as a means to an end

Why faces?

A number of the exercises and instructional sequences in this book are designed to enable you to draw recognizable portraits. Let me explain why I think portrait drawing is useful as a subject for beginners in art. Broadly speaking, except for the degree of complexity, all drawing is the same. One drawing task is no harder than any other. The same skills and ways of seeing are involved in drawing still-life setups, landscapes, the figure, random objects, even imaginary subjects, and portrait drawing. It’s all the same thing: You see what’s out there (imaginary subjects are “seen” in the mind’s eye) and you draw what you see.

Why, then, have I selected portrait drawing for some of the exercises? For three reasons. First, beginning students of drawing often think that drawing human faces is the hardest of all kinds of drawing. Thus, when students see that they can draw portraits, they feel confident and their confidence enhances progress. A second, more important, reason is that the right hemisphere of the human brain is specialized for recognition of faces. Since the right brain is the one we will be trying to gain access to, it makes sense to choose a subject that the right brain is used to working with. And third, faces are fascinating! Once you have drawn a person, you will really have seen that individual’s face. As one of my students said, “I don’t think I ever actually looked at anyone’s face before I started drawing. Now, the oddest thing is that everyone looks beautiful to me.”

Summing up

I have described to you the basic premise of this book—that drawing is a teachable, learnable skill that can provide a twofold advantage. By gaining access to the part of your mind that works in a style conducive to creative, intuitive thought, you will learn a fundamental skill of the visual arts: how to put down on paper what you see in front of your eyes. Second, through learning to draw by the method presented in this book, you will enhance your ability to think more creatively in other areas of your life.

How far you go with these skills after you complete the course will depend on other traits such as energy and curiosity. But first things first! The potential is there. It’s sometimes necessary to remind ourselves that Shakespeare at some point learned to write a line of prose, Beethoven learned the musical scales, and as you see in the margin quotation, Vincent Van Gogh learned how to draw.