Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

As a long-time student of Holly Lisle, I’ve long ago learned to trust her methods, whether or not they make sense to me right off the bat. (Rarely, I’ll come across a technique that she swears by that just doesn’t work for me–but, hey, she never claimed to have The One True Way. In fact, she’s pretty adamant about the fact that there is no such thing.)

So, when I saw somewhere on her site (or possibly in one of her courses? it’s been a while, so I’m not sure) that she recommends the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain to absolutely everyone, without reservations, regardless of whether they even want to learn to draw… well, I had to look into it.

So far, I’m glad that I did.

As a disclaimer, I should probably mention that I’ve always been okay at drawing. Not stellar (or even, in my opinion, good)–but not rotten either. See Exhibit A: drawing of my own hand, done at the beginning of the course.

  drawing-of-own-hand-1

Again–not exactly noteworthy, but it is, recognizably, a hand. Just not a very pretty one. Oh, and it took me about an hour to draw it. Yikes.

See also, Exhibit B: A self-portrait, also done at the start of the course, of which I am exceedingly proud…

self-portrait-1

… because most times when I try to draw someone, it turns out more like Exhibit C: drawing a person from memory.

portrait-from-memory-1

Yeah. Not so great.

In fact, I’m pretty certain that the only reason I was able to get my self-portrait to resemble a realistic human face, if not really my own face, is because I’d spent so long drawing my hand first. So, my Right Brain had already taken over by the time I started in on my self-portrait. And, as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain explains so well and so thoroughly, the key to drawing well is to shift into Right-Brain-mode.

As I’ve been going through the course, I’ve been learning a lot about Right-vs.-Left Brain tendencies. And, as a result, I’ve learned why sometimes I’m able to crank out something realistic, while other times my drawings come out frustratingly childish. The difference, as you’ve probably guessed, is my realistic (aka “good”) drawings occur when I’m able to slip into Right-Brain-mode, while I get childish (aka “bad”) drawings when I don’t make the shift, and wind up drawing in Left-Brain-mode.

I’ll be continuing to work through Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain as I find time, but already I can say it’s a book I’d recommend to everyone, as I’m already seeing an improvement. That self-portrait I drew? It took me at least 90 minutes of painstaking work. After working my way through nearly half of the course, I managed to draw this picture of a photo…

picture-of-a-photo

… in twenty minutes, tops. Probably closer to ten, since I was sitting at a bar, distracted by drinks and people as I drew it.

When I finish the course, I’ll do another drawing of my hand, another self-portrait, and another drawing of that same face from memory, and put them up here for comparison.

tl;dr: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is a fantastic book, whether you want to learn to draw, want to learn WHY you can already draw, or just want to learn more about the two halves of your brain.

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17 thoughts on “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

  1. I am also a slow artist. I see you complaining how long it took you to do a few of these drawings. I don’t enjoy being slow, either. But, I think it’s just how we get the best out of our work.

    But, if you say this book helps by having people switch which side of the brain they use for the task…how does that even work? It sounds like a computer changing hard drives. I thought each side of the brain had its uses/strengths, and the right side was for logic/math/etc. Not being creative.

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    • Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment! To answer your questions, you’re absolutely right: each side has its strengths and weaknesses. But it’s the left that’s logical, and the right that’s creative. As for how to shift into right-brain mode, there’s many ways to do it, but they all pretty much involve “tricking” your left-brain into dropping out of the picture for a while. It’s the left side of your brain that’s analytical and a perfectionist, and it’s also the side that makes us want to finish our drawings quickly. It’s also domineering and often resents giving up control. The right brain, however, lacks any sense of time, and has the patience and observational skills required to draw realistically. I know in my post I complained about it taking 90mins to do my self-portrait, but truth be told, I only even know it took so long because I checked the clock before and after. When you’re in right-brain mode, time flies and you don’t notice because you’re so focused on the task at hand—it’s that feeling you get of being “in the zone.” I don’t want to give away all the techniques described in the book, because it really is a fantastic read, but to give an example, one of the ways to “trick” your left brain into letting your right brain take over is to take a picture, flip it upside down, and THEN draw it. That way, your left brain gets bored, because it can’t analyze the picture and go “that’s an eye, that’s a nose, etc.” Instead, your right-brain gets to jump in with “okay, so there’s this line that’s this long, and it intersects that line at this angle” etc. And that’s how you get a realistic drawing: not by recreating what you know logically is there, but by drawing exactly what you see. I hope that helped, and thank you again for taking the time to comment! 😊

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  2. Fascinating…so the left brain bails because it’s not receiving the picture logically. But, that would probably give me a headache, drawing upside down… I’ve noticed my drawings look different when you flip them left-to-write. I’ve done some digital pieces which look good one way. But, when you flip them, the character looks less pleasant. It’s freaky.

    I guess drawing upside down might be a fun experiment. But, it might also hurt my brain:P

    I would think the right brain wouldn’t even concern it self with line lengths and such details if it’s so loose and creative. Isn’t the logical side doing the measuring? The right would just be reproducing what it sees or expanding upon the reality by letting the details melt into something new.

    Welcome. I think this would be a fascinating topic to sit down (with you) and discuss more.

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    • It’s funny you mention the left-to-right picture flip. I flipped my self portrait on accident when I uploaded it, and was startled at how different it looked (it’s back to its original state now). And, yes, it does start out with a bit of a headache—but push through it! That’s just your left brain getting bored and impatient. Once it gets annoyed enough, it drops out completely (along with the headache) and you’ll get completely absorbed in the drawing process. Also, yes, it seems counter-intuitive that the right brain can handle the line lengths and angles, but that’s only because I have to use left-brain tactics to describe a right-brain process. Your left-brain uses words, your right brain uses images and smells and emotions, etc. What your right brain is really doing is just seeing the subject for what it truly is. And when you can see properly, you can draw properly. That’s why, when asked how they draw, people who are “naturally” good at it say, “I just draw what I see.” And, yes, it is absolutely a fascinating topic, and one I love to discuss. I’m happy to do so anytime!

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      • I feel like you should be some Far East martial arts master at a mountain top resort training me how to move with “the flow.” That’s probably what would work for me best, and I’d never want to leave. 😛 I can hear the flute music now and see the bamboo forest… It’s a bit like “House of Flying Daggers” crossed with the home of the master from “Kill Bill.”

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      • I tell people I draw what I see. I am told I am a natural and more talented than I think I am. I compare my work to others and feel terribly outclassed. I know why I struggle, too. I haven’t been practicing as much as some. And, I know I worked at my talent. It isn’t so much natural as it is inspired. I have some wild and great ideas. But, putting them on paper isn’t ever so easy. Which is why this is wrinkling my brain. 🙂

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      • Ooh, I’d love to be a Master of Arts! I don’t think I’m quite there yet, though. I feel more like I’m lagging behind at the back of the class, but I’ve got some fantastic teachers, so I suppose that helps. As hard as it is, try not to compare yourself to others. What’s that saying? Something like, “a flower doesn’t concern itself with other flowers, it simply blooms.”

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      • I don’t think anyone but a god could claim to be master of art. You’d end up like Arachne if you dared to claim such a reputation. 🙂 But, we could still be teachers and students to each other. Training partners. A dojo of art.

        You may be lagging, like me, but you’ve stumbled onto a potential breakthrough.

        I can’t say I’ve had any great teachers (in art). I have poo-pooed art school and taken up the belief that we teach ourselves through observation and practice, training the brain to expand its creative potential the way we might learn a language or how to cook.

        Sure. But, if I am doing anything with my art, comparison is inevitable. Want to be a published author, you send a statement and compare your work to those of others, telling what makes yours similar and also special. Want to be a comic book artist, you’re bound to have your style compared to others; and you are told to imitate a few styles (by others). Comparison is inevitable. No man is an island. People are everywhere. Competition is a rash.

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      • This is true, but I think that when we compare ourselves to others, it’s important to look down as well as up. I may never be Van Gogh, but I’ll never be Hitler, either. And I think that’s a fair trade. 😛 As for teachers, I agree. One can only be taught up to a point, and I’m not a fan of art schools. I think they tend too often to tear originality out of their students. But the author of the book, whose name escapes me, has been an incredible resource as I learn to really see, so I can learn to really draw.

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      • Van Gogh, like many of us, had his problems. I wouldn’t aspire to be him. I have my own woes and difficulties. I used to hate and criticize Picasso til I discovered not all of his work was that weirdly disjointed stuff.

        And, Hitler, I learned some time ago, was a frustrated artist himself. I didn’t even think he liked art til I saw a TV movie about him. I think part of his rage for war came from not succeeding as an artist. Some don’t stop at cutting off an ear; they cut off the rest of the planet.

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      • Very well said. I think what I was trying to get at, though, is that, at the end of the day, I’d rather be a good person than a good artist (though of course both is good!) So, when I find myself comparing myself to others, I try to keep in mind all the people I’d never want to be, in addition to those I aspire to be like.

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      • I get that. Though, other than a few real monsters I have encountered in my life–and even they might just be puppets of darker forces or misled good people–everything I know about people I haven’t actually met might be skewed. So, I can’t really say anyone is a saint or a monster if I never met them.

        But, yes, being a good person is more important than being a great artist…whatever that means. Perhaps, we can be the great artists who were also great people, artists who improved the lives of others through service assisted with our art.

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  3. Wow! great drawings… Talent is talent. I wish I could do it. it seems to be a good reference to read about estimulating one side of the brain. It makes me feel I could try and who knows?

    Very nice indeed!

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  4. There is definitely some skill here. Enough to say it might be worth your considering illustrated writing. What shortcoming there may be I think is less a matter of inability than unfamiliarity with basics and inexperience. If you compare the self-portrait with the drawing from memory, I think you’ll see what I mean.

    Everything in the self-portrait is pretty much in it’s proper place and you make good use of minimal shading. In the drawing from memory, however, everything is out of place and the absence of shading makes it flat. To start getting things in their rightful places, you’d need to reposition the ears so that the tip of the nose is where the corners of the eyes now are and then adjust the rest. And adding a source of light would let you use shading to bring out facial structure.

    More to the point, I believe that writing must conjure the visual. So, I have a question for you. How does Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain inform your writing?

    BTW. The hand is so complex that it’s more difficult to represent than any other part of the human anatomy. Few do it well and even fewer do it perfectly…

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