Fourth grade was a bad year. I lost my father - or at least his daily presence - when he drove off from our house for good in his little yellow MG. I lost a good six weeks of use of my left foot after ankle surgery. I lost track of my schoolwork and fell far behind in Mrs. Nolan's class (something I had never done or would ever do again). But maybe worst of all, I lost the case. Little did I know that when they brought in the special drawing teacher in the afternoons to lead the special drawing class that I was being set in front of the court of judgement.
I remember learning how to draw a cube. At first I felt perplexed. I needed the teacher's help. Here is something like the difference between how I first tried to draw a cube and then what I learned:
I learned the trick of perspective! I distinctly remember understanding that while a cube is square, some of the square sides are actually diagonal lines — and also that we can't see all six sides of a cube at once. What insight!
I also remember Kendra. She could draw a cube without the teacher's help. And I especially remember the day that the the special drawing class ended. Mrs. Nolan read off the names of those kids who would continue with drawing lessons in a separate classroom. I was not on the list.
Disappointed, I asked Mrs. Nolan on my way out to recess why I would not continue with drawing classes and I remember her answer — I will always remember her answer. She said, "Because you can't draw."
Did she really say that?
It hardly seems possible. I don't know for sure. But what I do know is that Kendra and a few other kids went off each day to practice drawing and the rest of us went back to art units in our regular classroom. And I have to give my young self props. I embraced paper mache without resentment.
But from that day on, I knew for certain that I was someone who could not draw.
Funny how we tell stories about ourselves and then live up to them.
I recently started a six week community ed class based on the mind-blowing book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. You've probably heard of it. Now in its fourth edition, it was originally published over thirty years ago and this book created a paradigm shift that continues to shake the foundation of what people thought they knew about drawing. It also changed what we know about learning and seeing and being in the world.
I have owned the book for decades, but it remained on my bookshelf all these years silently tagged, "I'll get to this someday." I had a sense that it was an important book, but I ignored my intuition, to tell you the truth. Now that I finally took action, I have to say my entire sense of identity is now in question - and I have to share what I am learning (including pictures at the bottom of this post). What insight! What fun!
If you're one of the lucky ones who can draw - keep doing it!
If you don't think you can draw, think again. Pick up this book now!
Everyone, Edwards argues, can learn to draw. Some people like Kendra teach themselves. Others, like me, need more instruction. But based on what science now knows about how the two halves of the brain work, drawing relies on a set of skills that all human beings can learn. Just like reading and math skills. However, to draw we must learn to work from a different side of the brain — the right side — and unfortunately, as Edwards explains, society has a long history of right brain prejudice.
Most adults can read and multiply, but most of us cannot draw a realistic face or tree because our culture values left brain analytical processing over right brain intuition and perception.
It turns out I was not alone. Most children in our society encounter a Mrs. Nolan, or many of them, representatives of a school system and society who drill the three Rs and relegate art to playtime — or no learning time. These days, shamefully, art instruction is often removed from the school curriculum altogether!
But the thing is, we all have two sides to our brains! And in fact, we know it takes both sides of the brain, both kinds of skills — an integration of the whole human being — to meet the challenges of our global and complex world. (Read Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence), Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind, Drive), Seth Godin (Linchpin), Thomas Friedman (The World is Flat)).
But I digress.
The bottom line is that we're not just talking about drawing here.
Learning to read and learning to calculate develops left brain analytical skills — skills we all recognize as important. But thanks to Edwards, we now know that learning how to draw develops right brain skills. And right brain skills —intuitive ability to see relationships, to be creative and to make innovative leaps — are critically important to the world, too.
But not only that. Drawing requires a different brain state than when analyzing data. So to learn to draw is to learn to consciously alter our state of awareness...like artists do...to switch it from thinking words to intuiting relationships, or as Edwards quotes Aldus Huxley:
"To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception."
To perceive differently is at the heart of all creativity — and a spiritual practice, too. And that is what I want to see more of in the world - and something I want to cultivate in my own life.
So I picked up my book, signed up for a class...
AND — amazing news — anyone can learn to draw!
Because if I can, anyone can. Believe me. I draw stick figures and even my cartoon images are one dimensional. But look at this! One of the first exercises is to trick the dominant left brain and get it out of the way so the right brain can work. We were to draw by copying a famous painting upside down:
And then we practiced on another painting - again upside down. I didn't quite finish and it isn't perfect, but you get the picture:
And then, we moved into learning about how to see "edges" and "contours". It turns out we don't see what is actually there in front of us. Who knew? Learning to draw is in fact learning to see. So in this exercise, you put your hand under framed glass intersected by two equidistant lines. Then you trace the outline of it with a non-permanent marker directly on the glass...I was shocked when I removed my hand to find that I had in fact drawn my hand!
And THEN — even more amazing — we copied the exact rectangular frame onto a piece of paper, complete with equidistant, intersecting lines, filled it in with charcoal rubbing...and drew freehand what we saw on the glass onto the paper, taking special care to match distances between edges and the intersecting lines. Wha'da'ya know?
And just to be sure it wasn't a fluke accident, I tried it again on my own:
So there you go, Mrs. Nolan. I think you were wrong all those years.