The mind and the pencil – what happens when you draw?

In her book, Betty Edwards starts with a detailed analysis on what happens in the human brain while drawing, or attempting to draw. The core of the analysis is the identification of two approaches to the external world, associated to the two hemispheres of the brain. The left brain is analytical, sequential, symbolic; the right brain is emotional, simultaneous, wordless. Western culture praises analytical skills and verbalisation, often leaving emotions and arts to actors and artists alone, when everyone should be helped in cultivating “right brain” skills. Betty shows a way to develop realistic drawing skills, by gently silencing the “left brain” when needed and letting the “right brain” work.

The two different perception strategies could technically not belong to specific brain locations; nevertheless, in the case of drawing, the model is quite effective in guiding me on the path of observing – therefore drawing – better.

What is my idea of what happens when the eye structures get an image of the world? There is a first, raw “picture” that I suppose is formed in the right hemisphere of the brain. Then the left brain identifies the objects and people, names them, categorises them, and allows the raw image to be forgotten. (I just thought that the most vivid and realistic visual memories I have are the ones connectes to emotional moments.). When I draw, I could let the left brain draw, and it will draw symbols, interpreted images, caricatures. When I allow/ask the right brain to draw, I will draw realistically, without naming anything, only shapes and colours. The left brain will contradict the right brain (“The eyes are not so distant! The nose is smaller! That part of the tree should not be that dark!”) – but I will allow the right brain to have the final word; I will draw exactly what I see. The left brain has to wait the very end of the drawing to have the stage, and interpret the drawing: guess the perspective, the volumes, the textures. It will be surprised how good is the right brain in getting all details right, all the tones and shades, and bring them intact from reality to paper.

I am still fine with my analytical and verbal left brain; maybe now, I even live better with it, as it knows how to respect the right brain. The right brain knows that it can take its time and space without needing to argue, and appreciates the help of the left brain skills when needed. The left brain can have fun drawing too, by drawing interpreted images, cartoons, symbols, and be helped by the right brain when a touch of realism makes the drawing better.

Many times this two main states of mind have been identified: the flow, meditation, concentration, creativity… I wish that this model helps other people enjoy drawing and feel proud of their art; and also appreciate and give space to both “right” and “left” brain approaches in life.


First exercise with colour pencils

Yesterday I was looking for a recipe in a cookbook about fish, and my drawer’s eye went to some of the many good pictures that show various fish species, and of course the prepared dishes. One seemed quite easy to be reproduced with colour pencils, and so I picked up my very heterogenous set of pencils (some from my childhood!) and started drawing.

I was once more surprised at how slowly, but surely, the whole shape of the fish emerged from the small colour patches I kept filling, one next to the other. The mental process is definitely twofold: first, I observe the full image or live subject, decide which part I will draw, then I start drawing the first shape (of medium size: from that one, all the proportions of the drawing are set) and by a sort of triangulation method, I get all the neighbouring shapes and colours one after the other.

In the case of this colour drawing, I first made a small palette on a corner of the paper, to select the few pencils I needed for the drawing (not in the picture).

Fish with color pencils