After all the left and right brain theory about the opposing effects of logic and creativity (see my last blog post) have gone over your head :-), here is what I have concluded; that drawing is actually better if you can do it using no brain at all!!
This takes a bit of practice, because the only way to draw without processing is to have complete confidence in your technique and total disregard for the end result. It’s only paper, after all.
When I was at college I wanted to draw figures in contorted positions as part of a project I was doing. It was to be a mobile hanging and I needed them to have their arms and legs arranged so that I could cut out the figures and then hook them onto each other. My friends weren’t that accommodating (or flexible) ...... I came up with the idea of drawing moving figures very quickly, and then using them as the basis for my drawings. I had the brilliant idea of drawing footballers on the TV, and spent hours doing just that.
Along with the anatomy classes at college and my continuing love for working from live models, I now find that I can work really quickly as long as I manage to switch off and just let it happen. The trick is to watch the figure for a while until you have a feeling for the way they are moving – sometimes I really feel that I am dancing the flamenco, or playing the guitar (I can’t do either) – and so the drawing kind of comes from the inside out. Once I have that connection, I can take a mental snapshot and then draw it out before it fades, not looking back until I have finished.
I am very lucky to be allowed to draw and paint at all sorts of wonderful events and venues in Malta. Every year I set up my easel at the Malta Jazz Festival in mid-July and just paint non-stop for three evenings. I can also go along to the Malta Arts Festival dance, music and folk-singing shows. The weather is perfect for outdoor performances and the settings are spectacular.
Last week I was asked if I would like to paint a lovely performance “Mu-Danzas Boleras” at the prestigious Manoel Theatre in Valletta. Would I! I was given a box next to the stage – which I covered in plastic sheeting and had some real fun drawing with watercolour and ink.
I am asked sometimes why I don’t make life easier for myself and just draw from photographs – but where would the challenge or fun be in that? The end results might be more realistic perhaps, but they would not have the sense of movement and energy that I revel in. All I have to remember to do is disengage my brain (it’s getting easier with age) because otherwise I get in my own way and can’t draw a thing. And then afterwards I have to stop myself from trying to ‘correct’ them, as that tends to deflate them, and me, too.
I have to admit that sometimes I have a passing fit of nerves as I stand, brush in hand, thinking “you’ve done it again, set yourself up for a really public embarrassment”.
But I take a deep breath and remind myself of the Buddhist teaching “If you never get to know the nature of fear, you will never know fearlessness”
and Albert Einstein’s “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new”
A very important theory which became popular in the 70’s was that the brain worked in two quite separate ways – the left side dealt with logics and learning, the right side with creativity and intuition. More recent research has shown that we actually use different areas, left or right, depending on what information we need. Both sides of the brain communicate new abilities and then process the information in different ways to add to overall intelligence and efficiency. However, defining the tasks of the brain into ‘left’ and ‘right’ does help to explain many of our difficulties with learning to draw, and with creative thought in general.
Our left brains are incredibly efficient at getting us through life as quickly and easily as possible, dealing with thousands of bits of information every second. The onslaught of today’s super fast technology means that we have to continually filter unnecessary ‘stuff’ all the time. The right brain has been more or less overridden in many people; apparently modern man’s left brain now actually weighs more than the right side!
A child’s repeated right-brained ’w’ questions “why, where, what, why, who?” slowly peter out as it learns the answers and files them away in its ‘hard drive’. Information is wired in with practice and repetition, and it then becomes unconscious reactions, such as walking, chewing, driving, speaking……. It leaves us free to concentrate on the content. The brain’s natural urge is to create shortcuts, to save us time and to make life easier so that we don’t have to continually re-think everything.
The problem with learning to draw is that the brain cannot find anything to refer to other than our teenage drawings, stored away in the left brain, which – unless we were encouraged and helped to draw as a child, or had a natural aptitude – we developed in a symbolic way. Teenagers will often draw a repeated image of something that interests them, and it can become quite sophisticated, but a symbol is useless when we want to draw realistically.
To draw well, we need to find ways to activate the right brain, and encourage it to ask all those ‘w’ questions every time we want to ‘see’ anything as it really is, instead of the left brain’s superficial overview and dismissal. We need to be able to see everything anew every time, as everything we attempt to draw is a new problem. Every petal on a flower is different to every other petal, every leaf on a tree, every eye, every –well, everything! – is completely unique and fascinating. This is probably what Picasso meant when he said that he wanted to learn how to draw like a child; not that he wanted to draw in a child’s naïve and symbolic way, but that he wanted to see the world through a child’s eyes- a continually new experience.
So, to activate the right brain in other ways, and also to improve your drawing and creativity, try using both sides of your body more – combing your hair, brushing your teeth, dialling the phone, even writing and eating with cutlery in the ‘wrong’ hands. Doing this feels uncomfortable, but notice how your brain is trying to make new connections, and how much more interesting these tasks become! Release your right brain from its non- creative prison!
Seminal books on the subject are “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” and “Drawing on the Artist Within”, both by Betty Edwards.
Art is a creative rather than a logical activity. We learn to draw and paint by imitation, in much the same way as we learn language, or skills such as walking and eating. Children watch someone else and then copy them, practising and elaborating until they make it their own. This is a natural, right-brained, creative way of learning.
Trying to learn art in a left-brained, logical fashion, is slow, laborious and often inhibits any creativity or individuality. Slaving over a subject until it feels ‘right’ can be very demoralising; being shown tools, techniques, and examples of how other artists have tackled similar subjects is much more helpful.
Artists themselves have always copied one another’s images and ideas, turning them into something original and unique. Working ‘after’ another artist (i.e. making a detailed copy) is an accepted way of studying technique and approach. As long as the original artist is credited if this study is shown or exhibited, this is not considered stealing or cheating. These days it is almost impossible to protect images on the net anyway, so the free flow of ideas and inspiration should be fuelling our creativity like never before.
A straightforward copy is often a laboured mechanical thing though. It cannot embody the spark of originality and vision that the original piece holds. Ideally we should use art we admire and are inspired by and use it as a springboard to create something personal and new. The art must say something about you as well as about your subject, technique and ability, otherwise it will just simply be a copy of someone else’s idea
One exercise I give students is copying parts of drawings by well-known artists and asking them to try to feel the different strokes and methods that were used. Some are fast sketches, some are visibly slower and more detailed, some have long sweeping gestures, others have heavy, intense ones. It is valuable to copy these approaches, not necessarily to make exact reproductions, but to see which marks feel the most comfortable and inviting. Being influenced by work you aspire to can help you find your own style.
“Art is theft” Pablo Picasso
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poets welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that which it was torn” T.S. Eliot
“What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original”
All quotes from “Steal Like An Artist” by Austin Kleon
The differences between ‘drawing’ and ‘painting’ are not always clear cut. Drawings are generally personal, intimate things, often made quickly to capture a fleeting moment in time. Paintings often take more time to create, and are more social in that they are usually hung on walls to be seen. There are as many permutations of this as there are artists though. Many great artists, such as Degas, drew with colour, using pastels, which are sticks of pure pigment.
Generally though, drawings are monochrome lines, made with graphite, ink or charcoal. It is very easy to find artist’s sketches and drawings on the internet, and you can actually see where a pen was pushed harder, a pencil used sensitively or boldly, a stick of chalk dragged sideways. Looking at an artist’s sketches can give an insight into their personality and private thoughts which are not so obvious in their finished paintings.
Without the colour of a painting, a jumble of lines is all we have to make sense of a drawn image. We have to work a little harder to do this, and therefore a drawing can often be more engaging than a painting. We can see a direct connection to the artist and how he moved his hand to produce each line, how he represented texture, light, perspective, time, mass and even his feelings. If you are lucky enough to flick through the pages of an artist’s sketchbook, it’s like a direct insight into their soul. What caught their eye? What was worth the drawing time? Where were they? What mood were they in?
Sketchbooks are like visual diaries and I have one with me at all times, a habit instilled in me at college years ago. I can look back over almost 40 years of sketches and I know instantly where I was and what was going on in my life at the time. The drawings vary in quality and in method – some were done as visual notes, some are intense studies and in others I have used whatever came to hand to draw with. I rarely use my sketches as the basis for other works, although many people do. I draw to keep myself connected - to the world around me, to my hand/eye coordination and to the ideas and inspirations which might otherwise be forgotten. I see them as a separate activity to painting really, although of course the two feed into each other. Best of all is that these diaries are completely private; nobody else can really know or feel as much as I do about each drawing.
I would encourage everyone to keep a sketchbook. All you need is a book of plain paper which will fit into your bag or pocket, even if you think you can’t draw ‘well enough’...... and simply doodle, scribble, sketch, copy; USE it as often as possible. Keep notes of your ideas and thoughts in it too. You don’t need to show it to anyone and so it need never be judged. Keep it to get your lines flowing and your eyes seeing.
I love to paint - and draw - and help others to discover their creative side too.....
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