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.
All children are born with an urge to make marks, to sing, dance and generally express themselves individually. If you ask any small child if they can draw or paint and they will say ‘yes’ and usually show you – so what happens? Why do we lose that confidence in our ability? It seems to be an inborn urge to make marks and draw what we see around us. Perhaps that helps us to connect to our environment and make sense of it..... Drawing as a form of communication and connection goes right back to our human roots. Our self awareness, creativity and inventiveness has made us the most powerful animal on earth.
Little children begin by scribbling (on everything!) until they – miraculously! – form a circle. Apparently young chimps love to scribble as well, and some even manage to make a circle too, but they do not take the symbol any further. Human children put dots and lines inside that circle - and suddenly it represents a face, usually Mummy’s, or the face of their primary carer. That face is the most important feature of their world and when it appears they know that they are safe and will be cared for. They draw that circular image over and over again, beginning to add other people in their world, and adding stick legs because the faces move, and stick arms and fingers because the faces do things with them.
One of my favourite drawings created by one of my children when they were tiny was a drawing of us all as a family; I was the only one with fingers though. In her world it seemed that I was the only one that did anything!
Little children are sponges, and will happily copy other people’s images to complement their own, so they are shown how to draw a simple house, a tree, a bird. They copy each other’s images and symbols too, so they often look quite similar the world over. An exercise I give my students is to try and draw a simple landscape as they think they would have at the age of about five. The first thing we notice is how HAPPY it makes us feel! Then we see how similar they often are, and one thing that I love is that Maltese students will usually draw little houses with pointed roofs and chimneys.... there is no such thing in typical Maltese architecture! I wonder how children would draw if they were not shown anything at all? We had a Spanish au pair girl when I was very small and she used to draw little Princesses for me. They all looked the same and I loved them. I wonder if that sparked my fascination with drawing the human figure?
I drew these at a live Flamenco event last summer - I had to be fast!
Children’s drawings naturally develop to become more rounded and sophisticated, and to reflect what the child is most interested in; cars, boats, animals, etc. At some stage though, a dissatisfaction sets in as they try to draw more realistically and find that nobody can help them to do that. They might be able to draw one or two things reasonably well, but other subjects will just frustrate them. Some children find drawing and thinking creatively easier than others, but most find it really difficult and are easily put off by negative comments and accept the label of ‘unable to draw’. They fall back on childhood symbols such as stick men and cauliflower trees whenever they are asked to draw.
The reason behind most people’s frustration with not being able to draw realistically is usually the same one; it is because they have been attempting to learn to draw in a logical way, and drawing is not a logical process. It is a creative one, and involves learning to ‘see’ the world in a completely different way before we can draw it. It is the way that an artist sees, and is not taught in classes unless the teacher is not only able to see that way, but also able to explain and demonstrate it. We have to be able to draw exactly what is in front of our eyes, without processing it in any logical way.
Some children are able to naturally see this way already, but more of that next time...
. Meanwhile, I am starting another series of drawing classes on Saturday afternoons in Manikata next Saturday, 18th January - click below to contact me !
... so here I am, all fattened up after spending Christmas and New Year in the UK with my family. It's been great, doing nothing much but being with the Ones I Love.
I did spend a day wandering around London seeing as many exhibitions and galleries as I possibly could, trying to take mental snapshots and store all the images for future reference. I find that's better than taking actual photos sometimes (I had forgotten to pack my camera anyway!) - memories are often better to paint from, and you can't be accused of copying! Having said that, I am reading a brilliant little book called "Steal Like An Artist" which says that we should all be 'stealing' (i.e. keeping a record of) everything that appeals to us, so that we can feed it into our own work later. We should keep a 'Swipe File' in a scrapbook or on our pc's to refer to whenever we need a bit of inspiration.This isn't about copying images, but the ideas and thoughts behind them, so our own images are original creations based on whatever we have experienced along the way. I'll be bringing this idea to my students in future!
Which reminds me of all the things I have to do when I get home to Malta tomorrow - start organising my next First Friday Gallery (Feb 1st), advertise the Japanese Drawing workshop in my studio (Feb 3rd), think about having a Birthday Party (hoorah!), set up some new painting and drawing courses, confirm the dates of my landscape exhibition, which has been postponed because of the election in March, chase somebody that owes me some money :-), cuddle my cats until they squeak (yes I'll do that first!) and then see how my studio has fared without me..... oh, and try to lose some of this weight!
So tomorrow it will be farewell to the grey skies of London and HELLO!! to the blue skies of Malta.
From home to home.....
I love to paint - and draw - and help others to discover their creative side too.....
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