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.
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.
Drawing lines around things is really trying to capture an illusion; there are no lines around anything we see, only edges where one ‘thing’ seems to end and another starts. As we move, our view of these ‘things’ moves too – it can sometimes feel as if we are permanently walking through a three-dimensional picture, with the scenes continually rearranging themselves around us as we focus on them (or is that just me?!).
We cannot get away from the fact that although we know that everything is rounded and three-dimensional, we have to separate one thing from another by delineating them. Logically, everything is separated into ‘things’ with edges, and with spaces in between them. Otherwise we would be bumping into things all the time.
“We live in a three-dimensional world, or four of you include Time; or up to eleven if you follow modern physics. This means we live in a mysterious world – we cannot know the other side of things. We cannot see it all at once.” Andrew Marr
“For Nature is made up all of roundnesses....Boughs are rounded, leaves are rounded, stones are rounded, clouds are rounded, cheeks are rounded; there is no more flatness in the natural world than there is vacancy” John Ruskin
(both quotes from the excellent ‘A Short Book About Drawing’ by Andrew Marr)
This is one of the first difficulties when attempting to draw something realistically; the brain wants to show what it knows, rather than what the eyes really see. Children often draw different angles and viewpoints of an object in one drawing to describe what they know as well as see. Many adults do the same thing and find themselves drawing lines that are not there, at completely distorted angles, and really cannot see how inaccurate they are until someone shows them
Try this; hold up a pencil about 12inches in front of your eyes and look at something beyond it. You can focus on the pencil or the thing, but not both at once. When you focus on the thing, you will see two pencils. Close one eye and focus on the thing – the pencil will be a little fuzzy – now, keeping your head and pencil in the same place, close the other eye instead. Do you see how much the pencil seems to have moved? Unlike cameras, with just one lens, we have binocular vision through our two eyes, which our amazing brains translate into a single view. Cameras can only give us a two dimensional flat impression, with just one focal point; our eyes capture space and depth, plus the ability to focus near or far as we look around.
We cannot capture this three-dimensionality exactly, as our paper, after all, is flat! We can give a good representation of it though, as long as we draw with our eyes and what we really see, and not what our brains tell us. I find it easiest to explain this to students by asking them to pretend that, when drawing, the world is completely flat. Everything in this flat world fits together like pieces of a jigsaw.
Holding up your pencil again, with one eye closed, something close to you will ‘touch’ the edge of the pencil in space, and so will something in the far distance. Looking up and down the edge of the pencil, everything will touch it in a flat sense. The world is FLAT!
Besides anything else, holding up your pencil like this and squinting at the world beyond it shows you the most important function of your pencil; it is NOT for drawing with – you can draw with anything, from sticks to boot polish. No, the most important function of your pencil is to make you LOOK like an Artist. If you sit in front of a piece of paper and perform this exercise with conviction, it really impresses onlookers..........
Many (many!) moons ago, when I was doing an art foundation course at Hull Art College, I fell in love with life drawing. I had always drawn quite obsessively, hence the decision to follow my (he)art and improve my skills.
The opportunity to draw someone who would happily hold a pose for an hour or more without any embarrassment was a revelation to me. Our usual model was a no-nonsense young woman who would cycle to college through the busy city with just her dress on, rush in late, fling her clothes into a corner, and model for us all morning. We were a mixed bunch of 17/18 year olds, and the various reactions to this were hilarious. I loved it – and I still have some of the drawings I did back then somewhere. I’ll have a look and see if I can find one for you.....
On a foundation course the aim is to give students a taste of all the different disciplines and avenues that they can follow in art. Usually this is broken into a few weeks concentrating on each subject, and we tried our hands at graphic design, photography, three-dimensional work and ‘Fine Art’ (there were probably other subjects, but as I said, this was a long time ago!). I had really been looking forward to Fine Art – that’s what I dreamed of doing; being An Artist and painting proper Paintings.
What a shock though. This was the 70’s, and the thinking at the time was to encourage ‘self-expression’ rather than teach traditional skills and techniques. I was presented with a big white canvas, oil paints and brushes, given a rudimentary explanation and then left to it. No instruction, no model, no still life, nothing. I painted an imaginary scene in shades of sticky mud and hated everything about it. I don’t remember what happened for the rest of my ‘Fine Art segment – I think that I just went back to drawing the model.
Later, when it came to choosing an art college to graduate to, I searched the UK for a course that would actually teach me traditional skills. None of the Fine Art courses appealed to me, as they all seemed to be following the same ‘self-expression’ abstract approach, and I decided to study Illustration at Harrow. What a happy choice! I didn’t particularly want to be an Illustrator but I knew that the college was famous for the standard of pure drawing its students achieved.
The experience on my foundation course taught me that we all need to have a good solid knowledge of our chosen path before we can start to express ourselves with any confidence or personal style. No one would expect to write a novel without starting with the alphabet, rules of grammar, language etc, no one would think they could compose an symphony without knowledge of music or the instruments involved. Why should we expect to draw or paint any better than we did as children without learning the basics?
Here is a quote from Tom Robb
“The essential element of learning to draw is the ability to see, but seeing is not that easy. By developing observational skills the artist has the opportunity to develop intellectual awareness and knowledge not only of the visual world around them, but greater awareness of themselves, their skills, likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Drawing, though for the most part being based on things seen, is an abstract learning activity involving sophisticated mechanical and intellectual skills”
‘The Artist’ magazine, October 2013 (Which I highly recommend, by the way)
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 !
I love to paint - and draw - and help others to discover their creative side too.....
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