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Engage the whole brain and learn to draw from observation

Steve Heil, NMAEA Membership Chair

When I was in middle school, I found my first brain-based drawing method in Betty Edwards’ (1979) Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I thought it would unlock the secrets to drawing realistically. Her method for learning to draw what you see was, and still is, mostly successful, but only because it incorporates so many tried and true drawing instructional approaches.

The right- and left-hemisphere brain science behind Edwards’ method has long been debunked. There’s no evidence that one side of the brain is more logical or creative than the other. In fact, many parts of the brain work together in order to imagine, to create, and to work with logic and language.

As an art teacher, I never found the Drawing on the Right Side methodology successfully motivational for my art students. Coaching to turn off their logical, school-trained brain to better draw what they see didn’t inspire most tweens I’ve worked with to persist in drawing. With a better understanding of what the drawing brain does, I think I may be better able to inspire young artists to stick with it through the difficult Dawning [Awareness of Society’s High Expectations for] Realism phase.

Neuroscientists, looking for active areas of our brain with instruments sensing blood flow called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), find specific active locations associated with specific functions. Visual perception and aesthetic response are of particular interest to such popular neuroscientists as Chris Frith (2013) and Semir Zeki (2009), for example.

Experimental psychologists also investigate mental processes, but instead of scanning blood flow, they set up thinking experiments, often building on neurobiological findings (Chamberlain, et al., 2014). They use carefully designed tasks, each designed to isolate and test a specific mental process. Both of these lines of inquiry have added to what we know scientifically about drawing from observation.

A recent report of an ongoing Brooklyn College study of artistic expertise in drawing (Chamberlain et al., 2018) relied on a number of interesting thinking and drawing tests to tease out the workings of the drawing brain. The visual-spatial tasks included mentally rotating 3-dimensional objects represented on a page, identifying the obscured subjects of digitally blurred photos, determining whether a certain simple figure is embedded within a second complex image, and attending either to a whole shape made of several smaller shapes or to the smaller shapes that make it up, as in the animated graphic below. (While each figure appears for 300 ms, can you say when the larger triangle is made up of three small white squares or when the larger square is made up of four small white triangles?)

Navon task example

Other tasks involved trying to overcome optical illusions like the Ebbinghaus Illusion pictured below. In this example, subjects were tasked with perceiving the orange circles as they actually are, the same size, even though their surroundings make them seem different in size.