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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.

Fun tasks, right? But how well do they relate to drawing and the kinds of thinking artists actually do?

The fun did not end there for the 71 subjects in the study. More recognizably artistic tasks included drawing a still life from observation, tracing a photo of an elephant on an overlay of clear plastic using only 40 tiny lengths of skinny tape, and brainstorming novel and interesting things to draw based on a series of triangles and squiggly stimulus figures.

The first group of visual-spatial tests were easily scored and timed, but scoring the drawing-based tasks required complex criteria and trained judges. All tasks, however, produced numerical scores that could be analyzed statistically to provide insights about the way artists think.

Those in the study who had lots of drawing instruction and practice (the college art students in the sample) did show greater observational drawing skills, as you might expect, but they also showed certain perceptual and cognitive strengths. They significantly outperformed the others in mentally rotating shapes and recognizing embedded figures, and they really stood out when selecting the most important features of a photograph to trace with a limited number of tiny pieces of tape. I find this last task, devised by researcher Aaron Kozbelt (2001), particularly interesting because it flips our understanding of the way artists see.

We have always been told when learning to draw to “turn off” the part of our brain that makes decisions about what it sees, to see things as they are, and to represent what we observe mindlessly, like a camera. This, however, is not how drawing really works.

The research suggests, instead, that artists who draw are skilled at manipulating what they see and selecting just the salient elements and views in order to represent the visual world with acquired techniques. They engage the top-down decision-making brain to select from the bottom-up visual stimuli the brain receives and also to choose the artistic style to employ from among a repertoire of approaches (Kindler, 2004). They make artistic decisions about perception, representation, and technique.

In this way the artist’s mental process of drawing is like a comedian’s process for crafting a joke from a real life experience, selecting the best bits and perspectives and presenting them with the right delivery to land with a certain audience.

I think the tape-tracing task in this study really gets at artistic representation. All of our attempts to depict the observed world are limited to the materials we have at hand. Our artistic minds are absolutely essential to negotiating between the observed world, the few pieces of skinny tape (or other limited media) we have to show it, and the viewer’s mind as we know it. What do I see that the viewer needs to see? That question guides us and it demands the use of our whole brain when we draw from observation.

I understand that drawing realistically is not essential to success across the vast and varied worlds of art. But I do agree with the authors of this study who claim that drawing serves a range of other skills of artistic development. The earlier findings of one collaborator in this study suggested that “artists’ perceptual skills are best viewed as a subset of their drawing skills” (Chamberlain et al., 2018, p. 60).

Drawing realistically is not actually the aim of learning to draw from observation, as it turns out. The real learning objectives are to develop the perception and decision-making skills that come from practicing drawing what we see. It’s time to turn our whole brain back on as we learn to draw.


Chamberlain, R., Drake, J. E., Kozbelt, A., Hickman, R., Siev, J., & Wagemans, J. (2018). Artists as experts in visual cognition: An update. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 13(1), 58-73.

Chamberlain, R., McManus, I. C., Brunswick, N., Rankin, Q., Riley, H., & Kanai, R. (2014). Drawing on the right side of the brain: A voxel-based morphometry analysis of observational drawing. NeuroImage, 96, 167-173.

Edwards, B. (1979). Drawing on the right side of the brain : A course in enhancing creativity and artistic confidence. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.

Frith, C. (2013). Making up the mind: How the brain creates our mental world. John Wiley & Sons.

Kindler, A. M. (2004). Researching impossible? Models of artistic development reconsidered. In E.

Eisner & M. Day (Eds.), Handbook of research and policy in art education, 233-252.

Kozbelt, A. (2001). Artists as experts in visual cognition. Visual Cognition, 8, 705–723.

Zeki, S. (2009). Splendours and miseries of the brain: Love, creativity and the quest for human happiness. John Wiley & Sons.

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