Right-brained thinking in a left-brained world

I just attended a four-day “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” workshop and am exhausted. I never expected to be so fatigued – after all it was a drawing class! I feel like I ran four marathons.

The premise is interesting: that we lose our right-brained view of the world by about the time we become teenagers, once the language skills and quantitative training we receive in school really start to kick in. That’s why most of us (myself clearly included) as adults continue to draw as if we’re in about the fourth grade.

This training was based on the book of the same name, originally written in 1979 and still available as a book as well as a workshop. Interestingly, I purchased this book some three years ago but had not cracked the cover until a week before the class started. I read it as the class I was taking was taught in Hungarian and I wasn’t confident I’d understand all of the subtleties of the lesson, although I did fare rather well!

The class centered on looking at the world anew, suppressing the left-dominant logic when it comes to looking at shadows, faces and perspectives. Over the four days we learned how to look at objects leveraging our right brain hemisphere. I have to tell you it didn’t come easy for me and I consider myself to be pretty right-brained.

Beyond the overall lesson in drawing learned – and the vast improvement in my drawing in just a few days of practice – I also took away some more subtle lessons:

Use all the tools you have available. We were given six pencils – H, HB, H2, H4, H6 and H8 – that ranged in hardness and functionality. I found myself choosing a “favorite” many times versus leveraging the range of options available, and my drawings reflected this closed-mindedness. Several times I had too much graphite on an image and had I chosen another, better suited pencil, I would have fared better. We were also given three erasers: a basic one good for massive erasing, an eraser “pen” for more detailed corrections and a kneaded eraser for final touch-ups. All three had their role and I used them all extensively!

Look for what’s not there versus what is there. The left-brain tells you what is there and what’s logical. The right brain shows you what isn’t there – the negative spaces in an image that make an image an image. Really searching for what isn’t there was huge in helping render images as they really are as you learned the true spatial relationships between various objects. I observed one classmate (who happens to be in IT – serious left brain dominance) struggle with the assignments, even arguing with the teacher at one point about what he needed to do. He struggled with suppressing the left hemisphere more than some in the class and was extremely frustrated most of the time. We had to trust the teacher in looking for what was not there versus grabbing onto what was obvious in front of our eyes.

Have patience and persistence – and believe in yourself – and the image emerges. Many times I questioned myself about how I was shading part of a picture or what highlights I was leaving on the paper. It seemed counter intuitive at times, yet when I would step back from the image just a foot or two, the logic became clear and image would indeed appear as it was supposed to. Being patient and persistent were key and, coupled with choosing my tools well, made the difference between realizing an acceptable image (I’m no Vermeer mind you) and one that needed a big eraser or, better yet, a new sheet of paper.
I’m sharing here the before and after images I drew – click on the image to see it larger. Each of us was given a photo to draw as our first assignment on day one. On day four, we redrew the image and, well, the difference a couple of days of training makes is obvious. Everyone showed marked improvement in their drawing skills no matter where they started from, just by learning how to use the right side of their brains.

P.S. Also, welcome to the new home of my blog! Better name, better design, better focus (pun intended) and more functionality with this site. Please feel free to join the conversation!


Look where others aren’t

The fun part of creating art is seeing what no one else sees and sharing your unique perspective. Much like the Wall Street adage of “when folks are buying, see who’s selling” – when others are looking up, you should be looking down.

The Pantheon in Rome is one of my favorite buildings ever. Beyond the sheer concrete engineering feat that was accomplished nearly 2000 years ago, it’s simply a captivating building. As one walks into the vast rotunda (as tall as it is wide), one can’t help but gaze skyward at the oculus, an opening in the center of the dome. Rain and snow come in through this 30-foot diameter hole in the roof.

And sunlight.

Only light from the entryway and the oculus illuminate this temple. Given its vast interior and the role the oculus plays, one’s eye is naturally drawn upward toward the opening and the sunlight streaming in through it

Once, as I followed the light from the opening to the floor, I wondered where it went afterwards. The answer came in the image here. The light bounces off of the floor and illuminates the wall opposite creating a whole new experience in this wonderful building.

Are you looking where others are and if so, why?


Playing with the box

We’re always told to “think outside of the box” which is generally a good way to live one’s life. Sometimes though, playing with the box can be just as stimulating, as it was when we were little kids making a fort or spaceship out of any empty box we could get our hands on. Add a few markers and some string and we were transported to another place altogether.

Howard Stephens, my mentor, was someone who played with the box throughout his life. His “box” was black and white photography, but when combined with some available materials transformed already interesting images into completely new works of art. For comparison, he was essentially “shopping” images long before the creators of Photoshop were out of diapers. Of course, his “shopping” was done in the darkroom – the old fashioned way.

One of his favorite techniques was creating high-contrast or “litho” images, where he’d take a well-exposed medium tonal range image and turn it into a high contrast image using ortho film. (The comparable technique today is a simple slider in most digital software…) He’d usually transform it a couple of times, removing it further from it’s broad tonal range before printing the final high-contrast image – frequently on film.

Then the fun would begin.

He’d layer colored paper behind the film or paint with tempera on the back of the image – or both – to get the result he desired. He played with the box, transforming otherwise normal photos into one-of-a-kind works of art using a little of this and that to create the final image. Too cool.

I learned the litho technique from him one fall afternoon. He gave me a list of supplies to buy and told me to call him
when the chemicals were mixed and I was ready. We went to the darkroom where he ensured I understood the steps in the process just to the point that I had a successful result.

Then, in his usual fashion, he walked away, leaving me to play with the box; to find my own way, experiment and create with the materials available. It was a lesson that I’ve carried with me to today using a variety of media to create that final image.

What a guy, what an artist and what a teacher.

P.S. Just a few weeks ago I found my old litho negatives. Can’t wait to play with them again and see what I can come up with all of these years later…

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