A new way of looking: two mindsets

drawing of girl at table

In my most recent blogpost I wrote about how I came to favour the power of abstraction above the rendering of details in art. In my opinion, learning how to recognize the abstract structure that lies underneath the endless amount of tangible objects reality offers us, is the key to draw from life in an accurate and efficient way.
It makes sense that we need to find this structure and capture it, in order to make a good drawing or painting. After all, does a writer just start with the first words of a new novel and end with the last ones? No, he or she probably already has an idea of how the plot goes before starting to write the actual book. The same goes for building a house: would anyone ever think of putting one brick on the other without first having made a building plan? Well, maybe some people do and it could certainly turn out great, but wouldn’t it have been much easier to start with a clear goal?
Of course, the composition sketch I wrote about some weeks ago, is a kind of building plan. But how do you make such a sketch if your knowledge about drawing from life is insufficient or if you feel you can’t get a grip on complex subjects, such as a crowded interior or a detailed landscape? In other words, how do you learn to see the structure of reality that you’re supposed to capture in your composition sketch? 

When it comes to drawing from life we are often led to believe that we need some standard knowledge about the subject we’re going to depict in order to draw it correctly. Such as: the average proportions of a human body, the anatomical structure that lies beneath the model’s skin or, when drawing interiors and cityscapes, the rules of perspective. Of course this knowledge can be quite useful, let’s say, when trying to construct something from memory, but in my experience one doesn’t need to know anything at all in the first sketching steps when working from life. In fact, too much knowledge about the subject you’re drawing may even hinder you during the drawing process. Why? Well, when you have a certain idea of how the subject is supposed to look like, it’s likely you will draw your expectations instead of reality.  
I’ve watched many of my students struggling to trace a form objectively instead of drawing their own interpretations of it. Drawing the eyes of a model from a different point of view than the rest of the body (like in the portrait of Nefertari below), drawing a model sitting up straight, when in reality he or she is leaning back, transforming a chair seen at eye level into one seen from above, like in an IKEA manual… those are all common mistakes caused by our minds getting in the way of objective look.

Drawing of a tree I made by looking at the negative spaces between the branches.
Portrait of Nefertari

How is it possible that we can fool ourselves into thinking we are drawing something that is really there, when it is not? One person wrote about this strange phenomenon: Betty Edwards, author of the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. When I started teaching my first drawing course, my husband got this book as a present from his aunt and I found it very useful reading as a preparation for my lessons. On her website Betty quotes:

You have two brains: a left and a right.  Modern brain scientists now know that your left brain is your verbal and rational brain; it thinks serially and reduces its thoughts to numbers, letters and words…  Your right brain is your nonverbal and intuitive brain; it thinks in patterns, or pictures, composed of ‘whole things,’ and does not comprehend reductions, either numbers, letters, or words.

From The Fabric of Mind, by the eminent scientist and neurosurgeon, Richard Bergland.  Viking Penguin, Inc., New York 1985.

Betty’s theory is that because these two brain halves process information in different ways, they influence the act of drawing in different ways too.
When our left brain is in charge during the drawing process, it will try to identify everything in our field of view and make a list of it. This brain makes us very much aware of the individual ‘things’ we ought to draw and it will try to make us draw them as we KNOW them to be. Up there there’s a very big archive of mental images that are used to recognize and categorize everything we see. Those mental images, which are often stereotypes, can be activated during the drawing process, and if that’s the case it will be them we’re going to draw, not what our eyes show us.  
On the other hand, the right brain doesn’t need to identify or name anything in order to draw it. It takes everything in as a whole and doesn’t stop to think about it. This is why I like to call the right brain the ‘observing’ one.

Now, I’m no scientist and I cannot find proof that what Betty Edwards says about the different functions of the brain is true, but I am certain those two different mindsets exist, as I’ve watched myself and my students switch from one to the other.

Most of us are quite stuck in the left-mode, because having it activated gives us a feeling of being in control during the act of drawing. When we can identify everything we see and give it a certain order, we feel we understand it, even if that’s not the case. And it really isn’t, for this particular mindset is responsible for an endless list of mistakes, some of them I sometimes still make myself. You can’t imagine how many times I’ve seen people draw eyes and a mouth as depicted in the image above, while working with a life model, when there’s really no person alive who has such stereotypic features. Moreover, the left brain can make us blow up details, like the nuances in value blocks, or exaggerate perspective lines and proportions. Finally, because the left mindset is not so keen on the ‘whole picture’, but prefers to break it up in individual parts, it makes us choose shitty compositions. After all, a good composition should be about appreciating ‘the whole’. 
In order to draw from life without too much interference from this particular mindset, we have to give the right mode the chance to take over and that’s very difficult, since the left one is quite dominant.

However, there is a way, of course. 
It’s good to know that the left mode can only stay in charge when it deals with ‘concrete things’, things with a name that can be matched to a mental image from our ‘brain archive’. 
On the other hand, it simply doesn’t know what to do with the more abstract concepts, such as ‘directions’, ‘shadows’ or ‘negative spaces’. Why? Try to think what a shadow should look like. Do you get a clear idea? Of course not! There is no such a thing as a stereotypical shadow, since it is always completely different! 

These abstract concepts (shadows, light, direction lines, negative spaces…) are the hidden structure of reality, the essence of the whole. Something we can only see when we ‘activate’ our right or ‘observing’ mindset. To do that, we must try not to be aware of the ‘actual thing’ we want to depict, but focus on the abstract value. There are several ways to do that. One technique I recommend using in my drawing course is drawing the negative space instead of the positive one,  the space around the object we want to draw. By drawing the negative space, the ‘thing’ we really wanted to capture in the first place will arise on our drawing paper without us being conscious of it. Isn’t that a fantastic thought? That we can actually draw without thinking? Isn’t that what happens to artists who get in a flow? A wonderful state of being during which the paint seems to flow in the right places all by itself and time seems to disappear completely?

It sounds good, doesn’t it? Unfortunately such flows do not last forever, for the left brain will try quite persistently to get a grip on things again and persuade you to look at the objects it can  understand. We must resist that as much as possible, if we want to keep looking at our subject objectively. We’ll be exploring the techniques to do that in the next blogpost.

Drawing I made looking only at the negative spaces of my subject

Before I leave you, however, I want to make something clear.
I might have given the impression that using the left mode is always bad, but that is not the case. A picture like the one representing Nefertari is beautiful even though her portrait isn’t painted in a naturalistic way. Most illustrations in children’s books are not true to nature either, but that doesn’t mean I don’t look at them full of admiration. We’ll talk more about the role of the left mindset during the artistic process in a future article.

I hope you found this post useful and that you’ll be here next week to have another insight into my technique. 

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