Tuesday, October 16, 2007

So you want to learn how to draw.......

When Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain was first published in 1979, it hit the New York Times bestseller list within two weeks and stayed there for more than a year. In 1989, when Dr. Betty Edwards revised the book, it went straight to the Time list again.
Google Books
I have two books which I recommend time and time again to people who want to learn how to draw.

When I'm out sketching I often get people who stand next to me and watch me draw for a bit. About half then say "I wish I could draw". When they do, I ask them if they really want to learn because if they do I know of a couple of books which they will find helpful. To those that say 'Yes' I then recommend that they try and find one and preferably both of the following books.
I reviewed Keys to Drawing in May last year - you can find that review here. I suggest you take a peek as it's excellent and is North Light Books' best selling art book. Tomorrow I'll be reviewing Bert Dodson's latest book "Keys to Drawing with Imagination".

The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

Back to Betty's book. Who's it for?
The exercises and instructions in this book have been designed specifically for people who cannot draw at all, who may feel they have little or no talent for drawing and who may be doubtful that they could ever learn to draw - but who think they might like to learn.
Betty Edwards
In my opinion, it's an excellent book for adults who haven't picked up a pencil to have a go at drawing in years. It's also very helpful for self-improvers who have already started to draw again but are finding they continue to have problems in drawing the object they see in front of them.

Children may also find it interesting as it takes an entirely different approach to teaching people how to draw - but almost certainly will find some of the chapters a bit too advanced. (Adults have also advised that they found it easier to use if they skipped the 'bits about how the brain works'!).

For those people who have developed skills in drawing, it's a book which might provide tips and help in finding ways to tackle any areas where weaknesses still exist.

This books helps people how to see in order that they can then draw. The emphasis in terms of drawing skills is on rendering accurately rather than drawing in conceptual ways.

The approach adopted by the book is that drawing is a teachable and learnable skill. It applies the 'folk' brain theory that verbal analytical thinking is mainly located in the left hemisphere of the brain and that visual perceptual thinking is mainly located in the right hemisphere. Thus the task is how to access the right side of the brain in order to see and draw more clearly. Whether or not the theory about how the brain works is correct or not, I think the gallery which contains the the 'before' and 'after' portraits side by side to be an impressive testimonial of the impact of the approach.
Drawing is a global or 'whole' skill requiring only a limited set of basic components
Betty Edwards - Introduction to The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
The revised edition incorporates a new concept - that drawing requires five skills which are not about drawing as such and that drawing as a whole skill can become automatic with practice (rather like learning to walk or to drive). The five skills required relate to the perception of: edges (contours), spaces (negative shapes), relationships (perception and proportion), lights and shadows (volume and values), and the whole (or gestalt). In other words they are skills in 'seeing'. She suggests that imaginative or expressive drawing require two additional skills - of drawing from memory and drawing from imagination. The new book expands on the third and fourth skills and makes them simpler to follow. Betty's view is that those starting to develop artistic skills should progress in an order - from line (edges, spaces, relationships) to value (light and shadows) to colour to painting.

The book starts with some basic recommendations as to drawing materials and tools to help with the exercises. Exercises in the book are geared towards expanding powers of peception. They start with the completion of pre-instruction drawings - to set a baseline for measuring improvement. This is followed by her explanation about theory relating to left and right brains and left and right modes of thinking and doing.

Exercises then follow which test the two sides of the brain and how they can clash and how potential can be released. It involve learning how to draw an image which is upside down (this is where I learned that trick!).

The book then reviews art produced during childhood and its component parts, scribbling, symbols, stories, complexity and then realism. It considers how memories of stored symbols can interfere with the ability to draw what is actually seen to such an extent that people draw what they think they see ( ie they draw the symbol ) rather than what they actually see.

Strategies for avoiding the drawing of symbols are then explained eg
  • pure contour drawing - which helps with the perception of edges;
  • drawing with a picture plane - which helps with perception and proportion;
  • negative space drawing (of a chair) - which helps to understand the relationship between forms and shape of the spaces between objects and/or the shape of what is 'not there' - and also how important negative space is to an overall composition and for explaining objects
  • learning how to 'sight' size propostions and angles in order to do a perspective drawing
  • drawing a portrait employs all the skills identified as necessary to being able to draw and helps to integrate them and develop the fifth skill - the ability to see the whole. Difficulties which students of drawing often encounter when drawing heads and strategies for dealing with these are identified and explained.
  • the technical aspects of light logic which produces light and shadows and tonal values are identified. The way in which these then contribute to depth and transform a media with two dimensions into apparently representing three dimensions is explained. It also explains about hatching as a technique and the general proportions of the head.
  • a section on colour was added with the 1989 revision and focuses on using colour in drawing as a precursor to painting - but she has since gone on to write a whole book about colour.
The book includes examples of classical drawings which are used to explain points being made.

Some of the things I like about this book are the extracts and quotations included in the margins. I've always found them distracting, fascinating and very stimulating! Plus I've always liked this book because it is one of the few books about drawing which focuses on the way drawing can make you feel.

If you've ever wondered what a term meant, a glossary of term is included at the end of the book which could be helpful for all those people who don't like to ask what a word means in case they reveal their ignorance! However explanations of some of the terms (eg line quality) are in the margins with images rather than in the glossary!
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is the world's most widely used drawing book. claim on the back cover
Betty Edward's book is a phenomenon. Published in 1979 it has sold some 2.5 million copies, spent a year on the New York Times best seller list, and generated a website and a set of associated workbooks and workshops (see links below). The sequence of exercises in the book is based on a five day workshop which the author used to teach but is now taught by Brian Bomeisler, the author's son.

Other reviews of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
  • Charley Parker on Line and Colors has an extensive review of the book and her approach
  • Helen South on drawsketch.about.com - has a lengthy review of this book Marion Boddy Evans of painting.about.com has a rather shorter review.
  • Readers on both sides of the Atlantic provide reviews on both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk
Pencils rating: I award this book a pencils rating of 5.

'Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain' has a unique approach which is accessible (for the most part), memorable and gets good results. It doesn't teach everything about drawing but it has got a lot of people a long way towards being better able to see and better able to draw. And as I said at the beginning it's also one of the only two books I recommend to adults who want to learn how to draw from the beginning.



  1. Katherine,

    This is a very good book, as you suggest, for those trying to get back into drawing. I picked it up a few years ago to do just that, it was a great experience and really taught me alot. It really got me back into the groove.

    I have also found the book on color to be very helpful. I know someone who teaches color with it using CPs.

    Excellent review as always, I hope it inspires someone to pick up a pencil again!

  2. Even though I took several drawing classes in school, I didn't really learn to draw until I read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain back when it first came out. I love this book and bought the newer revised edition a couple years ago when I needed to update my drawing skills after some years of doing little freehand drawing.

  3. I have began working through this book. My upside drawings look as crummy as my right side up ones. They all look like they were put together by a 5 year old.

    There seems to be 5 or 10 basic drawing skills that I need someone to teach me before I will be ready to tackle the complex drawings in this book.

    Who will teach me those?

  4. There's one basic skill you need to learn before you can learn how to draw.

    That's "how to look".

    Unless you learn how to look no amount of teaching will help you improve.

    If your upside down drawings don't amount to much I suggest you go back and reread the instructions for what you need to do in terms of LOOKING at the objects.


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