Thursday, October 10, 2013

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

In my readings about neuroplasticity, I came across a mention of a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which is a drawing course that uses neuroplasticity principles to improve your drawing skills by strengthening your right brain.  I have no interest in drawing but I did want to see neuroplasticity happen, so I decided to try it out.  (This is also why blogging has been particularly slow lately - I've had to spend a lot of time drawing!)

Here's what I discovered:

Using my right brain only literally makes my brain hurt!  One of the earlier exercises is copying a line drawing upside down.  Because it's upside down, it's far more difficult to recognize what you're drawing, so instead of thinking "This is a leg that I'm drawing now" you think in terms of "How do the length and angle of this line relate to the line I just drew?"  Because your left brain can't name the parts of what you're drawing, it stops participating in the exercise, leaving it to the right brain only.  My poor, underused right brain was not accustomed to this, and the exercise gave me the worst headache I've had since the first day I tried going coffee-free on weekends.  If I hadn't known about the neuroplasticity benefits, I would have given up right then and there.

My left brain quickly adapted. When I did that first, painful upside-down line drawing, the exercise was a success in that I couldn't recognize what I was copying so I copied the actual lines far more accurately.  However, by the time I got to the second (which was on another day, with at least one sleep in between), rather than my right brain being stronger, I found my left brain had adapted to the exercise and I could recognize what I was drawing far more readily, which defeated the purpose of the exercise and resulted in a less realistic drawing.

My drawing did improve, but not as much as I had hoped. The last pictures I drew were significantly better than the first ones.  However, they weren't nearly as good as I had hoped they would be based on the description of what the book was meant to achieve.  I wasn't able to enjoy my clear, obvious, significant improvement because the drawings still didn't come out nearly as well as I wanted.

This book helps you see, but doesn't help you actually draw. The core function of the book is to make you see what's actually in front of you - how the lines and spaces and light and shadows relate to each other - rather than letting your left brain fill in the blank. The problem - as with everything physical and tangible - is that I can't always make my hand make the pencil do what I want it to.  I draw a line, and it looks wrong.  Using the principles taught in the book, I am now able to think "That should be on a steeper slant." But when I erase it and try to redraw it on a steeper slant... it comes out exactly where I put it in the first place!  This book doesn't do anything to help with that, and it's currently the biggest obstacle to my drawings coming out the way I want them to. 

I'd also hoped that it might give me drawing skills that enable me to do a quick, semi-realistic sketch, the sort of thing I could bust out as a parlour trick.  I was picturing sitting and colouring with my fairy goddaughter, and while she makes me a page of crayon scribbles that I will keep forever, I make her a recognizable picture of her dog or something.  But instead the process is slow and technical, and requires a subject or model that stays still (which my fairy goddaughter's dog most definitely does not.)  It gets results with time invested and hard work, but doesn't give you the ability to improvise delightfully.  Much like my music skills, actually.

Turns out I don't like drawing. I never got to the point of enjoying the drawing exercises.  Every time I got to one, I'd be like "Aww, man, I have to draw now!"  I found it tedious and time-consuming and got no pleasure out of it.  I wasn't expecting to enjoy it - I was in this for neuroplasticity, not for art skills - but because of this I found it a bit annoying when the book suggested that I was probably pleased with my drawing or I probably found this particular exercise enjoyable.  In fact, the exercise I found most enjoyable was the pure contour drawing, where you try to visually copy the contours of what you're drawing without looking at the paper.  This is a visualization exercise rather than a drawing exercise - it isn't intended to produce an actual drawing and most often just produces a scribble - and I found I enjoyed it specifically because there were no expectations of the end result.

I don't know if this actually had any neuroplasticity effects.  I noticed my left brain compensating, and I noticed that after the first couple exercises my brain stopped hurting during the right-brain-only work, but I don't know if that's my right brain getting stronger or just that my left brain figured out a way to barge in and help.  Other than that, I didn't notice anything, but the fact that I don't perceive it doesn't mean it isn't there.


laura k said...

I admire your willingness to venture into territory outside your natural aptitudes! The neuroplasticity concerns are clearly highly motivating for you.

I've heard of this book but have never read it or even opened it. Is it aimed at people who already draw?

impudent strumpet said...

It's aimed at people who draw like children and want to be able to draw like adults. The underlying principle is that drawing is a skill that can be taught like reading and writing (where "writing" means "using your pencil to make letters and being able to spell words), as opposed to being an intrinsic skill that you either have or don't.

Based on my experience, I think that's probably true. I could do a lot better if I were motivated to practise over a period of months and years, for example if drawing were somehow important to my future employment prospects.

laura k said...

I guess the ability to draw, in this context, is different from artistic talent, which does appear to be innate - more like learning to play an instrument, which almost anyone can learn to do, as distinct from musical talent. I never thought about drawing that way.