Artist reflections on perspective maps and mirror drawing on the “right side of the brain”

I would like to take a moment to draw a few threads together. Firstly however, I’ll relate a personal experience:

Many years ago a little boy was drawing the most beautiful, elaborate birds. They had wings, eyes, tails, legs, feathers in a range of colours. They were very detailed and considered images that involved the act of looking at birds and recording their features. Then one day the drawings stopped. Instead the boy was drawing an icon of a bird: a big letter ‘M’ for wings with a triangle for a beak. His mother was devastated. What had happened? It turns out someone at school had told him that his (original) birds did not look like birds, and showed him how to draw them the “right” way. It was a tragedy! The bird drawings were reduced to symbols, a means of communicating the concept of a bird rather than rich, creative explorations that involved looking and learning from was observed. I don’t know if she (the mother) ever got that door open again…

I feel very strongly that people – children especially – should be encouraged towards creative exploration. And I think that acknowledging there are many ways of seeing plays a role in this (such as our different points of view when taking the photos that make up our collaborative perspective maps). Another very tangible aspect to this position is the way the brain works, theory which informed our earlier mirror-symmetry drawing exercises. These ideas relate to one-another as follows:

(1) Firstly I want to talk about how the symmetry drawings relate to drawing with the right hemisphere of the brain; and a book named Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. These concepts and the book were introduced to me a long time ago by Yani, an inspiring local artist.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is a very influential text. Our symmetry drawing activity is a simplistic version of the Vase/Faces drawings within the book, in that they too focus the drawing activity on looking instead of on naming. I’ll try to explain… (Or/And you could just read the book 🙂

Edwards follows contemporary scientific thought on the structure and operation of the brain. That is, scientists believe that each of the brain’s 2 hemispheres process thought in different ways: the LEFT hemisphere is the rational half handling logic, numbers, verbal aspects such as NAMING, etc. On the other hand, the RIGHT hemisphere is in charge of spatial reasoning and the visual aspects, including what I’m simplistically calling LOOKING. This is also described by the neurosurgeon Richard Bergland in his survey of brain research The Fabric of Mind. Viking Penguin, Inc., New York 1985. pg.1:

“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, [that is, as being] composed of ‘whole things,’ and does not comprehend reductions, either numbers, letters, or words.”

While  “most activities require both modes [ie left and right hemispheres],… a few activities require mainly one mode, without interference from the other… [and] Drawing is one of these activities. 

Often however the left hemisphere will dominate the drawing process so that instead of concentrating on looking at spatial relationships, colours etc (that is using the Right hemisphere) we are concentrating on what we think we are looking at, at the definitions of those things we are naming. This is what happened with the little boy. Another example is the common assertion that a tree is green when, if you look closely you will see a rainbow of colours: silvery, grey and even red hues as well as green. And it will change depending on whether it has rained or is dry, the time of day etc. So the act of drawing a tree then is very much concerned with LOOKING at it; the focus, like Yani says is on “drawing what you see and not what you think you see”.

“Learning to draw, then, … means learning to make a mental shift from [left brain to right brain modes]. That is what a person trained in drawing does…” Brian Bomeisler from The Theory in “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” http://drawright.com/theory.htm <Accessed 12 August 2011> 

(2) I also want to tie this mirror-symmetry drawing activity and the theory behind it, in with the perspective maps exercise and the assertion that there are many different ways of seeing (e.g.John Berger).

The “ways of seeing” concept and the Perspective maps illustrate the ambiguity of art. This is creatively liberating: it opens up the possibilities for drawing, stimulates the child’s focus on the possibilities of what they see. It encourages the children to  look beyond a single message, word or iconic representation. The perspective maps show there is no way a tree SHOULD look. There is no yardstick, reference or name. Instead it expands horizons and shows that seeing is a creative act

The perspective maps show us there are many possible ways we can look at something, and not just one way that it SHOULD look. That is, by showing the children that their view of the tree is not be the same as the next person’s; the way in which they understand the tree is expanded. The perspective map points out the ambiguity of image which is inherent to all art. At the same time the mirror symmetry exercises help them to focus on the LOOKING rather than the NAMING. That is, they enable the students to focus on the detail of the line being drawn, paying attention to its deflections and inflections and its character as a whole as opposed to drawing what they think they should be seeing or drawing (For example they may draw the 2 mirror leaves adjacent to one another when, if drawn without THINKING and simply by LOOKING, the leaves would overlap. This is explained in this previous post).

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