“Most people never learn to see well enough to draw,” according to Betty Edwards, author of Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain. And since painting requires the same perceptual skills as drawing, if you struggle with drawing, you’ll undoubtedly have similar troubles with painting. But you say, you have no interest in drawing? What can you do if you just want to get to the fun of your painting? Hmmm, I have a comment. 


Why avoid picking up skills that would boost your painting ability? If you’re serious about learning to paint well, let me suggest you read Betty Edwards’s Drawing On The Right Side of The Brain and make a serious effort to do the exercises that she suggests in the book. Learn and practice drawing! It’s more interesting than you think. Plus, drawing and painting are intimately connected, and as painter Ian Roberts says, “The quickest way to improve your paintings is to learn to draw.”

In her book, Edwards states that drawing is a skill that anyone who can read or write can learn fairly quickly. Her instruction and exercises are designed “for people who cannot draw at all, who feel that they have little or no talent for drawing, and who may feel doubtful that they could ever learn but who think they might like to learn to draw” (pp. 3-4).


I read Edwards’s book recently and was amazed at how much I learned. While I was aware that the tendency of artists to “name” the things they paint gets them into trouble when they try to “see” accurately, I wasn’t sure why or what specifically to do to stop “painting what you think you see.” After reading Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain, now I know what to do!

Hemispheres, page 29, Drawing On The Right Side On The Brain, 2012 Edition.


Scientists have found that the human brain is constructed of two hemispheres, a right side and a left side. Each hemisphere, amazingly, has separate and somewhat different functions and capabilities. Research shows that both hemispheres are involved in high-level thinking, although each side is specialized for a different MODE of thinking. 

Study of brain injury has found that the language and language-related capabilities are mainly located in the brain’s LEFT hemisphere for most people. Edwards calls left-brain functions “L-mode.” L-mode ways of thinking are verbal, rational, linear, objective, analytic. 

In contrast, a second way of knowing is governed by the RIGHT hemisphere of the brain, “R-mode” thinking. In this mode, Edwards says “we can ‘see’ things in the mind’s eye,” thus seeing the big picture. R-mode thinking is intuitive, holistic, imaginative, nonlinear, non-verbal. “Using the right hemisphere we use metaphors and image solutions, and create new combinations of ideas and novel ways to approach problems” (pp. 36-37).

At times each hemisphere may share tasks with the other, with each half taking over whatever parts are suited to its style. However, one hemisphere can also take over and inhibit the other. Research suggests that the two halves can be at cross purposes, with one half insisting on taking over a task it thinks it can do “better” than the other half. The LEFT hemisphere, apparently, prefers NOT to give up tasks to the right hemisphere UNLESS it doesn’t like the task.  

Illusion, page 46, Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain, 2012 Edition.


Perceptual, painting, and drawing skills largely depend on RIGHT hemisphere function, so unless you can shift your thinking style to R-mode, you tend to gloss over visual information, see what you expect to see, and fail to observe or paint accurately what is before you. (This is why your painted “tree” may not look like a real tree: your verbal, language-based, left hemisphere brain is hindering your art. Your left-brain will actually CHANGE incoming visual information to fit its preconceptions without telling you. You will find that you CANNOT depend on what you THINK you’re seeing.)


Shifting modes of thinking is not automatic. There are ways, however, you can learn to shift your thinking from a left hemisphere, verbal emphasis to a right hemisphere, visual mode that will improve your art. In Drawing On The Right Side of The Brain, Betty Edwards will show you how to do just that. She teaches several techniques to help you shift your mode of thinking and learn to SEE.

Throughout Edwards’s book, you’ll learn the five simple perceptual (seeing) skills necessary for drawing (and painting), including: 

    * Perceiving Edges (where one ends, another begins),

    * Perceiving Spaces (what lies beside and beyond),

    * Perceiving Relationships (perspective and proportion),

    * Perceiving Light and Shadow (lights and darks),

    * Perceiving the Gestalt (seeing the whole and its parts).

You’ll also learn skills invaluable to accurate perception, creative thinking, and problem-solving. Being able to access the right hemisphere of your brain more easily will allow you to know yourself better, to access your intuition better, and to achieve “flow” in creative activity more easily ( where you lose track of time, your activity becomes intensely interesting, and you’re “in the zone”). Further, you may become better acquainted with your “self” — how you see and feel about things — so that you can make that awareness more visible in your paintings. 

Size misperception, page 172, Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain, 2012 Edition.


Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain by Betty Edwards is an excellent and valuable resource because it gives clear, practical advice for techniques you can practice to see better and improve your art. Borrow a copy from your local library, or buy the book from a nearby local bookstore, or online.

I must confess that I have owned Edwards’s book for many years but never read it until very recently because I assumed it was simply a how-to-draw book. I wasn’t fully aware that the same skills that apply to drawing also apply to other creative work; that connection just wasn’t clear to me, although it makes perfect sense. Now it is clear, thanks to this stimulating book. I wish Edwards had chosen a different title because the book opens perceptual doorways in many directions and is about much more than just drawing.

Join me and get painting tips, inspiration, recent art news, or information about new art or products for sale, sent to you by email. Subscribe here. I’ll give you a free copy of my Color Blending Tips pdf. that you can download and print.


    1. Read it, you’ll be amazed! I was very surprised. And now I’m a believer.
      I find the hardest part for me is making time to put in the practice – same for both painting and drawing.


  1. I have the same problem with colors….skies are blue, trees are brown, leaves are green. I am learning to see colors without names, to keep from making these kindergarten crayola colorations.


    1. Interesting. All those verbal (left brain) labels that are designed to help us, seem to prevent us from
      acting on our desire to observe (visually) closely. Maybe use no words when we’re painting?
      I know that when I’m teaching a class, I have difficulty talking AND painting at the same time. Or if I’m in a group painting with others, I have trouble carrying on a coherent conversation.


      1. Yes, this is why I stopped going to my local art group. My hearing is not good, and trying to be conversational uses up too much mental capacity in my brain. I still need to stop thinking of my color mixes with words though. There is always a verbal track going on in my mind.


      2. It’s hard when we’re SO accustomed to and dependent upon using linear thinking and words. If only
        it was easier to shift thinking modes from verbal to the visual, intuitive mode!


      3. I re read part of the drawing book and it said we need to make the left side give up because a task is too hard and then the right side takes over. I don’t know how to do that with color…..


      4. Don’t give up, I’m sure it’s possible with color, although we know the verbal, left-brain won’t give up
        its control easily. It can be very frustrating! So let’s brainstorm…

        I think of this as a sort of game, maybe a chess game, with each side of the brain employing certain
        moves, maneuvering to be listened to and to put in its two cents worth on a task. Even when you can shift the brain to the right-brain, intuitive mode, it can easily be disrupted. Any interruption or distraction can shift you abruptly back to left-brain, verbal mode – e.g. when someone asks a question while you’re trying to paint.
        But shifting modes is a skill that definitely improves with practice.

        When reading the book, I noted several ways to trick the left-brain to give up control. It doesn’t want to give up its control, so it must be fooled into deciding that the task at hand is boring, uninteresting, or unworthy of its time. Techniques mentioned in the book include:
        * upside down information,
        * complex edges,
        * negative spaces,
        * paradoxes of “sighting” (angles and proportion),
        * perceiving lights and shadows.

        Edwards suggests beginning an art session with a session of ‘blind contour drawing’. Or we could play with our paints, make weird marks, mix unusual colors, create color charts to warm up before a class or painting session, something frivolous and playful. Frivolous and playful are the operative words here, the left-brain doesn’t like silly.
        That would get you started in right-brain mode, then you might continue mixing different color combinations that looked like your sky (or trees or grass), WITHOUT naming the colors. Observe your subject and playfully combine colors. Experiment playfully in a sketchbook or on scrap paper, not taking it too seriously at first. Eventually, you will discover that your ‘play’ colors are right for your painting. At this point, you can probably write down the actual paint colors you found that worked. And then, having outwitted the left brain regarding color choices, use them in your painting.


      5. How about we put a round plate preloaded on a lazy susan, blindfold, then spin and paint ….this would be the equivalent of blind contour drawing. Or, just shift a rectangular palette from side to side several times after you blindfold, and paint…..


      6. Maybe. But don’t forget the purpose of the activities, such as blind contour drawing – merely to shift your perspective and mode of thinking, NOT result in a pretty or realistic piece of art. It sounds like you’re resisting the ‘silliness’ of it and don’t really believe it would be useful as a warm up.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s