Drawing (and Painting) Improve with Use of the Right Side of the Brain.

“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.

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See And Think Like An Artist!

Many beginning painters believe that to produce a good painting, all they need is mastery of technique.  However, it takes more than finely executed techniques to achieve an artistic result.  Artists need to OBSERVE CLOSELY what they intend to paint.  When you’re an artist, seeing isn’t simple.

Most of the time, we look at things with only part of our attention.  We see only what we expect to see.  We assign a verbal label to many images.  For instance, if what we are looking at is a “tree,” we may not look closely at what is really there.  We think we know what a tree looks like, because we’ve seen so many. This habit of not paying close attention saves time and keeps us moving along in our busy lives BUT prevents us from actually LOOKING at things.  In the everyday world, we quickly categorize in words and move on.

However, to paint or draw successfully, artists need to slow down so they can examine and study the shapes and values that make up an observed scene.  Artists try to avoid a verbal label for an object they may paint (such as as “tree,” “box,” “barn,” or “shoe”). Instead they train themselves to interpret what they see in a new, nonverbal way.  SEEING means focusing attention, looking at form – shapes, values, and colors – before beginning to paint.  Where is the light hitting the tree branches?  Can you see through the branches?  What is the overall shape of the tree?  Are branches straight, upturned, crooked, rough?  Is the tree lopsided or symmetrical?  Are the highlights a different color from the shadows?  What is the weather, and how does it affect the appearance of the vegetation?  By asking such questions and looking carefully, you can start to accurately paint what you SEE, NOT what you THINK you see.

“End Of The Day” Watercolor Painting.

Learning to draw helps you see, and being able to see will help you draw.  The perceptual skills and mental processes necessary for drawing are the same as those used when painting with a brush. In fact, artist Ian Roberts maintains that “The quickest way to improve your painting is to learn to draw.” Drawing trains the mind, hand, and eye to work together, without the distraction of color.  Further, drawing shapes and values helps you notice and decide what information you will need in order to actually paint your image. If you can’t see important shapes and values, you won’t be able to draw or paint well.

Many beginning artists avoid drawing altogether if they can, feeling that their drawing skills are not good.  (And they also may want to start painting right away, thinking that drawing is a distraction from the fun of painting.) However, you should not feel obliged to render precise drawings of what you wish to paint!  Do not let your concerns about drawing technique prevent you from trying to draw what is before you! 

One of the main purposes of drawing is to TRAIN yourself to see shapes and spaces more accurately – to “see” like an artist and take note of important details.  By keeping your drawing SIMPLE, just getting something down relatively quickly, you can allow yourself to SEE.  Look for BASIC SHAPES, and notice how they are connected.  Find larger shapes first; then fit smaller shapes into them.  More specifically, see the image as a whole; then concentrate on individual components.  That is, move from general information to the more specific. Distracting details are only decoration on the surface of these shapes, like frosting on a cake.

“Winter Is Coming” Watercolor Painting.

Concentrate; work slowly and intently.  Give yourself the time to observe and take in information before rushing to produce a finished image.  Ultimately, you should be able to perceive everything you see as totally abstract forms, values, lines, and color, as in a jigsaw puzzle.  Remember that shadows are shapes!  Reflections are shapes as well.  Backgrounds have shape and should act as frames for the subject of a painting.  Only when you can “see” in this way will you begin to be able to create the appearance of three-dimensional reality on your flat, two-dimensional paper.

Frederick Franck, artist and philosopher, says in The Zen of Seeing/Drawing:  “I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle . . . .”  So do not hesitate to sketch and draw what you intend to paint.  (Or even make a small sketch daily, drawing everyday things or imaginary scenes that might be totally unrelated to anything you want to paint.) As you draw, you will notice important details and sharpen the mind/hand/eye coordination necessary to improve your painting skills.  Drawing is not something you can or cannot do; it is a skill that requires practice and time, just like any other ability (including painting).  What matters is not the quality of each finished drawing, but the continued practice of close observation.

“Flowing Forward” Watercolor Painting

Another benefit of drawing and sketching, in addition to developing necessary observational and perceptual skills, is that you will automatically begin to condense observed information into a more SIMPLIFIED FORMAT, and this ability will come through in your painting.  With a drawing you are more likely to end up with your focal point being prominent, because you concentrate mainly on that particular feature.  Your drawing will be simpler, easier on the eye of the viewer, as you collect only the information that counts and leave out extraneous material.

Strive to “see” the world in terms of shape, pattern, color, line, and texture.  Having observed carefully, take your time, and use the information to record what you see as skillfully as you can.  As you go about your daily life, you may be surprised that you begin to see details that you never noticed before, that you look at the world around you differently. Mastering these skills will undoubtedly improve the quality of your painting.  Your personal viewpoint or individual perception of the world will become more and more apparent as you interpret what you “see” and choose what to record and include in your drawing or painting.

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.