Tales from the Art Side Art Blog
A few months ago I wrote about the propagation of what I have often called The Drawing Myth and its role in the spreading of misinformation concerning the accessibility of drawing as a learnable skill. This is a fascinating topic for me and one which I find myself returning to with each new semester of teaching kids art. The beginning of this school year was no different, and in fact, I found myself just this week delivering my Drawing Myth speech to a collection of eager new faces. My mind is often prone to wander while my mouth is delivering familiar words, and I__™m often just as prone to allow it; I__™m curious to see where it might go. On this particular journey, my mind followed an illogical path of reasoning to an unexpected and enlightening conclusion. I decided to remove the brain filter and allow myself to think out loud in front of my students, a risky move that can, and often has, led to disastrous results. This time, however, it brought me to an epiphany of surprising intrigue that I find myself still trying to fully grasp.
I__™ve always given my Drawing Myth speech to students on the third or fourth day of class, which is safely within the confines of the ___honeymoon___ grace period. It usually takes teenagers approximately one full week to shed their introverted cocoons and emerge into the class environment displaying the full spectrum of their colorful personalities. While this does not guarantee that my philosophical dialogue will fall upon the ears of a rapt and captive audience, it does increase the likelihood that they will at least be quiet for its duration.
My introduction of the drawing myth has always proceeded my explanation of the two halves of the brain, which includes a list of their specific traits and cognitive responsibilities. My goal is to illustrate the significant role the brain plays in either inhibiting or allowing a student to truly begin to improve their drawing. Much of the information I share comes straight from the text of Betty Edwards__™ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which, in my humble opinion, is the definitive source for teaching beginning drawers. And while it is not my intent to simply recite Edwards__™ work, there are a few key points I must mention in order to better explain the revelation that occurred to me.
First, and foremost, are the completely contrary personalities exhibited by the two halves of our brain. The left side of our brain is the verbal, analytical, logical, digital (i.e. numerical) and temporal side of the mind. Much of what we do while we are awake and walking around falls under the jurisdiction of the left brain. The left brain is task-oriented, efficient, and a bit of a megalomaniacal control freak. What__™s more, it is the opinion of the left brain that anything not included on its list of responsibilities is an unnecessary waste of time. The left brain is so convinced of its superiority, that it will often resort to cognitive sabotage to ensure that it remains in control of all sensory output.
Contrast this to the exceedingly gentle and passive personality of the right side of our brain. Often referred to as the creative side, the right brain excels at skills that are nonverbal, intuitive, spatial, and holistic. The right brain is exceptional in divergent thinking and seeing the whole for the sum of its parts. The right brain is already a great drawer, it is expressive, compassionate, and okay with the fact that the left brain is usually in charge. However, when allowed to drive, it will quickly assert its influence, which often results in loosing all track of time and having a great deal of fun.
We all have these personalities bouncing around inside of our heads and we are often unaware of exactly how much influence they have on both our personality and behavior. I have become quite fond of showing several of the Mac/PC commercials to my students because I believe, as a metaphor, they perfectly personify the right and left brain. The humor of the ads help ease the tension of what can be a fairly heady (pardon the pun) topic, but I also think it helps solidify our understanding if we can imagine our brains as having predictable personalities. After all, we are very nearly cognitive slaves to the synaptic will of our own gray matter, and the more we understand it, the more likely that we can be the ones in control.
I frequently tell my students their hand has little to do with them learning to draw. The key ingredients are their eyes, and more importantly, their brains. Since we spend most of our time perceiving the world through the eyes of our dominant left brain, tasks like drawing are understandably difficult and frustrating, because the left brain is no good at them. The right brain, however, is well versed in the necessary skills that make drawing something which not only comes easily, but is enjoyable as well. The real key is being able to make a cognitive switch from the left brain into the right. I tell my students that I understand all of this brain stuff sounds like a bunch of tree-hugging, new-age, crystal-loving nonsense, but it__™s the honest truth. The difference between an ___artist___ and the average person is that the artist knows how to make the necessary cognitive switch to engage creative thinking.
And that__™s when I was struck by a two-ton block of obvious. That is the source of the drawing myth. That is the key. Artists know, if even only on a subconscious level, how to make the switch to the right brain. And once we are functioning under the control of the right brain, tasks like drawing become much easier. And to the average person, who is largely unaware of all this business about our two conflicting brains, it appears that the artist must have simply been born with this unique ability to draw. It suddenly becomes easy to understand how this perception can so easily continue to perpetuate itself. The artists go about their work, deftly switching into the right brain and making their craft seem effortless. All the while the general population, to whom drawing is quite difficult, goes on unaware of the fact that their own creative abilities are being held hostage by their dominant left brain.
I will admit that saying it out loud, and now typing it, makes me feel like some crackpot conspiracy theorist. But this relationship between ability, and the perception of it, seems so transparent and obvious to me now. I sincerely hope I__™ve explained it in a way that makes it clear, especially since I__™ve not yet reached the bottom of the rabbit hole.
I__™ve followed this line of reasoning to an even greater depth and discovered what is, at least to me, another fascinating parallel between our brains and our behavior. We know that each of us houses this complex dynamic of contradictory thinking inside our heads. And while it is true that everyone has varying degrees of dominance between the two halves, for a vast majority of our population, the left brain exercises a commanding influence. We must also admit to some extent that influence inspires who we are and how we behave, both individually, and as a species. So if we compare the responsibilities and preferences of the left brain to our societal priorities and norms, some interesting similarities emerge.
Of specific importance to me is the perception of the arts, both in education and society in general. While we do certainly have advocates outside our immediate subject area who help champion our cause, I don__™t think I__™m understating it to say that the arts receive minimal support at best. More often than not the arts are categorically placed on the edge of societies perception and forced to operate in the peripheral of the public eye. In addition, we continue to see art moved lower and lower on the list of subjects our children should learn, if not removed from the list entirely.
This type of thinking has always frustrated me profoundly because it seemed to condescendingly simplify and negate something I__™m incredibly passionate about. But now I find myself looking at this flawed attitude with new eyes. It might be that those with a less than supportive attitude towards the arts simply don__™t know any better. And I guess I always knew that, but now I think I understand why they don__™t know any better. What__™s more, I think I have an idea of what needs to be done to try and resolve such rampant neglect of one of the most unique and soulful aspects of being a human. But the task is so large and overwhelming, where does one begin. I guess I__™ll start with 1st period tomorrow.