this method
  Learning to Draw
by making it easier for the right brain
and harder for the left brain
Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. © 2003

For a related essay see: Motivating Non Drawers
See a page on teaching Shading
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If you are new to the split brain theory, you will find a good explanation in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.  Most libraries have it or you can order a copy.
For many people, left brain thinking tries to dominate. It has all the remembered drawings and symbols and the right brain is so overpowered that it fails to see much.

An important prior assumption: Many teachers assume that "making it easy" consists of showing kids exactly what to do. They will draw something in front of the kids and ask them to follow along in a step-be-step fashion. Yes, this is easy for the kids. If this is your method, you may want to skip this page, because you may not like what I say here.

I believe the neurons that imitate and copy are different from the neurons that actually think, imagine, transform what we see, materialize what we see, interpret what we see, and so on. The copy neurons are like our mirror neurons. Our mirror neurons operate instinctively and help us do all kinds of imitation what we see without consciously thinking. However, we are producing substantially different neurons when we have to move an observation through our brain in order to purposely move the hand based a real thing rather simply repeating another picture. This is harder to do than copying a picture. Therefore, the points below are offered in order to make it easier to get new neurons to develop (not just to get another nice drawing on a piece of paper). The goal seeing better and drawing better because the brain has learned to process what is seen in the real world. Most of these points require a disciplined teacher who is very careful not to revert to drawing for the student. As soon as we draw for the student, the student's brain will revert to the copying shortcut.


  1. Make it easy by asking students to start the drawing of a SINGLE ORIGINAL LINE THAT DOES NOT CONNECT TO DEFINE A SHAPE. Do not allow students to look at the paper while the hand is in motion. Try a piece of wire that is bent in a way so it stands up on the table in front of the student.  Make a variety of intervals between the kinks and bends.  Every segment is different.  Avoid any subject matter (do not give the left brain a chance to summarize or generalize it).  It can be fun for students to make these abstract wire "sculptures" for each other to draw. This way they learn to make challenging ones for their own independent practice at home.
  2. Make it easy by limiting this to a short time.  I use no more than five or ten minutes at the start of every period for this kind of practice, but do it before every art lesson or every day so it becomes habitual like a SHORT PRACTICE RITUAL or "warm up drill" for art class.
  3. Make it easy by asking students to FIRST DRAW IT IN THE AIR while looking directly at it - not drawing on the paper. Let them follow the wire or edge very slowly in one direction and practice in the air again in the other direction.  Watch that they move slowly and watch that they see the kinks and bends as they go.
  4. As the teacher, make it easy by going over to the object and move along the edge with your YOUR FINGER.  SLOWLY follow the line to show the deliberate slowness you need in order to see every part.
  5. Make it easy by NOT DOING A TEACHER DRAWING and not doing a demo.  The left brain tries to memorize a teacher's drawing.  It has learned to mimic the teacher in order to please the teacher.  The student's own drawings are inferior and discouraging.  Seeing an expert drawing discourages the fragile right brain.  The left brain likes teacher demonstrations to provide answers and patterns to follow.  Teachers can stop demonstrating if they start using hands-on preliminary practice sessions to clarify working methods.


  • Select observable subjects that the person has NEVER SEEN (the left brain is like a giant hard drive full of on-demand images).  When the student tries to draw a nose, it says, "Here is a face. Use this. Don't get frustrated trying to see the shape of somebody's actual face."  This is why it is easier if familiar things like stuffed toys and shoes are placed upside down for observation drawing.  A teacher can bend a piece of wire in an interesting abstract way.  It will be a new thing to see.  Dried weed pods, interesting branches, random droppings of sticks, and so on are things that are unfamiliar to the left brain.
  • Place a BLINDER on the pencil.  A blinder is a huge card like a file folder with a hole in the middle.  Place it on the drawing pencil above the drawing hand.  When the left brain tries to create its thing on the paper it wants to see the paper in order to make sure you are following its pattern.  Of course it can draw familiar stuff without looking at either the paper or the objects, so the blinder works best when combined with things for which no previous simple image (schema) (pattern) is stored in the brain.
  • Be sure students are sitting so they are NOT TEMPTED TO COPY another student's drawing.  Copy work is a favorite way for the left brain to acquire those cliché ways and retard the right brain's development.  "How to Draw" books have the same numbing effect on the brain.

  • Do not require sessions that are too lengthy (especially at first).  Honest right brain work is hard work and fatigue can interfere with serious effort.  Try it.  You will see that you can feel a slight head pain if you really work to observe a new thing and draw it without looking at the paper.

  • If you select things that the left brain has memorized, INVERT the object so students  see it upside down and draw it that way.  The left brain will be frustrated and allow the right brain to attend to the observation.

  • When drawing a shape such as the edge of a leaf, an inverted shoe, or a person, warn students not to expect the beginning and end of the outline line to match on the paper, but simply expect the line itself to have the look of the actual edges.  I allow them to "fix" the meeting point with an eraser if it bothers them.

Philosophy of teaching -
MAKE THE HARD STUFF EASIER, AND THE EASY STUFF HARDER.  "Reduce frustrations and increase challenges." 

When assigning drawing from observation, we do things to make it harder for the left brain and easier for the right brain. 

Some short practice ideas

   Japan is unique in the world of drawing instruction

In Japan observation drawing along with drawing from memory and from the imagination begins in kindergarten.  Schools have gardens used as inspiration, they take outings, and so on.  A national curriculum makes art instruction very important and quite consistent. Art meets three hours per week during the first three grades.  I doubt that the crisis of confidence in grades three and four effects these children as it does the west.  We know these students also do well in math and academics when they get to high school.  I think there obvious are connections.

Here is a web site with examples posted in Japan.  It has lots of images.  Please give it time to load.

This page shows observation drawing outings and  sketches from Ukita Elementary, grades 1 to 6.


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Learning Skills to Learn to Draw
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Preschool Art
Rituals in the Art Classroom

Bartel's Artwork

©  This essay was written by Marvin Bartel, 2003, all rights reserved.  You are invited to link this page to your page. For permission to reproduce or copy photos, text, or layout, or to place this page on your site or to make printed copies - contact the author.

updated Decenber 2010

 author's artwork