Learning to Draw by making it easyier for the right brain and harder for the left brain
an essay by Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. © 2003

For a related essay see: Motivating Non Drawers
See a page on teaching Shading
Art Ed Links annotated 2002 UPDATE

We understand that good teachers figure out how to MAKE THE HARD STUFF EASIER, AND THE EASY STUFF HARDER . It can also be stated as, "Reduce frustrations and increase challenges." In most cases, where the brain has learned the wrong way to do something, it works best to do both things at the same time. MAKE THE WRONG WAY HARDER AND THE RIGHT WAY EASIER. When assigning drawing from observation, we do things to make it harder for the left brain and easier for the right brain.
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.

1.Make it easy by starting the drawing of a SINGLE ORIGINAL LINE THAT DOES NOT CONNECT TO DEFINE A SHAPE.  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 USING YOUR FINGER to 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 that students can see.  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 drawing will be inferior and discouraging.  Seeing an expert drawing discourages the fragile right brain.

1. 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.

2. 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 is 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

Here is a link with several short practice ideas

The Blinder Drawing Game
by Marvin Bartel
This game teaches both observation and imgination.

1. Players are in a circle around a table.  a piece of copper or aluminum wire that is easy to bend is placed in block of wood.  Each player adds one bend to the wire, but no subject matter is allowed.  Keep it abstract, but interesting and unpredictable.

2. All players make a blind contour drawing of the wire.  Each is working with a blinder on the pencil so no one sees their paper.  Each player is at a different position, so each drawing is different.  This part develops observation ability.

3. Each drawing is passed to the next person in the circle (to the right).

4. Each player then studies the received drawing, turning if in all directions looking for imaginary ideas.

5. Each player adds parts to the observed line drawing that was made by the person on their left.  Subject matter is added.  It can be real, fantastic, humorous, etc., but not a cliche. This part develops the imagination.

6. Pass the drawings to next person.  This person writes a title or a story about the picture.  This part also develops the imagination.

In Japan they have included observation drawing along with drawing from memory and from the imagination beginning in kindergarten.  Schools have gardens used as inspiration, they take outings, and so on.  They have a national curriculum where the art instruction is very important and quite consistent. In the first three grades they spend about 3 hours per week on art.  I doubt that they suffer from the crisis of confidence in grades three and four as much as our children do.  We know they also do well in math and academics when they get to high school.  I think there are connections.
Here is a web site with examples.

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

Credits: This lesson was inspired by a similar lesson developed and taught by Goshen College art students, Patty Brown, Marlea Hershberger, Crystal Kempher, and Tiffany Wyse. We appreciate the cooperation of teachers, administration and especially the students of St. John's Catholic School, Goshen, IN, for their cooperation.

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©  This lesson was written by Marvin Bartel, 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, e-mail: marvinpb@goshen.edu

Goshen College students are permitted to make a copy for their own use.

Marvin Bartel, Ed.D., Professor of Art
Goshen College, 1700 South Main St., Goshen IN 46526
fax: 219-535-7660

For more about how to "copy" an Internet image for teaching