On this page:
- bio of Dr Betty Edwards, author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain©
- the interview
- how we learn to draw
- what obstacles need to be overcome
- what is the legacy of her findings
- how does the art community react
- is learning to draw a natural skill
- what was her own how-to-draw journey
- how she came to do her research
- the miracle of the right hemisphere
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain© was the publication in popular format of the doctoral work she undertook to understand her students' sudden gift for drawing. When Dr Edwards originally published the book in 1979, she told herself she would be pleased if it managed to sell a couple of hundred copies.
In fact it was a sensation. Within two weeks Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain© was already on the New York Times Bestseller List, where it stayed for a year. When Betty Edwards published an updated version in 1989 it went immediately to the New York Times Bestseller List yet again. it has since been translated into 13 languages and has sold over 2.5 million copies.
Betty Edwards based her instruction on Roger W. Sperry's left brain right brain research for which he received the 1981 Nobel Prize. A familiar concept today, this research identified the differing roles played by the two hemispheres of the human brain. The left hemisphere thinks in a linear fashion; uses numbers, words and other symbols; and is better at tasks involving language, logic and analytical reasoning. The right hemisphere uses visual processes and information all at the same time, and is better at tasks such as recognizing a parent's face.
Deborah Mends: Dr. Edwards, what are your first thoughts on the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain method that you would like to share?
Betty Edwards: One of the odd things that we’ve experienced throughout these long years of teaching is that for some reason many people equate creativity with artistic ability. I don’t believe that myself, I believe that creativity can occur with the plumber, with a scientist, with people who are completely unconnected to art. But for some reason, in America at least, there is the idea that artistic ability is a precursor, almost a required precursor of creative ability.
So one of the happy things that occurs is that when you teach people how to draw they feel artistic; and therefore they feel more creative and therefore they’re willing to chance doing some creative work. It’s as if learning to draw gives them something like the credentials to move on to creative work in their own fields.
It’s a kind of happy coincidence, I think, and one that we are thrilled to participate in; but in fact, I think that creativity exists as a characteristic of its own and doesn’t require an artistic background. Drawing isn’t taught in schools, at least not in America; yet it’s a skill like reading, that apparently requires instruction. I do believe that, that in an odd way it is not “natural” skill, just as, apparently, reading is not “natural” skill. Otherwise, all those individuals out there who can’t read would teach themselves how to read.
Deborah Mends: Yet I seem to recall from one of your earlier editions that you are someone who drew naturally, from the beginning.
Betty Edwards: Well, yes, and there are some individuals who manage to teach themselves how to read. But I think this is a rare occurrence, I really do, and I think it has to do with personality. I was a kind of a loner kind of kid, and when I was given an impetus like reading Alice in Wonderland, when I looked at the illustrations it inspired me to draw. I think this is rare - I was a rare bird in that regard.
Deborah Mends: What are the barriers that people are experiencing when they’re trying to learn how to draw?
Betty Edwards: One obvious barrier is the concept of talent - the notion that learning to draw requires talent. Innate, God-given talent. This has become attached to the ability to draw and therefore interferes with it, whereas the concept of talent really is not so powerful in, for example, reading. At least here in this country we do not really feel it takes innate verbal talent to read! It only requires adequate instruction. And that actually is the very basis of my work: that people really have this ability to learn to draw just as people have the ability to learn to read, and what is required is proper instruction. With that I obviously believe that every person of sound mind can learn to draw. It’s not very hard!
DM: In fact the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain method is pretty straightforward indeed.
Betty Edwards: Yes, but I’m afraid that these techniques for teaching are not really that common in teaching people how to draw. In the art education community, there has been a lot of resistance to these ideas and teaching these basic skills. And we did the same thing in reading here, during the 60s and 70s. We obscured the whole idea of phonics, for example, we didn’t teach phonics, becauser we were teaching “reading”. Sadly; it’s just a mistake.
DM: How does it make you feel when you look back on your professional life and see the impact you have had on so many students?
Betty Edwards: Oh, well, it’s a constant surprise. As a writer you wonder as you’re doing the writing if anyone is ever going to read it. And the great surprise came that in fact people did read it and felt it was useful, valuable and so on. So it’s a constant surprise! And I mean that absolutely sincerely. And of course it’s a wonderful experience to have done something that’s been modestly successful.
DM: You must nevertheless feel there is a great deal of meaning to your life.
Betty Edwards: Yes…I suppose you’re right.… I think I don’t think of myself that much that way. And since I’ve just finished the 4th revision of the book I think I’m constantly trying to think of ways to say it more clearly, make it more effective, to talk to people who can add to the work. It’s an ongoing thing. In my mind it’s not an accomplishment of the past, it’s an ongoing thing.
DM: What direction would you like to see Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain instruction heading in?
Betty Edwards: Well, I’ll answer that in relation to my aims. My aim has been very simple: to reinstall the teaching of drawing in the early grades and right through education. Not for drawing, but for brain training. And specifically for training the thought processes and functions of the right hemisphere, which are pretty much ignored in today’s education, and it’s getting worse all the time, as a matter of fact, in this country.
The main aim is to reintroduce drawing and teach it well and through drawing to teach how to access the functions of the right hemisphere. Along with reading-writing-‘rithmetic, we would teach the basic skills not with the aim of training a novelist, for example, but with the aim of improving thinking. That’s what it’s all about.
DM: I wonder if you have heard of programs such as Youth At Risk, where art teachers volunteer to teach young teenagers from high-risk urban areas. It would seem that serious research has shown that these programs can be life-changing. The kids don’t turn to drugs or gangs, but go on to lead normal lives.
Betty Edwards: That’s a marvelous idea! That would be a terrific use of the work! But I think that that’s a narrow aim, to just give kids an outlet; the larger aim is to get them able to see things differently, and not only metaphorically.
The right hemisphere is not only metaphorical, it’s logistical as well. Whereas the problem with the left hemisphere is, it’s very good at lying. It’s true, there is research that shows this. The right hemisphere in a sense lives without language but perceives reality, and the left hemisphere, to put it in a telling phrase, “explains things away”. The right hemisphere is forced, even against its will, to confront reality. And this in fact is the purpose of all this: to see things clearly, at last.
DM: It sounds like there is a spiritual side to this as well; you’re perceiving a reality and a beauty you didn’t see was there before.
Betty Edwards: Oh yes, indeed, absolutely. That’s part of it, the whole aesthetic experience is part of it. And it does happen. Our students express this by saying at the end of the class that they are astonished that they are seeing so much more. One woman said that she used to categorize people all the time - pretty, ugly, whatever - and then she said to us that now every face looks beautiful to her.
Some quite good research shows that the aesthetic response, which is a pretty slippery concept, as characterized by a British researcher, occurs in the right hemisphere. Then the left hemisphere, knowing that something has happened, then tries to verbalize that experience. But the original aesthetic response rises in the right hemisphere. People need to have access to this hemisphere.
DM: This is leading me to one of my next questions: how has your work changed your view of Art with a capital “A”? When you look back on what you thought of the great masters before you developed what you know about drawing realistic art, how has your thinking changed about what they accomplished?
Betty Edwards: Well, you are assuming I had a different background from the one I actually had growing up in a working class family, growing up through the Depression, when my father was out of work for four years: it was a pretty basic growing up, if you see what I mean. There was no background of Rembrandt, Dégas and so on in my childhood.
DM: How did you end up in art?
Betty Edwards: It was the thing I always did best. I had a lot of interests, I liked writing and reading, and other things, but I always got A’s in the art classes, so I would count on that when I took things I wasn’t so sure of, like algebra! No, it just happened, it was really on my own that I developed my interest in art and then I took art classes and then I traveled, so then you see it was just a gradual thing.
I think as a result of this work I have a greater awareness of what underlies great works of art, the underlying message - whether the artwork is abstract or realistic or non-objective or whatever. I feel now that I’m better able to “read” art and therefore respond. And I think this happens because it is part of the need we have to meet in educating kids in how to draw and how to see. It’s all part of learning how to see. My way of seeing has changed and is constantly changing. You begin to see the underlying artistic message in lots of things.
DM: What actually got you started on all of this research? As I’ve been able to understand it, you were an art teacher and you were puzzled about why your students couldn’t learn to draw the way you could.
Betty Edwards: When I first started teaching in high school here in Los Angeles I expected that I would teach the kids how to draw and then I would take it from there to painting and so on. I was actually shocked to learn that they had great difficulty in drawing; I just couldn’t understand it, so I just began to quiz them about this in various ways, saying can’t you see that the vase is sitting in front of the backdrop and why can’t you see that. They would say, well I can see it, but I don’t know how to draw it. And I would say, well, you just look at what’s out there and then you draw what you see and they would say, well I can see it but I don’t know how to draw it, and so on. And I just couldn’t understand that, and then came the experience of doing the upside down drawing.
DM: And that came about as an accident?
Betty Edwards: Well, it was born out of frustration. You know: they can’t draw, they can’t draw, they can draw. Okay, so let me try this, today we’re drawing upside-down, and I passed out a reproduction of the Picasso drawing and everyone in the class was able to draw. So I asked, now, how come you can draw upside-down when you can’t draw right-side up? And they would say, it’s upside-down, and I don’t know what I’m drawing.
And then there is that puzzlement, and then the kids themselves got interested in this, and then you have this wonderful situation of the teacher working with the students trying to figure things out. Then I moved to a community college, I was teaching there, when a publisher came round looking for a manuscript, and I said okay, I’ll see if I can write this stuff down, and that was the manuscript that was refused.
Then I gave a talk that was written up in the newspaper, and I was working on a Masters at that time and doing more research especially on the upside-down drawing that was researchable. I then decided to do the doctorate at UCLA, I did my dissertation there which was a big thesis for the book. It went like that, it was just one step at a time.
It largely came out of curiosity, I’m a very curious person, I think: how come this, and how come that, and why is this happening and so on. It’s just curiosity.
DM: You must’ve been very engaged in what you were doing to take this as far as a doctorate.
Betty Edwards: The fact is, the work is never lost its charm for me. I’m constantly thinking, I’m thinking along new lines now, which aren’t gelled enough right now to really even talk about. But it’s really grabbing work, and we have found this with all of our teachers, as is the case with my son Brian himself, and I cannot tell you why that is, but it is.
DM: Perhaps because this work touches on something that’s essential to being a human being.
Betty Edwards: I agree with you. You know, I’m going to recommend a book by Iain McCristal, entitled “The Master and his Emissary”. It’s an absolutely marvelous book, it’s 600 pages long, I’m sorry to tell you, but briefly, McCristal’s theory in this book is that originally the right hemisphere was the “master”, that is, in charge of the brain, so to speak. The left hemisphere was the “emissary”, the interpreter of the feelings and ideas of the right hemisphere, but in time the emissary became more and more powerful and gradually replacing the master throughout history, to the point that now the emissary has completely eclipsed the master.
Now this is pretty drastic because all of our culture worldwide is dominated by language. People are feeling that something has gone wrong and I think that what we’re doing touches on that, touches on the power of right-hemisphere thinking. And I do believe this, that the right hemisphere is extraordinarily powerful.
DM: You’ve taught hundreds, perhaps thousands of students. Is there one that really stands out in your mind?
Betty Edwards: Honestly, the students I can call to mind quickly are the students that I drew, who modeled for me. There’s a whole pantheon that is immediately available once you’ve drawn several people, so there’s that. And yes often there are students who have intense experiences.
I’ll give you one example, a woman whose mother and sister were both artistic, she was the kid in the family who was shut out of that field and when she learned to draw she panicked. This was because she was not supposed to attempt that field, it was closed to her. And its things like that that I remember.
Like the Wall Street broker who came to class every day in a pinstriped suit and who was, well, very aggressive in fact, both to me and to the lessons. But in the end he did succeed rather well in learning to draw and was thrilled like a little boy about it. And then his wife said to me, thank you for the class and thank you for teaching me how to draw, and thank you for saving my marriage. Apparently it changed this man’s view of everything.
DM: That’s enormous!
Betty Edwards: It’s the sort of dramatic things like that that one remembers. It’s a rewarding thing to do, people are so grateful for having found part of themselves that was there all the time.
DM: What about your students who already have academic artistic training?
Betty Edwards: In our work we do sometimes have students who have already had a lot of art training, you know, in anatomy and crosshatching, a specific kind of line, that kind of thing, a true academic rendition of the idealized forms and so on that seems to make it difficult to see the complexity.
That’s what the problem is. The world out there visually is enormously complicated, and once you accept that and agree that you won’t take any shortcuts, you accept that enormous complexity and try to describe every bit of it in a drawing, the academic mindset will fade away. In such a case I suggest doing something very simple, such as drawing a flower, a single flower, and you say to yourself, I’m going to accept the entire complexity of this in its 3-D-ness, you know, the whole thing, that you swallow it whole. And then the academic training and idealized forms will fade away.
You know, this is really wonderful work, because it never harms, and it always helps.
That’s our ace in the hole, it does good for people.