Monday, May 17, 2010

Learning to see

When was the last time you drew something? Anything? Lately, I have been drawing pictures for the kids: castles, flowers, hearts, whatever they request. I can do these. They're simple, straight-forward, and I've been drawing them since I was little. In fact, they probably haven't changed much in that time. Why is that?

A friend of mine (one of the most insightful people I know) told me about a book she is reading: The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Dr. Betty Edwards. In it, Dr. Edwards discusses the series of steps through which our drawings progress, and she suggests a psychological reason behind the abandonment of drawing around the age of 9 or 10. A quick overview:

toddlers (~2.5 years)  Young children begin by scribbling, but this soon becomes a circular pattern (most likely because drawing a circle comes naturally, given the rotary movement of the shoulder and wrist joints). Around 2.5 years of age, children realize that they can make the circle into a more recognizable form by adding lines (five lines for fingers, lines all around for the sun, and so on).

young children (~3.5 years) Children begin to perceive the detail in their world, and their drawings follow suit. This is a remarkably fast transition, as children go from the circle and stick images to drawing bodies with heads, arms, and legs (though the placement of the appendages may not mirror real life).

kindergarteners (4-5 years)  By this point, children have learned to use symbols (lines, circles, triangles) to represent objects, and their drawings tend to take on a narrative quality. Interestingly, children at this stage often exaggerate parts of the drawing they deem of greater importance (Dr. Edwards provides two examples: an enlarged arm used to hold up an umbrella, and an enlarged teeth-baring older sister in a family portrait).

first graders (5-6 years)  Around this age, children start drawing landscapes, with houses, trees, bushes, the sun. Their drawings are filled with symbols: a bit of green at the bottom for the land, some blue across the top for the sky, a rectangular door with a round doorknob. Dr. Edwards points out that these landscapes are well balanced. If you were to remove one part from the whole, the picture feels off. Try it yourself. Recreate your childhood landscape. Then try covering one section at a time. How does it feel when you do this?

older children (9-10 years)  By this point, realism has become dominant, and children spend a great deal of time trying to capture something in a realistic way. Drawings becomes more detailed, the desire to balance the composition fades. Quite often, at this point, the desire to represent something realistically overwhelms children, as they struggle to draw something the "right" way. It is usually around this time that people abandon drawing, convinced they cannot draw.

Why is this? And why does it persist? Dr. Edwards argues that our ability to draw is inhibited by what we "know" about an object. Take, for example, a cube. We know that a cube looks like a square when viewed from the side, that each side is flat, and that each corner is a right angle. When we try to draw a cube, we want it to reflect these things that we "know." Quite often people start out drawing the square. But what do you do next? The top and sides are also squares... how do we incorporate the right angles and sides of equal length to draw a realistic-looking cube? This, in fact, is the problem. In order to draw a cube in a realistic way, we must learn to see the cube differently. Note that the angles do not always appear to be 90°, that the sides are not always drawn using lines of equal length (this depends on the perspective used).

Dr. Edwards suggests that language development influences what we "know" about objects and plays an important role in how well we can draw something. To draw something realistically requires putting aside what we know and learning to look at things in a new way. To really focus on the objects, rather on what we think the objects should be. This, Dr. Edwards argues, requires a mental shift from using the left hemisphere of the brain (the one that stores what we know in words: right angles, equal sides) to using the right hemisphere.

Part of this involves putting ourselves into an approach state of mind, which opens us up to new ways of seeing things. Such a shift from what we "know" to a more open way of viewing things helps not only artistic efforts, but also promotes discovery and helps people solve problems.

Try to see something in a new way today. What happens?

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