Regarding Betty Edwards Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

In a recent Zoom Artist Round Table, a colleague brought up the merits of the popular book by Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The book has been translated into more than seventeen languages and boasts of being the world’s most widely used instructional drawing book. The book is now in its fourth edition which includes a new introduction, crucial updates based on recent research on the brain’s plasticity and the enormous value of learning new skills/ utilizing the right hemisphere of the brain, a new focus on how the ability to draw on the strengths of the right hemisphere can serve as an antidote to the increasing left-brain emphasis in American life-the worship of all that is linear, analytic, digital, etc., an informative section that addresses recent research linking early childhood “scribbling” to later language development and the importance of parental encouragement of this activity, and new reproductions of master drawings.

While the book itself is indeed popular and some of the techniques demonstrably useful in certain contexts—there is a significant issue with a major premise of the book in that it relies on a good deal of pseudoscience as support. More specifically, the text relies on the left-brain/right-brain myth.

Now I would argue that Dr. Edward’s technique of altering the context of a reference source (orientation, surround, illumination, etc.) to alter your perception of it is indeed sound. Such contextual alterations CAN absolutely lead to certain advantages in contending with “conceptual contaminations” that may lead to “less successful” observational representational efforts. However, the overarching claim within the book (the right-left brain myth) has long since been debunked. While I have read that the later editions of her book sort of “walk-back” this general idea—her WEBSITE continues to promote this framework.

For those that are interested in the myth being utilized here, there are many articles online that you can read about this if you are interested. For example:

Left-Brain Right-Brain Myth, Debunked: Foster Creativity and Logic in the Classroom
or
Right brain/left brain, right?

Or, you can opt to go directly to some of the more well-known studies on this issue like “Nielsen, Jared A., et al. “An evaluation of the left-brain vs. right-brain hypothesis with resting-state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging.PloS one 8.8 (2013): e71275.

For those of you that might not like to dig through studies or articles, you can sit back and enjoy this wonderful animated version of Dr. Elizabeth Waters’ (Neuroscientist and Director of STEM Outreach) TED talk on the subject HERE.

In addition, quite a while ago I came across a wonderful critique of the Betty Edwards book by artist Eugene Arenhaus on his blog Chiseledrocks. Unfortunately, it is no longer available. However, I was able to find an archived version of it and decided to archive it here as the review is very well done:

The right is not so right - Eugene Arenhaus

There is a book acclaimed as the ultimate breakthrough in teaching art. It is a bestseller recommended casually by thousands. It claims that it can help anyone drastically improve their drawing skills, even if they had never had any training in arts whatsoever. We all know what such promises of instant gratification are usually worth, be it “make money quick” schemes or wonder pills that will make you lose thirty pounds without exercise. Yet, the book seems to be no less popular now than when it was first published, is in its second edition, and receives ecstatic reviews from the readers — so let’s look at it to determine whether a serious beginner or an experienced artist can make any use of it.
The book in question is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, now sold in a revised edition as The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Let’s open it and see.

The theory

The author begins with relaying the popular theory about the left and right hemispheres of the brain carrying out different functions, the left one being “logical” and the right one being “creative”. By applying this theory to drawing, she claims, she is able to teach anyone to draw in five days!
The author’s concept appears to be that the left hemisphere is limiting the right one, focusing on the logical detail and preventing correct rendition of the scene. Remove the symbolic interference, she argues, and perception will sort everything out magically.

The first part of the book is entirely dedicated to elaborating on this “left brain versus right brain” theory. The claims are illustrated with symbolic drawings by young children and some home-science experiments like copying the same drawing upright and then upside down, and the ubiquitous double-profile vase illusion. The illustrations do not support the point, unfortunately.1

In fact, the whole “left versus right” theory that Edwards relies on is bunk. Sorry if I burst any bubbles, but the “left brain / right brain” notion is misinformation, pseudoscience, pop psychology, and plain wrong. It has been based on flawed research, and subsequent studies had not confirmed it.2 Still, the yellow press and pop culture love it, and so seems Edwards.

Perhaps Edwards is fascinated with the magic of the word “right” (it’s the right side, see? see?), or thinking that the right-left theory will help persuade people by impressing them with science (in which case she, ironically, does not notice that the bunk theory she uses is remarkably “left-brained”). Perhaps she believes that relying on popular myths will make communicating with beginners easier, or maybe that it would lend easy-to-relate terminology for explaining the difference between symbol and perception.

Unfortunately, it does not seem that she uses it as a convention to step over on the way to real learning. The bogus theorizing is heavy all over the book. After the theoretical part which is full of it, nearly every chapter includes more left-right apologetics, and Edwards’ whole method appears to focus on “drawing what you see”, what she calls the “R-mode”. The pseudopscientific garbage is everywhere. The book would be half or perhaps one third its current thickness if the bunk was removed.

The essence

If we don’t take the theorizing in account, the author’s point is very simple: most people look, but do not see. They automatically overlay the perceived image with a bunch of symbols that prevent realistic drawing and leave only space for childish doodling.

In that the author is, of course, perfectly correct.

But then she proceeds to practice, and things become far less splendid. Essentially, the author tries to base the whole drawing method on “shutting the left brain down”, i.e. drawing without analyzing the image, by direct “copying” of the visual field without understanding it.

To that purpose, she walks the reader through a number of exercises that are actually taught to beginners in traditional drawing school — for instance, drawing the edges by focusing on the negative space. But, unfortunately, it is not enough to draw the negative space in order to get a good picture, and drawing is never about pure perception as Edwards claims. This is where Edwards has been tripped by her own theory, and where it all quickly begins to break down.

It is interesting to note that in the “New” edition, Edwards’ preface does confirm that she is aware that her neurophysiology is bunk. But she still dedicated half the book to this bunk in the third edition, and she said in the preface that she was sticking to her “folk theory” because (she says) her method works.
But it does not work. It is a lopsided, counterproductive method aimed at quick gratification at the beginning without caring about later progress.

Before you say I am too assertive, here are some samples of “before and after” student drawings from the book. There are sixteen in the book; they all show the same methodological problems. I have picked three in which the problems are the easiest to see even if you are not too experienced:
It is easy to see that, though every student was able to switch to actual looking at the subject, and learned somewhat to copy the visual field, none of them made any attempt to think. These drawings are patchworks of unconnected parts. They are all askew, position on the page notwithstanding. Facial features crawl all over the face; there is zero attention to volume; there is no comprehension of tone whatsoever. These drawings are not drawings in artistic sense which presumes construction and consistency; they are only inane copies of visual field. In fact, the leftmost samples show that the student had a better grasp of drawing before Edwards’ course.

However, to each student, it must have seemed like a breakthrough. The superficial resemblance to artistic technique would seem miraculous compared to their prior inane formulaic drawings. But superficial is all it is.

I see it as highly symptomatic that whenever a decent drawing is found among the book’s illustrations, it is inevitably either by some professional artist or by the author. Even some instructors’ drawings show the same vicious mistakes! The students’ drawings provided in the book, with one or two exceptions, never rise above mediocre level, essentially refuting the claim of a breakthrough teaching method. If that claim were true, the author could certainly have had easily found two dozen brilliant works from her thousands of students to boast of. Where are they?
The problem
The problem with Betty Edwards’ method is subtle enough: she indeed proposes exercises that work, picking those that are mechanical enough to work instantly — and so does a splendid job in persuading the reader that fast progress can be made. But her theory explanations are worthless, if not harmful, being more of the “right brain” apologetics. And her aversion to understanding leaves the student with no way to proceed past mindless copying. (She talks about understanding - but her practical approach is nowhere near it.)

The exercises she offers are working ones. They are academical classics, after all. They are useful to persuade people that looking and seeing are not the same thing, and to show them some ropes. But there is too much useless pseudoscientific theorizing hanging on them.

Most of the content in the practical chapters can be found in the first introductory section of any decent academical drawing course, only here it is woefully incomplete and spread thinly over five chapters interspersed with more kitchen neurology arguments.

Edwards covers the correct posture, scribbling for freeing the hand, viewfinder frame, positive and negative space, a little penciling technique, measuring angles and relationships with a pencil, skims over composition — focusing on “unit” measurement as if it were a panacea. The “New” edition adds a chapter on perspective, but again it is talked about in terms of unit measurement and copying with a viewfinder, not any sort of perspective as an artist would understand it.

This exceptional reliance on viewfinder3 shows that author actually has been caught in her own promise of instant gratification: now that she proclaimed that drawing was easy and required only “shutting down the left brain” and copying what is seen, she can’t admit that the essence of drawing is about understanding, not simple copying! Yet without understanding, she would not get even marginally good results.

So she sneaks in elements of understanding. Compared to the first edition, the third edition is peppered with these little admissions of defeat.

However, her versions of those elements are quite pathetic. An artist needs to understand perspective, but we can’t do any geometry or calculation, that’s too “left-brain”! So Edwards teaches fake perspective which is really more copying with a grid and unit measurement. An artist needs to know anatomy in order to make a good portrait, but that’s too “left-brain”! So Edwards produces this:

I cannot believe this made it into the book. How is this in any way “right brain” in Edwards’ terminology? This is pure formalism, “left brain” in her language, and should be anathema to her. Yet she included it in the “New” edition. Worse, the whole chapter is dedicated to a lengthy, torturous discussion of measuring of specific distances on a human face, while carefully avoiding its structure.4
This weak, formulaic attempt to distill facial proportions without teaching any anatomy is probably the worst blow to the book’s credibility. It goes contrary to the author’s concept; and it defeats the whole point: the proponent of the “shut the reasoning down” approach resorts to the abhorred logic to save the drawing that is falling apart due to nothing else but the shutdown of logic!

She makes one more attempt to save face, but it is even more pathetic: she presents almost normal theory of lighting (“light logic” as she peculiarly calls it), but tries to claim that the analysis of shadows as somehow pertinent to the “R-mode”. In this chapter Edwards falls to a splendid species of Lysenkoism: her “R-mode logic” is, somehow, supposed to be superior to the normal logic. She spends whole paragraphs arguing that analyzing the light direction is really a function of her “R-mode”. Sapienti sat.

The “New” edition also has an added chapter on color, but again, it is mostly discussion of pseudoscience with almost no real color theory, and is so compressed that it feels like an afterthought. It has three exercises in a single chapter, where other five exercises got a chapter each.
Overall, the book is unsystematic, aimless and self-contradicting. It tries too hard to “prove” its bizarre pseudoscience, to great detriment of whatever useful material it contains, and resulting in nearly complete absence of the real, proven artistic techniques.

One has to wonder whether Edwards actually knows the real techniques at all, or is simply trying too hard to promote her theories.

Perhaps the most telling is the final added chapter in the “New” edition, “The Zen of Drawing”. Here is a quote:

“Drawing is a visual task and most artists have great problems drawing from memory except for those images they have drawn before. If someone asked me to draw a picture of an antique railway engine, for example, I could not do that because I don’t know what it looks like. If I could see a picture, or go to view the object, then I could draw it. Curiously, this occasionally comes as a surprise to people who don’t draw. They seem to think that an artist is someone who can draw anything.”

The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Page 250 of 3rd edition, my emphasis.
Incredibly, Edwards appears to think that all there is to drawing is copying from reference!

Why, Betty, yes, a real artist is someone who can draw anything. Every illustrator, concept artist in cinema, science-fiction artist, comic book creator will laugh at your impotent assertion. Can you hear Dore and Grandville guffaw? Can you hear Bosch and Arcimboldo? McQuarry and Mead? We can draw things that we have never seen before, by relying on our understanding of how things work and our knowledge of how things look, combined. We can and will draw from reference to enhance the realism of our work, but we are not slaves to it. Or do you think that we go hunting for aliens, starships or superheroes to model for us? Or that we rely on your Rorschach-test method you call “the dialog” in your afterthought “Zen” chapter? We rely on our imagination and creativity, the meaning of which you do not seem to grasp. And we rely on hard knowledge and keen observation, so we can reconstruct anything we have seen or imagined and make the viewer believe it is real.

The saddest thing about this book is the many, many people who now think that Edwards’ inane teachings are what art is about.

Conclusion

Let’s face it: one cannot develop a wholesome skill by practicing only a part of it. Just as one cannot become a good carpenter by focusing only on driving nails and ignoring all the rest, one cannot become a good artist by concentrating solely on visual plane. Drawing is not only about seeing; it is primarily about interpretation and analysis, and it is not sufficient to learn to copy nature in order to attain skill. An artist who learned by this book alone would be helpless the instant he needs to draw anything not present before his eyes, and photographs will not help because using them requires advanced skill in analysis and interpretation. But even without that, there’s only so much success you can hope to achieve as long as you use only half your brain.

The book begins with a few valuable ideas that could provide the initial push that is needed to send you on the road of an artist. It could serve as an impact that makes people try a new thing; and it can be useful for building up confidence. But it teaches little for real, because it promises that it’ll teach you quickly. It does teach quickly — but it does so through teaching precious little even for a beginner level book, unsystematically and with a huge load of pseudoscientific nonsense.

Those who only want quick gratification (“look Ma, I can draw!”) will certainly get it, which is evident from ecstatic testimonials, but they will get little else: they will indeed draw “better” than before the book, but compared to what is possible in art that’s not a consolation. They would make a leap to the side, not upward. To Edwards, however, there is pure gain: book and seminar sales, at the cost of mutilated potential in others.

I suspect that trying to progress further than Edwards takes you would be actually harder after this course than without it. The presentation is too unsystematic, shows no clear road to further growth, and leaves you with poor habit of slavish copying. In addition the book uses its own terminology, often incompatible with the general artistic jargon - putting another obstacle between the student and the learning.

Those for whom art is a passion, would do good to seek knowledge elsewhere and not linger at this book which does invite you to open your mind first, but then fills it with very little substance and heaps of pseudo-neurological junk. Unlearning the garbage will take you much longer than learning the right things to begin with.

It is sad, but it is certainly not the first instance of snake oil being a smashing success while true teaching masterpieces like textbooks by Andrew Loomis lie forgotten and forty years out of print.

^ 1) The upside-down drawing is indeed about symbolic thinking in image recognition: an untrained person would produce a bad copy in both cases, but the one copied upside down will be somewhat closer to the original because of absence of familiar symbols to fix oneself upon, independent of where in the brain these function are really located. It is easy to realize that this is an example of perception being filtered through familiar symbols. Weaken the symbolic filter, and the perception will become more image-like than description-like. In normal life, symbolic recognition has advantages over generic perception. It is not really about either creativity or logic or the brain hemispheres, though.
The double profile vase is a demonstration of shifting attention focus. The normal human brain, when presented with a dubious visual input, will switch between the alternating perceptions about every 3 seconds. There are many illusions like this, mainly using patterns, or spatial or depth perceptions. In this case, the duality is between space and object. Spatial perception has nothing to do with the supposed creative-logical split.

^ 2) The notion of the difference between “creative right” and “logical left” comes from the American neurological research done in 1960s, initially on patients whose corpus callosum (the link between hemispheres) was cut in attempt to cure epilepsy. American surgeons were nothing short of arrogant back then! The brain with dissected link continues to function, but under certain circumstance, it is possible to communicate with either separate hemisphere, which is how the dissociation was discovered. With technique developed, experiments were then done with intact people, and it was discovered that the right hemisphere on its own is better at recognizing shapes, whereas the left one was better with abstract concepts, and so on. Along with awareness about certain lower-level functions like speech and writing recognition that are predominantly located in one hemisphere, that created the ground for the now widespread myth of differently functioning hemispheres.

Of course, the notion of separately gifted hemispheres disregards the fact that, in a normal brain, both hemispheres function as an entity, not as separate processors. Special (and tricky) circumstances are needed to discover their reactions independent of each other, which are not likely to be encountered in a real situation (even if you close one eye, it will not shut a hemisphere down: you’d have to project the image on one half of each eye somehow to keep it out of the other hemisphere’s vision). The experiments on the intact brain, however, refute the whole “left-right” dichotomy altogether.
Recent neurophysiological [research] shows that in the higher cognitive functions there is no evident drastic asymmetry: the right hemisphere is more inclined to process general information, and the left one concentrates more on fine detail, which, apparently, led the early researchers to believe the creative versus logical idea — but, overall, either hemisphere is universal enough. In some situations, the researchers had observed the left side focusing on the general form and the right side on the fine detail, in complete reversal of the “left-right” hypothesis.

^ 3) The viewfinder frame is used in academia to teach composition, as a tool for “cutting” a picture out of the visual field. The vast majority of artists do not use it once they get the point. Edwards’ method, however, has no relation to composition: her students use the viewfinder as a sort of grid copying technique! It is an essential crutch for them; Edwards goes to lengths to justify its use by citing US patents, historical tracts and van Gogh’s letters.

^ 4) This is about the only thing resembling any anatomy in the whole book, too.

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about 5 years ago, when I decided I wanted to be able to draw/paint - this was the first book I bought, probably equal parts naiveté, judging a book by its cover and amazon ad serving. But I opened it full of enthusiasm and motivation, and I think I got at best about 2-3 pages in, vaguely remember something about drawing in different artist styles (like van gogh’s was all squiggles) and anyway long story short it felt way crude, basic and fruitless so I put it away and got a book containing pictures I actually wanted to be able to draw, like Da Vinci’s girl she put right there on the cover, (I got a collection of drawings by Raphael and began to copy those as best I could).

To my eternal shame, really I didn’t give the Betty Edwards book any more of a chance than that. But fortunately it doesn’t look like I made such a terrible decision.

I bought the workbook version a few years ago, and went through about half the exercises. I found the exercises involving drawing on a plastic picture plane to be especially helpful.

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