October 11, 2006

Redrawing the right side of the brain

Posted in Drawing, Inspiration, Reading at 2:11 pm by India

In cleaning out my bookmarks-I-didn’t-get-to-follow-before-I-had-to-reboot- because-FontReserve-was-acting-funny folder, I came across a link to a speech by Milton Glaser. Sorry, I don’t remember where I got it—some design blog or other. The whole piece is charming, but I particularly liked this:

The brain is the most responsive organ of the body. Actually it is the organ that is most susceptible to change and regeneration of all the organs in the body. I have a friend named Gerald Edelman who was a great scholar of brain studies and he says that the analogy of the brain to a computer is pathetic. The brain is actually more like an overgrown garden that is constantly growing and throwing off seeds, regenerating and so on. And he believes that the brain is susceptible, in a way that we are not fully conscious of, to almost every experience of our life and every encounter we have. I was fascinated by a story in a newspaper a few years ago about the search for perfect pitch. A group of scientists decided that they were going to find out why certain people have perfect pitch. You know certain people hear a note precisely and are able to replicate it at exactly the right pitch. Some people have relevant pitch; perfect pitch is rare even among musicians. The scientists discovered – I don’t know how – that among people with perfect pitch the brain was different. Certain lobes of the brain had undergone some change or deformation that was always present with those who had perfect pitch. This was interesting enough in itself. But then they discovered something even more fascinating. If you took a bunch of kids and taught them to play the violin at the age of 4 or 5 after a couple of years some of them developed perfect pitch, and in all of those cases their brain structure had changed. Well what could that mean for the rest of us? We tend to believe that the mind affects the body and the body affects the mind, although we do not generally believe that everything we do affects the brain. I am convinced that if someone was to yell at me from across the street my brain could be affected and my life might changed. That is why your mother always said, ‘Don’t hang out with those bad kids.’ Mama was right. Thought changes our life and our behaviour. I also believe that drawing works in the same way. I am a great advocate of drawing, not in order to become an illustrator, but because I believe drawing changes the brain in the same way as the search to create the right note changes the brain of a violinist. Drawing also makes you attentive. It makes you pay attention to what you are looking at, which is not so easy.

I recently realized that although I grew up drawing, I never do it anymore unless I’m trying to solve a problem. My mom’s an artist and taught my brother and me to draw early on. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain was a favorite book. I used to receive mostly art supplies for birthdays and Christmas, until I protested one year and was given dolls instead. I hated dolls, so after that fiasco, I said it was okay to get me art supplies again. All through school I was one of those obsessive kids who drew all the time, and I was a compulsive doodler right through college. I also took some drawing and printmaking classes, just because it was fun.

Then I stopped.

Now I try to doodle during my one meeting a week, and I honestly don’t know how to do it anymore. I make marks with the pen, but I don’t like looking at them, so I give up.

Perhaps not concidentally, I am one of the most unobservant people ever, in the history of the universe. I have no peripheral vision whatsoever, and I’m not too good at noticing what’s directly in front of me, either, unless it’s text. I blame computers! Lionel Shriver was right, after all!

So maybe six weeks ago, I bought a notebook (yeah, okay, so I got a Moleskine; call me a sucker) and some pens. I thought I’d try drawing every day for a while. But I didn’t know what to draw. And I didn’t really like the pens. And the book’s so nice, I don’t want to mess it up. I think I have three drawings in there, none of which I feel good about. I haven’t touched it in weeks. It sits in the stack of printed matter next to my bed, glaring at me. But then my friend Susan reminded me about painting. Hey, I used to like painting. So the other day I got some watercolors, as well as a box of the same water-soluble colored pencils I always had a couple of tins of when I was a kid. And through Clusterflock I discovered Elizabeth Perry’s blog, Woolgathering. She’s been drawing every day for two years, and, boy, are some of them pictures lovely.

So. I’m going to work on this.


  1. jack said,

    i’ve noticed that the finer drawing pads inhibit drawing.
    maybe if every drawing was guaranteed beautiful it would work.
    the perfection of the book makes me hate to hurt it with my scraggy pictures.
    spiralbound recycled paper is better for me. not that i do that much drawing or painting anymore. if i start again i will have plenty of supplies, since i keep buying them, tucking them safely away and forgetting where.

    i noticed that the purchase of a computer seemed to coincide with the decline of my writing.
    i thought it would be easier.
    it turns out that i write more if i use the same spiralbound art pad. and the same fat soft pencil.

  2. Elizabeth said,

    Thanks for the great compliment!

    When I began to draw for the first time since middle school, a good notebook celebrated the commitment rather than the quality of drawing (just as well, since the quality was not there!) but I can see how it could slow you down if your expectations were higher than mine.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve always loved the quotation from G.K. Chesterton, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”

  3. Stephen said,

    That is really strange. I have gone through the exact same steps as you. I was insane about drawing when I was a kid and into high school. I could escape in my artwork. I even decided to go to Art School. I majored in Painting and one day I just became exhausted. I changed majors to Graphic Design and never looked back. The whole time I could feel my attention span eroding but I did not notice it. So, about a month ago I bought a sketch book and promised myself to sketch every single day even if for a short time.

    The book sits next to my bed with exactly three drawings and I cannot figure out why. I can be on the Subway to work the next day have a million ideas of drawings but when the paper gets in front me my mind thinks about everything else.

    I wish I knew the problem. Oh well thanks for the blog its very nice.

  4. India Amos said,

    Elizabeth: Hi! Yes, I told myself when I bought the notebook that it was important to show that I was serious by obtaining good tools. If I got an uglier sketchbook, then I would be more likely to just let it gather dust; but I wouldn’t dare to waste a nice one. Ha! And I deliberately used a whole page to just play with the pens I got—trying to see what kinds of lines I could get them to make (they have brush tips, which I’m not used to)—so that there’d already be something ugly and boring in the book, to break it in. Still, I didn’t draw anything. Didn’t have any idea of what to draw. So it’s really inspiring to me to see what beautiful pieces you’ve made of simple things—an apple, a peapod, a potholder loop(!). Thank you.

    Stephen: Do you have an apple, or some other piece of fruit around? Draw it! That’s what I’m about to do. If it’s good enough for Elizabeth, it’s good enough for me. And the Dear knows I’m not going to eat the stupid thing . . .

  5. India Amos said,

    Jack: Yeah, notice that I didn’t mention that I still probably have every tin of pencils I used as a kid, as well as an entire workman’s lunchbox full of brushes, pens, pencils, and printmaking tools.


    I can easily guess which room they’re in, but where in that room? I’ll find them when I move out, I guess.

  6. d. f. tweney said,

    Can we just make this post into a group session for people who used to draw lots, and don’t anymore? Because I’m like that too. I was going to be an art major, even, then I went to a college where the studio art program sucked. (It got better. Too late for me though.) I stopped drawing in college and have done very little since then.

    Like you India I bought some art supplies a few weeks ago. It was my little birthday present to myself: a tiny tiny portable watercolor set and some index cards. Have I done anything with them yet? Other than carry them everywhere in my bag, no. I feel really self-conscious about drawing and painting these days.

    BTW I have no problem drawing in nice notebooks but I cannot *write* in a notebook if it’s too nice. For that reason I use crappy old gradeschool composition books, the kind with ugly faux-marbled covers. They’re the only notebooks humble enough to get out of the way and let me write all the crap that I need to write. Moleskines scare the shit out of me. Ergo I write nothing in them.

  7. India Amos said,

    Thanks for sharing, Dylan! We feel your pain. Everybody hold hands now, please. . . .

    Funny, but I have no trouble writing in a nice notebook—perhaps because, as a paranoid journaler since the age of ten, I’m committed to the fantasy that nobody else will see what I’ve written. I couldn’t keep a journal at all if I weren’t able to convince myself of that—despite empirical proof that if you leave a notebook around, one day your boyfriend will pick it up and open it.

    But for drawings—my drawings are going to be so good that I’m going to want to show them to people. And then they’re going to take the book out of my hands, and they’re going to flip back to the first page, and then . . . they’ll see that the first thing in the book is a goddamn self-portrait, because that was the only thing I could think of drawing.

    As for the scariness of Moleskines, I guess I’m lucky in that I picked one up at a bookstore in Rome about seven years ago, before everybody started yapping about them. Thought it was a nice book for the price, filled it with stupid blather, and stuck it in a box with the rest of the mötley bünch. So much for intimidation. Miquelrius notebooks are a better deal, but they don’t sell unlined ones (not at my local Blick, anyway). Also, I thought the elastic band on the Moleskine would be useful, since like you, I was going to carry it with me everywhere. Ha.

  8. Margaret said,

    The Milton Glaser speech was neat, but it’s so cool to hear about people beginning to draw again. I always like doodling on Post-Its notes at work; they’re just the right size for quick doodles while you wait for a file to do its thing, a program to start, or the computer to reboot (again. and again.). It also looks less like you’re goofing off then if you whip out the Moleskine. Or so I like to think. Using mauscript mark-up pencils in green, red, or magenta makes the drawings more fun and you take them less seriously too. Using non-photo blue is comforting as well.
    I really do carry my Moleskine everywhere, but I use the handy pocket in the back for everyday papers and things more than I use it to doodle. After the first three pages I embraced using it to doodle as well as for fancier sketch things. Playing around with copying interesting typography and sketching out page layouts in the book makes it easier to do long sketches, at least for me. If I felt like I had to make some kind of portfolio-worthy/artist’s book thing in the book I’d never touch it.
    I’d love to get back into painting though. Watercolor was always hard for me, but I loved gouache. Oils too, of course. I haven’t made a real attempt at either since Foundation courses. Oils are out of the question given space and money considerations, but I get into the “Oh my god this work will have to portray every ounce of talent I’ve ever dreamt of having plus my immortal soul” thing even with a little 11×14 gouache.

  9. Kelly said,

    all this talk of drawing is exciting!

    i have no drawing talent whatsoever, none. i’ve always wanted to have this talent, at least since i was in 4th grade and my then-boyfriend mitch showed me his perfect drawings of monster trucks. (did i just say monster trucks?) anyway, i carry with me this notion that someday i will wake up and be able to draw something and think – hey- that’s not ugly!

    unfortunately, i still just wake up and make tea and sit around staring at things for an hour while i adjust to consciousness. so, for the last many years, i’ve stuck with finger painting. the pieces aren’t great, but if i refrain from comparing mine with those of the neighborhood kids, i can maintain some semblance of contentment…

    but i’m feeling inspired – maybe i’ll dig out those pencils again and give it a shot. thanks!

  10. Susan said,

    Perhaps the first time I have ever made a public blog comment—only for you, India, only for you—but I must jump in here.

    I am another one! I may have reminded India about painting, but it doesn’t mean I’m so good about painting (or drawing) on a regular basis myself. But it always fills me with joy when I do. And then I think “Oooh, I should do this all the time,” but then I am distracted by my routine. Following: a recommendation, a realization, and a proposal!

    1. Lynda Barry’s book One! Hundred! Demons! is very inspirational in terms of establishing an art practice. And it leads in turn to Acorn Planet.com—a terrific inexpensive source of all kinds of nifty paper and painting supplies (mainly for sumi painting, but paper is paper, and their prices are low enough to encourage experimentation).

    2. My sketching fell by the wayside when I finished grad school—it was always my habit to draw in my notebook throughout classes—even classes I enjoyed or found interesting—because although I’ve never had the need to take notes, I found that I was more engaged, remembered discussions very clearly as long as I was doing something else at the same time. And I can still look at a drawing I did 12 years ago and remember what class I was in. Maybe I need to start going to sit in on lectures in order to get some art done! On those occasions since grad school when I have thought that I must start drawing/painting again and committed the folly of signing up for an art class, I find that I am all but scratching at the door to get out, can’t wait for class to be over. Maybe I’m just contrary. Maybe there’s too much performance anxiety involved in drawing/painting in a roomful of other people doing the same thing, or of feeling that I have paid money for the privilege of doing so.

    3. Maybe we need to start up a NaNoWriMo equivalent for thwarted artists! Or maybe we just need to have a NaNoWriMo equivalent for thwarted artists in our heads, because actually doing such a thing would distract us from drawing and painting, no? Maybe, since we’re all such hoarders of art supplies, we could take a leaf from India’s book and force ourselves to draw each and every tube of paint and kneaded eraser that we have hidden away in a drawer . . .

  11. India Amos said,

    Margaret: See, this is why you’re going to be owning the AIGA shows while I’ll still be spending my days trying to figure out how to fit four thousand characters on a page that needs to be shot down to mass market. It’s the doodling that makes the difference.

    Kelly: I really do recommend looking at the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain book. I haven’t seen the latest edition, but the one we had was full of useful exercises. My favorite was the one where you draw something upside down. People who “can’t draw” can usually draw just fine upside down. If you can’t represent things accurately, it’s because you’re trying to draw what you think is there rather than what your eyes tell you is there. When you change the orientation of the object, your brain shuts up and you have to rely on your eyes. Try it, for example by copying an illustration from a book—a line drawing, for simplicity’s sake. Do it first right-side up, then turn it and try again.

    Susan: She speaks!

    1. As you know, I got the Lynda Barry book, on your recommendation; haven’t actually read it front to back yet, but I love it. So excellent.

    2. My doodling-in-class thing was because I was so goddamn bored most of the time. So in some classes I’d do these modular doodles where I’d try to draw one unit for each minute of the class. When I’d made fifty-five, or ninety, or whatever, Ding! the class would end. I got to be pretty good at estimating time without checking my watch—another skill that I’ve completely lost.

    Now when I’m in a boring meeting, though, I’m just bored.

    3. I like your NaNoWriMo idea. I was thinking about something along those lines (or like a knitalong) yesterday—like, maybe, a Flickr group where we each post a drawing every day for a month. If it’s a public project, we might actually do it.

  12. India Amos said,

    Re NaDrawMo, we could also have optional assignments, like, on day 1, everybody does a stupid self-portrait, on day 2 we draw a piece of fruit, day 3 we copy a picture right side up, day 4 we draw the same thing upside down, . . . and we repeat some of the assigments at the middle and end of the month so we can see if we’ve gotten any better.

    Too anal?

  13. Susan said,

    I think a little bit of structure would be a good thing! But there could also be Oulipan environmental or media constraints:

    1. Draw a picture outside.
    2. Draw a picture before getting out of bed in the morning.
    3. Draw a picture in the dark.
    4. Draw a picture standing up.
    5. Draw without using black.

    or concepts (sketch a sound or a smell)

    I think at least one day of Free Draw a week. (Sunday?) with a list of suggestions for anyone who’s feeling stumped.

  14. India Amos said,

    I like those! (Except for drawing concepts—those’d be Free Draw days for me.)

    How about November? Does November work for you? Would anybody here be doing NaNoWriMo, as well?

  15. Susan said,

    November’d be lovely. Supposed to be doing that other thing, too, but who needs sleep?

  16. India Amos said,

    Sleep is for the weak. Besides, it’ll refresh your writing mind to take a few minutes out for visual practice each day.

    So, I’m thinking, a separate blog for this project.

    Also, is anybody else in, or will it just be Susan and me? Because I’d be totally fine with the latter, but it’d be more fun if more people participate.

  17. Margaret said,

    I’m in.

  18. India Amos said,


    So . . . Name of project? It shouldn’t actually be NaDrawMo, because it’s not national—it’s Internettal. Sketchblogging knows no borders!

    Can’t we come up with a better name than InDrawMo? Come on, punsters! Now’s your moment to shine!

  19. Margaret said,

    Highly unoriginal, but simple. We could just call it:


    I’ll let myself out.

    One of the literary types will be able to work something up. :-)

  20. Denise Covert said,

    Sorry, I have no drawing talent whatsoever — even my stick figures are crooked!

    I do, however, have perfect pitch, and I was in music school when they were soliciting test subjects for that study, though I didn’t have time to volunteer.

    I never saw it as having a different brain — to me, perfect pitch was always a function of memory. If someone asked me for a high C, I’d remember a particular song (in that case, “Nel cor piu non mi sento”) that started on that note, then sing it. This would explain why my “perfect” pitch was usually exactly a half-step flat, because most of my music came from my piano, which was always out of tune.

    Then again, I never played violin, and despite KNOWING what the right pitch is, my intonation (ability to sing it) isn’t exactly perfect. That part is called “relative” pitch — singing intervals correctly — and while I had four whole classes in it, some people are just better at it than others. I’m starting to think it’s more related to absolute (perfect) pitch than previously thought.

    As for little kids playing violin, I’m all for promotion of the Suzuki method, though the so-called “Mozart effect” of music in utero has been pretty definitely DISproven. Violinists HAVE to have good intonation because there are no frets like a guitar — this also explains the phenomenon I’ve noticed when groups of various instrumentalists sing together: The best singers (pitch-wise) are the horn players, followed by strings, and the woodwind players (especially clarinetists) were always the worst.

    Whew that was a long rant. Sorry. So rarely get to expound on bizarre musical topics, and I just found the Wikipedia entry on castrati (an old term paper subject) so I’m feeling nostalgic. ;-)

  21. India Amos said,

    Margaret: I like DrawMo! That’s perfect!

    Denise: You are our target market for DrawMo. Crooked stick figures R us! I hope you will play along.

  22. Elisabeth said,

    I used to be an illustrator, but after I started working as a graphic designer I stopped drawing for many years. I bought scetchbooks, but after a doodle or two I started to write lists in them instead. (I’m a list-person. I write lists all the time. Lots and lots of lists.)

    About one year ago I decided to start drawing again, and to put a bit of pressure on myself I made a scetchblog where I try to publish one tiny drawing each week. I usually draw with a pencil and because I always hated the way the pencil rubbed of to the next page I decided to just skip drawing on the left pages. That really worked!

    One year later I have actually 53 post on the blog, so it seems to be working! And I have fun doing it. :-)

  23. India Amos said,

    Ah, see? Norwegian is not so hard when you know what you’re looking for. New word for the day: Skisseblogg!

  24. Elisabeth said,

    I’m impressed! Or maybe I should say imponert?. ;-)
    My skisseblogg should be quite easy to understand for non-norwegian-speaking people, since it’s mostly drawings, and wery little writing. (And most of the things I translates to: “Drew this while boiling potaoes/making dinner/drinking coffee” etc. etc.

  25. Elisabeth said,

    very not wery. Even though I’m norwegian I know that much …

  26. India Amos said,

    Okay, Susan’s peppering me with URLs on the back-channel, but I have to run off to French class, so I can’t check these out in detail. You can, though, you slackers:


    Discuss. À bientôt!

  27. Margaret said,

    Skisseblogg is very inspiring Elizabeth! And I love your daughter’s Halloween costume (unless there’s some other Norweigan holiday that involves awesome face painting). SkisseMo!

    Ed Fella’s site has rockin’ sketches. Lots of color and it looks like he had fun making them. http://www.edfella.com/lib.php?dir=images/drawings/drawingscurrent/
    Most of the site is still under construction, but if you like handrawn type it’s worth clicking through all the categories to enjoy the titles on each page. He also has posters, flyers, and type projects in their respective categories, if graphic design is your thing. That link and artist brought to my attention by DesignObserver.

    Saul Steinberg’s work also looks like it could have originated in a sketchbook or on the back or dry cleaner receipts. He’s one of my favorites, and has a lot of fun black and white drawings. The link to the foundation set up by his family: http://www.saulsteinbergfoundation.org/gallery.html

    And an appropriate image of his: http://www.saulsteinbergfoundation.org/gallery/gallery_untitled1948.jpg

  28. Elisabeth said,

    Thank you Margaret! My daughters green face was a result of an invitation to a mutant-birthdayparty. I didn’t have time to make a costume, so she just put on her dress and I painted her face. My argument was that even mutants have to put on a nice dress when they are invited to a party. -And the little mutant was quite happy with her look!

    Here: http://waterhalo.blogspot.com/ is another way of working with sketch-books. I really like some of the pages.

    And Mattias, http://mattiasa.blogspot.com a sweedish illustrator is like a drawing machine. He posts new drawings every day.

  29. India Amos said,

    Aaaah! I love Mattias’s Asta the Kung-Fu dog!

  30. India Amos said,

    Okay, I’ve set up a nub of a blog over here: DrawMo!

    I’m thinking it’ll be like a knitalong—a group blog open to all interested participants. So if you want posting rights, add a comment over there or drop me an e-mail.

    I have to do some actual work for a while, having a job and all, but I’ll add more stuff to the blogroll over there soon. If you have more suggestions for links, maybe post them over there? Or here; I guess it doesn’t matter.

  31. India, Ink. said,

    […] Recent Comments India Amos on Redrawing the right side of the brainIndia Amos on Redrawing the right side of the brainElisabeth on Redrawing the right side of the brainMargaret on Bindings! Ahoy!Margaret on Redrawing the right side of the brain […]

  32. […] In the original discussion at India, Ink., we talked about having an optional assignment for the group each day, along the lines of Everyday Matters’ list of ideas, and I still think that’s a good plan. But optionality is key. The goal is for us all to draw more, and if the rules make it so that you don’t feel like drawing, then screw the rules. […]

  33. Julia said,

    I can’t stand it! This is so fun, I may actually have to participate. I haven’t read all the comments with simian intensity yet, nor the rest of the blog, but I will get around to it. In the meantime, I am with many of the participants in that I have drawing and painting accoutrement from my pre-university days, which I hesitate to say were now more than 30 years ago. But really! I am not that old!

    I like the idea of “rules” or suggestions of what to draw. There is also the inspiration of something like drawing a thing for each letter of the alphabet, etc. But in case I actually am inspired, I would like the ability to draw whatever.

    As for the brain thing, I am so interested in brain function, it is a wonder I did not become some sort of brain doctor (well, not a wonder – I can explain all). In any event, once I did all those standard personality and IQ tests and apparently, I am extremely right-brained. Who knew? I went into law and have spent my professional life being a master of words and left-brain stuff. And now I am really good at left brain stuff. So maybe my brain changed. But I am not willing to be dissected to find out.

    In any event – Excelsior! I feel all chuffed. :)

  34. […] You may have believed—as did I—that the only way to do an upside-down drawing, as I mentioned last week, is to take a printed picture and turn it upside down. I mean, you can’t draw upside-down from life, right? Not so, my little friends! The workaround for this is to get your roommate, housemate, or whoever you can grab to lie down on the couch, face up. Then stand at the end of the couch, looking down over his or her head, and draw from there. […]

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