The Art of Learning "On the Right Side of the Brain."

I liked to doodle as a kid.

That meant everything from making sketches of medieval knights for a school project on the Crusade to having Dragon Ball Z and Pokemon sketches sold for a few bucks by an enterprising best friend.

This penchant for making marks led me to take an art class in grade nine and having my enthusiasm sucked out by an absent-minded teacher.

My wanting to learn to draw never entirely left me, though.

One summer, while in high school, I walked into a bookstore and was looking through the "Art (How To)" section when someone working there stopped by.

I told her my intentions, and immediately her face lit up.

"Ah, have you heard of this book?" she said, picking up a book I would go on to purchase. A book that completely changed the way I approach learning any new skill.

That book was none other than Betty Edward's "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain."

Initially published in 1979, it's currently on its 4th Edition and has been translated into 17 languages.

Using Google's Image search on the title will reveal "before" and "after" sketches from thousands of students who've learned through the author's in-person workshop or from the book. They all have one thing in common, an indisputable improvement in the person's skill level or ability to draw.

I remember my own "whoa, I made that," moment when I finished the final project, a self-portrait, and then comparing it to the self-portrait I was instructed to draw before starting the book.

What was it about the book that guaranteed results? More importantly, are there more universal lessons that can be drawn (pardon the pun) and put to use when picking up other skills? That's what I'll be exploring in this post.

Learning to See

Edwards developed the methodology for teaching drawing in her book after learning about the work of Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Roger W. Sperry. 

Dr. Sperry's work popularized the idea that the two hemispheres of our brains might be responsible for different modes of thinking. His research is part of the reason people use "left-brain" and "right-brain" to describe themselves or specific activities.

There's still much debate about the exact delineation of our very complex brain's many functions. But for ease of understanding, we can group them into these "left-brain" and "right-brain" camps. Or, as Edwards refers to them, "L-mode" and "R-mode."

In her book, she not only breaks down the science, but she also provides exercises that help the reader experience "the shift" from one mode to the other.

Why is the shift significant?

One of the reasons people have trouble learning to draw, according to Edwards, is that the left brain gets in our way. Because of its tendency to over-analyze and work in abstractions, it interferes with our perception. Instead of allowing us to see what's in front of us, it throws in symbols of objects that have been stored as shortcuts.

For example, rather than drawing what the face of the person you're attempting to draw actually looks like, you will instead draw your short-cut of what a nose, eye, or ear look like.

The way out of this conundrum then is to give the left-brain tasks that it turns down, enabling our right-brain or our more visual, spatial, and perception functions to jump in and perceive objects as they are.

“In order to gain access to sub-dominant, somewhat hard-to-access R-mode, the non-verbal, visual perceptual system of the brain, it is necessary to present one’s own brain with a task that the dominant verbal system, L-mode, will turn down.” - Betty Edwards

She helps readers of the book do this through a variety of exercises, like drawing an image upside down. The left brain looks at an upside-down image and says, "F*** this, I'm out. R-mode, you handle it."

With our preconceived representations of reality out of the way, we can then draw what's in front of us.

The thing about "the shift" from "L-mode" to "R-mode" is that it's not just handy when sitting down to draw your best friend or a chair.

"L-mode" is often detrimental at the start of any creative project that relies on a healthy dose of divergence, exploration, and experimentation.

It overanalyzes, and it wants to get things just right. The problem? Nothing comes out perfect. As I like to think about it, no one shits roses.

I struggled with this while working on personal writing projects. I found something analogous to the "upside-down drawing" hack, namely shitty first drafts, a term popularized by Anne Lamott in her book "Bird by Bird."

When I tell myself that draft 1.0 is going to be shitty, L-mode quiets down just enough for me to type that first sentence.

Or another favorite hack is to use a Pomodoro timer. Instead of sitting down and being put off by the enormity of putting down coherent and concise sentences, I start the timer and tell myself "I'm just writing for the next 25 minutes, that's it. Even if not a single word comes out, I'm fine with that."

The next time you're having a tough time getting started, try to get your "L-mode" out of the picture.

(Mental) Representation Matters

Another key to the book's success is it's ability to deconstruct the global skill of "drawing" into five component skills. That's right; there's more to drawing than meets the eye.

Instead of trying to learn to "draw," Edwards instead has students learn to:

  • See and draw edges
  • See and draw spaces
  • See and draw relationships
  • See and draw lights and shadows
  • See and draw the whole

Leading students through practical exercises for each of the above, the feeling of those five component skills coming together for more advanced exercises later on in the book is unparalleled. The glee of looking at a work and saying "whoa, I made that," after the fact is pure joy.

Mental representations are an important part of going deep on any subject matter.

Here's a quote from Peak, a book by Anders Ericsson:

“The main thing that sets experts apart from the rest of us is that their years of practice have changed the neural circuitry in their brains to produce highly specialized mental representations, which in turn make possible the incredible memory, pattern recognition, problem solving, and other sorts of advanced abilities needed to excel in their particular specialties.”

Deconstructing abstract verbs like "drawing," "designing," or even "managing" into component skills, even one level deep, makes a world of difference. 

I put this to use when I was making the transition to the world of digital product design, a field littered with words that obfuscate their meaning.

Here's just a few job titles I would come across:

  • UX Designer
  • UI Designer
  • Interface Designer
  • Interaction Designer
  • Visual Designer
  • ...etc.

It took a great deal of digging to break down what exactly each of those entailed and how they related to the job of designing interfaces for software used by humans.

It began with a part-time visual design course I took at a Bootcamp. Luckily, the instructors did a fantastic job of building out the content in a digestible manner. But pretty soon my mental representation of the word "design" began to branch off into nodes like:

  • Typography
  • Layout
  • Color Theory
  • Iconography
  • Branding
  • ...etc.

In other words, it's never a bad idea to ask, "what does "x" actually mean?" to start learning any skill. The answer provides the roadmap of what component skills to delve into next.

Practicing Deliberately Before It Was Cool

After teaching you to "switch" to "R-mode" breaking down drawing into component skills, Edwards has readers do exercises that help flex and develop those component skills. 

For example, to learn how to see edges, you do blind contour drawings. Or, to learn lighting and shading you use an eraser on an area filled with dark graphite and create art by focusing on the shapes of the highlights and shadows.

I remember when I first did the exercises. Initially, it didn't seem like I was learning all that much. It was like "cool, I can distinguish positive and negative space while drawing a chair, big whoop." But then, when I began the final project, a full-fledged portrait, I experienced those component skills together. The first thought that came to my mind after I finished was, "I know Kung-fu." I jest. It was pretty close to that, though.

The exercises allowing me to practice those component skills are what I would later come to know of as deliberate practice. Popularized by Anders Ericsson, it refers to a purposeful and systemic type of practice.

The beauty of being able to deconstruct a global skill into component skills, practice them, then see them contribute to the growth of said global skill gave me a roadmap for tackling any future learning challenges.


In short, if you've ever wanted to learn how to draw or learn how to learn, get your hands on a copy of Betty Edwards "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain," I guarantee you'll be pleased with the outcomes. Especially, if you're one of those "I don't have a creative bone in body" type of people.

In this article, I covered:

1. Edward's profound insight that in order for us to tap into "R-Mode" we have to give ourselves tasks that "L-Mode" will turn down.

2. The importance of deconstructing global skills into component skills to develop helpful mental representations to serve as roadmaps for practice

3. Choosing exercises that help build those component skills to strengthen the overall global skill

Happy drawing. Erm. I mean learning. I mean both. Till next time.

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