Tuesday 6/5: Right Brain Thinking and Blind Contours

I’ve always enjoyed blind contour drawings. Most of the time, my art teachers would hand out something unsettling, like a cat skull or a suspiciously human-sized vertebra and tell us we had 2-5 minutes to draw the edges of it without looking at what we were drawing. The objects were simple enough that this didn’t distort them too badly, and I actually wound up with some reasonably realistic drawings once I added shading. I did have trouble not peeking then. It just felt so silly not to, given that I didn’t understand the point of the exercise.

Today’s class was a long blind contour session. I was excited…until I saw what we’d be drawing. It was like an I-Spy book. I spy a flower, two eyes, screws in three different gauges, a spring, an ankle, and four kinds of cages.

Blind contour drawing subject

We started by reading a page from Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Edwards believes that drawing education is the best way to teach perception and other right-brained skills, which she claims are badly neglected in modern American education. We read a list of the characteristics of right-brained and left-brained thinking: the left hemisphere tends to deal in words, symbols, and categories; it is responsible for rational, logical, and linear thought. The right hemisphere is more non-verbal, intuitive, and atemporal; better at synthesizing wholes, dealing in reality rather than symbolic ideals. I like this explanation of the relationship between the two from the introduction to the 2012 edition:

“[…] the left hemisphere does not easily share its dominance with its silent partner. The left hemisphere deals with an explicit world, where things are named and counted, where time is kept, and step-by-step plans remove uncertainty from the future. The right hemisphere exists in the moment, in a timeless, implicit world, where things are buried in context, and complicated outlooks are constantly changing. Impatient with the right hemisphere’s view of the complex whole, the competitive left hemisphere tends to jump quickly into a task, bringing language to bear, even though it may be unsuited to that particular task.” p. xxvii

After our reading, we began doing blind contour drawings of our hands in different positions. First, we used a Sharpie, and then we switched to pencils. I liked the Sharpie quite a bit—the texture of the tip seemed to help me maintain an awareness of what my marker was doing. The pencil felt smoother, and I liked the ability to vary the strength of my line more easily. We switched to drawing with our non-dominant hands at one point, and I think I might like the result of that even better. I drew much larger with my left hand, but that allowed me to focus in on the details more thoroughly.

Blind contour with sharpie

My first set of left-handed blind contour hands are the uncircled ones above. I want to go to Utah and climb them.

We then moved on to a longer session of drawing the still life from above. I was more aware of the music being played during this session—there was an interesting mix of instrumentals and songs with lyrics (in English and not, familiar and unfamiliar), and one recording of a story. I seemed to work much better with the instrumentals, the non-English songs, and the nursery rhyme songs. If I began thinking about words, using my left hemisphere, my drawing would grind to a halt. I’m aware that we stopped drawing and Professor Ruby asked questions at one point, but I didn’t feel as though I had access to words in that state. This is so different from how I felt using the string technique. The string technique allowed me to put into words what I was seeing in the lines of the chair so that I could convert those terms back into lines; there was no such conversion process for the blind contour drawings.

I read later that Edwards believes that blind contour drawings (which she calls “Pure Contour Drawings” in chapter 6 of the 2012 edition) are one of the best ways to get the left hemisphere to cede its dominance. Focusing on finer and finer repeated details like those in a hand is a way to bore the left brain, which has already named those details and moved on. The fractal-like nature of the fine details made of even finer details requires right-brained thinking to really appreciate; it is a strongly contextualized phenomenon.

The physical, moving-the-pen(cil)-across-the-page aspect of blind contour drawing seems to rely almost entirely on proprioception, the unsung sixth sense. Proprioception is the sense of awareness one has of one’s body parts and their positions. (I know how disappointing it is to realize that you had a sixth sense all along and it doesn’t relate to mind-reading or talking to ghosts at all.) When I got engrossed in the blind contour drawing, I was only aware of seeing the edges of my subject were and what my hand was doing. At certain points, my sense of the location of my consciousness shifted from behind my eyes to the muscles in my hands—I felt like an analog heart monitor or seismograph: a tool to record the shifts in what I was perceiving. I finally realized the point of blind contour drawing: to create a record of what you see.

The whole experience reminds me very strongly of running. I’m slow and grumpy about it when I’m running on a treadmill with the timer visible and a book open. Half an hour seems to drag on forever. When I’m outdoors, focused in on how my muscles feel and running at whatever pace strikes my fancy, I can stay out for two hours and be ready for more. The next day, I might be sore, but time is meaningless while I’m outside running…until I check the Nike+ data I logged and understand how far I ran. The blind contour allows you to see how far you saw.

I left class feeling suddenly very tired from the effort of thinking with my poor disused right hemisphere, but satisfied that I’m making progress as a visual thinker. I didn’t peek at all.

Some of the cages from the large still life

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One response »

  1. It is exciting when my student’s teach me. It’s actually why I went into teaching–to constantly be in the middle of an idea. I appreciate the introduction to “proprioception” (my sixth sense, who knew?), and I also love the analogy you make between blind contour and running –the notion that “The blind contour allows you to see how far you saw.”

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