Yesterday, Marjorie Ewell of Cape Coral, FL and Galloway Twp, NJ wrote, “How do you get yourself into a right brain mode? How does a right-brained person translate that into painting? I’ve experienced it in working with oils. Time disappears and one is totally in the present. Watercolor is another matter. There are so many things one has to think about in the process that I find myself much more left-brained than I want to be.”
Thanks, Marjorie. Shifting into right brain, while automatic and unavoidable for many painters, is a skill that can be learned. Your mention of the planning that goes on in watercolour as compared to the relatively brain-free nature of oils (and acrylics) gives a clue to right brain access.
The objective is to get into a dreamy flow where the subconscious interacts with the inevitable march of practicalities. Here are a few ideas:
While painting, try an unrelated and contrapuntal distraction — perhaps the telephone or the radio. Surprisingly, input that occupies one part of the brain can open the creative gates in another.
Try to put so much basic technique and creative formula into your process that some of it becomes second nature. Like automatic writing or speaking in tongues, confidence builds and a right-brain rush occurs. This is a key to dipping down into the deep well of imagination.
Repetition of strokes or motifs also serves as a hypnotic beat. Similar to counting sheep at bedtime or chanting a mantra, a variation is to focus on the movement of your brush. Brush-tip fascination has the additional benefit of building stroke quality and painterly élan.
As you mentioned, the ideal is to become simply and naturally lost in your work. The sense of timelessness is one of its markers. Your carefully planned design and composition (often in the form of your unique stylistic tendencies) are the structure on which the right brain’s spirit feels the confidence to come out and play. Right-brained joy begins when structure is safely in your pocket.
PS: “At one time, human nature was split in two, an executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man. Neither part was consciously aware.” (Psychologist Julian Jaynes, in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1976)
Esoterica: Current research indicates that true creativity doesn’t spring from the right brain alone, but rather from a rapid interplay between our two hemispheres. Statistics show that women are better able to access this ability than men. In “complete brain theory,” god and man (woman) are combined in one. Think, therefore, of a shift to right brain mode as shifting to the goddess (god) within.
The Inner Game of Tennis
by Natalie Italiano, Philadelphia, PA, USA
I paint in oils, and often think about how similar it is to meditating, this state of getting into the “zone.” I like to listen to music while I am painting in order to help me get into this flow. I find talk radio or books on tape to hinder this process, and to keep my left brain too engaged. The well known book from the ’70s, The Inner Game of Tennis, has many ideas about accessing the right brain state.
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Living with interruptions
by Tim Adams, Eureka Springs, AR, USA
I have been trying lately to learn to work with interruptions, switching more easily between right and left brains. In the past I needed absolute stillness and alone time to paint, getting out of joint if I was interrupted. But now I just set up in the corner of the family room with my wife, the kid, dogs, cats, TV racket, and interruptions all around and just go for it. I just have to remember they are not all masterpieces and enjoy myself and don’t let the switch between brains upset the applecart. I got the idea after watching a plein air painter carry on conversations with tourists and paint at the same time. It takes a little practice, but you can float back and forth. Now I paint with my 9-year-old daughter who seems to need a lot of attention while she paints. “More yellow please,” she says, but I just have fun with her and don’t let it bug me.
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Observations on the right brain
by Diane Voyentzie, CT, USA
I have been very interested in right brain/left brain for a long time. Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, a book that I read years ago, began my search for information. I found that when I am painting, I can’t hold a conversation with someone… I begin to get “dabbly.” I also learned that any activity that is automatic, ie, driving, walking, dancing, swimming, running, etc. is right brain… The left brain is then left free to work out problems. That is why, when driving, often things come to you that you haven’t thought about before. But on the other hand, if you are on your cell phone while driving, it takes your major right brain concentration (eyes) away, and also accesses your left brain (verbal). You have both sides of your brain trying to do two differently difficult tasks, and doesn’t do either well…
Shifting into the right brain is relatively easy. Wherever you are, just focus on the negative spaces around objects… one example is to look at the negative spaces between branches of trees while taking a walk… Major right brain!
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Keys to ‘Flow’
by Melanie Peter, Gainesville, FL, USA
— a sense of playfulness
— a feeling of being in control
— concentration and highly focused attention
— mental enjoyment of the activity for its own sake
— a distorted sense of time
— a match between the challenge at hand and one’s skills
Matching the level of challenge with one’s skill level seems the key to “flow.” As you suggest in #2 in your list, develop enough skill and technique so that you “know” what you’re doing, and yet take a challenge that pushes beyond what you “know.” Too little skill and you are anxious; too little challenge and you are apathetic. Balanced between these is optimal experience.
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Use of story CDs
by Deborah Elmquist, Port Orange, FL, USA
As an oil painter of 40 or more years, I know exactly the feeling. In flow — a period of working when time is suspended and you are not aware of anything else around you — is the ultimate experience. Years ago at an art show, a painter shared her secret for getting into that place. I didn’t believe her because my understanding of what an artist had to do was be alone in silence or with soothing music. She told me to get a book on tape/CD of something I would like to listen to. Her theory was that words and stories were the department of the left brain and by listening to a story you were keeping that part of the brain “occupied” and out of your “art business.” The left side is the critical and judgmental side that keeps sticking its nose into your artistic endeavor. Removing that voice of constant judgment allowed an artist to keep the flow moving. BAM! It worked. I was in flow within the time it took to get into the story. Another plus to this ritual was that I couldn’t wait to get back into the studio and begin, which for some artists is a daily battle. I couldn’t wait to hear what was happening next in the story. Try it. Go to your public library and check out a CD or tape of a book you haven’t had time to get around to. Remember, it has to be a story and not a non-fiction piece.
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Watercolour: both sides now
by Linda Thury, Nevada, MO, USA
Many people, especially non-painters, seem surprised that I use both sides of my brain. I have a BS in engineering with post-grad classes, a BA in art/graphics, and an MA in teaching (math). I tutor college Algebra/Calculus and teach watercolor classes.
Through the 20 years in engineering, I tried several art forms (watercolor, pottery, stained glass, fiber art), but kept coming back to watercolor. I now focus on watercolor. Watercolor has a “flowing” personality. Some painters find this the curse of watercolor, and consequently have a hard time with watercolor. Reinforcing the myth that watercolor is a difficult medium, but in reality this “flowing” is the soul of watercolor.
As I tell my tutorees, you need to know the rules and do the steps. There is no easy way. You need to memorize, remember, and practice. A watercolor painter needs to know how her paints react. Watercolor flows with water and the lighter you paint the more water. In order to get in the zone (right brain), you need to be able to lay down color confidently, without thinking about it, during the painting process.
True you need to plan with watercolor, because you can’t just paint white over a mistake. This doesn’t make watercolor hard, you just need to be careful. My engineering background helps the planning (left brain), and my experience lets the paint flow (right brain). Sorry, Marjorie, there is no easy way. You can only have that confidence through practice, practice, practice. I have been painting seriously for 8 years in watercolor, and still find new methods. Sometimes painting with a friend helps you get in the mood. Good luck.
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A left-handed day
by Pamela Haddock, Sylva, NC, USA
I am a watercolor artist and have worked in the medium exclusively for 20 years, but one of the things I have been doing lately is having a left-handed day. I am right hand dominant, though as a child I was very ambidextrous and encouraged through school to become dominant right hand — (they thought it would make life easier). HA! Anyway — I resolve the night before that the next day will be a left hand day and do everything left handed. It takes some thinking — down to which hand to hold the soap in when washing my hands. When I draw during that day I work with the left hand. What I have discovered is that proportion and perspective become drastically easier — I can lay out my points for perspective with my left hand and transcribe (more steadily) the lines that connect with my right. I also noticed while looking at a still life the negative space around the still life became more pronounced than the positive still life. It was almost overwhelming. Proportions don’t need to measured, they become organic. I use the brush to sketch out the drawing on the paper or substrate with my left hand — because my dexterity is not as pronounced from lack of use with my left, I sometimes have to straighten some things up a bit, but overall I have found it to be a most rewarding process and I am catapulted into the right brain. It takes a while to get comfortable with it. But I figure — I carry that side of my brain around with me all the time why not find a way to access it more easily?
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Thinking about thinking
by Ron Unruh, Surrey, BC, Canada
Your letter got me thinking, you might say, with my left brain. Customarily I don’t do much thinking about how I think. I realize thinking is critical and persuasive. Thinking for Rene Descartes was the evidence he required to verify his existence. “I think, therefore I am.” To arrive at his conclusion Rene was using his left brain.
According to this theory of the structure and functions of the mind which was developed through research in the late 1960’s the human brain has two ways of thinking. The right hemisphere or right brain is visual and processes information in an intuitive, subjective and simultaneous way, looking first at the whole picture (holistically) and then the details. The left brain is verbal and processes information in an analytical, objective and sequential way, looking first at the pieces then putting them together to get the whole. American psycho-biologist Roger W. Sperry was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1981 for his 1960’s work in this research field. , although subsequent research has shown things aren’t quite as polarized as once thought (nor as simple).
I took the test. Apparently according to this quiz I am 75% right brain dominant. So with the other 25% I must have managed a great deal of administrative and organizational and journalistic projects over my lifetime. My son Jeff will appreciate this line. “If the left brain controls the right hand, then only left-handed people are in their right minds.” Judging from the most of the material I read on the subject, we have pretty much bought this concept.
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Working while talking
by Redenta Soprano, USA
Years ago I took a class with Robert Bateman. He is as wonderful a teacher as he is a very successful artist. One of the things I remember him telling us was that he did some of his best work while talking on the telephone in the morning. I realized that I did some of my most relaxing work while I was listening to books on tape or talking on the phone as well. It seems while the left brain was occupied with conversation, the right brain could happily do what it loves to do best. However, at those times I could draw or shade or paint only.
On the other hand, when I had to work out a composition, prepare to teach a class or measure for a mat or frame I couldn’t have any conversation going on at all. I needed every bit of my left brain for the job at hand.
As a teacher, I understand now why it is so hard to demonstrate a technique and talk at the same time. It took a long time for me to have a smooth monologue of instruction without long, embarrassing breaks of silence as I was demonstrating. The right brain would simply take over. I had to force myself to continue to talk while drawing and painting. It is almost palpable when you feel one side take over the other.
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Yoga and focusing
by Susan-Rose Slatkoff, Victoria, BC, Canada
I did a three-month intensive yoga development course. Every day we wrote at least one or more papers giving our personal response to the topic at hand. We spent at least eight hours daily in class listening to the papers of others. It would have been very easy to have our minds wander off. Swami Radha, the founder of the ashram, had suggested that we do some sort of hand work while listening. I did counted cross-stitch, others knit, drew, embroidered. Amazingly, I was able to stay far more present for the papers while the other part of my mind was being entertained with the craft work. We have different parts of mind, and I also found that I could move into right-brain when I did some spiritual practice first.
Also, Eugene Gendlin has created a technique called FOCUSING, where you use your body and mind to focus on some issue. This technique can also be used to find yourself in that creative flow mode. Sit and remember a time when you were being creative, and flowing. Concentrate on it. Then switch into watching your body and what is happening there. This can lead you into that creative space. Then go and paint.
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Kelly McChesney who wrote, “I’d love to know how to get OUT of right brain mode. Maybe then I could do all of the administrative tasks required by my business.”
And also Carole Munshi of Alexandria, VA, USA, who wrote, “‘Right-brained joy begins when structure is safely in your pocket.’ And I say… Like lots of money.”
And also Kate Wickham of Arlington, TX, USA, who wrote, “Yes, many artists are using watercolor in a very controlled manner, but please don’t say it’s harder to stay in the right brain because of the medium.”
And also Michael Aronoff of Saltspring Island, BC, Canada who wrote, “A male artist creates with his anima and the female artist creates with her animus (Jungian philosophy). If one can dialogue easily between the two we have a flow. I like to light a candle and make the experience a numinous one. I invite the Divine to teach me. It helps me to open to the muses. Channeling is good.”
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