When I was a kid I was pretty good at drawing. By the time I got to art school some people thought I was a certified drawing genius. Trouble was, I solved all my problems with my drawing — to the detriment of composition, colour and other stuff that should have held my attention. Feeling I had to raise my standards, I decided to drop drawing altogether and try to build some other facilities. It was tough. For about six months I essentially disabled drawing and kicked my drawing board down the road.
To this day I seldom draw. I go right to the other stuff.
Psychoanalyst Dr. Norman Doidge’s remarkable book, The Brain That Changes Itself is full of stories showing how the human brain can be rewired. Doidge is of the “neuroplasticity” school of brain science. He doesn’t think, for example, that there is one part of the brain that masters drawing and keeps it there. Like a giant hard drive on a computer that’s capable of filing stuff randomly, any part of the brain, including left and right hemispheres, can learn and unlearn.
In one story, after a devastating stroke a man was able to gradually regain the use of a paralyzed leg. During his recovery he had come to rely more and more on his good leg. It was part of his process to mentally disable the good leg so the bad leg could begin again.
Psychiatrists note that during the sticky business of lovers parting, it’s necessary for them to “disable” the forsaken one in order to begin to love someone else. This doesn’t mean trashing the other, but the old has to be properly archived before new love-data can be entered. It’s thought that those who don’t need to do this didn’t love in the first place.
Disabled neural paths can be difficult to regenerate — particularly as you grow older. But it does happen, and it’s no miracle. It takes character and focus. You can teach old dogs new tricks — and get them to relearn old tricks they’ve forgotten. Artists frequently report the loss of drawing ability when they neglect drawing for even short periods of time. Since my heady, distracted days in art school, I’ve noticed a decline in my drawing ability. Just another case of “use it or lose it”?
PS: “Neuroplasticity contributes to both the constrained and unconstrained aspects of our nature. It renders our brains not only more resourceful, but also more vulnerable to outside influences.” (Norman Doidge)
Esoterica: Canadian painter John Newman suffered a stroke that caused Transverse Myelitus, permanently disabling the right side of his body. His right-handedness appeared to condemn him to no more painting. But with application and focus John was able to gain nearly similar dexterity with his left hand and has subsequently had lefty sell-out shows.
Unlearning must happen at times
by John F. Burk, Timonium, MD, USA
Interesting. In my early career as an ad agency art director (one that has kept me at a full-time hop since the markets collapsed in 2008), I spent 5 years drawing everything in front of my face. I’d watch TV football with my sketchbook in my lap recording play action almost as quickly as it happened. Another look at that sketchbook shows little to be impressed with, but there was gradual improvement in accuracy and speed. I have always drawn from the age of eight, but this period improved my proficiency enormously.
In those pre-computer days, everything was rendered, including headlines and text blocks. Ideas were more original, too, because you weren’t relying on stock photography to represent your images. I would abandon a good idea because I didn’t think I could draw it, until those 5 years happened. My style was contrasty — strong lights and darks, as was the photography I directed from the renderings.
My compositions were very graphic and off-axis, my way of dealing with a fixed rectangular page shape. I find I compose paintings this way to date.
It’s interesting how much background can shape development, and an example of how unlearning must happen at times to make corrections and improvements. I shall have to look carefully at what I’m doing to see if some of that is the order of the day for me.
by Judi Goolsby, Santa Fe, NM, USA
For an amazing story of grace, recovery, faith and determination, check out my daughter’s friend, Jared Dunten. After a diving accident that left him only the use of his neck and above, after excruciating rehab that goes on still, he became a “mouth painter.” His work is amazing and his life even more so. He is now married, expecting twins and has a gallery outside Austin, TX. Truly remarkable young man.
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by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
I, too, was an art kid. Then I met another kid that could draw like Leonardo. I saw that my place as an artist was to become a colorist. Colors and shapes were enough for me. I eventually learned to draw, but what to me was important was color and shapes. It is fifty years later, and what I still do is to just put one color next to another color. Paul Klee became my guy. I do not apologize. I just keep painting. That is what I do.
Campaign for Drawing
by Catherine Stock, France
Why not put a link to the Campaign for Drawing? It’s a fabulous organisation in the UK, determined to get everyone drawing again, and their main spokesman is the master draughtsman Quentin Blake. October is the month of The Big Draw, and museums and galleries all over England host special events providing projects and materials for anyone who shows up, usually free. My own little gallery in a small village in southwest France, La Sirène du Causse, is hosting an event this year on Saturday, October 1st, for anyone in the neighbourhood… The Big Draw is becoming an international event!
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Conscious mind creates barrier
by Margot Hattingh, South Africa
Many years ago, I used to be really good at capturing a likeness, drawing a portrait of a live model in a very short time. Then years later, I was playing with my sketchbook on a beach in India. Out of nowhere I drew a little crowd watching my every move as I started to sketch a young boy. I was embarrassed by my total inability to capture any likeness and felt like a total beginner.
However, some time after this humiliating episode, I was in a situation where I felt calm, relaxed and unattached to the outcome, and all my previous drawing skills resurfaced effortlessly. So I think that to a certain extent one does actually retain the skills deep down, even if long unused. It’s the conscious mind that can put the barrier in place. It could be like riding a bicycle after 30 years. A little wobbly to begin with but, if one persists, then it all comes back.
Regaining the ground lost
by Rick McClung, Atlanta, GA, USA
I agree with you. I noticed the same about myself. I’ve always kept a pad around, however used it only for very rough or loose ideas. I decided to find good stock to work on first instead of just a good enough pad. After just a few weeks of sketching every day I seem to have regained quickly the ground I had lost from lack of practice. I’ve grown to enjoy it and hopefully the brush drawing will benefit from it as well.
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by Gail Mardfin, Bernardsville, NJ, USA
A book by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist who suffered a stroke herself, that is really great, is about rebuilding her “left brain” by conscious choice: My Stroke of Insight and she also gives a fantastic 18-minute Ted Talk.
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Experimental hand change
by Jeri Lynn Ing, Red Deer, AB, Canada
From Right to Left — I have been on an interesting journey in 2011. It started as a lesson in being open to change and ended with my switching from right hand dominant painting to left hand painting. I am naturally a right-handed person but I am now, for the past 3 months, a left-handed painter. It started as an experiment and ended with a change in style, composition and even color choices because of the hand that I choose to paint with. I have enjoyed this exercise so much that I think I will stay painting with my left hand for some time. Others, who have been witness to my change in painting hands, have noted that my work has softer edges and richer colors. I agree, it is better… it is amazing what can happen when you let go and trust yourself to learn something new. I have included two landscapes for you as an example of the change. One is right hand and one is left hand. You be the judge.
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by Lorna Dockstader, Calgary, AB, Canada
The first person I think of when remembering how to draw, as a child, was Jon Gnagy. His program “Learn to Draw” was first broadcast on television in 1946. He convinced me from a very early age, that I could become an artist. This morning I googled him, and was delighted to be able to re-watch many of his drawing lessons, online. Even the introduction music brought back joyful memories. He was commenting on how things had changed since he was a child (born in 1907), when the mailbox was the main method of communication, and now there is television! I saved my copy of his Learn to Draw book and will now give it to our granddaughter to enjoy.
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Brain can be retrained
by Nancy Pace, Benton, IL, USA
I am living proof the brain can be retrained. I had a stroke, a brain bleed. Afterward I had major memory problems. My husband bought me my first computer to keep me company while he was working. I shed many tears of frustration trying to master that computer. I wanted to learn how to use the e-mail program, LOL! The computer was the best medicine I had. If you met me now you wouldn’t know I had a stroke.
I thought your post was very informative. Perhaps it will help others that didn’t realize how wonderfully adaptive our brain is.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Learning to draw again…
EAU QUI DORT
acrylic painting, 48 x 60 inches
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, 2010.
That includes Leonard Skerker of Ann Arbor, MI, USA, who wrote, “Regarding your thoughts on loss of earlier drawing ability after de-emphasizing it for years: Wonder whether the years of developing other imaging aspects (color, design, texture, etc.) has changed your approach/evaluation making you more critical of recent drawings… enjoyed and applaud your bringing to our attention the newer understanding of the lifelong reforming of our brains.”
(RG note) Thanks, Leonard. Over the years I noticed painters who couldn’t draw very well who nevertheless developed a great colour sense, excellent style and other painterly virtues. It’s a matter of finding your niche, balancing your abilities, and working your bliss.
And also Susan Belcher of Wasaga Beach, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Love ya! Now when I teach a ‘drawing’ class I preface with ‘I teach drawing like a painter’ not like a draftsman. Though I do admire that ability. We use large sizes of paper, charcoal and graphite STICKS. No pencils. Lots of erasers. Positive and negative space!!”