Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain, pt. I

Optical Drawing

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards, is one of the best drawing instruction books ever written. It is rightfully recommended to beginner artists all the time. It gets undeniable results. If you’ve never drawn before, or if your drawing hasn’t progressed past your childhood abilities, DotRSotB can provide critical skills that you will use for the rest of your artistic life. The before-and-after images say it all. Students of Edwards’ method show dramatic improvement after only a few days of instruction and exercises. There are few other artistic curricula that can boast the same degree of improvement in such a short time.

However, I hear a frequent question from novice artists who have “graduated” from the DotRSotB exercises: “What now?”

DotRSotB teaches you how to draw what your eyes see. I like to call this approach Optical drawing, because it’s oriented around trusting your eyes and getting out of the way of your literal visual perception. Unfortunately, Optical drawing doesn’t do much to teach you how to draw things that aren’t in front of your eyes, i.e., things you want to invent from your imagination. Some people only care about being able to draw from life, and DotRSotB provides a very good set of skills to develop life drawing ability. But those of us who also want to be able to draw from imagination will need more instruction and a separate, parallel set of drawing skills—Constructive drawing.

Constructive Drawing

There is a growing movement to revive the drawing curriculum popularized by Andrew Loomis in his now-reprinted books like Fun With a Pencil, Figure Drawing For All It’s Worth, and Creative Illustration. One of the most popular drawing tutorial videos on YouTube is by Stan Prokopenko, demonstrating Loomis’ approach to constructing the head out of three-dimensional forms:

Another popular resource for Constructive Drawing is How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. The approach is similar: forms are built out of basic three-dimensional primitives like spheres, cylinders, rectangular prisms, and cones. There is evidence for this approach going back to the Italian Renaissance. It’s also the approach preferred by Marge Simpson:



Constructive drawing is a key skill to develop. Understanding basic three-dimensional forms in perspective will make your life drawing better, and it also makes it possible to invent more complex scenes by mentally “building” them.

But like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and its Optical approach, the Loomis method and other Constructive approaches have limitations. People can become rather skilled at Constructive drawing, but still find themselves stuck and unsatisfied. The concern I hear most frequently is that people feel their drawings are “stiff” or boring. Constructing based on a pattern can lead to repetitive designs. Constructing with angular, boxy forms can lead to poses that lack a sense of flow or graceful action.

Design: the Missing Piece

What both purely Optical and purely Constructive drawing can sometimes lack is design. What the heck is design?

To be continued…

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