|"Before": a self-portrait I drew a month ago|
* My mom and I have a story about me and math. I came home from elementary school and said "I hate math." How my mom later told the story: she was surprised when she got my grades and it turned out I was performing just fine in math. What I said when I heard the story: "Mom, I said I hated it, not that I couldn't do it!"**
** (You're absolutely right, that is not where a footnote goes. Onward!)
Actually that makes an excellent segue back to drawing: I'm not very good at math now. I could fill out our tax returns but I am extremely happy to let my bookkeeping husband do it, and as for trigonometry, forget it. I'm not very good at math because I hated it from day one--I haven't learned, and I haven't practiced, beyond the necessary. (And I don't regret that!) Innate ability counts for something, but experience and practice count for a lot more. (Something we've taught our son maybe a little too hard--you should hear the way he says "EXPERIENCED.")
But with drawing, people--including me--tend to figure that innate ability is the only thing. That either you can or you can't. Imagine if we had that approach to reading! I ended up figuring I couldn't.
But I can.
Sometime in the fall, the Boy and I were at a thrift store with a little time to kill in the book section, and I found a book I remembered from my art classroom in high school: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. (BTW please don't jump up and debunk left/right brain just yet. I'm getting there.) I bought it, partly because "thrift store, why not," and partly because that little secret wish leapt up in me again. I decided to give it a go this winter, and try to learn.
The message of the book is essentially this: most people try to draw with the wrong side of their brain. The left side of our brain, the side that does both language and math, is obsessed with symbols. It gravitates toward drawing symbols--stick figures, trees with green balls on top, the idea of a house without finicking over every crack in the façade. You can play Pictionary with it, no problem--communication is its gig. But it doesn't draw what it sees. Or if it does, it doesn't see what's really there.
|I copied this Van Gogh sketch upside down|
Now I know, because Ye Olde Internet Debunkers have been on about it for quite awhile, that the popular conception of right vs. left brain has been proven wrong. The book's pretty old. But what's interesting to me is that on a practical level it doesn't matter: the book is right. It describes a set of symptoms--a sense of wordlessness, of timelessness, of deep focus on a thing in itself without impatience or the need to name or define it--that point to a distinct mental state, which is the state needed to draw well. And in order to draw, I don't need to know exactly what my brain-scan would look like in that state--I need to be able to get there. (There's a super interesting analogy to spiritual things here--maybe I'll explore it eventually. There's a connection also with learning the wilderness--you need that same state.) That's what the book offers--exercises for getting there--and they work. I felt those symptoms, and I felt them when I was finally drawing something decent for the second time in my life. (By drawing upside-down, to cut down on my brain's instinct to name things.)
That's the funny thing--it was the second time. Once in high school, at my missionary-kid boarding school--just once--I was alone in the dorm all one Sunday morning. (It was allowed. Long story.) It was glorious. Remember high school? Well imagine you lived with those kids as well, and unless you were a jock you can probably imagine why it was glorious to be alone. It was spring, and I went out and lay on the green grass under the lilac-trees for a little while; then I went in and got a postcard I loved, of a kitten in light and shadow, and I copied it in pencil and then in watercolors. Time flowed sweet and silent as I painted. I was a third of the way done with the watercolors when the dorm vans pulled in carrying the crowds home from church, and that's how the picture--ten times better than anything else I ever drew--remains to this day. It felt like a magic moment, one I never could recapture. I never tried.
That's the thing about the right brain--or whatever it really is, that timeless mode. I remember the taste of it in that moment, the freedom. Freedom was a prerequisite for me then--I couldn't have drawn like that with all those people pressing on me, with their adult expectations or their hair-trigger teenage scorn--but also a result. And as I did the beginner exercises in the book, the ones intended to get you into that mode as you begin, I could taste it again. The book has you visualize images of it, and for me they were green, all green, rock and lichen and leaf and pine, and me climbing. That's the other place the timelessness came for me, always when I was a child--out in the woods, in the mountains, in caves even, in all wild and rocky places where I could use my body and trust it and let my mind be one with it, knowing my foot was firm in the foothold and my balance was clear and strong.
|I drew this over this weekend. Me!|
The book claims that our education with its focus on symbols and definitions closes those doors, that we're moved more and more away from that experience and the particular skills it brings. But that they can be opened again, with time and practice. The book seems to envision a kind of equality of right and left--I wonder if that's affected by the idea of two paired sides, and whether it would be changed by whatever the real science is on these two (or more?) different ways of thinking. I wonder what would be the full list of skills that the "right-brain" mode enables--hunting? working with animals? my mind always goes to outdoor stuff--and whether more crossover between the two would help the problem I've so often seen in farm interns here, where they're so taken up with the image behind their eyes that they don't see the plants in front of them, don't learn from observation.
(I remember being that person. I remember push-cultivating a row of the garden and not seeing that the weeds hadn't died, because push-cultivating kills weeds by definition, right? Except nothing kills weeds by definition. And if any of the Logic Guys I knew in college are here, don't start in at me about weed-killer. You spray that weed-killer on some weeds and see if they die, and then we'll talk.)
I don't know the answers to all those questions. But to the last one I'd lay money on a resounding YES. I think this other place in the mind, whatever we call it, is indeed something we've tossed aside too lightly, neglected to our cost. The ability to look at the world and see what is there rather than the definitions we rightly or wrongly impose on it--how many mistakes might that have prevented, at the very least?
But it's not lost. It's right there, a path we can walk down if we choose. Who know what we'll find?
For example--as it turns out--I can draw.