Our two brain hemispheres are really different.
Whilst we need them both to be functioning in order to paint – especially in a realistic, detailed way, I’ve come to see it as vital that we make a shift to the consciousness of our right brain when we paint.
The two hemispheres differ in how they process sensory information. The right hemisphere is all about perceiving visually – in patterns, shapes and the relationships between them – including how they come together to make the whole.
It is our right mind’s ability to REALLY ‘see’ that is fundamental to both drawing and painting, or as Betty Edwards put it in Drawing on the right Side of the Brain:
By gaining access to the part of your mind that works in a style conducive to creative, intuitive thought, you will learn a fundamental skill of the visual arts: how to put down on paper what you see in front of your eyes.
Brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor lost much of her left hemisphere temporarily in 1996 when she experienced a stroke. In her subsequent book A Stroke of Insight she describes the right mind:
By it’s design, our right mind is spontaneous, carefree, and imaginative. It allows our artistic juices to flow free without inhibition or judgement.
In contrast, the left hemisphere is the site of language, and is verbal and analytic. Bolte Taylor describes it as speaking to us constantly through ‘brain chatter’, defining our ‘self’ by saying ‘I am’. It also categorises information into hierarchies and places judgements on our experiences based on our likes and dislikes.
In short, it is the home of our egoic self. And, it’s also vital for living. As Taylor writes:
Without those cells performing their job you would forget who you are and lose track of your life and your identity.
So the crucial role of the left hemisphere has meant it’s become the focus of our education system and led to it dominating our consciousness most of the time.
But we have to learn how to give our left mind a backseat when we are painting.
Making this transition is especially challenging when you are learning as an adult.
As an adult our left hemisphere is very developed and painting may be one of the only times when it isn’t dominating.
One of the left hemisphere’s jobs is to constantly compare us to everyone else.
And if we’re learning a new skill – like painting – then we are probably not as ‘good’ yet as we would like. This can lead to some very critical brain chatter like:
I’ll never be any good
What’s the point
I should stick to what I CAN do
My paintings are so much worse than EVERYONE else’s
This is a waste of time
This brain chatter is the No. 1 enemy of the would-be painter.
And so step one in painting from your right mind, is to acknowledge, and ignore any self-critical brain chatter.
Easier said than done!
If you can catch yourself experiencing it whilst painting, just try to see it for what it is: a natural response to learning a right-brain skill from a human born and raised in a left-hemisphere dominant culture.
That left-brain chatter doesn’t have to be believed. Try gently replying with:
‘Thanks for your input, left brain. But, I’m going to carry on working with my right brain anyway because it’ll be an interesting experience and I might just have some fun’.
Then return your attention to the painting or drawing in hand.
In posts to come I’ll explore some other very practical methods to help you access right mind, but for now here’s Jill Bolte Taylor’s now famous TED talk where she describes what it was like to lose her left hemisphere – it’s inspiring stuff!
I’d love to hear in the comments below whether you experience this ‘shift’ into right brain when you paint, and what tips you have for us to help that happen.