Drawing Basics: Drawing Without Symbols on the Right Side of the Brain

Drawing students used their viewfinders to find their basic units of measurement.As a supplement to our feature in the winter 2007 issue of Drawing magazine, we offer a more in depth look at Brian Bomeisler's drawing workshop with an extended version of the article, additional images of student work, and more photographs of the workshop.

by Stephanie Kaplan

Bomeisler helped a student see negative space to complete his chair drawing.
Bomeisler helped a student see negative space to complete his chair drawing.

Brian Bomeisler is passionate about the human brain—the right side of it, that is. The son of Betty Edwards, author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (J.P. Tarcher, Los Angeles, California), Bomeisler offers workshops and classes that teach basic drawing skills based on Edward's philosophy, as explained in the preface of her well-known book. "My premise is that developing a new way of seeing, by tapping into functions of the right hemisphere of your brain, can help you learn how to draw," she writes. The right hemisphere of the brain, the text goes on to explain, controls nonverbal, spatial, and intuitive thinking, while the left hemisphere presides over the verbal, analytical, and symbolic thought processes.

Student Work: Self-portraits
negative-space chair drawing #1 negative-space chair drawing #2
negative-space chair drawing #3 negative-space chair drawing #4
negative-space chair drawing #5 Five examples of negative-space chair drawings by students.
Student Critiques of Negative-Space Chair Drawings

Although Bomeisler did not spend a lot of time giving formal critiques, his remarks were warm and encouraging, and he constantly reminded students not to judge themselves too harshly. To ensure class participation, he always asked students what they learned during the drawing exercises. One student remarked during a critique of his chair drawing, “I learned to trust my instincts.” Another student commented on the difficulties of using negative space, saying, “I didn’t understand what you were saying until I did it. Once I captured one or two angles, I really understood it.” Bomeisler also advised students, “You know it’s right when it looks right.” One student explained that the critiques were helpful to him—“I feel like I’m in a rush to finish, and then I think it’s done, but when it gets hung up on the wall for critique, I think to myself, It’s not done.”

With his mother's premise in mind, Bomeisler invited 12 eager students from across the country into his home studio in Manhattan for a five-day workshop. Although the students represented a variety of professions, they all shared a common goal: to learn to draw well. He welcomed students by announcing, "I can assure you that you are going to learn how to draw from this class," and explained that there are only five skills involved in drawing, all five of which would provide the foundation for the workshop. Bomeisler’s five skill sets: the perception of edges using line or contour drawing, the perception of spaces within a drawing through the use of negative space the perception of the relationship of angles and proportions also known as sighting, the perception of lights and shadows using light logic, and the perception of the whole, or gestalt, which incorporates the previous four perceptual skills.

Completed Vase/Face Drawing Exercise
Completed Vase/Face Drawing Exercise

Some students struggled to draw a perfectly symmetrical face because they focused too much on drawing the shape of the face instead of nudging their
right brains to first see and then to draw the vase shape. This exercise is from the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain Portfolio Booklet used in the workshop.

Each day of the workshop began with a lecture followed by a demonstration. The students then drew for the rest of the day and ended with a brief critique. Although a couple students had previously attempted to complete exercises from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, most were unfamiliar with Bomeisler's encouragement to tap into the right side of their brains to draw. "The left hemisphere constantly interferes with your perceptions of what you are seeing,” he explained during the lecture on the first morning. “You are working with symbols and symbols come from the left hemisphere." The key to drawing successfully, he emphasized, is forcing the brain to move away from symbols for example, to look at a human nose and actually draw what it looks like instead of drawing the shape that the brain associates with a nose. Although the symbolic, rational left brain wants to dominate the creative process, Bomeisler armed students with an arsenal of tools to trick their left brains into becoming subordinate to their spatial, intuitive right brains, thereby allowing students to draw what they actually see.

Students began the workshop with three exercises that demonstrated the first on Bomeisler’s list of drawing skills—the perception of contour: a pre-instruction self-portrait, a blind-contour drawing of one’s hand, and a vase/face drawing. Bomeisler used the pre-instruction self-portraits to pinpoint the ages at which the students stopped learning to draw. By judging the number of symbols used in each portrait, Bomeisler suggested that the abilities in the room ranged from about age 10 to adult-level skills. The blind-contour drawings of their hands forced students to make conscious shifts toward using the right hemisphere of their brains. The right side was engaged because students were drawing very slowly as they followed the lines within the palm of the hand without looking at what they drew. Students also completed a vase/face exercise where they had to copy a face in the opposite direction to create a symmetrical vase shape in the middle of the two faces. The purpose of this exercise was to illustrate how the verbal left brain often directs students to draw a face, which led to lopsided and symbolic drawings. During a discussion of the exercise, one student immediately noticed a solution to the problem: "Throw out the labels of the face and don't think about what you’re doing. Once I just drew the middle vase, I was okay."

During the vase/face exercise, the students discovered the importance of negative space. Bomeisler praised negative space as "one of the unspoken secrets of drawing,” he said. “All artists use it in their drawings, and they use it in a clear and substantial way. Negative space is a way of not naming something.” Learning to draw the negative space around an object proved useful to students because, by doing so, they concentrated on the relationships between shapes instead of relying on preexisting symbols.

Student Work: Self-portraits
Self-portrait drawing, preinstruction Self-portrait drawing, post-instruction
Self-portrait drawing, preinstruction Self-portrait drawing, post-instruction
These preinstruction (upper and lower left) and postinstruction (upper and lower right) self-portraits demonstrate the progress two students made throughout the workshop.
Bomeisler designed the proportion finder (left), the viewfinder (center), and the anglefinder specifically for beginners to use in his workshops.

To master the use of negative space, students completed a drawing of a chair after watching Bomeisler demonstrate by using a Plexiglas viewfinder to estimate a basic unit of negative space, marking this unit on the viewfinder with a felt-tip pen. He assured students that the viewfinder was a temporary but necessary crutch. "Visual estimation is part of this skill,” he emphasized. “You will eventually get rid of these tools and use just your hands as a viewfinder." After toning his paper with a graphite stick, Bomeisler transferred the unit of negative space from the viewfinder to the paper by measuring it as a unit with a proportion finder—another tool for beginners—and assigning the unit a value so it could be used to measure the relationships among the negative spaces surrounding the chair. This basic unit of measurement was scaled up from its size in the actual scene to ensure the correct composition and proportion in the drawing. Bomeisler explained, "The scale is different, but the relationships are the same." He also suggested that students erase the graphite background tone to create the negative space. To further cement the concept of negative space, Bomeisler cleverly advised, "When you leave here today, I want you to notice the negative space in New York City. There are the most beautiful negative spaces between buildings."

Drawing students used their viewfinders to find their basic units of measurement.
Drawing students used their viewfinders to find their basic units of measurement.

Armed with their newfound knowledge of line and negative space, students tackled three more drawing exercises: a drawing of a portion of the studio or a landscape view from Bomeisler's roof, a profile drawing of a fellow student, and a postinstruction self-portrait. The first drawing exercise taught participants the art of sighting to document accurate perspective in their drawings, and the profile drawing introduced shading or the perception of light and shadow. The postinstruction self-portraits completed on the final day of the workshop, however, were the most telling because they demonstrated that the students had acquired new skills and had relaxed into their own drawing styles. Students took Bomeisler's first four drawing skills and combined them to achieve his fifth: perceiving a subject as a whole, or gestalt, and using the right brain to draw it realistically without the use of symbols. To complete the portrait, students sat in front of mirrors taped to the wall with lamps shining on their faces to create strong light and shadows. Although many students battled with capturing their noses or chins accurately, the final portraits demonstrated dramatic improvements on the portraits completed on the first day of the workshop. This was achieved by avoiding the use of symbols in their drawings and incorporating the five crucial skills that Bomeisler identified.

Bomeisler helped a student correct and adjust the proportions of his self-portrait drawing
Bomeisler helped a student correct and adjust the proportions of his self-portrait.
Student Work: Contour Drawings
Contour drawing of students' hands completed during the workshop. Contour drawing of students' hands completed during the workshop
Contour drawings of students' hands completed during the workshop.

As students packed up their supplies and thanked Bomeisler for his lessons, many expressed a new understanding of how to avoid using symbols in their drawings and left the workshop excited to take their drawings to the next level. Maria Mosca, who attended the workshop to improve her drawing skills for graduate work in landscape design, remarked, "I walked in on Monday morning feeling hopeless about my complete lack of drawing ability; I walked out on Friday afternoon feeling exhilarated and happy about my newfound skills." She continued, "Brian gave me a set of tools and techniques—both knowledge and physical tools—that enabled me to overcome my insecurity about putting pencil to paper." Student Michael Zamagias agreed: "He’s a great teacher. He simplifies complicated processes by breaking them down into easy steps. For me, each day’s class was illuminating; I likened it to Plato's allegory of the cave: once you lose your preconceived notions of art, you see with clarity."

Like what you read? Become a Drawing subscriber today!

Related Posts:


Drawing Blog

2 thoughts on “Drawing Basics: Drawing Without Symbols on the Right Side of the Brain

  1. I would like to join the workshop, but I try to send email and call by tel and cannot contact you and the organization. Please update me the latest contact as I would like to join the workshop in August 2007