Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Drawing on the Artist Within
When I was in the Bay Area last week, I visited Howard Rheingold and went for walk with him and Pearl. (More photos: 1 | 2)

We were talking about meditation and other related activities. Howard recommended drawing as another relaxing and mind expanding activity. I told Howard that I had no talent and that drawing was one thing I would never be good at. Howard smirked and explained that there really wasn't much talent necessary for basic drawing and that he thought I would enjoy it.

I was skeptical but Howard gave me his copy of Drawing on the Artist Within by Betty Edwards from his library and I lugged the huge hardcover book onto the plane and read it. I was prepared to be surprised, but I was more surprised than I imagined I could be.

Betty Edwards starts out explaining that drawing is like reading and writing for the right hemisphere of the brain. The right brain deals with spacial and relationship oriented things and is good at dealing with chaos and complexity. She explains that people who are "not good at drawing" typically have strong left brain tendencies which often prevents the right brain from taking charge of drawing.

The right brain likes order and abstraction and parses everything you see into symbols. For instance, instead of seeing small person, medium sized person, large person, if the people are framed correctly, you will see person (far away), person (medium distance), person (close) and parse the different sizes as distances rather than three separate sized people. This is useful when you are trying to assess a visual image in a left brain sort of way. However, when you are trying to draw an image or notice differences or details, your left brain can get in the way.

When you are trying to draw a human figure, for instance, you will often draw a round head, eyes, hands, feet, etc. Each component will look like some abstraction of that part of the body. In fact, depending on the direction from which you are viewing that part of the body or person, the shape of each of those elements are infinitely different. When your left brain is in charge you label each element, for instance, "that's an eye" and draw what your left brain thinks of as an eye element instead of what you actually see. That's how people like me end up with child-like drawings.

She gives an example of an American flag hanging on the wall. The first week, her students draw things that looks like parallelograms with straight bars. The next week she tells them to notice that the bars cross each other in real life at angles. The students then draw a slightly more realistic flag with folds/waves. The next week she tells them to notice that the bars are different widths and the stars are each a different shape. This is paradoxical to the left brain since it is imagining the symbolic view of each element. In fact, when you look at a flag hanging on the wall and the image is flattened onto a 2D view like a drawing, all of the elements turn into different shapes.

She gives the reader a number of techniques to "trick" the left brain into letting go - drawing very fast, drawing very slow or drawing an image that is upside down. She presents exercises that show how easy it is to dramatically improve your drawing by just getting your left brain to let go so that your right brain can see things as they are and not abstracted.

The right brain is a very important partner in problem solving and thinking and your left brain and right brain already have a lot of back and forth. Your right brain deals with most of the complexity of driving while your left brain thinks of something else or remembers directions. Your left brain collects information and your right brain then "incubates" the idea tossing it back sometime in the future to your left brain as an "aha!"

Edwards hypothesizes convincingly that drawing is a great way to talk to your right brain and more directly bring your right brain into a "conversation" of conscious problem solving. I thought about drawing in the context of meditation which is also a lot about getting the left brain to "go away" or "shut up". Since reading the book on the plane, I have been scribbling sketches in my notebook. I continue to be surprised at this newly discovered ability that has been hidden for 40 years. Who said you can't teach an old dog new tricks?

I'm not sure yet whether I'm going to share any of my "artwork" with the public, but I am surely going to begin drawing as a way of thinking about things and spending time. I have a feeling that it will also help me communicate graphically and may even improve my sense of direction. ;-)

I'm REALLY excited about discovering a key to a door I shut way back in elementary school and I think this new hobby will work well in my "new lifestyle". If you've every thought, "I'm not good at drawing," I highly recommend and urge you read this book and reconsider. Also, if you recommend any other books or resources along these lines, I'd appreciate any pointers.


I got so frustrated just reading about this, because of the memory of so much effort going into doodles that look nothing like I want them to. I don't want it to be true, but I secretly think that drawing is a special talent that some are born with.

I will have to pick this book up and read it, I am very curious about this. Hopefully they make it in soft cover though. ^_^

Maiki: That's exactly what I thought when Howard first suggested this. I also felt a pang of anger remembering all of the times I tried to draw things in the past. After spending a few minutes on the exercises, that anger/fear was completely gone... at least for me.

Several years ago I read the other book by Betty Edwards; the Swedish version of Drawing on the right side of the brain. Very fascinating! This has been something that's always in my mind when I draw, and when I hear people saying that they can't draw. Many people seem to think that drawing is something that you can't learn, it's something that you can or not. Of course; some people have a certain gift and are amazingly good at drawing, but I'm totally convinced that all people can learn to draw if they want to and if they get to know these weaknesses of our brains that fools us!

And of course; practice makes perfect!
So keep going! =)

Goody. I am into 'tricks' so this book is of interest to me. Thx. If I write a book someday, it'll probably be titled "Mental Tricks and Trips." :-)

Betty Edwards is to drawing what Bob Ross is to painting. Her work is based on a dubious premise, that we all have natural drawing talent and we just have to clear the mental blocks that prevent us from expressing that natural talent.

Unfortunately, it is not that easy, you cannot just shut off part of your mind and let a drawing flow out effortlessly. Drawing IS abstraction, to improve one's skills means one must learn how that abstraction works. The way to learn drawing is by studying skillful drawings, and to practice implementing their methods in one's own drawings.

Every drawing is a self-evident record of its own creation and its creators choice of abstraction. My favorite drawing professor said "A drawing is a continuous record of millions of tiny choices made by the artist." Drawing is not about draftsmanship or creating a good likeness of something, it is about the choices we make while creating the drawing.

I will tell you the most useful advice I ever got in a drawing class. One professor told me "if you're not erasing more than you're drawing, you're not really drawing." Drawing is a dirty business, if you're not up to your elbows in carbon dust and eraser crumbs, you're not working hard enough.

I recommend sharing the drawings and the whole "artistic process" with a small number of people who also do it and are about the same level.

We've been painting and drawing in a four-person group for a year now. We started from scratch and sucked in the beginning - really bad. But it's so fun to do the things together with others that I definitely recommend creating a small drawing group who you trust and who share similar aspirations regarding the drawing. It is fun to share the progree with others.

I discovered Betty Edwards and her amazing book "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" in college. It is now in a new edition including additional color theory. It is amazing what can open up when you look behind those closed childhood doors.

Charles: My take-away from the books wasn't that drawing was easy or that there was a "trick" to become an accomplished artist. What I learned was that there were some simple blocks that I could remove to move me from "I can't draw" to "I can draw". Being able draw and appreciate drawing in a new way opened up a door for me that had been closed and is infinitely better than the zero I was at before. I'm not claiming that there isn't a lot of work ahead of me, but at least, at forty, I'm now on the path and I DO appreciate Betty Edwards enormously for beginning this journey for me.

vt: Good idea.

While it's not quite on the same subject, another good book on the whole thesis of learning skills you always thought our of your reach is Lessons from the art of Juggling. It's out of print now (you can find used copies online), but my dad gave me a copy years ago and while I'm no serious juggler now, I can juggle a little and in the course of things I learned a LOT about the processes of learning a new skill. I believe that Micheal Gelb might mention Edwards' earlier Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain in his book. He definitely recommends her work in some of his other books.

Keep it up! you'll love it. I found Betty Edwards's book "Drawing on the right side of the brain" very accessible and intuitive.

I had always wanted to draw and finally ended up taking a couple courses at the Art Gallery of Ontario after going through the above mentioned book on my own. Now I can draw slightly better than before, but I can attest to the fact that is in fact, almost a zen like activity.

One thing I remember from B.E.'s book and from my first teacher is that I should draw an object as I see it, not what my brain tells me.

A really cool exercise to do is to copy a master's drawing but with it upside down in front of you as you basically copy the lines as you see them. I was amazed to see how much better I was able to draw when my left brain wasn't getting in the way. I was hooked! :)

Draw! Draw! Draw! don't wait to 'get better at it'. Just draw! :)

Joi, if the book makes you believe you can actually draw, then fine. But I will give you a shortcut: take a pencil and scribble at random on a piece of paper. That was drawing. It's easy. Now the trick is to do it again, and better. And again, ad infinitum. But to do better, you will probably have to start looking for ideas and methods that other artists have developed, and learn how to apply them. That's all there is to it.
It is never too late to begin anew. I dropped out of art school when I was young, but I returned at age 38 to finish my BFA degree in drawing. I know that not everyone has the desire to become a professional artist, but there are better ways to progress to whatever level you want, so please please leave Betty Edwards behind, she is a laughing stock amongst real artists. Permit me to recommend a much better alternative, my favorite drawing book is "The Art of Drawing" by Bernard Chaet:
It's out of print but it is a classic.
As a closing remark, I should say that talent has very little use in the arts. Leonardo da Vinci said that he would rather teach untalented students than talented ones, as the talented ones knew how great they were and would never make any progress beyond their current abilities. But the untalented ones were critical of their own abilities, and were always dissatisfied with their works, so they were always finding their own faults and striving to improve, and ultimately became better artists than the so-called talented ones.

Charles: I don't think that "shortcut" would have worked for me before. I dreaded even the thought of taking a pencil to paper and scribbling. You would have had to physically force me to even explore the idea of scribbling something, let alone do it ad infinitum. What the book did for me was enable me to get over this "block". It was successful in this way.

I would also never have visited a "drawing" section of a bookstore or have been inclined to pick up a book about drawing. That I did this is because of Howard's persuasiveness as well of course. Having now embarked on the journey, I'm happy to take recommendations for new books and methods and I thank you for this. However, I don't think it requires convincing me that I need to laugh at Betty Edwards. She indeed accomplished was Howard said she would. She motivated me to become interested in working on my drawing.

joi, have you ever tried shuji? seems like it'd flow more perfectly with your new zen life...i prefer brushes to pencils or pens - so much richness in rough lines. for drawing, i suggest using fat, soft-leaded pencils, they give great variety of touch and it's hard to go wrong...

Hey Norie: I want to try shuji, but trying to find a good book/teacher, etc. Can you recommend someone/something?

Dear Joi:

Several years ago my roommate took a basic drawing class at a community college. She said it changed the way she looked at the world. I've long held that every child should be taught to draw because it aides eye-hand coordination and observation of detail is also increased. You learn to pay attention. Like you, I was discouraged by teachers from trying to draw, so I became a photographer. That gave me an appreciation for design and visual media and informed my writing. All of this works together. Drawing is a mechanical skill and the only way to become proficent is to practice. I once had a cartoonist staying with me for six months. That man drew 200 drawings a day to keep his eye sharp and his imagination active. Most he threw away.
No short cuts to mastery here, I'm afraid, but I am sure you will find the exercise beneficial and rewarding.

i used to go commute to a culture center shuji class, but moved out of the city and so have put my training on hold...but i notice people advertising private instruction from their homes, which i might try at some point. i don't think you can go wrong really, since most instructors have some certification. and once you have your basic tools, you can really almost learn by yourself and by observation and intermittent critique by some with a little skill.
i, like you and most others, was not encouraged enough with my drawing skills as a child and so relearned how to draw as an adult, first with drafting tools and now with shuji. covering both ends of the spectrum, i've become a little more comfortable with a pencil and have regained my confidence.
shuji is also very meditative and so you could kill two birds with one stone, (as they say in the days when people needed to kill birds for some reason.)

Betty Edwards is a genius, I have used her book with students and have been surprised and rewarded time and time again. Anyone who is at all interested in drawing or making art, should get this book, it will change the way you look at the world and the often intimidating world of making or drawing. Why I do believe in 'talent' I also believe you can be 'taught' to draw, or make or unlock those often untapped parts of your brain. Also, in closing, did you ever ask why there are no 'real' child protege's in art and painting in particular? Fascinating read.

I think half the people i know own a copy of "drawing on the right side of the brain". It's a keeper for sure.
Definitly the first step to "being able to draw" is "being able to observe". I think this fits in very neatly with your meditation practice.
It's all about awareness. :)

Joi, you'd be surprised at how many artists dread drawing. The usual solution is to just draw. When I started art school, I was informed that I would spend at least 6 hours a week in drawing classes for the next 4 years, and if I wanted to do well, I should spend at least a few hours a week drawing on my own. I hated every minute of it. But I finally came to some sort of rapprochement with the media. I suppose I became motivated when I came back to finish my degree, if I didn't do well in the senior drawing class, I wouldn't get my degree. Even if you have no talent and no ideas, 12 hours a week drawing will develop into something.
I noticed there were generally two types of people with two different approaches to drawing. Some people (a very few) had a sketchbook at their side at all times, and were constantly doodling something. But most people tended to avoid drawing until they were at the drawing table and working seriously, they constantly thought about what ideas they wanted to execute, but never laid them to paper until they were ready. I tend to fall into the latter category.
So all I'm saying is that having a drawing "block" is common even amongst professional artists, if Betty helps you deal with it, fine, but don't conflate that struggle with actually learning to draw. Just draw. You don't need anyone's permission to draw, least of all your own.

If you are able to put a nice group together, you can warm up with croquis drawing - someone of the group posing as the subject of the others drawings for a few minutes. It's fun.

At first it may seem that one cannot do anything in one minute, but the more you repeat it the more routine you are able to get. Also, it helps you to identify the most important and representative parts of a drawing of a human.


"Betty Edwards is to drawing what Bob Ross is to painting. Her work is based on a dubious premise, that we all have natural drawing talent and we just have to clear the mental blocks that prevent us from expressing that natural talent."

Don't you dare dis Bob Ross. :-)

His premise was that we all have painting ability, which we all do. He taught simple techniques that average people could easily do and create things that brought them satisfaction. No different than a piano teacher teaching scales and simple tunes or Julia Child showing a housewife how to roast a piece of meat.

His own paintings were certainly low art, but watching him do them, you knew that they were accurate reflections of his mind—that they said exactly what he wanted them to say. His vision was all about peaceful places with happy little trees and fluffy little clouds and that's exactly what he did.

That taste fit with the taste of his audience, perhaps a middle-aged woman who finds herself with free time in the afternoon and a fond remembrance of losing herself in painting as a child. Not high art, but neither should it be.

Betty Edwards teaches people to forget what they thought they knew about drawing, to unlearn what so many were taught and guides people back into a more natural way of drawing. She teaches people to attempt to capture what they actually see, rather than let the other side of the brain bully the hand into representative symbols, iconography and pattern-making.

In the same way that your life is improved if you stop to smell the roses once in a while, drawing this way forces you to stop and look at the way the light falls on a particular subject, with similar rewards. That in itself makes learning her methods worth the effort. Drawing and photography are both merely excuses to get out and look at things well.

People will criticize teachers like Edwards and Ross, but they both worked to remove the barriers to artistic creation, where many traditional methods seek to build them higher, creating a greater distance between high art and outsider art. Edwards and Ross both taught people to speak artistically, even if they didn't have very much to say, something that in itself is a much higher aspiration than merely advancing elitism.

one more thought on shuji: i enjoyed learning in a class because you can learn quicker by observing others - how they clean their brushes, grind their ink, etc. - which might be take longer in a one-on-one situation. and some days when i wasn't so in the mood for practicing diligently, there was something to the routine of just taking out my brushes, preparing the paper and grinding the ink. it allows you time to ease into it as opposed to simply using pre-prepared ink or pencil on paper.
one of the best pieces of advice i received in college was from the late enrique miralles who told me that i had to pitch my mechanical pencil and use a knife to sharpen my own pencils. that process of sharpening the tip was a way to prepare my thoughts for putting them onto paper.
ganbatte, joi! i'm sure you'll find your medium soon and have fun with it.

Thanks for the advice vt and Norie and your comments Jim. I'm really enjoying my scribbling and I've started to look for a shuji sensei. ;-)

You should now publish your drawings and scribblings ;)

I want to thank Joi Ito for his comments on my book, and to thank all of the others who commented as well. Just a note on my underlying theory and purpose in writing my books on drawing:
The main function of the left brain (for most people) is language, and one specific language skill is reading. The main function for the right brain is visual perception, and a specific skill is drawing.

Reading is not an instinctual skill--it apparently requires effective instruction. Otherwise, people who have not learned to read in school would simply teach themselves the skill. It is the same with drawing. Drawing, like reading, is a skill that apparently requires instruction. And, just as learning to read does not require "special God-given talent," learning to draw is accessible to everyone, given proper instruction.

In seeking the keys to teaching drawing, my question, was, "What exactly am I doing with the visual information when I am drawing, and what are the fundamental SEEING skills involved?" Then next, "How can I best teach those skills?"

Because visual information information processing is so extremely rapid (think how short is the time required to recognize the face of a friend), my problem was to try to track what was going on in my own brain while drawing. This was painfully difficult--imagine trying to track the many processes going on in your your brain while reading.

The result was determining five subskills of the global skill of drawing. These are perceptual skills: perception of edges, spaces, relationships, lights and shadows, and the gestalt (the sum of the parts).

These are skills that are rarely taught in a direct and specific way. They are the skills that underlie "basic drawing," say of landscape drawing, figure drawing, portraiture, still life, etc. They are the "rock bottom" skills, comparable to learning phonics, syllabification, vocabulary, etc, for reading.

My hope is that one day, we shall teach our children in school the basic skills of drawing, just as we now teach reading, since drawing is a fundamental skill of that other half of the brain--and its component skills are extremely valuable for thinking in general. In addition, like readiing, drawing can bring great joy.

The notion of drawing as relaxing and mind-expanding speaks to the power of mind-mapping. I started mind-mapping a few years ago. Now I am addicted to it.

Among other things, mind-mapping my meeting notes rather than writing them down in bullets or senteces allows me to continue to listen to the speaker rather than the voice in my head.

There are numerous other benefits I won't take the time to relate now, but I would encourage all doodlers, as well as anyone else interested in drawing, to give it a try.

I had an art teacher at school when I was 8 who summarized this all wonderfully in ten words: "Draw what you see, not what you think you see."

Betty, thanks for the thoughtful commment. ;-)

Troy, I'm mindmapping meeting notes now too!

cam, exactly.

cool, joi!

The thing that hit me the most about your posting was you lamenting never having the right kind of instruction as a child -- I was watching my 2 year old daughter draw on one of those magnetic pen board toys and it was amazing how even at that age, faces and eyes are circles. I wonder if I've already steered her down the wrong path drawing tons of silly cartoons for her -- obviously there's tons of time to teach her, as I started really getting into it around 8 or 9 (that teacher I mentioned was a big help, as was the fact that oil pastels smelled kinda neat), but it would still be cool if I could teach her to draw realistically from the very start of her artistic "career".

Maybe I should start showing her how to block in areas of light and dark to make a face instead of drawing a circle with circles inside it... although I also feel like the line drawing thing is probably an important part of a child's artistic and motor development.

Time to do some research... anybody read any good books/articles on teaching art concepts to children? My sister took a bunch of early childhood art classes (she teaches kindergarten) so I should hit her up for some advice, although from past experience I have a feeling it'll just be "Chill out, she's only two, you idiot!"

Joi and/or Troy--any recommendations for exploring mind-mapping? Do you use software or paper?

I'm using MindManager by Mindjet. (One of my companies in a Japanese distributor.) There is a Mac and Windows version.

cam, I really recommend looking into the Reggio Emilia approach of learning, based on an early childhood program developed in Italy. There's a book called "The Hundred Languages of Children" that, although is very theoretical, is quite enlightening.

joi, i'd love to see you mind-mapping in shuji someday! :)

Thanks Joi, I'll take a look!

Did some artwork today and it made me feel very relaxed. The process and my mood was a bit violent and care-free at the time. I was hoping it would help me release a little and it may have.