Use Pure Contour Drawing to see things differently


Continuing with the exercises outlined in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, today’s lesson is about getting better at kicking the right side of your brain, into gear, and turning off the left, by focusing on contours.

Edges have a very specific means to in drawing that is different from everyday language. Betty describes it like this:

In drawing, an edge is where two things come together, and the line that depicts the shared edge is called a contour line. A contour is always the border of two things simultaneously – that is a shared edge.

So when you draw, you become aware that an edge has two sides. For example the edge of the boat is shared with the sky and the water. Put another way the water stops where the boat begins – shared edges. If you draw one, you have drawn the other.

The outer edge of the composition (also very important) is part of the picture.

The Exercise

In this exercise Betty asks us to draw the detailed wrinkles of our hands, without looking at what we are drawing.


The goal here isn’t a good picture. It’s to get you to look at the wrinkles in your hand in a way that you never have before. You are going to perceive detail and lines you didn’t even know were there. That’s what artists do. They perceive and see things differently.

For this exercise it’s recommended you tape your canvas (paper) down, look at the palm of your hand (in a comfortable position) and then without thinking, draw all the wrinkles on your hand.

Here’s my attempt.


As you can see it’s pretty ugly. But what was amazing was that while drawing I saw things I have never seen before!


Little rivers of wrinkles. Intricate, deep chasms of lines, rivers, streams, criss crossing my hand in ways I had intellectually known were there but never saw.

This exercises is good because your L-Mode (left sided analytical brain) rejects what it sees (it lacks the language to try what it sees so it gives up). Which of course kicks in the right side (which is what we want).

To learn more about drawing check out these previous posts:

Drawing on the right side of the brain
Three exercises to get you going
Vases and faces
Drawing upside down

Or better yet, buy Betty’s excellent book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.


Upside-Down Drawing: an exercise to reduce mental conflict


Something that’s beginning to dawn on me as I work through Betty’s book, is that it isn’t learning to draw that’s important, it’s learning how to perceive things differently.

This exercise, drawing upside down, is designed to do exactly that.

Instead of looking at a picture right side up and going – “House”.

But tipping it upside down you perceive things completely differently.
Instead of seeing: “Roof, chimney, shingles, window.” You see lines, forms, and detail indescribable in everyday language.

So your verbal left brain shuts down, and your right side (drawing brain) kicks in.

For example, here’s a portrait of Igor Stravinsky by Pablo Picasso. Try drawing this upside down (should take about 40min).


As you are drawing, note how you are focusing on line and form, and not words.

Here’s my attempt.


Not bad! Spacing was the hardest thing to get right (you can see how the head just kind of hangs out there. Yet when you compare it with the original it’s pretty good.


This exercise is probably the greatest hack for taking anyone who hasn’t drawn since junior high, and re-activating the right sided brain.

Also notice how the most complicated parts of the picture, the crossing fingers, are drawn quite well. For most students, this is the finest part of the drawing. Why? Because the students didn’t know what they were drawing! They simply drew what they saw, just as they saw it – one of the most important keys to drawing well.

Betty also points out that when it came to drawing the face, there was probably a lot of erasing. Why? Because we knew what we were drawing, maybe starting talking to yourself, and inadvertently kicked in the the language dominant left brain. This verbalization doesn’t help.

Give it a try! Even better buy Betty’s book and see for yourself.

Vases and Faces – an exercise for the double brain



In this exercise from Betty Edwards Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain we are purposely confusing both sides of our brain.

The left is going to want to use words to describe what we are drawing (mouth, nose, lips) while the right is going to want to be more visual. It’s jarring.

The exercise goes like this (do the opposite if you are left handed)

1. Draw a face on the left handed side of a piece of paper.
2. Draw horizontal lines along the top and bottom.
3. Now, take your pencil and slowly go back over the face profile you have just drawn naming the parts like this: “Forehead…nose…upper lip…lower lip…chin…neck.” This is kicking in the left hand side of the brain (the war is about to start).
4. Then go to the other side and start to draw the face profile.
5. When you get to around the forehead or nose, you may experience some mental confusion.
6. Purpose of this exercise is for you to self-observe: “How do I solve this problem.”


Why would we want to do this?

This is a great exercise because it sets up conflict between the left and right hand side of the brain.

The left likes words (nose, chin, these things I can label and draw because I know what they look like).

The right however despises language. It simple wants to draw. So it studies line, form, spacing, and ignore the language side.

Except we trick our brains into using the left by repeating the words as we draw them. Hence the conflict.

The purpose of this exercise is to get you, the drawer, to realize there is conflict (acknowledge it’s there) and then in the follow up exercises show you how to deal with it.

In the next exercise, turning the picture upside down, we will see how we can quiet our left brain, while engaging the right.

For more information on drawing, and a great book on learning, check out Betty Edwards book which I am currently working through.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain – Three drawing exercises to get you going


The first thing Betty gets you to do in her Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain book is to draw three things:

  • something from memory
  • a self portrait
  • your hand

She then gets you to title, sign, and date your pictures. She does this because she wants you to see a record of where you started out with your drawing abilities, and hopefully see how you progress as you go.

Here are my three.

From Memory


This is the picture I was trying to draw from memory.


Self portrait


This is the portrait I was trying to recreate.


My hand


My actual hand in this position.


As you can see, the from memory drawing is the worst. This is to be expected. The memory isn’t good at catching find details in pictures. Only broad strokes.

You can see the self portrait is much better. Much more definition. More more clarity, because I was looking at a picture of myself when drawing it, and I could see way more lines and form.

The hand was perhaps the best. I am cheating here a bit. I took an drawing class in Disney World last year and they should be how to start with basic geometric shapes (a circle or oval) and then how to sketch in detail after.

Still. If you want to follow along with me in these exercises try it for yourself. Draw something from memory, a self portrait, and your hand in any position.

Check here for a walkthrough of the exercises we are going to do as we learn to draw. Next up I believe is the Faces Vases exercise so stay tuned for that.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain



I have always wanted to learn how to draw. So it was with great excitement that the best book I could find on drawing arrived yesterday – Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.

I won’t go into why this book is so good (I have only read the first two chapters) but already this early in I know I am in good hands as this book was first published in 1979, is now on it’s fourth edition, and has stood the test of time.

First, it’s helpful to understand this general distinction between left and right brain.


The left brain (our dominate one) is used every day for most things. Language, analytic thought. Important stuff like that.

But it’s the right side of the brain that is used for drawing. And engaging it is not as easy as it sounds.

Fortunately, Betty has several exercises to help us get our right brains engaged and aid us in our drawing.

The Vase/Faces exercise is designed to acquaint students with the possibility of conflict between the hemispheres as they compete for the task. The exercise is setup to strongly activate the verbal hemisphere (L-mode), but completion of the exercise requires the abilities of the visual hemisphere (R-mode). The resulting mental conflict is perceptible and instructive for students.

The Upside-Down Drawing exercise (I remember an art teacher showing me this one in junior high) is rejected by the left hemisphere because it is too difficult to name parts of an image when it is upside down, and, in left-brain terms, an inverted image is too unusual – that is useless – to bother with. This rejection enables the right hemisphere to hump into the task (for which it is well suited) without competition from the left hemisphere.

The Perception of Edges exercise (seeing complex edges) forces slowness and extreme perception of tiny, inconsequential (in left brain terms) details, where every details becomes a fractual-like whole, with details within details. The left hemisphere quickly becomes “fed up” because it is “too slow for words” and drops out, enabling the right hemisphere to take up the task.

The Perception of Spaces exercise is rejected by the left hemisphere because it will not deal with “nothing”, that is, negative spaces that aren’t objects and can’t be named. In it’s view, spaces are not important enough to bother with. The right hemisphere, with its recognition of the whole (shapes and spaces), is then free to pick up the task and seems to take antic delight in drawing negative spaces.

The Perception of Relationships (perspective and proportion in building and interiors) forces the left hemisphere to confront paradox and ambiguity, which it dislikes and rejects (“this is not how I know things to be”), and which are abundant in perspective drawing, with its angular and proportional spatial changes. Because the right hemisphere is willing to acknowledge perceptual reality, it accepts and will draw what it sees (“it is what it is”).

The Perception of Lights and Shadows presents shapes that are infinitely complex, variable, unnamable, and not useful in terms of language. The left hemisphere refuses the task, which the complexity-loving right hemisphere then picks up, delighting, in the three dimensionality that lights and shadows reveal.

The Perception of Gestalt occurs during and at the close of a drawing. The main effect is a right-hemisphere aha, as though in recognition of the whole that emerges from careful perception and recoding of the parts, all in relationship to each other and the whole. This initial perception of the gestalt occurs largely without verbal input or response from the left hemisphere, but later the left brain may put into words a response that expresses the right brains aha.

This, then is the essence of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: five basic component perceptual skills of drawing, and an overall strategy to enable your brain to bring to bear the brain most appropriate for drawing.

I am so looking forward to studying this book. Stay tuned for more insights into the world of drawing and any other creative hacks I come across for drawing.

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