Sunday, July 29, 2012

Left Brain Work, Right Brain Play

Last week I read a book which has impressed me greatly, My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD.  She is a neuroanatomist who, ironically, at age 37, had an aneurysm which caused the left side of her brain to be incapacitated.   Because she was so well versed in matters of the brain, she was able to figure out just what was happening to her and to call a friend before she lost consciousness so she could get help.   She observed her decline as it was happening.

This book was fascinating on many levels, but one of the things that stuck with me the most is her experience of having only the right brain functioning.  She described her experience as one of Nirvana as she understands it.  She had no sense of time.  She couldn't experience any differences between objects and/or people whom we normally perceive of as separate.  Everything she saw was simply matter/atoms/energy all blended together.  The only way she could tell the difference between things was if something moved.  She was almost unable to speak because her language center was in her left brain, as were her ego functions and all the parts of her brain which organized and schemed and figured things out.  Her "personality" was there (on the left side) as well.

She found life on the right side to be extremely compelling and she actually had to make a choice to work to regain functioning of the left side.  She did it so she could share with others that Nirvana is available to all of us all the time.

As she worked for 8 years to regain her left brain's functions, she noticed that when she got back some memories or some skills, they would be accompanied by certain feelings and perhaps even personality traits, some of which she found quite unpleasant.  She made a choice to regain the skills and memories but to leave the negative traits behind.  She learned that emotions come and go, lasting only 90 seconds.  She found that if she could simply ride the wave of an emotion such as anger, then it would pass, and she could discipline herself to not let it take over her consciousness.  She has three things she chooses to do instead to occupy her brain more positively.  I don't remember all three, but two of them are the following:  1) Think of something I am intrigued by and want to know more about.  2) Think of a sensual experience such as smelling baking chocolate chip cookies and focus on that.  In other words, she fills her brain with other things and lets the emotions pass.  I have been trying it since I read her suggestions and find it more helpful than not.  I have some work to do before I'm completely skillful at it, but I find it helpful to be so aware of my feelings and to recognize I have choices about what I do with them rather than letting them do what they want to with me.

The reason I'm writing about this book on my blog about my art is because it has helped me come to an awareness about how I've spent the last six weeks or so art-wise.  I've written about how I got great pleasure out of making a sketchbook and playing in it.  It is a completely different process from how I'm used to doing art.

I didn't go to art school, and I haven't had many skills-based art classes.  I got a MIS (Masters in Interdisciplinary Studies) in Art from VCU in 2003.  It consisted of being in class with professors who would give us individual support while we worked on our own projects.  (A couple of the classes were skills-based, like one on photo-transfers, but for the most part what I wrote was true.)  I enjoyed the support greatly and got a great deal out of it, BUT I didn't have a chance to learn skills like drawing and painting.  Ironic, right?  I think the (perfectly reasonable) assumption was that most people got those from their BFA degrees, but I don't have one.  I majored in German.  I am mostly self-taught as an artist, as far as skills go.

The way my brain works, I analyze things and figure them out.  I have a dominant left brain.  So when I wanted to figure out how to draw something, I - well - my first process would be too tedious to begin to describe!  Basically I did a proportion to figure out each significant point on a photographic image and placed that point in a corresponding place on the drawing.  It would take me untold hours to create a 3"x2" graphite drawing.  I got great satisfaction from doing it, and I loved how they turned out, but, my goodness!  They were time-consuming and, I recognize clearly now, very left brain centered.  Here's one of my first drawings done that way.  Yes, I figured out the placement of each of those blinds and shadows of blinds by using math and an exceedingly sharp pencil!

When I began working in pastels, I learned about how to use a grid.  My mother, who is also an artist, taught me a non-mathematical way to create a grid which I've used ever since.  It's much easier than finding the midpoint, then the midpoint of that, etc., etc.  To make things easier for myself, I created a grid like you see on the right in Adobe Photoshop and would superimpose it on the photograph I wanted to paint then would print it out that way.  Then I only had to draw the grid onto the canvas or paper, not also on the photo.

Here's an example of the beginning stages of gridding a piece of paper then transferring the image onto the paper from the photo using the grid to help:  (Phooey, the picture is being very weird - I can't get it to show up oriented correctly.  Sorry about that!  Hopefully you can get the idea anyway.)

This is the process I used to create virtually all the pieces for Not Barbie.  It's a terrific way to get details correct and for me to make a person's face look accurate.  Of course, I can and do still make mistakes, but it's fairly simple really.  In fact, it's so simple that towards the end of preparing for the show, I think I was getting bored.  I'd put the piece on canvas then mix my paint then get ready to paint.  I'd get distracted.  I'd listed to a podcast while I was working.  I'd give myself a break to go get some food (I gained weight doing that!).  I'd write a blog - I was a very active blogger during this period!  What I didn't do, because I was on a deadline and because I knew how I wanted the pieces to look, was allow myself to play or experiment much at all.  Once I printed out the photo I was going to work from, I knew pretty much what the final piece would look like.  I like to think (and people have told me that appearances indicate this) that I put more than just mechanical skill into the paintings - I certainly felt a great deal of love and compassion for my models as I worked on each painting - but there was a great deal of mechanical work to do on each one.  For Scar Belly, for example, I gridded the tattoos on her arms so I could get them just right - I'd never painted a pattern like that before and wanted to get it just right.

The gift and pleasure I gave myself with that painting, though, was that I let the pattern of the tattoo extend off of her skin in a fantastical way.  I loved making the design, so I let myself play and continue it.  There are other examples of letting myself play, and those are the pieces, generally speaking, which I like the most.  For example, I took down an old canvas from my storage loft and painted "Dancing with Hotei" over top of it.  I love the juxtaposition of background and foreground in this and feel it is one of my more successful paintings.

The portrait I did of myself was over top of an oil painting as well, but all that shows through is the surface texture.  I did it in pastels.  That piece happened when I was feeling bored with my usual process.  I decided I had nothing to lose and would just do whatever the heck I felt like so I coated the lousy oil painting with glop I'd collected from my turpentine jar (paint from the brushes collects on the bottom of the jar after a while and can actually be re-used.  Not surprisingly, mine tends to be flesh-toned!  That's what I used.)  When that dried, I gridded the image onto the canvas then drew it in pastels.  To make the pastel stick to the very textured canvas, I used lots of fixative - something I otherwise never do because it changes the color and texture of the pastels - I hate the stuff!  But I had to use it here to make it work.  I decided to make that an element in the drawing.  The final piece is one of my best works, I think, partially because the texture is so intriguing.  (Detail shown here to show the texture.)

The point I'm making is that when I allowed myself to play, rather than just do the rote process, I got much more joy and pleasure out of it.  I was able to be more present.  I got out of my left brain, or at least accessed my right brain as well.

The last couple of months, working in my sketchbook, I've left my left brain outside the door almost completely and have given myself the chance to play and see what my right brain comes up with.  I also signed up for a figure drawing class.  I realize that seems odd since I've been working on figures since 2000, but as you just read, I gridded them.  I could paint anything on Earth with a grid, no matter how complicated, if I made it detailed enough.  I'm taking the class so I can learn to draw from life and to draw using my right brain.

It's a completely, utterly, totally different thing.  Completely.  It is much harder and more complex.  When I'm standing in front of the model with charcoal in hand, trying to render on paper what I see in front of me, every aspect of my being is engaged.  I hear nothing, I smell nothing, I feel nothing.  I have no concept of time.  I see only the model's figure and think only about how to render it accurately.  Line, form, value are on my mind.  Making it beautiful will come eventually, but right now I'm just hoping I can get a smattering of accuracy.  Here is an example of some of my 1 minute gesture drawings about 5 weeks after the start of the class.  I worry a bit that I'm "out-ing" myself and showing how unskillful I am, but I've decided that Beginner's Mind is the greatest gift I can give myself.  I have never learned how to do this.  Why should I expect myself to already be good at it?  It takes years of practice - even for the great artists!

So the work I'm doing now is I'm trying to allow my right brain access to my sketchbook and to my creative process.  It seems to be working.  I'm having a much more fulfilling time.  I'm relaxed and feeling tons of curiosity and pleasure.  I burnt myself doing the paintings purely mechanically.  My hope now is that I'll develop strong skills to draw from life and can take my art to a completely different level where I am free to experiment and play and can feel confident enough in my skills that I have the freedom to do all that.  It's great to have left brain skills - I don't mean to knock them - I'm very grateful to have them - I just want to enhance them greatly by adding creativity and curiosity and observational skills as well.

Have you ever gone through a similar process where you've done something almost exclusively from one side of your brain then worked to integrate the other side?  I'd love to hear about it if you have!

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