Teaching kids to draw realistically

  • Article by: NARA SCHOENBERG , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: November 27, 2012 - 1:55 PM

A few tips from a classic art-book author.

There I was, making sure my art-loving 8-year-old was drowning in the markers, paints and craft projects he craved, while ignoring his most straightforward request: "I want to learn how to draw."

By draw he meant draw realistically, and by ignore I mean I stalled like a toddler at nap time. Like most parents of my generation, I assumed that drawing what you really see is for the talented few, and that if a kid isn't doing it naturally, you can't do much to help.

Wrong. According to Betty Edwards, author of the classic "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" (Tarcher), a kid doesn't learn to draw by herself any more than she learns to read by herself.

In the fourth edition of her beloved book, Edwards says that we're shortchanging our kids by not teaching drawing skills in school. Not only does drawing realistically enrich their lives, she says, but it also teaches them to use the right side of the brain, which is vital to perception and problem-solving -- but tends to get drowned out by the judgmental, language-based left brain.

"In learning to draw, one must slow down and see many, many aspects of, let's say, a tree, so the experience is richer, by far, than simply the [verbal] category, 'tree,'" Edwards says.

"Children are terribly curious about this. You've probably seen your child pick up a flower and examine it closely. And that trait is so important in later life for investigation, scientific or otherwise -- for thinking in general, really. And we are not nurturing that trait in school."

We asked Edwards how to help our kids learn drawing and perceptual skills. The following is an edited transcript.

Q How can we help young children develop perceptual skills?

A Very young children say, "What is that? What is that? What is that?" and we answer with a single word: "That's a tree. That's a dog. That's a cat." As that goes on, children tend to see all trees through that symbolic word, "tree." It would be useful, for example, for parents to say, "Yes, that's a tree, but let's examine it. Let's see how this tree is different from that tree." But as parents we usually don't take time to do that so the child grows up thinking that the word "tree" is the important thing.

Q Why do you recommend that adults and older children copy images upside-down?

A The left brain has difficulty naming the parts of the image, and therefore seems to say, "I don't do upside down. Forget it. I can't name this, and if you're going to do that, I'm out of here." All of my work is based on that principle: to present the brain with a task that the left brain will turn down. You can't go up against this strong, powerful, dominant, aggressive language system and say, now you drop out of the task! You need to trick the left brain into dropping out so the right brain can take over and help you draw realistically.

Q Can a parent teach perceptual skills to older kids?

A If you were to go through the book, you'd understand negative space (so you could help with that). When my son was about 8, he was trying to copy a Superman drawing, and the figure was foreshortened, and he couldn't get it right. So, just in passing, I said, "Oh, Brian, don't draw the legs, draw the spaces around them." Kids pick up on this instantly, and from then on he used negative space in his drawings.

Q And drawing?

A If you can find someone to teach these skills -- it's only five skills -- drawing is not difficult [for kids about age 9 and above]. It's that the brain functions that you use for drawing are very hard to tap into unless someone tells you how to do it.

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