When words fail

Visionary thinking requires looking beyond the logical boundaries of language.

By Chris Stavitsky

I am currently reading the third edition of a book entitled The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It was first published in 1979 and since then, the original has undergone two revisions, been translated into 13 languages, sold over 2.5 million copies in the United States, and spent extended periods of time on The New York Times bestseller list. It was recommended to me after I told someone I wanted to learn how to draw.

As its success and longevity would suggest, the book contains a wealth of valuable insight. The author, Betty Edwards, argues that good drawing is rooted in good seeing. Not glancing, perusing, filling in gaps with one’s brain—seeing. Seeing what is actually there with one’s eyes and drawing it. Citing research in neuroscience, Edwards explains that the right side of the brain is particularly suited to drawing, while the left is more suited to analysis or language. In learning how to draw through Edwards’s method, one learns not only new ways of perceiving objects in front of oneself, but new ways of perceiving the world in its entirety.

Edwards points out that most adults who have not learned how to draw are stuck in a world of symbols. They use football shapes to represent eyes, circles to represent heads, lines or vague strips for limbs. Every person they draw looks essentially the same. They are not drawing what is in front of them, what they actually see; instead, they are realizing that they should “draw a mouth” or “draw an eye,” even though their conception of what an eye or mouth looks like is often rudimentary and looks nothing like a real mouth or eye. A student of sight must learn to shut off this symbolic left-brain stream that insists on inserting a representation of each of these objects with no regard for the actual, physical objects in front of her and on labeling everything—this is a nose, this is a dog’s paw, this is a bag of chips.

This was a revelation for me. I realized that with my visual system of basic, childish drawing symbols, I was severely limited in what I could express. I was drawing within this language of symbols, not drawing what was actually there. I had never seen, when drawing in the past—just glanced, identified an entire object like a leg, and substituted my leg symbol for real sight. An even bigger revelation came when I realized that this concept wasn’t limited to drawing. We do it all the time in school.

Everything I do in school boils down to my use of language. I write analytical essays or creative fiction or short responses or abstracts but always, perpetually, I am limited to words. One might argue that I should take visual art classes. I would agree, but as Edwards indicates, many art teachers tend to avoid the issue of how to see and either ignore it or get around it with “crafty” projects like mosaics or things involving glue. And art history, while noble in its own right, only perpetuates this incorrect use of language, simplifying art too much while simultaneously making it sound complicated and dignified. Real languages are extensive, significantly more extensive than a child’s symbolic drawing language, but they are not infinite. They cannot express everything. And since reading Edwards’s book, I find myself wondering whether or not my own limited use of the word-symbols of language is analogous to the limited use of drawing symbols. Are the arguments I work so carefully to craft as boring and crude as a stick figure with dots for eyes and a semicircle smile?

Words are greatly lacking in their ability to describe and capture what is happening in any given situation, in the same way that a football-shape with-a-dot pupil fails to capture the infinite depth and beauty of a human eyeball. Put bluntly, words are not appropriate in many situations. While there is no point in someone going to a museum or gallery if she is only going to silently stare at the paintings until she can assume to have reached the point of culture, it seems equally useless and crude to critique art or film merely with analytical words. The logical mind cannot decipher creativity, and it is only by rejecting this logic and the words that accompany it, by doing things that may not seem to make sense, that one can see the world in ways that course books do not teach.

Chris Stavitsky is a third-year in the College majoring in English.