Mark ( on September 14th, 2007

As I previously mentioned in this post, I always start the process of a furniture design with sketches of the piece that I would like to build. This helps me to explore what is in my minds eye and to evolve it to the point that I can detail it via computer and then ultimately build the piece. I’ve talked with many woodworkers about this and many say that they don’t have the skills to draw anything beyond stick figures!

I have to admit that I’ve always had some aptitude for drawing. I did it a lot as a kid and I also took a couple of years of mechanical drawing in high school. So, I’ve worked a little at both the artistic and the mechanical side of things. However, I don’t buy into the fact that you have to have innate artistic ability in order to capture your design ideas with the detail and scale necessary for furniture projects. Though you don’t need to be the next Leonardo da Vinci to be able to do this, it does help to have a little bit of knowledge and practice under your belt.

A couple of years ago I started to do some basic woodcarving. In the process, I wanted to improve my own drawing skills to help with the carving and I discovered a book called Drawing on the Right side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. I checked out my local library and found that it was available so, I picked it up and I read it.

In this book Ms. Edwards discusses her belief in a theory that there are two sides of the brain and that each is used for doing different things. The left side (or L-mode) is used for verbal and analytical tasks while the right side (R-mode) is used for visual and perceptual tasks. She states:

“Most activities require both modes, each contributing its special functions, but a few activities require mainly one mode, without interference from the other. Drawing is one of these activities.”

“Learning to draw, then, turns out not to be ‘learning to draw.’ Paradoxically, ‘learning to draw’ means learning to make a mental shift from L-mode to R-mode. That is what a person trained in drawing does, and that is what you can learn.”

The book has several simple exercises that help you see things differently and to better engage your visual and perceptual capabilities. I recall one exercise early in the book where you are asked to look at a sketch by Picasso and then to turn the book upside down and draw the (upside-down) sketch on your own. The result is pretty remarkable: because you are focusing on reproducing small discrete lines with the orientation and scale that you see (but not on the larger picture because it’s upside down) it is very easy to create a very close replica of the original drawing (there is actually an online version of another one of the book’s exercises on the website for the book).

The exercises in this book do help you to see things differently and to be able to reproduce what you see. Of course these are the same skills that are necessary to imagine and develop new and original designs. With these discrete skills and a bit of practice, I think that anyone can effectively capture and communicate their design ideas.

So, if you’re one of those that think you can only draw stick figures, you might want to hunt down a copy of the book and give the exercises a try. Even if you do not follow through with all of the books exercises, I think that you may find it a very interesting way to improve your drawing skills en route to developing future designs for your projects. I know that it was a help to me.

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