How learning to draw can make you better at solving problems

By Elisabeth Goodman, 29th August, 2015

Why learn to draw?

Minerve in the Languedoc - an artist's delight!
Minerve in the Languedoc – an artist’s delight!

I’m a Francophile: I read French novels, my current favourites being Fred Vargas’s series featuring the detective Adamsberg. I spend my summer holidays in the Languedoc in the South of France, soaking up the sunshine, delicious fruit and vegetables, dramatic landscapes and ad hoc conversations with the locals. I’ve even started up a French conversation group for our local U3A, which will be kicking off this September.

The latest Fred Vargas book “Temps Glaciaires” has many references to Adamsberg, the self-effacing, daydreaming ‘Commissaire’ of his Paris-based criminal investigation branch, using his drawings to help him work out the current mystery.

Adamsberg’s generally more logical and analytical colleagues either find him intensely frustrating or absolutely revere him. Needless to say the combination of their analytical and fact-finding skills, and his day-dreaming, doodling and pursuit of apparently irrelevant clues invariably enable them to solve their crimes.

Last summer I also began drawing, experiencing a week full of discoveries of my up till then relatively underdeveloped artistic skills. (Cubertou art holidays.) I decided to continue this personal journey this summer with Betty Edwards’ “Drawing on the right side of the brain”. To my astonishment her book referenced the value that the added perceptions gained from drawing can bring to solving problems in business environments! I could not wait to discover more and whether, simultaneously, I might gain more insights into Vargas’s portrayal of Adamsberg.

L-mode and R-mode thinking

We already know that parts of the brain are good at analytical and logical thinking, and others at creative thinking. These used to be referred to as the left and right sides of the brain respectively, at least for right-handed people, and vice versa for left-handed people. The distinction is no longer believed to be so clear cut. Edwards, who has had the benefit of consulting with neuropsychologist, neurobiologist, and Nobel laureate Dr Roger W. Sherry, refers, for convenience, to L-mode and R-mode thinking.

Edwards asserts that learning to draw stimulates and develops R-mode thinking and so is as important to our overall intellectual development as verbal and analytical L-mode skills. Yet our education system tends to focus only on the latter. As a result, many of us have drawing skills that ceased development in our childhood or adolescence, when we became frustrated at not being able to create anything that ‘looked real’. Edwards, who has documented her workshops in editions of her book spanning three decades, believes she can teach even the least confident amongst us to draw. What I’ve learnt from her so far suggests that she is right!

The five basic skills of drawing

Edwards takes her students through five basic skills or perceptions of drawing, skills that I’m part-way through discovering.

Edges define the boundaries between the earth and the sky, the side of a nail on a finger. The contour of one is also the contour of the other, like the connections of jig-saw pieces.

Contour drawing (edges) of hand
Contour drawing (edges) of hand

Spaces. Focusing on the spaces in between or around shapes – ‘negative spaces’ – can help us to define and draw, almost effortlessly, the actual shape (‘positive space’) of things. This is the stage of development that I’ve got to so far and, as Edward promises, I’m already getting a real sense of enjoyment from my new skills!

Drawing of a bench using negative spaces - Lac de Ravieges, France
Drawing of a bench using negative spaces – Lac de Ravieges, France

Relationships are about perspective and proportion: perhaps one of the strongest examples of how R-mode perception can overcome the bias of L-mode thinking. One of the strengths of L-mode thinking is in being able to create ‘symbols’ to represent what we know. A sort of short-hand so that we don’t have to think about things from scratch each time. So we know for example that a cube is represented by squares and right angles. All the legs of a chair have the same length. And so on. But of course when we start to actually draw a cube, or the legs of a chair to create the 3-dimensional effect, what the R-mode perceives is something quite different.

The other two skills are perceptions of light and shadow, and perception of the ‘gestalt‘: being able to see the whole as well as the parts.

Drawing of a chair - edges, spaces, and preliminary attempt at relationships, light and shadow!
Drawing of a chair – edges, spaces, and preliminary attempt at relationships, light and shadow!

The relevance of drawing skills to problem solving

I’ve written a few blogs, listed in the notes below, on intuition and problem solving. Our abilities to follow sequential steps, spot patterns and to set up and test theories are powerful tools, but they can also cause us to be biased, to focus on positive evidence, and be reluctant to shift to a new paradigm of thinking.

Adamsberg’s colleagues, without giving too much away, become stuck in a paradigm whilst he keeps on doodling and giving his subconscious (an important R-mode ally) free play.

Edwards suggests that the skills of drawing can give us additional ways to visualise and perceive a problem, as illustrated for instance by one involving a client and a service provider.

The edges can help us to define, for example, whether what the client requires and what the provider supplies fit well together. They might also represent how the cultures or ways of working of the two converge, or diverge; and how closely the finances available and those required are reconciled.

Similarly, the shapes made by any gaps between desired outcomes and current inputs might naturally define how these gaps are to be addressed, and so on with the other three skills of drawing.

I must admit I will need to do some more practising with drawing and R-mode thinking to understand this application more fully.

The five stages of creativity – another L-mode and R-mode model for problem solving

Edwards introduces another model in her penultimate chapter: the five stages of creativity, evolved from the discoveries of Hermann von Helmholtz, Henri Poincare, Jacob Getzels and George Kneller. Edwards suggests that these five stages might benefit from shifts between the two modes of thinking as follows:

First Insight – R-mode leads the realisation that there is a problem to be addressed and what the nature of that problem is

Saturation – L-mode leads the research for all the facts and information that might support the resolution of the problem (this is the bit that Adamsberg’s team supports quite well)

Incubation – R-mode leads the wordless, sub-conscious process of mulling over the problem and how all the facts and information might fit (Adamsberg’s forte). Edwards teaches us ways to ‘turn off’ the L-mode of thinking to make space for the R-mode. It results in a very peaceful ‘being in the zone’ style of meditation that I experienced in last summer’s art holiday as well as whilst working on Edwards’ exercises. Dave Hall’s Idea Centre also has exercises that do this (as referenced in my previous blog Facilitation – some new ideas?).

Illumination – both modes come together in an ‘aha’ of finding the solution: for many the most exciting and enjoyable of the whole creative process

Verification – L-mode led, planning out how the solution to the problem will be put in place

Adamsberg and his team certainly exemplify this five stage approach and how their respective skills support this.

What next?

Is this an area that you have some insights about?

Do you draw? If not, might you consider learning?

Do you play a musical instrument and if so what is the impact of that on L-mode and R-mode thinking?

For my part, I will continue working through Edwards’s book: to build on the excitement of developing my drawing skills, and my exploration of how I can help my clients benefit more fully from my and their R-mode thinking. I know that Dave Hall’s creativity workshops, that I am continuing to attend, will have more to offer in this space too.


Here are some of my previous blogs on intuition, left and right brain thinking, and referencing Gary Klein and Malcolm Gladwell, that you might like to look at:

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that helps business teams and their managers to enhance their effectiveness for greater productivity and improved team morale. (We use coaching, training, facilitation, mentoring and consulting in our work with our clients.)

Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting just under 6 years ago, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis. 

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner.  

She is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) and of APM (Association for Project Management).

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