Sinister drawings

sinister |ˈsɪnɪstə|
2) of, on, or toward the left-hand side. The opposite of dexter. From Old French sinistre or Latin sinister ‘left.’

Drawing with your non-dominant, usually left, hand. Have you tried it? You’ve probably heard about it…there’s even a book, Drawing on The Right Side of The Brain, that explains how the left hand is controlled by the right brain and so on.

I’ve been aware of left-handed drawing for ages, but didn’t seriously consider it a tool for producing the drawings I wanted to do. It was like a funny psychology exercise, right? Like writing while looking at your mirrored hand instead of your actual hand…it was something you did to prove some abstruse theory about the way the mind works, to make yourself feel uncomfortable, and to shake up your rigid ideas about how to do things…but after a few amazed comments and some laughter, you’re meant to go back to your good ol’ right hand drawings, because that’s the hand you really get important work done with, right?
barn swallow (RH)

Except that I tried to draw a simple swallow (using an old Reader’s Digest animal book for reference) two weeks ago, with my right hand, and the drawing was crap. This is not unusual, this is actually pretty much the norm with me. Most of my drawings are crap. They’re messy, overworked, spider-webbed things that don’t look quite right. Sometimes, after a laborious and geeky process of using grids and picture plane glass and all the gadgets and tools to help with drawing, I’ll have something I can use. Usually, though, I’ll end up taking a photograph (I try to use my own, so at least that bit is original), doing a line-drawing (often via drawing grids and things, sometimes by tracing the photo) then enlarging the line drawing using a pantograph. By this time, I feel disgusted with myself, for having to use these tools and ‘cheats’ to lay the foundation of my painting. By this time, I hate the painting I am making, because all it signifies to me is that drawing doesn’t come naturally and I have had to get around my inability to draw by using tracing paper and a photocopier.

Some artists talk about the immediacy, a connection, a current of living energy that flows from what the eye sees to what the hand draws, the joy of drawing. For me, arriving at the finished thing has always been a pain in the arse, and the finished work is always disappointing. Whatever I make this way feels false. Like a lie I am ashamed of and try to hide from others. For years I have agonised over the fact that I never seem to have a connection with the subject I am drawing—it’s like I’ve used math and measuring sticks to transfer the image, seen by my eyes, to the paper. It’s mechanical and lifeless. Most of my paintings are based on this kind of drawing…no wonder I seem to hate everything I paint! If the foundation is a lie, how can the painting that goes over it be anything but a continuation of that lie?

I drew my crappy barn swallow, then thought I’d try using my left hand…what could I lose? If the results were even more hopeless, I would just have to do the old ‘trace, enlarge and transfer’ rigmarole again for my upcoming Menagerie-themed group show. No grids, no rulers, no measuring, I just put the pencil down on the canvas, and started.

barn swallow (LH)A second of stunned silence when I had finished. Certainly, the left-handed swallow looked much better than the right-handed one. There were none of those hesitant, spidery lines that I usually use to ‘stroke’ a drawing into existence. There were no huge malformed parts to erase and correct. My lines were more assertive, they started and ended strongly, and I didn’t have to go back a squillion times or rub out huge parts as I usually do. Also, the bird positioned itself perfectly on the square canvas…there was nothing to change. It just sat there, with great negative spaces around it, using up the square shape in an interesting way.

I had, maybe for the first time in my life, been PRESENT at the event, instead of trying to draw while the mind tried to measure the distance between this wing and that tail feather, or rattled off the qualities of birdness and what it was ‘supposed’ to look like, or tore the drawing apart with criticism and loathing as I went. What you can’t see in this photo is how wonderful it had felt to do the drawing…how simple, how easy it suddenly seemed, and how perfectly content I was to just draw; how quiet and meek my (usually merciless) critical mind was, and how satisfying it was to reach the end of the bird drawing and find that I liked it, basic line drawing that it was. It was pure Joy. The joy of drawing. At long last. And I realised with a start that there are two parts to drawing…the action, and the thing you get at the end, and that the action was, by far, the more rewarding and precious of the two. I understand, now, how some people can draw countless exercises and sketches, and never show them to anybody or even keep them…because the point wasn’t the piece of paper at the end, the addicting, ecstatic feeling comes from the doing. It was a revelation to me.

So, back to the swallow…I was very surprised. Is it just a fluke, because I’ve already had some practice drawing this bird with my right hand? I tried again…an atlantic salmon, then a marmoset, then a wombat (which I later crossed with a Galapagos giant tortoise) and *amazement growing* the magic held…each drawing was extremely simple, but nevertheless was confident, proportioned, perfectly positioned on the canvas (without me doing any measuring at all!) and looked great.

menagerie paintings in progressI’m still in awe. Now I stare at my left hand, sometimes, like it’s a separate entity from myself. All this time I was fighting to control the process with my right-hand-left-brain autocrat, and you’ve been sitting there quietly all along?

Well, better late than never…what if I had never given my left hand a try? I might never have discovered my left-hand’s aptitude for drawing. And now my left hand and I must make up for lost time…what else can we do together? So far I’ve done 14 drawings of animals with my my non-dominant hand, but did all the painting with my right hand. What would happen if I painted with my left? I can’t wait to try and find out!

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18 thoughts on “Sinister drawings

  1. Yes! Long time lurker, btw. Drawing is a lot of fun. Try also contour drawing again, if lefty-ness works for you, and also charcoal on large sheets of cheap newsprint paper. I got supplies for this at walmart for maybe $10. It seriously is nice to have something to draw on freely w/out stressing about cost or being perfect– they’re just for YOU. 🙂

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    1. LOL glad I managed to lure you out of the woodwork! Will do, contour drawing, check, and I do the cheap paper + charcoals, sometimes, when I’m starting a big canvas, or when I attend life drawing sessions. Cheers for the visit!

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  2. Inspired by this post I decided to draw a chat noir cat with my left hand. Poor cat ended up looking slightly retarded and I was so embarrassed I had to erase it immediately. But I suffer from the same hesitant lines when drawing as well and my lines were way straighter and confident with my left hand. Guess I’ll keep experimenting.

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    1. I know, right, now I’m afraid it was a magical moment, and every time I do it again there’s this anxiety that the magic will be over and I’ll produce tangled pencil balls, like you’d expect to normally get. 🙂 I need to do this and do this until I’m confident that it’s a part of me, and not just a whim of the gods. LOL

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    1. Yes, I came across that technique, too, but don’t find it as useful (probably because my ultimate dream is to look at the real world and draw it, and turning a landscape on its head is not yet in my range of super powers. 😉

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  3. This is very impressive! When I teach drawing, I use some similar techniques to help make that eye-to-hand connection without the brain getting in the way. A photo displayed upside-down for a subject often results in much better renderings than right-side up, for instance. Your drawings are lovely!

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      1. But to draw well still requires some significant amount of control, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t know because I haven’t tried, but it seems that way to me. Anyway, regardless of which is easier, I’m still impressed 🙂

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        1. You’d think so, but I’m starting to understand that the opposite is true. Planned, controlled, slickly executed drawing is what is commonly referred to as illustration, and is the reason a gap or distinction still exists between ‘art’ and ‘illustration’. It is the loss of control, the willingness to let eye communicate with hand without going through brain (and allowing more than just accuracy inform the drawing…to allow the moment’s emotion, mood, imperfection to become part of that drawing) that seems to characterise drawing, as fine artists use the term. I’ve suspected something like this existed for years, but it’s only becoming a simple, graspable concept to me now.

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