The Theory of Right Brain-Left Brain and Its Relevance to Art

The Right Brain Theory Has Changed the Art World

Many people have heard of the right brain-left brain theory and it has long been a popular belief that artists are right brain dominant. According to the theory, the right brain is visual and it helps us with creative processes.

This is a great way to explain why some people are more creative than others. The theory has also done wonders for teaching the arts to a wider audience and developing new techniques to do so.

 Yet, what is the truth about the two sides of the brain? Does one really affect our creative output while the other helps us think logically?

It's an interesting concept to think about and one that has dominated art discussions for decades. New evidence that debunks the theory will only add to this discussion. Whether it's true or not, the right brain concept has certainly done wonders for the art world.

What is the Theory of Right Brain-Left Brain?

The concept of right brain and left brain thinking developed from the research in the late 1960s of an American psychobiologist Roger W. Sperry. He discovered that the human brain has two very different ways of thinking.

  • The right brain is visual and processes information in an intuitive and simultaneous way. It looks first at the whole picture then the details.
  • The left brain is verbal and processes information in an analytical and sequential way. It looks first at the pieces then puts them together to get the whole.

    Sperry was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1981 for his research. 

    As fun as the right brain-left brain theory is to think about, it has since been labeled as one of the great myths of the brain. In reality, both hemispheres of our brain work together for a variety of tasks, including creative and logical thinking.

    How Is the Right Brain-Left Brain Theory Relevant to Artists?

    Using Sperry's theory, it has been assumed that people with a dominant right brain are more creative. This makes sense under the right brain-left brain concept.

    • When you start a painting, you need to be able to visualize the final painting in your mind (the right brain working from the whole).
    • You then develop the painting, choose the elements, match and mix colors, place the shadows and highlights, etc. (the right brain working on various things simultaneously).
    • At the same time, you need to be able to look critically at what you have done and are doing (the left brain being analytical).

    Based on this theory, if you know that your thinking is dominated by either your right or left brain, you can then deliberately set out to use the 'right brain' way of thinking in your painting or drawing. It's certainly better than working on 'auto-pilot'. By trying a different strategy you will probably be surprised by what different results you can produce.

    Yet, if the theory is a myth, can you really train your brain to work differently? Just like you can learn how to paint, it is possible to change certain 'habits' of the brain and it doesn't matter what the science is behind that.

    It just happens and you can control it (let the scientists worry about the technicalities, there are paintings to create!)

    You can learn to use a 'right brain' way of thinking by simply changing behaviors and putting ideas into practice and remaining conscious of your thought process. We do it throughout our life (e.g., quit smoking, eat better, get out of bed to paint, etc.), so does it really matter that it is not really our 'right brain' taking over our thinking? Absolutely not.

    Simply learning the fact that scientists have found there is no 'right brain dominance' does not affect the way your brain actually works. We can continue to grow and learn and create in the same manner we did before knowing the 'truth.'

    Betty Edwards' "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain"

    A perfect example of artists training themselves to change their thinking and therefore their approach to art is Betty Edwards' book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

    The first edition was released in 1980 and since the fourth edition's release in 2012, the book has become a classic in the art world.

    Edwards applied the concepts of right and left brain to learning how to draw and it is as relevant today as it was when she wrote it (and the theory was accepted as 'fact'). 

    She put forward techniques whereby you can consciously access the 'right side' of the brain when drawing. This can help you draw or paint what you see rather than what you know. An approach like Edwards' really does work and has helped many people who previously believed they were incapable of drawing.

    Artists should actually be thankful that Sperry developed his theory. Because of it, creative people like Edwards have developed exercises that promote the growth of creative thought and new ways to teach artistic techniques.

    It has made art accessible to an entirely new set of people who are exploring their creative sides even if they do not become practicing artists. It has also taught artists to be more conscious of their thought process and approach to their work. Overall, the right brain has been great for art.