Overthinking Could Suffocate Your Drawing Practice


Nike Had it Right

Dear Adults:

I know we’ve been trained to believe our gray matter is our greatest asset. That our high caliber brain will lead to fame, fortune, and the success we aim to achieve. Or at the very least, we will continue to stay alive. We’ll also get along with our coworkers and remember to turn off the coffee machine before it starts smoking, right? We let that noodle grind through problem after problem, day and night, being a slave to our analysis of each potentially prickly new situation life throws our way. But overthinking could be suffocating your drawing practice.

When it comes to your drawing practice, Nike had it right when they said “Just Do It”. It applies to fine art as well as sports. Both practices are about developing motor skills and muscle memory, not just imagining something in your head. When drawing, thinking harder about how to do it will definitely make your process take longer. But it won’t necessarily make it look better! There are complex reasons for this that neuroscientists could explain better than I could… I’m going to attempt to connect a few of these dots for you in an effort to convince you to quiet your thoughts and get your hands and eyes engaged if you want to improve your drawings.

Seeing Occurs in Your Brain

It might sound contradictory to say “think less in order to draw better” because neuroscience knows we actually see with our brains, not our eyes. There is a beautiful Radiolab episode called Seeing In Tongues that follows up with a young artist named Emilie, who we first met in another podcast. The podcast told the story of when she was hit by a truck and lost her sight. Grab a box of tissues and take a listen, because it is a powerful story.

In Seeing In Tongues, we meet Emilie as she is testing a new device that enables her to see blurry forms again. Scientists explain that our retinas merely send electrical signals to the brain as bits of information. The brain then converts the signals into what we see. It is the communication on the pathways within the brain that enable us to see, rather than our eyes alone. So you can stop telling your kids to “open their eyes”.

Science is now developing tools to help people whose neuropathways can be re-routed to allow for some vision to occur once again. Our brains help us to see, but they also really get in the way of processing the information.

Ramping Down Parts of the Brain Aids in Visual Information Processing

To understand more about what we can actually control while we’re drawing, we can look to studies such as Taraz Lee’s out of UC Santa Barbara’s Action Lab. This study interrupts the prefrontal cortex function in both implicit memory – “a form of long-term memory not requiring conscious thought and expressed by means other than words” and explicit memory – “another kind of long-term memory formed consciously that can be described in words”. In this study, participants were shown an image and moments later asked to select the one they were shown out of two images. When their brains were manipulated to interrupt explicit memory- the verbal, conscious part- they remembered the images better. Implicit memory, which isn’t conscious is better at identifying the correct image. The proof is in the gray pudding: over-analysis does cause paralysis and sometimes our conscious efforts to try harder get in the way.

Now let’s get to the point: where do I see this affecting adults who are trying to learn to draw? Adults would often rather think than do and make a mistake. We believe that if we just consider how to make that outline more carefully, it will turn out better on paper. This is a habit we’ve developed while sitting at a desk in school or our offices, writing emails, and sitting in meetings. How many times did a parent or teacher tell you to “Use your head!” when you were little? It can pay off when the activity you are engaging in is a verbal, analytical activity that doesn’t involve motor skills. Much of our Western culture employs this in schools and the workplace. In fact, it pays off when the activity uses motor skills, too. Looking both ways before you cross the street is usually wise!

You’re Overthinking Your Practice

In drawing, I usually see adults who think themselves into a corner. They take a half-hour to do a simple outline that could be done in 5 minutes. This is the telltale sign that they are thinking too much in order to cope with their fear of messing up. What they really need is permission to play and permission to fail.  A gentle reminder from me that there are no dire consequences to creating a bad drawing is often enough. Drawing is not life and death. It isn’t going to war unless you are going to war with yourself, thank goodness! Yet, beginning a drawing practice is likely to make you feel very vulnerable, and many of us have creativity scars from our past. I promise to write another blog about Brene Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability and how it relates to learning drawing.

However, overthinking will not protect you from making a bad drawing. You have to get your eyes to talk to your brain and your brain to talk to your hands and they all have to dance the dance together. Just like in sports, you have to actually move your body, not just your prefrontal cortex, to start making things of beauty and awe. Everyone can do this if they are willing to make “things of ugly” first. We crawl before we walk.

We mess up in order to learn. The only thing holding you back is your head. So ask it to stop reading this, pick up the nearest pencil, and draw something that looks really awful just for fun. And then do it again, without judgment or criticism. Because it is the sure-fire way to get from this drawing on the LEFT (day one of Brooke’s drawing class) to the drawing on the RIGHT, (a few hours of work after Brooke’s 10th drawing class):