Art is a portal into other modes of being. When stressed, for example, drawing or painting can help us enter a more relaxed state. Meanwhile, by closely studying a subject, such as a person, animal, plant or object, we gain essential information about their nature.
Pure Nature Contour Drawing is one creative practice that can help you relax and also improve your perceptive and artistic skills. I discovered this simple exercise while working through Betty Edward’s book, The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. In this story, I share how this practice can help you access a calmer state, while also heighten your observations of the world around you.
What is the flow?
The flow is an optimal state that can be accessed through a range of techniques and activities, such as dancing, doing yoga, having sex, walking in nature and imbibing substances, such as hallucinogens. According to psychologist Csikskentmihayli (1991), the flow state is linked to the release of tension in both the body and the mind; you feel relaxed but alert at the same time while linear time melts away.
Betty Edwards (2008) links the qualities of the flow-state to what she calls the ‘R-mode’. As she explains in her book (2008, 38–44), the brain processes information in two distinct ways: the ‘L-mode’; and, the ‘R-mode’. The L-mode describes when the left side of the brain is more dominant. When in this mode, the brain is ‘analytical, verbal, figuring-out, sequential, symbolic, linear, objective …’ (Edwards 2008, 38).’ Meanwhile, when the right side of the brain is in charge, or in R-mode, it is more intuitive and holistic; for example, we can see ‘the imaginary’ and in metaphor. We see also the bigger picture and can experience a sense of timelessness.
Accessing the flow state while creating
Depending on your background and your artistic experiences as a child, you may create primarily from either the R-mode or L-mode. As Edwards (2008) shows at length, very young children draw symbolically but as they reach the cusp of adolescence, they become fascinated with the notion of drawing realistically. However, when they attempt to do so, they lapse into creating figurative and symbolic images. At this point, children commonly give up disappointed. I certainly had this type of experience. In third grade, I was given a task to create a realistic drawing of a landscape. I chose to draw my school playground with children playing baseball. I tried so hard to draw the scene accurately and I remember vividly feeling great frustration and disappointment upon finishing: I just couldn’t get the figures and perspective right! I decided there and then that I couldn’t draw realistically and I gave up trying for almost 15 years.
Why do we struggle to draw realistically? Well, as Edwards (2008) suggests, to draw realistically requires you to perceive subjects and this means you need to learn how to sense shapes, edges, light and shade and tonal differences. This process asks you to practise, be patient and forgiving. As I have discovered, it is truly worth the effort, as it rewards you in so many ways. If you are on the edge of burnout, for example, learning to enter the R-mode while creating art is a gentle and very healing way to rejuvenate your system. Meanwhile, as I have experienced, your art skills will improve beyond your greatest imagination.
You also might be wondering how you can tell from which mode you are creating. The answer is mindfulness. You need to observe how you experience different modes. When I draw from the L-mode, for example, my mind behaves like a monkey and tries to take all kinds of short cuts to the finish line. Instead of trying to draw the subject in front of me, my mind becomes excessively chatty and in a rush. It decides that it already knows how to draw it and instructs my hand to follow its general guidelines. The result is that I produce a more symbolic drawing. In contrast, when I draw from the R-mode, I take my time and the overall experience is more pleasurable. My final creations are more realistic and through my senses, I receive more specific information about my subject.
So, how can you access the R-mode state? Edwards (2008) offers a range of exercises but my favourite is Pure Contour Drawing. This activity helps you disable the L-mode. In her book, Edwards (2008, 89–92) selects the hand as the subject. These days, I begin my creative sessions with this exercise, but instead of drawing my hands, I choose a nature-based object and this is because I am seeking to enter the flow state while accessing the essence or ‘vibe’ of the subject.
How to do a Pure Nature Contour Drawing
In order to do a Pure Nature Contour Drawing, you will need to give yourself 30 minutes. Try to make sure that you will not be interrupted. You will also need a bound art journal or several pieces of paper stuck down onto an artboard or flat surface, an HB or H pencil and a natural object, such as a rock, feather, leaf of a flower, as well as a timer.
Set your timer for 5 minutes. Then, take a pencil and hold your chosen subject in your less-dominant hand behind or beside you. Begin to study the object. Just as Edwards (2008, 90) suggests, choose an edge and begin to draw it. Take your time. As your eye moves across the surface of your object, let your hand move too.
The first moments of this exercise will be challenging. Your mind might act like mine: it might complain and whine while encouraging you to look at the page to see how you’re progressing. I echo Edward’s (2008, 90) advice, try not to give in to temptation. If you stay with this task, you will eventually slip into a portal and straight into the flow: time disappears and before you know it, your timer will ring — and you will leap out of your chair with surprise!
Creating beauty while in the flow
After completing the five-minute exercise, take time to look over your drawing. Just as Edwards (2008, 92) warns, you may initially feel horrified at the jumbled, chaotic mess you have created, but I urge you to look again. After a moment, something quite marvellous will happen; you will begin to admire the lines, shapes and patterns. As Edwards (2008, 92) remarks, these drawings consist of ‘strangely beautiful’ marks. I wholeheartedly agree. I think this is because they capture ‘the beauty’ or the essence of the subject. Ultimately, it is the feeling or the ‘vibe’ of a subject that artists try to tap into and interpret while creating.
In the final moments of this exercise, write a reflection noting how you felt at the start of the exercise and how your experience changed during it. You may also wish to reflect on the essence of your subject. Then celebrate. By simply being so present, you have given yourself the opportunity to relax and enjoy creating and you have shown Nature heartfelt respect.
In this story, I have cited the following books:
Mihayl Csikskentmihayli 1991. Flow: The Psychology of the Optimal Experience. HarperCollinsPublishers, New York.
Betty Edwards 2008. The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. HarperCollinsPublishers, London.
This story was previously published on www.medium.com on the 12 November