Category: Art

Lesson 4 – Space and the “Basic Unit”

If you use Instagram post your drawings and tag them with #plpDrawingClass. It will be fun to see everyone’s work!

I am following through “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards with the kids. The materials provided here are taken directly from the book and are the actual exercises and selected highlights. I highly recommend reading the book if you are interested in learning to draw.



In Lesson 3 we used our picture frame and created a “modified contour drawing”. The purpose of the contour drawings is to train your eye to perceive edges (and to trick your brain to switch to the Right Hemisphere for that work). This week’s lesson will be about space – positive and negative.

All of the following material was taken from “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards


Remember the 5 perceptual skills of drawing are:

  1. Edges (line of contour drawing)
  2. Spaces (negative spaces)
  3. Relationships (proportion and perspective)
  4. Lights and shadows (shading)
  5. The gestalt (the “thingness” of the thing)


From “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”:

What are negative spaces and positive forms?

Two terms traditionally used in art are “negative spaces” and “positive forms.” In the drawings of the bighorn sheep, for example, the sheep is the positive form and the sky behind and ground below the animal are the negative spaces. The word “negative” in negative spaces is a bit unfortunate because it carries, well, a negative connotation. I have researched in vain for a better term, so we’ll stick with this one. The terms negative spaces and positive forms have the advantage of being easy to remember and they are, after all, commonly used in the whole field of art and design. The main point is that negative spaces are just as important as the positive forms. For the person just learning to draw, they are perhaps more important!

Why is learning to see and draw negative spaces so important?


When a person just beginning in drawing tries to draw a chair, that person knows too much, in an L-mode sense, about chairs. For example, seats have to be big enough to hold a person; all four chair legs are usually all the same length; chair legs sit on a flat surface, and so forth. This knowledge does not help, and in fact can greatly hinder, drawing a chair. The reason is that, when seen from different angles, the visual information may not conform to

what we know. Visually—that is, as seen on the plane—a chair seat may appear as a narrow strip, not nearly wide enough to sit on. The legs may appear to be all of different lengths. The curve of the back of a chair may appear to be entirely different from what we know it to be (Figure 7-1).


What are we to do? An answer: Don’t draw the chair at all! Instead, draw the spaces of the chair.













Choosing a Basic Unit

On looking at a finished drawing, students just beginning to draw often wonder how the artist decided where to start. This is one of the most serious problems that plague students. They ask, “After I’ve decided what to draw, how do I know where to start?” or “What happens if I start too large or too small?” Using a Basic Unit to start a drawing answers both these questions, and ensures that you will end with the composition you so carefully chose before you started a drawing.


The Basic Unit is a “starting shape” or “starting unit” that you choose from within the scene you are looking at through the

Viewfinder (the sailboat on the water). You need to choose a Basic Unit of medium size—neither very small nor very large, relative to the format. In this instance, you could choose the straight edge of the sail. A Basic Unit can be a whole shape (the shape of a window or the shape of a negative space) or it can be just a single edge from point to point (the top edge of a window, for example). The choice depends only on what is easiest to see and easiest to use as your Basic Unit of proportion.


Once chosen, all other proportions are determined relative to your Basic Unit.


Exercise 1:
Your Negative Space drawing of a chair

What you’ll need:

• Your Viewfinder with the larger opening

• Your Picture Plane

• Your felt-tip marker

• Your masking tape

• Several sheets of drawing paper

• Your drawing board

• Your pencils, sharpened

• Your eraser

• Your graphite stick and several dry paper towels or paper


• About an hour of interrupted time—more, if possible, but at

least an hour


Getting set up to draw


You’ll be taking some preliminary steps, so please read all of the

instructions before you start. The following are the preliminary

steps for every drawing and take only a few minutes, once you

have learned the process.

• choosing a format and drawing it on your paper

• toning your paper (if you choose to work on a toned ground)

Lesson 3 – Modified Contour Drawing

If you use Instagram post your drawings and tag them with #plpDrawingClass. It will be fun to see everyone’s work!

I am following through “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards with the kids.  The materials provided here are taken directly from the book and are the actual exercises and selected highlights.  I highly recommend reading the book if you are interested in learning to draw.



A quick review of the five perceptual skills of drawing

In this lesson, we are working on the perception of edges as one of the component skills of drawing. Recall that there are four others and together these five components make up the whole skill of drawing:

1. The perception of edges (the “shared” edges of contour drawing).
2. The perception of spaces (in drawing called negative spaces).
3. The perception of relationships (known as perspective and
4. The perception of lights and shadows (often called “shading”).
5. The perception of the whole (the gestalt, the “thingness” of the thing).

Exercise 1: Modified Contour Drawing

Several sheets of the smaller drawing paper

• Your graphite stick (4b) and some paper napkins or paper towels

• Your #2 writing pencil or your # 4B drawing pencil, sharpened

• Your eraser

• Your plastic Picture Plane

• Your felt-tip marker

• The Viewfinder you used for your drawing on the Picture Plane

  1. Tape a stack of several sheets of paper to your drawing board. Tape all four corners securely, so that the paper will not shift around. One of your hands will be “posing” and must remain still. The other will be drawing and perhaps erasing. If the paper shifts under your hand while you are drawing or erasing, it is very distracting.
  2. Draw a format on your drawing paper, using the inside edge of your Viewfinder.
  3. The next step is to tone your paper. Make sure you have a stack of several sheets of paper to pad your drawing. Begin to tone your paper by rubbing the edge of the graphite stick very lightly over the paper, staying inside the format. You want to achieve a pale, even tone—don’t worry too much about staying within the lines. You can clean up the edges at a later time. Figure 6-15.
  4. Once you have covered the paper with a light application of graphite, begin to rub the graphite into the paper with your paper towels. Rub with a circular motion, applying even pressure right up to the edge of the format. You want to achieve a very smooth, silvery tone. Figure 6-16.
  5. Next, lightly draw horizontal and vertical crosshairs on your toned paper. The lines will cross in the center just as they do on your plastic Picture Plane. Use the crosshairs on the plastic plane to mark the position of the crosshairs on the format of your toned paper. A caution: Don’t draw the lines too dark. They are only guidelines and later you may want to eliminate them. Figure 6-17.

  6. Retrieve your Picture Plane with the felt-tip drawing that you did <in the previous exercise>, or, if you wish, you can do a new drawing (Figure 6-18). Place the plane down on a light surface, perhaps a sheet of paper, so that you can clearly see the drawing on the plastic. This image will act as a guide for you when you next draw your hand without the actual plane.
  7. An important step: Now, you will transfer the main points and edges of your drawing on plastic to your drawing paper (Figure 6-20). The formats are the same size, so it is a one-tone scale transfer. Using the crosshairs, place the point where an edge of your hand contacts the format. Transfer several of these points. Then, begin to connect the edges of your hand, fingers, thumb, palm, wrinkles, and so on with the points you have established. This is just a light sketch to help you place the hand within the format. Recall that drawing is copying what you see on the picture plane. For this drawing, you will take this actual step, to get used to the process. Don’t worry about erasing the ground if you have to change a line. Erase, then just rub the erased area with your finger or a paper napkin and the erasure disappears.
  8. Once this rough, light sketch is on your paper, you are ready to start drawing.
  9. Reposition your “posing” hand, using the drawing-on-plastic to guide the positioning. Then, set aside your drawing-on plastic, but place it where you can still refer to it.
  10. Then, closing one eye, focus on a point on some edge in your posing hand. Any edge will do to make a start. Place your pencil point on this same point in the drawing. Then, gaze again at this point on your hand in reparation to draw. This will start the mental shift to R-mode and help to quiet any mutterings from L-mode.
  11. When you begin to draw, your eyes—or rather, eye—will move slowly along the contour and your pencil will record your perceptions at the same slow speed that your eye is moving. Just as you did in Pure Contour Drawing, try to perceive and record all of the slight undulations of each edge (Figure 6-21). Use your eraser whenever needed, even to make tiny adjustments in the line. Looking at your hand (with one eye closed, remember), you can estimate the angle of any edge by comparing it to the crosshairs. Check these angles in your drawing-on-plastic that you did earlier, but also try to see these relationships by imagining a picture-plane hovering over your hand, with its helpful crosshairs and the edge of the format to guide you.
  12. About 90 percent of the time, you should be looking at your hand. That is where you will find the information that you need. In fact, all the information you need to do a wonderful drawing of your hand is right in front of your eyes. Glance at the drawing only to monitor the pencil’s recording of your perceptions, to check for relationships of sizes and angles, or to pick a point to start a new contour. Concentrate on what you see, wordlessly sensing to yourself, “How wide is this part compared to that? How steep is this angle compared to that?” And so on.
  13. Move from contour to adjacent contour. If you see spaces between the fingers, use that information as well: “How wide is that space compared to the width of that shape?” (Remember, we are not naming things—fingernails, fingers, thumb, palm. They are all just edges, spaces, shapes, relationships.) Be sure to keep one eye closed at least a good portion of the time. Your hand is quite close in proximity to your eyes, and the binocular disparity can confuse you with two images.When you come to parts that impose their names on y o u—fingernails, for example—try to escape the words. One good strategy is to focus on the shapes of the flesh around the fingernails. These shapes share edges with the fingernails. Therefore, if you draw the shapes around the nails, you will have also drawn the edges of the fingernails—but you’ll get both right! In fact, if mental conflict sets in over any part of the drawing, move to the next adjacent space or shape, remembering the “shared edge” concept. Then, return later with “new eyes” to the part that seemed difficult. (Figure 6-22)
  14. You may want to erase out the spaces around your hand. This makes the hand “stand out” from the negative spaces.You can work up the drawing with a little shading by observing where you see areas of light (highlights) and areas of shadow appear on your posing hand. Erase out the highlights and draw in the shadows.
  15. Finally, when the drawing begins to become intensely interesting, like a complicated and beautiful jigsaw puzzle gradually taking shape under your pencil, you will be really drawing.

You might want to do a second Modified Contour Drawing of your hand, perhaps this time holding some complex object: a twisted handkerchief, a flower, a pinecone, a pair of eyeglasses. For this drawing, you can again work on a lightly “toned” ground.

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