It was a tough slog but I got through it.
Recently I finished working my way through Keys to Drawing and I have to say I’m glad I finished it. The opening line might be a bit strong and in all honesty is more a product of making a poor choice in scheduling rather than any real issues with the content itself. You will often see this and Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain recommended as an either / or situation – I decided on ‘and.’ Now, just like I did for Right Side, allow me to throw down some notes about Keys- and of course totally contradict myself.
Alongside Betty’s book, Dodson’s Keys to Drawing is often recommended as the go to resource for those new to drawing. The fact the book is still so highly regarded decades after its original release is a pretty good indicator the content presented is beneficial and will definitely give the necessary kick along. Quite often Keys will be suggested ahead of Right Side for its more pragmatic approach, less psycho babble and more advice concerning the technical side of making marks on paper. Which book best suits the reader will depend purely on which angle of approach you take- unfortunately for me, I can’t separate from the comparisons and this will take on more of a one vs the other report than a review in isolation.
I was pretty glowing in my assessment of Right Side. I enjoyed how it introduced the very act of putting pencil to paper and the thought process behind actually giving it a go. I think this is a product of me being a little older and needing that nudge to overcome the negative self talk that often destroys any creative endeavour before it truly begins. Keys hits this from a different angle- there is almost an assumption that you have already decided to pursue drawing and as a result a lot of that is discarded. Without as much encouragement, Keys offers up a number of exercises – far more than Right Side- and has you conducting a number of activities long before Betty has finished outlining her rationale.
In some ways I struggled with that. Maybe it is the military in me, but the very direct, goal focused approach of Right Side worked for me. I liked doing the small number of preinstruction drawings and then comparing them to my second efforts after reading through the book. Now I’m not saying I was churning out amazing portraits by the end of the book, but the improvements were easily observed. Keys, despite the provided checklists at the end of each chapter, seemed more intangible to me. Sure, I drew something, but did I do it right? Was it wrong? The checklist actually became the enemy- am I being too critical, not critical enough?
And this is where I failed.
Where I enjoyed reading each page and doing the exercises in Right Side (blind contours not included), Keys rapidly became a struggle. In hindsight I should have just put the book away and revisited it later. Instead, laboriously, over a number of months I churned through it, turning out exercises and wondering why I’m doing what I’m doing. A hobby shouldn’t feel like this.
But I refuse to put all of the blame on the book. As a matter of fact, and this is where the contradiction begins, I consider it a great resource and it will be a book that I constantly turn to for reference in the future. The main fault with me attempting to get the most from this book lies entirely with me- I believe I was fatigued from Right Side. I had worked hard, done the exercises, read the rationale, and then without break jumped straight in to another book. My whole perception of the book is coloured by the fact I didn’t want to learn at the time – I wanted Right Side 2, not this shit. As a result, I did a massive disservice to the content.
Keys to Drawing is broken down to a series of chapters, each focusing on a certain element of drawing. There is an initial focus on ‘learning to see’ much like Right Side, however presented in a more concise, to the point manner. A few exercises, my favourite being the comparison between a drawing done from imagination and one done from life, follow before moving on to more technical aspects.
The strength for Keys is in the overviews of topics such as perspective and texture and it is these chapters that will see me pulling the book out for reference in the future. These more technical aspects, in my opinion more advanced than the content in Right Side, help to build an understanding of concepts without being far too advanced for the beginner such as myself. I never felt overwhelmed by the content, with clear explanations easily getting the point across. I think it was only the first couple of pages concerning local values and l/s patterns that made me scratch my head for a bit- again more a failing on my part than the author.
Perhaps the only measured criticism I have of the book is the reliance on drawing from life. While I understand the training value of this cannot be understated, I often didn’t have a model to pose for me for an hour and this just left me frustrated. Instead I’d often resort to copying pictures from the book itself which probably undermined the whole idea of some of the activities. I’m not too sure how many people are going to have this available to them and I know Right Side circumvented it somewhat through the use of self portraits. Ideally, I didn’t want to have to improvise so much in the activities and instead do them as written- maybe I’m being picky.
And of course it wouldn’t be fair for me to not throw out some examples of my attempts. On to the embarrassment:
The famous ‘draw your feet’ exercise- done at work obviously.
Apparently, this is how I think a capsicum looks. I distinctly remember rushing this, probably trying to stop the pain!
And a capsicum from life- one of the few early attempts at life drawing.
A wine glass- trying to focus more on shapes within the shape.
Oh Jesus. Probably my first ever attempt at drawing my own reflection. I think I tapped out after five minutes.
Copying an example from the book.
Another copied example from the book.
Playing with perspective.
I admit this is another copy from the book but I was super happy with it. I’ve always loved drawings of textiles for their depth and I feel like I learnt a bit from this. A number more and I’d have a functioning understanding.
Overall, it is easy to see why these two books reign supreme as the go to starter kit for those new to drawing even if I personally struggled with Keys. There is a wealth of content and I feel it is content that will continue to grow with me as my skills develop and I progress through my goals. Where as on completing Right Side I felt the book had served its purpose with little more to add, Keys to Drawing is a book that I will keep on the shelf and refer back to almost as a cheat sheet for certain concepts. I would be lying if I said I feel that got all this one had to offer on one pass through and I may even take a second look at this in twelve months to see how my opinion has changed- after all, there is nothing more exciting than a second review by the same person of a book written decades ago with a healthy dose of ultracrepidarianism sprinkled in.
So, on the off chance you’ve stumbled upon this colourless blog looking to make up your mind on which book to buy the answer is it depends. It depends on where you are starting from- for the person who is reluctant to take up a pencil and doesn’t mind a bit of self help huggery, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is my suggestion. If you are ready to jump straight in, have no time for this new age nonsense and take a more scientific approach to your drawing, Keys to Drawing will set you up for success. Either book is a good option and you could certainly do worse. Just avoid what I did and don’t set up one and immediately follow with the other- take a bit of time off to draw something else and then come back later.