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Walking Around the Cotton Reel - Using NLP to Teach Drawing

by Bronwen Dace(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 140 - October 2007

‘I can’t draw!’ is a familiar cry. Students usually come to me with the belief that drawing is a gift – and it has been given to other people!

Like a lot of strongly held beliefs, this idea probably took root in their childhood. They remember the frustration of seeing a picture in their mind and not being able to put it down on paper, the injustice of watching other children draw effortlessly, the voice of a parent laughingly saying, “You take after me, darling – you’ll never make an artist!” So the first step for me is to convince them that drawing is a skill, and it can be taught.

‘If one person can do something, anyone can learn to do it’ may be one of the hardest NLP Operating Beliefs to take on board, yet it forms the basis of Modelling, on which NLP was founded.

A cotton reel could be a huge architectural form that we humans would walk around, looking up at its vast cylindrical form.
A cotton reel could be a huge architectural form that we humans
would walk around, looking up at its vast cylindrical form.

Imagine a person sitting opposite you, with his legs crossed and his foot being nearer to you than any other part of him.
Imagine a person sitting opposite you, with his legs crossed and
his foot being nearer to you than any other part of him.

In my classes, we look at the way other artists and designers approach their drawing, and I often begin by quoting the words of Henri Matisse. When asked by Gertrude Stein if while eating a tomato he looked at it the way an artist would, he replied, “No, when I eat a tomato I look at it the way anyone else would but when I paint a tomato, then I see it differently.”1 Just as Matisse got himself into a special state, a different way of seeing the fruit before he painted it, so we have to put ourselves into a different frame of mind, in order to draw an object. This is where the excitement comes in. Even if I am not drawing – perhaps I am on the tube or walking in the park, with no art materials at hand – I can look at whatever is in front of me as if I am about to draw it and feel that intensity and excitement, that sense of wonder that is so exhilarating and life enhancing

How Can NLP Help Us to Access this State?

One very effective way is to suggest that the object we are about to draw is really something else. This is a sort of game, using perceptual positions. A cotton reel could be a huge architectural form that we humans would walk around, looking up at its vast cylindrical form. The lettering on a packet could be giant abstract shapes. Arranging objects so that we see them from unusual viewpoints, or in dramatic lighting, is another way of changing our perception.

I often show students other artists’ impressions of the same subject so that they can get close to the response of another human being. By verbalizing my own enthusiasm for whatever they are drawing, I can enable them to share my perception of the thing they are about to draw. They may be surprised to find that an ordinary box is actually very exciting to someone else who notices its solidity, appreciates the different tones on each plane and the quality of a battered corner.

As our appreciation of natural and man-made forms grows, so does our ability to enjoy looking at everyday objects, which in turn leads us to this state of excitement, this particular way of looking that is necessary to drawing. And so we enter a virtuous circle – the more we draw, the more we learn to really look; and the better we are at looking, the more our drawing improves.

As we start to see beauty in ordinary objects, not only does our drawing improve, but our whole life becomes enriched. We develop a sense of wonder, and can be caught gasping with delight at the colour of the sky, the interesting shape of a shadow, the intricate pattern in a distorted reflection, or the rich texture of a tree trunk. Students gain a lot more than drawing skills and a new hobby. They learn to see the world in a new way.

At the beginning, students are often inhibited by their lack of confidence, and here anchors can be very useful. I simply remind them of past successes, whether in art or some other field. I build up the memory of that success and narrow it down to a single word or phrase which I say to the student. I use music to create an atmosphere of calm and relaxed energy. Playing the same music over a number of lessons builds on the atmosphere of focused work within a friendly, safe and calm environment, so that over time that too becomes an anchor.

NLP is concerned with the way we form our model of the world through our senses. By drawing attention to the feel of someone’s fingers on the dusty charcoal, the sound of the brush swishing across the paper, or the pushing sensation of blunt edged stick of conte, (a drawing tool), I can increase confidence and rouse their curiosity to make more marks and try different materials.

Art materials are generally expensive and there is nothing more inhibiting, even to experienced artists, than a piece of expensive paper that has been painstakingly stretched and lies awaiting your masterpiece. So I always start lessons with big charcoal drawings on cheap newsprint paper. This gets rid of inhibitions and creates a mood of enjoyment, even playfulness. One of the best exercises is Betty Edwards’ Pure Contour Drawing1 in which students draw the outline of their hand, or a plant, without looking at their work as they go along. Knowing that the finished drawing is bound to be inaccurate, with areas that don’t meet up, people lose their fear and enjoy really looking, discovering and involving themselves with the subject. The results are always stunning in their sensitivity and intricacy. Some students go on to develop these ‘contour drawings’ into designs, with colour and repeated areas.

The intensive looking and decision-making involved in drawing can be very tiring. “I thought drawing was meant to be fun,” is comment I hear when students discover that actually it is quite hard work.

To convince them that even great artists have to make an effort, I show them an early drawing by Van Gogh, called The Carpenter1 The man clearly has a very wonky body – yet Vincent didn’t give up at that point. Only two years later he drew Woman Mourning which can be seen in the Rijksmuseum Kroller – Muller, Otterlo, (in Holland). Here the model is in perfect proportion, placed comfortably within the boundaries of the page. The pencil work shows confidence, and the artist has also managed to draw us into the scenario so that we can empathize with the woman’s emotions.

Every professional designer and Art teacher has made ugly, inaccurate drawings at some time which brings us to the operating belief – There is no failure, only feedback. Feedback is used all the time when you are learning to draw. With each mark you put down, ask yourself, “is this in the right place?” If the answer is “no” look again, see how it relates to other parts of the drawing, measure the angle, ask yourself more questions. I teach students to constantly scan across at other parts of the subject so they are not seeing each part in isolation, but taking the picture as a whole. This is an hemisphere activity of the brain’s right hemisphere, and it is interesting how, as the right hemisphere becomes more active, we almost lose the power of speech! Very often, as I help a student to draw, I cannot find the words for ‘leg’, ‘collar’, ‘petal’ or whatever we are looking at. This is not old age – nor is it a problem. In fact it is a benefit. The left hemisphere is responsible for language and sequencing, so as we begin to use our right hemisphere by seeing the subject as a whole, noticing patters and connections between parts, we start to think in pictures rather than words. I encourage students to stop thinking in terms of the foot, the button, the edge of the table, but to observe the line, the curve, and the bend instead.

Our left brain has preconceived ideas about what a leg should look like, so beginners often slip into drawing what they know instead of what they really see. Imagine a person sitting opposite you, with his legs crossed and his foot being nearer to you than any other part of him. You know that a foot is smaller than chest and that it is on the end of a long thing called a leg, but what you really see is a big foot obscuring some of the body – and what has happened to the leg? It certainly isn’t a long thing anymore! For really brilliant and instant feedback, it is best to draw faces. We all recognize when a drawing of a face does not look right, but it might take us a little longer to realize that our jug is not quite the shape of the jug in front of us. It can also be supremely rewarding when students see that they have caught a likeness of the sitter, even though they recognize that some parts of the drawing are wrong.

When in Right brain mode, we find it easier to see the negative spaces – those spaces in between the lines we are drawing. Once you start noticing those shapes behind, between and around the objects you are drawing, you can receive constant feedback about where the positive shapes should go. I give my students exercises that help them gain awareness of negative space and Betty Edwards’ book Drawing with the right side of the Brain, is full of brilliant ideas on this theme.

To return to the idea of Modelling, most artists find that time takes on a different meaning when they are engrossed in their work. They become ‘in time’ instead of’ ‘through time’, a concept you will find in NLP Metaprogrammes. I find going into ‘in time’ truly liberating and immensely refreshing. Like most of us, I live with a constant awareness of time – and there never seems to be enough of it. I have developed a very through-time approach to living, which means I am very rarely late for anything, and I carry an accurate diary in my head at all times. But this is not helpful when I am drawing. As I become involved in looking and recording what I see, time stands still.

“I’d feel guilty just sitting down and drawing” is another common cry. Students are often reluctant to allow themselves time to draw, or even to look at objects for long enough to appreciate that they are worth drawing. During the lessons, I release them from the need to think about time. They hand over responsibility to me, and I make sure they have their coffee in the middle of the lesson and finish in time to go home. Usually after one or two weeks, students have developed the taste for entering this timeless
world. They do succeed in putting aside time to indulge in their new found hobby at home – and one or two have been known to practise their drawing during business meetings!

When students understand the operating belief that everyone lives in their own unique model of the world, they gain the confidence to draw what they see in their own particular way. They are no longer disappointed if they don’t produce a photographic likeness, but delighted when they have expressed their own special view of the subject.

This is not to say that any quick and lazy drawing is worthy of attention just because it is someone’s personal response. By learning to draw well, students can express their view more accurately, close the gap between what they see in their head, and what they put down on paper.

One of the four pillars of NLP is Rapport. Most of us understand the word to mean harmony, accord, having a good relationship with someone. Rapport is so important that NLP practitioners would never attempt to work with a client until rapport has been established. I am sure you have noticed how the quality of a meeting, social gathering or even the most fleeting encounter can be changed depending on the degree of rapport. NLP teaches techniques to enable us to establish rapport easily and quickly.

In art classes it is usually easy to attain because students already have a desire to draw as a common interest. They may, however, come from very different backgrounds and have different intentions and preconceptions, as well as being very different in age. I always find that by the end of a course, there is a feeling of goodwill that overrides any of these differences. How do I establish Rapport? By matching body language and speech patterns, and by chunking up to find common beliefs and values. Once people realize that we all have similar problems and aims, the differences between usually seem trivial. I encourage students to look at each other’s work – displayed on the wall or through informal criticism – at the end of the lesson. Students are amazingly encouraging and point out the improvements in each other’s work. Learning to value the way we look at the world can raise our own self-esteem, and seeing how others respond to the same images can help us to value their model of the world too.

During the lessons we would have been in a state of Rapport with the objects that we drew. Going back to that feeling of excitement we would have made a connection with whatever we drew and feel we now know it in a special way. Reviewing our drawings can take us right back to that moment that we first looked at it. It comes alive, and our mind is able to recall the sounds, emotions and ambience of the original activity of drawing it.

Finally, drawing helps us to be in Rapport with ourselves, to accept ourselves and become engrossed in what we are doing, without any distractions, such as negative thoughts and worries, about future events.

NLP can be applied to anything that we do. If you think you can never be an artist, you may be very surprised!


1.    Edwards B. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Fontana/Collins. 1988.


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About Bronwen Dace

Bronwen Dace BA (Hons) PGCE MANLP is a graduate of Winchester School of Art, and has been teaching Art to children and adults for over 20 years. She is a Master Practitioner in NLP and a qualified performance coach. In her NLP training work, Bronwen specializes in education and self-development. She may be contacted via Tel: 020 8840 8529;

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