Adding Emotion to a Drawing

A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of attending a Bruce Whatley masterclass. He’s illustrated dozens of acclaimed and award winning children’s books, as you’ll see from this Google Image Search link—I’m sure you’ll recognise a few.

One discovery was that we have a couple of things in common: when people look at our artwork, they often believe we’ve used watercolour, when in fact we’ve used diluted gouache paint. …And we’re both right-handed. However, my artworks are often tiny and drawn with my dominant right hand…

Peter Taylor's illustration

…and Bruce draws and paints on full sheets of watercolour paper, sometimes with his with his left hand.

Bruce Whatley illustration drawn with his left hand using pastels

He has illustrated several books solely with his left hand, including Dragons of Galapagos with the picture he’s holding (created with pastels) on the cover; and Flood and Cyclone with words by Jackie French.

Bruce is actually Dr Whatley, and gained his PhD through studying what happens when right-handed people draw and paint with their left hand. His findings: firstly, the lines are often more ‘interesting’. Drawings of animals and people show heightened emotion. And as a bonus, it’s easier to get realistic proportions.

(Sorry left-handers—this doesn’t work for you. It’s a nero-science/anatomy thing.)

The masterclass included practical exercises, and included the following explorations you can try, too. I’d love to see your results!

Put a few objects together as a ‘still life’. Use paper at least A4 or Letter size and draw as much of the arrangement as you can in 5 minutes, using your right hand…and the same view again with your left. Aim to make each sketch nearly fill its sheet.

What do you think of the line quality in the picture drawn with your left hand? More interesting? Are the proportions of the objects more accurately drawn, or more easily drawn with your left hand?

Our final task was to sketch Bruce as our model, on pastel paper…but we could have used the rough side of kraft/brown paper-bag paper, or a brown cardboard box, or any coloured paper that takes pastels—even grey card from the inside of a cereal packet. The first version instruction: ‘Hold the black Conté pastel in your right hand (could have used use black charcoal) and white in your left. Try to apply equal amounts of black and white…you have five minutes.’ Then: ‘Swap the colours for the second version.’

The result, for me, who’s unaccustomed to drawing people? I certainly did find it easier to get more realistic proportions with the black in my left hand – the top left picture shown in the image…and I believe others felt likewise. It’s a recommended experiment if you can find a willing model! But it probably works using a photo as a source, too.

The enhanced emotion can even be seen by tracing a ‘head-shot photo’ of someone to create left and right handed artworks, especially if done as a 5 minute exercise for each…but perhaps adding extra detail with the left hand after the initial left-handed outline is drawn. With kids, I supply very thin ‘bank’ thickness layout or detail paper. It’s an activity that can be done in schools and illustration workshops, and surprises and delights many students.

Left-handed drawing is not appropriate for all illustration, and Bruce creates many books’ artwork with his dominant or natural right hand. For copyright reasons, I can’t add the swag of images as I’d ideally like to from And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. It’s set in WWI (words by Eric Bogle). However, I hope many visitors to this website page will buy a copy or borrow one from a library to appreciate the exceptionally expressive portrayal of characters Bruce has generated by drawing with his left hand. To see the detail in the artwork used for the cover, please click on the image or this link to a larger image on the publisher’s website.

This is an example of cover art and design at its best, with the publisher’s designer playing an important role. It provides a foretaste of what we will discover on the pages, and is also a lesson in itself for would-be illustrators: the action takes place from left to right, as we normally read text; the main character stares towards us and draws us into his situation in the narrow trench, and we are forced to make eye contact by the position of his eyes on the picture—at an intersection of lines that could be drawn a third of the way across from a side, and a third of the height of the book. And many lines in the drawing lead our eyes to his: the slopes of the horizon, edges of boulders, and the cleft in the trench wall on the right.

For me, the slightly fragmented nature or ‘wiggliness’ of lines you’ll see in the large copy also highlights the fragility of the human body and the precarious situation faced by all service people on a battlefield. Is this figure warning us to stay away from the danger to be experienced and the sights he’s likely to see, reflecting on the futility of war and loss of life…or asking us to join him in the story, as a true mate in the Australian sense—someone who will support him in the action, no matter what the cost? We know we must stay with him through thick and thin.


And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda is published by Allen and Unwin.