Art for Engineers: Encouraging More Right Mode Thinking

As suggested by the title, this paper’s purpose is to explore the potential value of including art, more specifically freehand drawing instruction, in the education of engineers with the objective of more fully engaging the right hemispheres of each student’s brain. The article strives to accomplish this purpose by providing brain basics and connecting them to the visual arts, offering a personal perspective, reviewing the historic development of drawing, and suggesting two benefits of participation in the visual arts. While the means of providing freehand drawing instruction is relevant, that implementation topic is not discussed in this paper and might be the subject of a future paper by me or perhaps by readers of this paper.

For brevity, and because of my amateur familiarity with it, freehand drawing with graphite pencils is the art form stressed in this paper. However, the potential benefits attributed to this visual art form would seem to apply to other visual arts such as colored pencil; water color, oil, and other painting; and sculpture.  Another reason for stressing freehand graphite pencil drawing is the ease of experimenting with it in that participating only requires pencils, paper, understanding fundamentals, and practice.

The human brain, more specifically, the brain’s left and right hemispheres, have some markedly different functions as suggested by the comparisons shown in Table 1. The table and some of the content of this section are based on artist and educator Betty Edwards 1999 book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. On beginning to read Edward’s book, I soon learned that the intriguing title has two meanings as will become apparent as this paper develops.

Table 1: The two hemispheres of the brain are asymmetrical with respect to some capabilities. (Source: Edwards, 1999)





















Assume, for purposes of discussion, that futurists and authors such as Pink (2005, 2007), Naisbitt (2006), Kao (2007), Peterson (ASCE 2007), and de Blij (2009) are collectively correct in stressing that achieving professional success in an increasingly globalized business and professional environment will require enhanced, non-technical personal and group qualities such as adaptability, collaboration, creativity, empathy, entrepreneurship, innovation, synthesis, and visualization. This means that professional success will depend on further development of right brain capabilities while at least maintaining left-brain capabilities, that is, enhance left-mode thinking by developing more right-mode thinking. Betty Edwards said it this way: “Half a brain is better than none: a whole brain would be better.”

Accordingly, discussion of possible ways to discover and enhance right brain capabilities in engineering education and practice is warranted. Edwards (1999) says this about the U.S. K-12 and beyond educational system: “Most of our educational system has been designed to cultivate the verbal, rational, on-time left hemisphere, while half of the brain of every student is virtually neglected.” She elaborates on her statement noting that while we will find a few art, shop, and creative writing K-12 classes, we are unlikely to find courses about imagination, visualization, perception, creativity, intuition, and inventiveness. Might the preceding also generally characterize engineering education? I think so.  Noting the growing importance of these right brain capabilities, Edwards offers a solution, an option. She suggests including drawing education and training because it is “an efficient, effective way to teach thinking strategies suited to the right brain.”

I am an amateur artist. In 2008, after an almost six decade lapse that began after the third grade, I returned, on a whim, to art by taking a pencil drawing class, loving it, and doing a variety of drawings. I soon discovered that I would draw for two or more hours and be oblivious to the passage of time. In returning to art, I initially envisioned no connection to engineering education or practice. This was simply a pleasant diversion.

As an art student, I am aware of the basics of pencil drawing such as composition, which means proper placement of the principal objects on the paper; shapes and sub-shapes; values, that is, the lightness or darkness of tones or colors; and various pencil strokes. I recognize the worth of these fundamentals and apply them. Decades ago, I started doing the same thing in engineering. I worked hard to understand and apply basics and eventually realized their power in analyzing, planning, and designing useful processes, objects, structures, facilities, and systems.

Consider value. Beginning with the first session of my first drawing course, I have become much more aware of value. When I see a tree, building, or person, I find variation in lightness or darkness. Without being over-bearing, please try to appreciate this thought: I now see everything in a different light, figuratively and literally. What I see now does not detract from what I saw before, I simply see more.

While thinking about and doing the preceding, talking to my art instructors and other students, and doing some reading, I began to see possible connections between visual arts and improving engineering education and, ultimately, practice. That led to more research, interacting with colleagues, preparing related workshop and university course proposals, and writing this article.

In the later major section of this article titled “Benefits,” I will suggest ways in which engineers, first as students and later as practitioners, might benefit as a result of learning pencil drawing or, more broadly, participating in visual arts. As a result of using both brain hemispheres – left and right-mode thinking -- they may be even more effective in resolving issues, solving problems, and pursuing opportunities. As already noted, “a whole brain would be better.”


Drawing, which might be defined as converting “a mental image into a visually-recognizable form” (Beakley et al. 1986), has been used for over two millennia by the predecessors of what are now engineers, architects, and other similar technical professionals. Almost everyone has seen some of Leonardo da Vinci’s 16th Century freehand drawings. Freehand drawing was supplemented during the Renaissance by manual drawing using basic tools like straight edges and triangles (Arciszewski et al 2009). “Beginning about 1820, engineers in [the U.S.] began to be taught projection drawing, based on the French system that was first developed by Gaspard Monge “(Beakley et al. 1986). This systematic manual, not freehand, drawing used tools like straight edges, triangles, and circle guides.

Near the end of the last century, the drawing component of engineering education (and practice) changed drastically in that manual drawing was gradually eclipsed by computerized graphic tools. “By moving to computerized graphic tools, engineering design has become constrained in subtle ways by the primitives and processes intrinsic to those tools. The spontaneity of freehand design…permitted direct expression by parts of the brain that are not engaged by computer-aided drafting tools” (Arciszewski et al 2009). Today’s computerized drawing, like its predecessor manual projection drawing, “draws heavily on interaction with the left hemisphere of the brain. On the other hand, freehand drawing, being free of technical symbols, is dominated by the right hemisphere of the brain (Beakley et al 1986).

Therefore, while advances in drawing, from freehand to the more disciplined projection drawing and into today’s computerized drawing, have been largely beneficial they probably have had the negative effective of removing some right-brain stimulus potential from engineering education. “Computers make it too easy to draw the wrong thing,” according to Dan Roan. He also notes that “thinking with pictures is fluid and visual trial and error happens all the time” and “the hand is mightier than the mouse.”

Seeing, Not Just Looking
A principle guiding freehand drawing is to draw which we see contrasted with drawing something the way we think it should look. For example, before taking pencil drawing lessons, if I were asked to draw a boat, tree, dog, or other object, I would have been thinking mainly about what such an object should look like and try to draw it in that preconceived manner. Now, having benefited from drawing lessons, I draw what I see, that is, composition, shapes, and values. Artists first carefully examine the object or thing to be drawn and then, and only then, draw what they see. While each of us has his or her own style of converting what we see to pencil strokes on paper, the process is driven by careful observation.

I, and I suspect most amateur and professional artists, tend to more closely observe everything as a result of the habit we acquired, or are acquiring as a result of drawing or practicing some other visual art. Artists see more than they did in their pre-artist days. When I look consciously at any object, even though I have no interest in drawing it, I see more especially in terms of shapes and shadows then I used to.

For example, assume that prior to my drawing studies, you put me in a sparsely furnished all white room—white walls and ceiling—and asked me what I saw. I suspect I would have noted some of the room’s contents and the white walls and ceiling. Now as an amateur artist, my observation would include seeing a wide spectrum of shades of white, that is, a range of values. This value spectrum would be prominent because drawing the room in two dimensions on a sheet of paper so that it appears three dimensional requires applying pencil strokes that capture the value variations. And, I would have the preceding response even though you did not ask me to draw the room or any part of it.

In my view, enhanced observation, that is, more seeing and, relatively speaking, less looking, is an inevitable by-product of practicing the visual arts. Really seeing, not just casually looking, gradually becomes habitual for artists. When looking at anything, artists, relative to others, tend to see the previously-mentioned values plus shapes and sub-shapes. As someone noted, once our mind is stretched in a new way, it never returns to its original dimensions and so it is once we practice visual arts.

So, what has this got to do with engineering? Improved seeing, whether literally as described here or possibly, by extension, figuratively, further enables an engineering student or practitioner. He or she can more completely and accurately define an issue to be resolved, a problem to be solved, or an opportunity to be pursued. To paraphrase and expand the common expression “a problem well defined is half solved,” an issue, problem, or opportunity more completely and accurately seen, both physically and figuratively, is half resolved, solved, and pursued. Engineering students and practitioners are likely to gain valuable enhanced vision as a result of participating in freehand drawing or other visual arts.

Taking improved seeing further, the enhanced seeing that can enable an engineer to more fully define an issue, problem, or opportunity can also, through continued enhanced visualization, help him or her resolve the issue, solve the problem, or pursue the opportunity. Dan Roam (2008) refers to this process as visual thinking which he defines as “an extraordinarily powerful way to solve problems” and explains it as consisting of four steps, mainly, look, see, imagine, and show. In application, each step in visual thinking involves drawing. To elaborate, freehand drawing enhances a person’s ability to perform the first two steps, that is, to look and then see, really see at least the physical aspects of issues, problems, and opportunities. Then more “art,” in the form of simple shapes, lines, arrows, stick people, and things, facilitates the remaining imagining and showing steps. The idea is to engage both of the brain’s hemispheres because “a whole brain would be better.”

Increased Awareness of the Right Brain’s Powerful Functions
As a result of learning how to draw, or studying and doing other visual arts, an engineering student or practitioner is likely to become more aware of the different and valuable functions of the brain’s right hemisphere relative to the left hemisphere. This enhanced awareness may be implicit as in increasingly viewing issues, problems, and opportunities more intuitively and holistically.

Or, as in my case for example, enhanced right-brain appreciation may result from studying literature that connects art and education (e.g., Arciszewski 2009, Beakley et al 1986, Edwards 1999). This, again based on my experience, may lead to imagining how fuller use of right hemisphere functions by engineers could enhance their individual and group effectiveness. This curiosity may, in turn, lead to discovery, study, and application of many tools and techniques available to assist individuals and groups further engage the brain’s right hemisphere. Expanded right-mode thinking, coupled with typically strong left-mode thinking, will enable individuals and groups to more creatively and innovatively address issues, solve problems, and pursue opportunities.

The preceding “leap” from pencil drawing to applying mind-expanding tools and techniques is not as improbable as it may initially seem. I am increasingly realizing that we engineers, in the ways we apply fundamentals to produce original results, have at least as much in common with artists as we do with scientists.

U.S. engineering colleges draw a disproportionate share of the brightest students on campuses. We and they should work to be even better stewards of this intellectual resource. One way to do so is to experiment with instruction in visual arts to see if the experience supplements already powerful left-mode thinking with more complementary right-mode thinking. This whole-brain approach may enable aspiring engineers to be more creative and innovative during their formal studies and later in professional practice, to their, their employer’s, and society’s benefit. My hope is that this article might, at least in some small ways, stimulate discussion of the possible role of visual arts in engineering education, lead to collaboration and possibly conferences or conference sessions, and stimulate some faculty and/or practitioners to conduct pilot courses or workshops.

I appreciate the artistry and patience of art teachers Don Melander in Florida and Fred Holly in Indiana both of whom are patiently helping me understand and apply knowledge of graphite and colored pencil drawing. Their willingness to share ideas about freehand drawing and its possible role in engineering education is also valued. Listening to their drawing advice, watching them work, and trying to apply what I have learned suggests, as noted earlier in this article, that we engineers have at least as much in common with artists as we do scientists. I also value the ideas and encouragement offered by various friends and colleagues within and outside of engineering and would be pleased work with them and others on pilot creativity/innovation courses at universities or similar workshops for practitioners.

Arciszewski, T., Successful Education: How to Educate Creative Engineers, Successful Education LLC, Fairfax, VA.
Arciszewski, T., E. Grabska, and C. Harrison. 2009. “Visual Thinking in Inventive Design: Three Perspectives,” Soft Computing in Civil and Structural Engineering, Topping, B.H.V. and Y. Tsompanakis, (Editors), Chapter 6, pp. 179-202, Saxe-Coburg Publications, UK.
ASCE Steering Committee to Plan a Summit on the Future of the Civil Engineering Profession. 2007. The Vision for Civil Engineering in 2025, ASCE, Reston,VA.
Beakley, G. C., D. L. Evans, and J. B. Keats. 1986. Engineering: An Introduction to a Creative Profession, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, NY.
de Blij, H. 2009. The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization’s Rough Landscape, Oxford University Press, New York, NY. 
Edwards, B. 1999. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, New York, NY.
Kao, J.  2007. Innovation Nation: How America Is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do To Get It back, The Free Press, New York, NY.
Naisbitt, J. 2006. Mind Set! Reset Your Thinking and See the Future, HarperCollins, New York, NY.
Pink, D. H.  2005. A Whole New Mind: Moving From the Knowledge Age to the   Conceptual  Age, Riverhead Books, New York, NY.
Pink, D.H. 2007. “Revenge of the Right Brain,” Public Management, July, pp. 10-13.
Roam, D. 2008. The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, Penquin Group, New York, NY.

Stuart G. Walesh, Ph.D., P.E., Dist.M.ASCE, D.WRE, F.NSPE has been an independent consultant for the past dozen years. Prior to that, he worked in government, business, and academia fulfilling various roles including project manager, discipline manager, department head, professor, and dean.

He welcomes comments about this article (which was written for ASCE’s Leadership and Management in Engineering journal) as well as the broader topic of ways to encourage student and practicing engineers to be even more creative/innovative. Email him at or call him at 219-242-1704. Stu is interested in teaching courses and facilitating workshops about creativity and innovation.

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