Informed by my education and practice experience, I know that many engineers participate in the visual and performing arts. For example, while working as an engineering dean, my office collected and analyzed campus student activities data. Although engineering students composed 10 percent of the student body, they made up more than 20 percent of the campus musical groups. Colleagues at other universities have shared similar observations.
Even if you personally are not actively involved in the arts, maybe you are open to experimenting, as I have done. Several years ago, after a more than five-decade lapse that began after the third grade, I returned on a whim to art by taking a one-day graphite pencil drawing class – and I loved it, went to many more classes, and did a variety of drawings. I moved to colored pencils and soon found myself drawing, in graphite or colored pencils, for two or more hours while being oblivious to the passage of time. In returning to art, I initially envisioned no connection to engineering education or practice. My activity was simply a pleasant diversion.
However, in addition to creating drawings that I never foresaw, this return to art had another creative/innovative effect. As a result of drawing, thinking about the process, 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 prompted in-depth research, including studying recent neurological discoveries, interacting with colleagues, writing articles, presenting papers, and conducting workshops. In the end I signed a contract to write the book Creativity and Innovation for Engineers, which is in production and will be published in early 2016. No one can predict a series of positive and enlightening outcomes like that!
I have included images of three of my drawings. The first – Street in Rennes, France – was done in graphite, that is, a black and white pencil drawing. Graphite is where I started and where, in my view, anyone who wants to learn how to draw or paint should start because it teaches widely applicable drawing fundamentals, just like a static mechanics course teaches widely applicable engineering fundamentals. The other two drawings (Ogden Lilies and Ize) were created with colored pencil supplemented with ink and acrylic.
What’s in It for You?
I am sharing these images and my art story in the hope that they will encourage you, if you have not already done so, to take up some form of visual or performing art. So that there is no misunderstanding, when I say “take up,” I don’t mean look at or listen to; I mean do – learn the fundamentals, practice, and get good at it.
“Doing” is very likely to open up a new world of insight and accomplishment for you, like it did for me, as you become more aware of and more fully engage your brain’s right hemisphere to complement your already very active left hemisphere. More specifically, you may, like me, realize two benefits:
- You will see more, not just look; listen more, not just hear; and have more creative/innovative ideas. The visual sense is the dominant of the six senses in that it engages more of our brain’s resources than any other sense. We should therefore seek ways to use and further develop our vision.
- As a result of learning and applying freehand drawing principles, or studying and practicing other visual arts, you are likely to become even more conscious of the different and valuable functions of your “right brain” relative to your left one. As illustrated by my experience, this increased brain awareness may lead you to imagining how fuller use of right hemisphere functions by your students, colleagues, and others you interact with could enhance individual, group, and organizational effectiveness. Expanded right-mode thinking, coupled with the typically strong left-mode thinking of engineers, will enable individuals and groups to address issues, solve problems, and pursue opportunities much more creatively, innovatively, and intuitively. “Half a brain is better than none. A whole brain would be better,” notes Betty Edwards, author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
If you begin practicing some form of visual or performing art for the first time, regardless of your age, you may find a lifelong and satisfying diversion from professional work, from other responsibilities. Perhaps you will also discover some new approaches to professional practice. You have little to lose and much to gain. Getting involved in a visual art helped me grow both as an amateur artist and as a professional engineer. I wish you the same good fortune.