Visual and Performing Arts: See and Hear More; Engineer Better

March 17, 2014

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?

Ogden Lilies and Ize, paintings by Stu Walesh

Ogden Lilies and Ize by Stu Walesh

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.

  • Mr. Knowlton: Creative/innovative initiatives will almost always encounter at least initial resistance, whether within or outside of engineering. Change is “tuff.” I’ve studied why engineers resist creative-innovative efforts. The results constitute a chapter in my book Introduction to Creativity and Innovation for Engineers to be published early next year by Pearson Prentice Hall.

    You mention hiring. Based on my more recent experiences and studies, if I were back in business or government and once again recruiting and hiring engineers I would ask each candidate a question something like this: What change did you envision and how did you work with others to make it happen?

  • Avatar Laurence E. Heininger, P.E., PMP

    I believe that I’m naturally a right brain thinker and I remember my 9th grade art teacher begging me to take studio art in high school. I didn’t and took mechanical drawing because I wanted to be an Architect. When I applied to architecture schools only one “out of state” school accepted me (I didn’t have an art portfolio) and I would have lost an instate scholarship. Rensselaer accepted me for anything but architecture. My dad explained that Civil Engineers designed things and RPI also had an Architectural Minor program at the time.

    Over the years I have developed into a very good designer with the ability to see the whole project from start to finish. I then use my engineering background and field experience to make sure the “underpinnings” are sound. I admit, the grinding it out is boring but necessary.

    Many young engineers are throwing “lines on paper” and have no visualization how the project will get built. They’ll draw a 36″ pipe the same line weight as an 8″ pipe. They’re responding to the bosses, “get it done”. The “we’ll figure it out in the field” mentality is too prevalent. The math driven college education doesn’t help the situation. Design classes or ,how to pull a whole project together were not taught to Civil Engineers.

    After 37 years I am semi-retired and have started to take art classes. I’m told I have very good composition.

    I am also working with young RPI engineers at my fraternity, Sigma Chi, to develop such things as Project Management Training and personality types (DiSC). I don’t believe the school will touch on those important career skills.
    Larry H.

    • Larry H: Thank you for sharing your art story. I heartily agree that doing art (not just looking at the art of others), enables us to really see.

  • Avatar Gus Smithhisler, P.E.

    Mr. Walesh,

    Your article is spot on and I really enjoyed both your story and your art. I have long been involved in multiple arts which have greatly influenced my engineering abilities. I have managed all the roads and bridges for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for 12 of my 22 year engineering career. In my ‘spare’ time (and often using vacation), I travel the country professionally sculpting pumpkins, also for a dozen years or so. (See

    I continue to influence the engineering decisions here at ODNR at the state level, while at the same time manage the ‘Art in the lobby’ gallery for our complex. I look forward to retiring from the state eventually and being able to pursue my art work even further, while maintaining my PE and continuing to both fix our infrastructure and design/construct improvements in my community.

    Art has played a big role in my engineering, and my engineering in my art (as I construct massive 1,000 pound constructs out of pumpkin). Thank you for the article, I look forward to reading your book!

    • Mr. Smithhisler: I enjoyed learning about your pumpkin art. Your art story, when combined with a growing number of others I hear from other engineers, tells me that art is alive and well within the engineering community. Those stories also suggest that many engineering students would be receptive do having art basics in their academic programs, do well at it, and enjoy it.

  • Very Fine.
    I appreciate too much, and think it develops creativity in many situations
    of engineering’s challenges presents in the life of an engineer.

    Congratulations !

  • As a professional engineer married to a former commercial artist who is now an art teacher I understand the importance if creativity. I have been in the business for over 35 years and in the last decade or so, I have noticed a lack of creativity in the young engineers. I credit this lack of creativity to the “teaching to the test” mentality that comes with using standard test to rate schools, teachers, and affect salary increases.
    When I was a student, my school hosted the ASCE Southeast Regional Student Conference. In addition to the concrete canoe races, the concrete strength contest and other contests where the students could run computer simulations and try different systems (all good ideas and tools) we created the “Mystery Contest” where the materials and rules were in a package handed out to the students at the opening banquet. The teams had 48 hours to think and build a bridge out of 10″ straws, thread, and straight pins to span 15 inches. The winners were the most creative students who utilized what they had learned, not what they could regurgitate for the next test.
    I would hire any one of the winning team members because they could take what they had been taught and in a creative manner, use that knowledge to solve a problem. Isn’t that the essence of Engineering! I am bored today with this “whatever you propose MUST be a proven method” mentality that seems rampant in Civil Engineering.

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