The Author/Illustrator Brain

A page out of my sketchbook.

I took a drawing class for two weeks this summer through Mass Art to brush up on my drawing skills. As an art teacher, it is amazing how little time I find to draw for myself. Time is a luxury at school. Everything I create is for my students, and I do it as fast as possible before my next class arrives. This summer studio was exactly what I needed to get back to being an artist myself.  After sketching for a minimum of 5 hours a day I filled a 60 page sketchbook with everything from stain glass windows to panoramic views of Boston.  Finally, the time to sit down, look at something and draw. It was quiet, it was productive and it was immensely satisfying. I even came up with illustrations for a new story I’m working on and plan to illustrate myself.

On the other hand…

During this time I was incapable of editing a story, writing a new chapter or even composing an email.  Words were completely inaccessible.

So this got me thinking…

I find both drawing and writing incredibly satisfying, like brain calisthenics.  But it seems as if I cannot do both at the same time!  How do author/illustrators navigate between logic and fantasy?

It all comes down to the way our brains work.

The human brain is like a super computer.  It contains over 100 billion nerve cells all connected, communicating with each other and processing the world around us.  It is a remarkable piece of engineering. The brain is split into two hemispheres.  We call them the Right brain and the Left brain.

As writers, we tap into our left brain.  The left brain is the analytical hemisphere in charge of language, facts and sequencing.  It is firmly rooted in reality and can process complex metaphors.  The left brain is our verbal brain.

As illustrators we ease into our right brain functions.  The right brain is intuitive, non-verbal and concrete.  It thinks in patterns and pictures.  The right brain is our visual brain.url

Neither is better than the other.  Certainly we need to process the world both verbally and visually.  However, our right and left brains are competing for dominance all the time.  During my two week drawing class, I was so entrenched in my right observation brain functions that it sent my left brain on vacation.  This is incredibly handy to know for my own writing/drawing process, especially as I start character sketches for a new picture book.

What to do?

Perhaps the key to managing both is moderation.  A little writing here, a little drawing there, so that both sides of my brain feel needed and appreciated.  I might try writing in the morning and drawing in the evening.  Today is clearly a writing day. Perhaps tomorrow… well, you never know.

Feel free to share how your author/illustrator brains work.  Add your thoughts to the Writers’ Rumpus!


  1. Alison, thanks for the interesting perspective! Like Carol, I’m no artist. But I find that for me, writing fiction and nonfiction are better than compatible–each pulls the other along and keeps the other fresh. I’m not sure what that means in terms of right and left brains, though. I came out as slightly skewed to right-brained on the test at the link you provided.


  2. Alison, this is a great post and a beautiful sketch too! I have trouble writing when I’m into a good book. I have to balance out my reading and my writing:)


  3. Alison, this is so interesting! And I’m so jealous of your beautiful drawing you shared here. I wish I could draw. So I’ll keep on with my left writing brain and hope one day that my right brain wants a little exercise. Good for you for taking those two weeks for yourself!


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