Sunday Mailbag

August 19th, 2012 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: If, God forbid, you should lose the use of your drawing hand, do you think you could draw as well with your other hand i.e. be able to keep up to the standards expected by your current customers?¬¨‚Ć I guess this is another way of asking “How much of your talent would you say is in your hand as opposed to in your brain?

A: That is an excellent question, and one I do not think any artist has not thought about at one time or another.. I’m sure there must be scientific studies on the adaptability of man after the loss of use of their dominant hand, but I am not familiar with any. I only know what I think would happen with me, having tried to draw with my left hand before just to experiment.

I think I would eventually be able to draw as well with my left hand as my right, but it would take years of work to do so. Observing, drawing and visual creativity takes place in the brain, but the subtleties and skills of the hand to execute what the brain visualizes is a mechanical process, and involves delicate and precise control of that process. You cannot expect a hand with which I have been drawing since I was 2 years old to be replaced suddenly with one I have almost never used to draw. The synapses that fire and control the movement and the muscles that obey the brain’s commands are not in sync, nor used to the demands that would be placed on them. I do not know how long it would take, but it would certainly take a great deal of time to even become competent with my left hand, let alone good with it. I also suspect the phenomenon known as ‘phantom limb syndrome’ would interfere with one’s adapting to the sole use of a non-dominant limb. Phantom Limb Syndrome is when someone who has lost a limb still feels sensations from the nerves that uses to send signals from that limb, like it was still there. That would fool the brain into thinking the dominant hand was still available, and would slow the progress on getting the other limb in training. that’s just a guess, however.

If, God forbid, I was to lose the use of my right hand, I would have to shut down my career until I could develop the necessary control of my left hand to continue doing the type of work a client would expect. It might be that, by the time I was ready to return to that career, I’d have no career left. Who knows? . . . I hope I never have to find out.

Thanks to Jack Coleman¬¨‚Ć for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar,¬¨‚Će-mail me¬¨‚Ćand I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Dan says:

    They have experimented with the use of a mirror on the other hand, so by setting up a mirror in a way that makes your eye believe you’re seeing your dominant hand your brain is tricked into believing it is that hand.
    In the study I heard on NPR, a man had lost his right arm and had the sensation that it was cramping into a fist; he used the mirror and went through the process of unclenching that fist until finally the phantom pain of that clenched fist went away.
    I guess we should try the mirror trick and see if we can get the left hand to act like the right hand…just for fun…just in case.

  2. As Tom indicated, this scenario is one many artists have likely pondered (just because we are a weird bunch) and thus…so have I (and yes, I am weird). I agree with Tom’s assessment about the eventuality of training the new hand to execute the commands previously given to the dominant. An interesting tidbit I realized is that sometimes I’ll write messages with my non-dominat hand (for me, my left is non-dominant) so my wife can’t trace the messages back to me (just to play with her). But she is always able to figure out it’s me because of the way I write letters (lower case “a”, etc.). So the brain tells the hand to draw something in a certain manner which still looks like a version of the ‘real thing’ coming from the ‘usual’ hand. And on another similar note, sometimes when I sit across the table from someone, I will draw something upside down so it ‘comes alive’ so the viewer can see it facing them….just to freak with them. I must say, the drawings come out pretty well (although distorted…but that is another related ‘item of interest’ around IS IT THE HAND OR THE MESSAGE INSTRUCTING THE HAND). Here’s a test for Tom, have him draw an Alfred E Newman with his dominant hand and do it quick and with relative quality…..then draw Al with his non-dominant hand under the same time constraint and see how it looks…that would be interesting to see, right? Upload it Tom…

  3. JWB says:

    I know of a couple of excellent artist documentaries that touch on this subject. There’s “Frazetta: Painting with Fire”, which is on DVD, and ” The Man Who Drew Bug-Eyed Monsters “. The latter is a profile of illustrator Reynold Brown, famed for his movie poster work ( including the iconic ” Attack of the 50 Foot Woman ” ). Both men dealt with strokes that forced them to work with the opposite hand. Amazon’s got the Frazetta disc while the Brown doc pops up on public TV stations occassionally.


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