Practice itself is no secret. Everybody knows you have to practice to be good at anything athletic or artistic. Talk to anyone who has brilliant skills, whether with a fiddle or a basketball or a theatrical role, and you can bet you’ll hear they spend a lot of time practicing.
I’m a big believer in practice. As a young self-taught artist I had no consistent and regular practice, and it soon became clear that the occasional flashes of brilliance I perceived in my own work weren’t going to turn into any steady flame without a more disciplined approach. In 1994 I began a regular practice of attending timed life drawing sessions. I’ve continued to this day and will do so as long as I live.
The point about practice that I intend to make in this post can’t really be illustrated. I thought maybe looking at my sketchbooks over the years would reveal something about the effects of sustained practice on my work, but it’s not perfectly clear. The drawings show a great deal of variability due to changes of media, different models, or my own energetic state on a given day. Of course it’s a bit overwhelming to look at thousands of sketchbook pages over sixteen years. What I have chosen to intersperse with these paragraphs is simply sketchbook pages (or double pages) of quick poses (one or two minutes), one each from the month of December of each year since my practice began in December 1994. These are all practice drawings. None were made with the intention to exhibit them. There’s no direct relation between the images and the adjacent paragraphs.
Now when I look back at my work from 1994 and my work from today, I can see a lot of development. The quick sketches have become bolder and surer. The long drawings have gotten looser and lighter. The biggest improvement of all came in the first months of regular practice. The long-term gains are subtler, but deep.
The life drawing sessions I attend are filled with people who believe in practice. There are a lot of regulars there who have been pursuing the practice much longer than I have. Why, I wondered, do some of these devoted practicers not seem to show any improvement in their skill? (I won’t name names!)
The artists who show no growth aren’t challenging themselves. They tread the same well-worn path over and over again. They started out challenging themselves, but as soon as they found an approach that pleased them or earned praise from others, they stopped right there and went into endless repeat mode.
If you are an artist, you may have had the experience of being encouraged to maintain the rut. When a dealer finds work that sells, they want more of the same, not more experimentation.
Many of the artists at the studio only want to do what they’re good at. A typical class starts with quick poses and increases the length, finishing with longer poses. Artists that excel with long poses but deal awkwardly with quick poses often come late to avoid the quick poses at the beginning of the class. Artists that do well with quick poses and tend to bog down on the long poses often leave early. They may be avoiding the experience of producing “bad drawings”, but they’re not doing their craft any favors.
This week I was reading, in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, a review by Annie Murphy Paul of a book I haven’t read, The Genius in All of Us, by David Shenk. I came across this sentence: “Whatever you wish to do well, Shenk writes, you must do over and over again, in a manner involving, as [Anders] Ericsson put it, ‘repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level,’ which results in ‘frequent failures.’ This is known as ‘deliberate practice,’ and over time it can actually produce changes in the brain, making new heights of achievement possible.”
I couldn’t have put it better. Bodybuilders use the term “training to failure“, and many of them believe pushing the muscles to the point of failure is essential to increasing strength and bulk. I believe an artist should also train to failure.
In art, when you start a practice, you’re failing every time. This is why beginner’s practice shows such amazing gains. When you finally reach a level that pleases you, you can easily stay at that level without continuing to experience failure. Of course, you will not experience any further growth either.
Artists at the open studio drawing sessions often say they’re having a “good day”, meaning they’re happy with their work, or a “bad day”, meaning they’re unhappy with what they’re getting. But if you want to expand beyond your limitations, you should view every drawing as a failure. After all, there’s no end point of perfection where a work of art is all it can possibly be. If you are trying to depict what you perceive, keep looking – you’re not quite getting it all yet. If you are trying to be as expressive as possible, keep trying – there is still more that you feel, that is not yet making it into your work.
Once you get pretty good at something, you should be constantly on guard against settling into the comfortable rut. Keep challenging yourself. Try changing your media or the scale of your drawing or your position in relation to the model. Try using your non-dominant hand. Keep varying little things. Whether you have a minute or several hours to capture a pose, always consider that amount of time not quite enough, so that you must work furiously against the relentless clock. These are the small everyday ways of challenging yourself that can hone your craft.
Bigger challenges can actually deepen your art. That’s harder to talk about because those bigger challenges are much more idiosyncratic and uncommon. Often, the great challenges come from outside, rather than being self-imposed. But by constantly challenging your craft in small ways, you are also developing flexibility and an orientation towards responding to problems by growth and adaptation rather than by denial and resistance.
In small things, strive beyond your ability. In large things, aspire to the impossible. Welcome failure, as often as possible. Failure is your friend! That’s the secret!