Everyone instinctively knows that if you’re going to get good at anything you need to practice. It seems harder for people to believe that artists aren’t born, they’re made, through lots of practice. And in spite of knowing that “practice makes perfect”, we chafe against the notion that if we’re ever going to get better, we have to draw, and draw, and draw.
This is no more evident than in the endless attacks on Malcolm Gladwell’s so-called “10,000 hour rule.” The number came from a single study he cites and how many practice hours accomplished violinists had done. Since he wrote about this, he’s been taken to task for not making the point that it wasn’t simply “practice” and that the type of practice also plays a role. Others have gone further and built a straw man, saying “Just because you practice 10,000 doesn’t mean you’re going to be an expert.” They knock this straw man down in various ways (we can’t all be Picasso, so there) and feel they’ve made some sort of point.
Lots of overly-smug articles have been written to “put down” Gladwell’s commentary, but Gladwell wasn’t selling a number and he wasn’t claiming that everyone could become an expert at whatever they wanted. He was saying was two things. The first is that experts are made, not born. The notion that people are born with special talents for music, art, or astrophysics just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Even the Mozart, the stereotypic wunderkind didn’t write much worth listening to until he’d been writing for a decade. We all know that it takes practice to improve so we sort of know this but just won’t let go of the notion that some people don’t come out of the womb with watercolor dripping onto their onesy in just the right places. That this idea is silly was the point he was making.
The second thing Gladwell was talking about in this section of his Outliers book was that we, as a society, want to judge too soon. If it takes a long time for someone to become expert in anything, shouldn’t we be more patient in evaluating the skills being perfected? I was told around the age of 10-12 that I had no talent for art. I believed them. They were the teacher afterall. On the streets people say to me all the time, “I wish I had your talent,” and when I can engage them in conversation I often hear that they’d tried to draw but “just didn’t have the talent for it.” These people are evaluating way too soon. As my buddy Yvan is fond of saying “the first 2000 sketches are the hardest.”
These opening remarks are becoming quite long so I’ll wind them up with this. I’ve been drawing for five years. I talk with other artists who are surprised that I’ve improved so much in such a short time. I think my progress is painfully slow and sometimes frustrating.
But once in a while I see why our views are different when they proudly tell me that they draw at least once or twice a week. I don’t draw every day but I’m sure I must draw at least 350 days a year. Twice a week would be about 100 days a year. Maybe years isn’t the right number from which to judge an artist’s experience.
The encouraging thing that comes from this is that anyone can speed up how quickly they improve simply by drawing more. I think the way to do this is to stop thinking that everything you draw need be of something significant. Baseball players spend time in the weight room not to hit home runs, but SO they can hit home runs. Improving your art by drawing a crumpled piece of paper is the same thing as the weight room, only funner.
This year, I’ve posted 354 sketches in blog posts. Nothing I do rivals DaVinci, but these are mostly what I consider “good” by my standards. Below, well below, these in quality are several times that many small, generally quick sketches done in the name of training my visual cortex to interpret what I see and translate it to movements of my pen. Here are some of those sketches that I’ve done the week leading up to Christmas.
Shopping Center: This time of year malls should be avoided at all costs. But it’s hard and when I found myself there and took out my small sketchbook, a Stillman & Birn Alpha softcover, and quickly drew the mass of people in front of me. Great practice in capturing moving masses, staying loose and flexible in how you interpret what’s going on.
Coffee shop: I went in to grab a coffee when I was early for a meeting and I drew this guy, or at least his head, as I sipped my Americano.
Instagram, Facebook, & Blogs: I constantly find myself drawing stuff I see on social media. Liz Steel was talking about doing thumbnails, I think, and there was a photo of this scene in her post. I wondered what I could do if I drew it small (5×7) and very quickly. It was an interesting experiment and once again let me know I wasn’t Liz Steel (grin).
Train Station: We all have ‘stuff to do’ that puts us in places where we have to wait. Chantal and I went to the train station to pick up our daughter who was coming home for the holidays. We arrived five minutes before her train. Sketchbook out again.
Health Services: Waiting rooms used to be boring. No more. Jodie wanted to see her doctor while she was home so I sat in the waiting room and sketched. Lots of people sketching, but I even sketched a coat that had been dumped on one of the seats. Great practice and goodness knows, I need it.
TV scribbles: Now we’re going to dip down to the bottom of the barrel. When I watch movies or TV I draw. I might set something on a table, draw something in the room, or maybe draw something I saw during a commercial. It doesn’t matter as I’m just exploring, trying to learn how to put marks together. I do this in cheap sketchbooks with no rhyme or reason for what’s on a page. I’m a bit embarrassed to show these to you but here goes.
As you can see, there’s a reason I don’t put this stuff on my blog, but the process is both fun and very important to my learning process. I’m putting in line miles. Whether I need 10,000 hours or 100,000 to get “good” I do not know, or care. What I do know is that I’m several miles closer to that goal.
If you’re hunting for a New Years resolution, you could pick a worse one than to decide to draw a little bit every day and to stop worrying about the results. By the way, here’s a photo of the inside pocket of my winter coat. It literally takes me a few seconds to be drawing. Contents: Stillman & Birn softcover sketchbook, Platinum 3776, Pentel gray brush pen, mechanical pencil, Duke 209. Pens do vary from time to time.
I hope someone is motivated to draw more by this post. I hope I’ve provided a few laughs with these scribble sketches. AND I hope you all have a happy and prosperous 2017.
You’re so very right. I was told I had no talent at a young age, too. Suddenly, 45 years later, I have talent – which really means that ‘suddenly’ I put in the miles and stopped listening to the judges. I paint a lot of stuff that ends up in the trash, and my ‘good’ stuff is usually the result of half a dozen ‘studies’ where I worked on it until I figured it out. Whatever. The process works.
Happy New Year, Robin. — Larry
great and motivating post, Larry. thanks. And thanks for showing your quick and less than perfect sketches as well. so often all we see on blogs are the best efforts of the blogger. it can make it seem at times that the polished results are effortless not needing the practice and many many unshown sketches. i enjoyed seeing both in this post.
You’re right, Katy, the internet produces a very odd view of what artists do and create. It’s sort of like looking at the little piece of the iceberg floating in the ocean.
Thanks so much for the encouraging words and for sharing your sketches. I, too, just started drawing a few years ago after being told as a child I “had no talent.” As you say, with consistent practice, improvement comes, as do some wonky sketches. But they are all part of the process.
I’ve come to believe that the real talents successful people have is curiosity and persistence. Both cause one to investigate everything “art” and to do and do and do until we get something that looks ok… almost 🙂
Your post makes a good point. We tend to post our successes …. and to judge others by their successes. It is refreshing to see the fumbling and mumblings that result in having some successes. One of the most liberating mindsets I finally adopted is that everything doesn’t have to be prefect in my sketchbook. In fact everthing shouldn’t be perfect. I need to push my limits in order to grow. Go for it! So what if I stumble on some. I’ll never learn to waltz if I’m not willing to let my feet get tangled sometimes.
It’s true. I view this art road as one of learning and one of creating and there is little overlap. When I go out sketching with our group, I’m not “trying” something. I’m not “experimenting.” I’m sketching, using whatever skills I’ve mustered at that point, trying to capture my subject. But if I don’t “try” and “experiment”, I don’t learn. I spend far more time doing partial this or that in attempts to figure stuff out than I do in trying to create something. As for things being perfect, I haven’t done one sketch like that yet. It doesn’t bother me, though 🙂
Bravo Larry and good for you! I’ve enjoyed looking at your sketches over the years…from the early museum pieces to fire hydrants to people! I’m with you– let’s keep going!
High praise coming from you, Jean. You and Elva make me want to be a nature sketcher. But I can’t get my brain twisted around the notion of doing beautiful page layouts like you do. I just see something and draw it. Maybe a more pensive approach is in my future. Hope so. — Larry
What a coincidence — I was just working on my end-of-year retrospective post too! 😉 Another year of sketching, another thousand or so sketches closer to getting the bad 10,000 over with. Besides, who’s counting when it’s so much fun. 😉 Happy new year –
We just keep burning up the ink. It keeps us sane. I’m not much of a ‘holiday poster’ I suppose but I really should do something besides a “I don’t make resolutions” post 🙂 Happy New Year to you. — Larry
BRAVO! BRAVO! Well said. Succint. Inspiring. True. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Larry. May the New Year find you ready, waiting and eager with pen and sketchbook in hand.
Happy New Year to you, Cheryl. When I have a pen in my hand I’m always eager 🙂