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ON THE STRENGTH OF HABITS
A habit is a difficult thing to change. Imagine a person who is accustomed to turning a doorknob clockwise with the right hand because she’s been doing it that way all her life. Then someone says, “If you learn to turn it counterclockwise it will take less effort and you’ll do it faster!” So this person tries. Each time her first instinct is to put the “old clockwise move” on the knob, but she stops and thinks, “counterclockwise”. After a while “Counterclockwise begins to replace “clockwise” as her habitual way of opening every door. That is, until someone yells “FIRE!”. Then she runs to the door and “clockwises the knob”, a complete reversion under pressure.
Drawing is a lot like this. We can adopt a technique change- a different pressure or length of pencil stroke, while doodling, or by accident, but will “it hold up”, or “be repeatable” when we are actually putting finishing touches on a sketch or mockup. Sometimes while painting or sketching on location, we are tested, so to speak, to reproduce a learned technique, and usually this is in front of spectators to add to the “pressure” to draw or to paint. But it’s also the most fun part of being an artist on location.
How can you as a beginning artist overcome this? The most powerful answer I can come up with is practice - overlearn, if there is such a thing. Practice after all makes permanent. To get a better understanding of this essential part of drawing and painting improvement, I’m going to use the Who, What, When, Why, and How approach to problem solving.
Who should practice? Anybody and everybody who wishes to improve. In fact, anyone who wishes to simply retain his or her current skill level needs to practice. Golfer, musician, artist, public speaker, surgeon, and trial lawyer – all must practice to perform well. The improvement one gets will be in direct proportion to the time spent practicing if:
What one practices is mechanically correct.
That practice time is used properly- is it quality time or just time?
The time is divided into frequent periods rather than devoted to one long lesson.
It’s common knowledge that there aren’t enough hours in the day to practice what we all need in order to stay on top of all parts of art, the drawing, the painting, the drafts, the driving to a location, the sketching done on the move. So you must make a decision and the choice of what you practice becomes that much more important. If representing a tree as a solid object is the objective, then your practice should consist of at least 50% drawing cylinders, poles, cans, well you get the idea.
Practice sessions should have a purpose. Goal-less practice is worse than no practice at all because it builds a cavalier approach to art. The artist, serious about improving, might even have a written schedule of what he or she is going to practice. In planning practice time, the artist should concentrate on what he or she believes is in need of the most work. Then you have a definite “what” to practice. The schedule may include both drawing and painting, specific forms, remedial work with washes, physiological and psychological training, actual sketching, actual painting, and information gathering. But this is just a guide.
The majority of artists, beginners, intermediate learners, practice only occasionally. And even serious hobbyists will find that time constraints limit their opportunities. The” what to practice” for them has to be more limited in scope than for the aspiring professional artist. Here are some suggestions:
Make sketching a habit. Place loose pages near a pencil around the house in various locations, so it will be convenient to pick them up and sketch anything, anytime.
Without a pencil, make imaginary illustrations in front of an empty easel, or drawing board. Picture and feel the “correct for you” techniques of drawing or painting. Trace with your mind the objects you see during TV commercials.
Create a practice area in the house or office, which make practice more convenient, maybe a clipboard with several pencils nearby.
The obvious place to practice is if you’re an illustrator or artist, is in the studio or in the “outside world”. Besides painting and drawing, you have the additional experience of preplanning excursions with paint box, pencil box, easel, canvas, drawing board, chair, water, snacks, coffee, insect repellant, and whatever else you need to feel comfortable on location.
I must say more about mental practice which occurs before you even enter your studio. Consider the stories that came from prisoners of war in Vietnam. Men who were incarcerated for several years learned to play a guitar by practicing chording on a “homemade stick and box with strings”. There were no sounds, but they learned to play. Musical pieces were also performed on a “wooden board piano” with keys drawn on a board. There was no key movement and no sound, but pupils mentally “heard” the songs and they learned to play. Closer to my heart, is the story of a US military officer who was in a prisoner of war camp for six years and who carried a four handicap in golf before his capture. Although he did not hit a single golf ball while he was imprisoned, he did practice mentally every day. Three weeks after his release, he shot a 75 in a pro-am tournament. He hadn’t hit a ball in six years, but he had practiced- in his mind. So, where can people practice? - anywhere!
You should practice sketching whenever you can. Frequent short practice sessions are proven by research to be the most productive in an equal amount of time spent in only one session. A productive time for practice is right after you’ve finished painting for the day, while ideas are fresh and you are trying to acquire a new feel.
The most important advice about practice that I’ve been given other than to do it is: make it as similar as possible to the “real thing” actual portraiture, landscape painting, line art, et al, as you can. How can this be accomplished?
Make it competitive. Set goals; for example, draw ten duplicates of a tree and have six of them be progressively better, apply a wash stroke 10 times and have eight of them be identical. Grab a drawing partner, and have contests – best blade of grass represented, best insect. On occasion, use only one pencil (and only one) to draw a complete image.
Create realistic situations. Don’t practice sketching the entire Empire State Building, but rather focus on a window or two. Represent a wave, rather than try to practice an entire seascape.
Practice as you would actually execute a drawing or a painting. Sloppy practice habits will produce sloppy art. This takes a lot of inner discipline but treat each brush stroke, each pencil stroke as though you were in front of your commissioned canvas.
Practicing to establish a correct and lasting “groove” is like running a trickle of water down a dirt bank. With enough volume and repetition, the water makes a channel. The longer the water runs down that bank, the deeper the channel gets. If it stops running, the channel begins to fill in. Sometimes the channel is not the most direct one and the water takes a circuitous route. Eventually the water gets to the bottom, even though it takes longer and the route is inefficient. That circuitous channel, like a flawed interpretation of someone’s nose, or chin, or smile, or a representation of a tree that would fall over if it ever was affected by the real forces of gravity, can be altered to become more efficient, more correct, but a lot of “water” must run down the new route before its course becomes “set”. For a while it may go in both directions.
But this analogy demonstrates that if you want a “groove,” a technique, a facility with a brush or pencil, many, many attempts must be put into that “groove.
Some good artists may be “naturals”, born with exceptional physical prowess in their ability to sketch or paint, but proficient artists can also be developed from people with very modest talent. If you are patient and don’t expect overnight success, and can make gradual improvement with persistence and practice, one day you could call yourself an ARTIST.
And the real purpose of practice is to develop confidence.
The times NOT to practice are:
When one is tired. Fatigue makes people sloppy. It also promotes more chance for error, and the loss of confidence.
When one loses interest. This is when bad habits creep in.
If things are going poorly and it doesn’t seem that progress is being made.
Now, I’ve spoken in the past of the importance to gain “muscle memory”. To be correct, muscles do not have the ability to remember. But the neuromuscular system’s pathways which carry messages from the brain, can be developed to be more efficient through practice. And lastly, keep a practice log, a sketchbook highlighting the best of that particular session. It’s a great reference for recalling what you were working on, your feelings during a particular practice effort. This bit of practice “history” may help to recapture one of those inspirational moments we occasionally experience, then later find hard to recall.
Remember, performance deteriorates when practice stops.
Excellent article Robert--inspires me to go out and practice more (instead of just mentally practicing) But it's glad to know that my mental practicing IS effective.