Ultimately, I believe we all teach ourselves.
Taking classes can be helpful because it can help motivate you and give you a structure, removing barriers to practice. But you need to be actively engaged. Just turning up doesn’t guarantee you’ll make any progress.
How effective a class is will also depend on how well it meets the criteria for effective learning.
If you understand what makes for effective learning yourself, you’ll be perfectly capable of constructing your own practice exercises, tailor made for the skills you particularly want to improve. In fact, I’d recommend that you do. Because taking control of your own learning will help you make much more progress in the long run.
It will also transform your life. I really mean that. The self-confidence that comes from making progress towards your artistic goals under your own steam is self-perpetuating. The more you learn, the more you realise that you can learn. You can’t spend you’re entire life in art courses (unless you’re substantially better off than me) so figuring out how to drive your own learning forwards is the only way you’re going to make real progress in the long run.
(Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.)
Understanding what makes effective learning is really going to help you take control of your artistic development. For that, you need to know something about how we learn.
How do we learn?
Quite simply, learning is brain change. I don’t mean that metaphorically. It’s actual, physical change in your brain.
Thankfully, some very clever brain scientists have spent the last twenty years or so learning about how change happens in the brain. What they’ve discovered applies to any kind of learning. So it applies to us artists, too.
Brain science can help us get better at art.
In order to be really effective, our learning activity needs to meet some important criteria. There are three that stand out in all the brain science and learning literature I’ve read.
What three things make practice more effective?
- Your practice needs to be enjoyable. This might seem obvious. We don’t learn much when we’re bored. The science behind this is that the changes we make in our brains through our learning activities are just temporary at first. It takes something more to make them stick. Our brain has to care about the changes enough to decide to save them permanently. It does that through the release of chemicals (people in white coats call them “neuromodulators”) which help make the changes permanent. Enjoying what the activity we’re engaged in helps the release of these chemicals. So make your practice fun.
How to do it: I think we’re pretty lucky here because drawing is inherently enjoyable. That’s why we do it. I mean, it’s not like we’re learning accountancy here. If you don’t enjoy making your art, there’s something wrong with your approach. You’re probably pushing yourself too hard. Maybe you’re suffering from a case of destructive perfectionism.
- You need to be paying attention. The brain needs to think this change is important or it won’t be saved. More of those useful chemical neuromodulators are released when the brain is “switched on”.
How to do it: Don’t practice when you’re tired, it’s not efficient. Practice when you’re alert and firing. Practice regularly in short bursts, so you stay fresh. That’s much more effective that a big block once a week.
- You need to be stretching yourself. If you’re idling through your practice, the changes won’t happen in the first place. Work constantly at a level just beyond what you find it easy. If you don’t have to try, you won’t be making any progress and may as well not bother.
How to do it: If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough. Recognise when you’re coasting. If you find your mind wandering as you practice, try making the exercise a little harder. Add some complication. Make it just hard enough that you have to concentrate in order to do it at all.
How does this work in practice?
Here’s a few examples of design and composition examples from Creative Triggers art practice community. All of these exercises are designed to contain elements of the three criteria for effective learning.
What it is: It’s simply this: Draw a series of vertical lines across your paper, in any medium you choose. Breathe in on a down stroke, out on an up stroke. Make them as evenly spaced and straight as you possibly can.
Here’s an example from a couple of years ago, when I first started to do this exercise as part of my regular practice:
Here’s another version from a couple of weeks ago. The method has changed somewhat, the strokes are all down strokes and the lines are too long and drawn too slowly to be able to do them in a single exhalation (you’d asphyxiate!). Hopefully you can see some improvement…
This exercise is calming, meditative and inherently pleasant. Although it looks almost trivial at first glance, most people find it has hidden depths once they try it. It also makes a great warm-up to a drawing session.
In terms of stretching yourself, this exercise is almost endless, because you can always improve your manual dexterity. You can try it with various media, too. Usually we start with pencil, graduate to charcoal, and finish with Chinese brush and ink – which is extremely difficult! It’s up to you not be complacent, to strive always for just a little better.
Here’s a short demo video I made of it a couple of years ago:
What it is: Take a right angle. Now add a third line to transition between the two, making a triangle. Now design an ornament that fits that triangle, and does the job more beautifully.
Here’s an early, simple example. Simple ones like this are good at first, the simplicity allows you to concentrate on the spacing and the quality of the marks more.
Here’s a more recent version. The design is more complex, more creative, but hopefully you can also see some improvement in the spacing and proportion, and the quality of the line.
Creating a beautiful design is relaxing and enjoyable. The end result, if you make a good one, is very satisfying. That’s the kind of reward that will help persuade your brain that the learning is important and worth storing permanently. And you can always do a better version of the design you just made – a more balanced design, a better and more beautiful line. A great way to approach this is to refine a design by tracing, changing a few things to try to improve the balance.
Negative space design
What it is: Make an accurate, line only drawing from life, or from a reference, of a simple subject. Flowers are great for this. Now trace the outer contour only, with no internal lines. Now take two pieces of card, cut to form right angles, and use them to frame the drawing, making a crop of it. Move the card border around to create a crop of the original drawing you like. Trace the crop to make a composition.
Once you’ve found a crop you like, refine it. Change the design, try to improve it. Try to make the line more beautiful, the spacing better. It’s this process of constant refining and improving that keeps you at the cutting edge of what you can do. Not every refinement will be an improvement. You will make mistakes, if you’re doing it right. Learn from them.
Here’s an example of a design taken from a simple drawing of lily buds, developed and refined over time. There were a lot of intermediate drawings too, some more successful, some less. Throughout this progression, and the progression of many these I’ve developed like this, my sense of design, sensitivity to spacing and composition has developed. The emphasis on gradual refinement has kept me pushing at the edges of what I’m capable of, making sure I’m constantly learning and improving.
Producing these kinds of drawing is fascinating. When we started producing them at Creative Triggers it really lit a fire under people. And our members created some really stunning designs this way. If you haven’t tried doing a negative space drawing, I recommend you do so.
Over to you
So if you want to have a go at creating your own exercise, make sure you build in the three elements of effective learning and you won’t go far wrong.
It’s a simple thing, creating a highly specific exercise like this. It’s a little thing to do it every day every day. The change it makes in your brain each day is small.
But over time, those little changes become permanent, and build up to be bigger ones – the kind of changes that represent real development in your sensitivity and skill, real progress towards your artistic goals.
And they may, quite possibly, change the course of your life.
Posted: January 15th 2014
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