How to Practise Effectively
If you want to get better at something you need to practise regularly.
Of course you do. No-one would argue with that. But regular practice alone isn't enough. There are good and bad ways to practise.
My own experience of teaching myself to draw over the last few years has taught me this: Practise ineffectively, and you'll be putting in huge amounts of effort for very little reward. Practise effectively, and you can progress much faster than you would have thought possible with much less effort.
That's partly why I'm so dubious of this "10,000 hours" idea that's been doing the rounds for a while now. It says nothing about what form your 10,000 hours of practice should take.
I've come to the conclusion that effective practice is specific, focused and deliberate. Ineffective practice is unfocused and meandering. It has no particular goal and because of that it achieves no particular goal. Complex pursuits like drawing and painting demand the synthesis of many different skills. Unfocused practice deals with them all at once, resulting in little noticeable improvement in any of them in a short time frame. Worse, it can be de-motivating in the long run and stop you practising entirely.
Searching for an Effective way to Practise Composition
Recently I've decided that I desperately need to improve my skills at composition. I've written a couple of posts inquiring into what makes a good composition and how composition might be learned. Having decided that my goal is to achieve a better sense of design, by which I mean an intuitive feel for proportion and spacing, I've put in place a practice schedule that is designed to stretch the specific skills I need for that in a focused and deliberate way.
This post is about the kind of practice I've started doing in order to improve my pictorial composition.
What is Effective Practice?
I've known for a while that my composition was weak, but until very recently I haven't really known what to do about it. What I've been missing is a way in, a road map to follow if you like. I think that this is the most difficult aspect of teaching yourself: firstly knowing where to start and then where to head towards from there. Not having this road map generally leads to aimless wandering, de-motivation and demoralisation in my experience.
But it doesn't have to be that way. If you want to get better at something, I think the key steps are:
Identify the core skills that you need to practice
Decide on a way to practise those skills in isolation from everything else - focus on each skill separately, one at a time
Make an appointment with yourself and allocate some time for regular practice
It's that simple. Say you wanted to be able to draw more accurately, then the skill you'd need to practise would be your ability to accurately judge shapes in three dimensions and translate them into two dimensions on the picture plane. With building that skill as your goal, you could think up some exercises around it and get down to some regular, focused practice.
If you just draw a lot, over time your drawing will naturally become more accurate. But if you take that skill on its own and practise it regularly, deliberately and with focus, your drawings will become more accurate a lot faster. The greater skill you now have with that particular aspect of drawing and painting will then naturally become a part of everything you do.
Notice I haven't included anything about setting goals in my three steps, like "I will do so many drawings per week" or "I will practice for this amount of time every day". The reason for that is that I've tried setting goals like that and found that it doesn't work so well for me. Why? Well, here's an example:
Why Just Setting Goals Isn't Enough
Some time ago I set myself the goal of drawing something - anything - every day. On the face of it that might seem like a good idea. Regular practice is the key to getting better, right? Well, yes it is. But it's not the whole story. Based on my list above, I only had the third part in place, making an appointment with myself.
I hadn't identified a particular skill I wanted to practise.
I hadn't decided on an effective way to practise that skill.
Whilst deciding to draw every day is certainly a laudable aim, what happened in practice is that because I had no focus, no road map to follow, the energy I put into the practice quickly dissipated. A few things happened:
I started missing days
I became demoralised
I stopped practising, and I felt bad about it
I blamed myself. My whole approach to practice became a battle, shot through with negative feelings about my own levels of commitment. Once the cascade of negative self esteem kicks in, it's really easy to find yourself accepting all sorts of negative emotions about yourself. You're just not as talented as so-and-so. You just don't have enough commitment. You're just not interested enough. You're lazy.
That's just not healthy. But here's the good news: You're not lazy, you just haven't been practising effectively and you've made life hard for yourself because of that.
So I've been taking a very different approach to practising composition. It goes something like this:
I've identified the core skill I want to practise: a sense of proportion and spacing
I've chosen a way to practise it (more on this in a moment)
I've made a daily appointment with myself for practice
Practice doesn't have to be a battle. Just decide on the skill, decide on the form of practice, make a regular appointment with yourself and keep it. Don't sweat about how long you spend doing it. Don't do it for a fixed amount of time. It's the repetition that matters, getting into a habit with it. Once you have that in place, everything else will flow naturally.
By way of example, I do my composition practice every morning before I go to work. Depending on what time I get up, sometimes I start at 6 AM, sometimes 6:30. I might practise for 10 minutes, or an hour. Generally I find the time goes very quickly and the average is probably 30 to 60 minutes at the moment.
By not having a set amount of time I have to practise for, a successful practice session is simply showing up and starting. If I'm tired, I do less. If I'm feeling energised, I do more. I do miss the odd day, but because it's not a big heavy thing like having to do a set amount of time, it doesn't become a chore and I can just start up again the next day. I don't sweat it too much if I miss a day.
What I'm trying to do is to get into a regular habit of practice, because I think this is much more important than setting goals. I've been doing this for two weeks now and the habit is set. I find myself sitting down and starting now without thinking about it. I don't have to make myself do it, it's become a natural part of my routine. It's become effortless.
Crucially I think, if you practise like this you'll also feel energised and positive about the improvements you see, rather than de-motivated and demoralised when you set time targets you miss. You'll feel more motivated to keep going. Practice will become enjoyable and a source of relaxation and joy instead of pain and frustration. That's certainly been my experience.
This really isn't just airy fairy nonsense or pie in the sky. This is something you can try and apply yourself, without a huge investment in time, and see the results for yourself too, quite quickly. I believe this because I've seen it happen in my own practice. When I've really focused on a particular skill, I've improved. I've felt more positive, and I've progressed. The most obvious example I have of this was when I decided to put my colours away and concentrate purely on value for a while. With some fairly focused practice over a fairly significant period of time, I went from this:
Two years separate those drawings. My accuracy and various other skills had also improved in the meantime, and I spent much longer on the second one of course. Although I practised value a lot in the period between the two drawings, I didn't practise it as specifically and deliberately as I'm practising composition now. I could have improved faster if I had, I'm sure.
Experiences like this have convinced me that the best way to improve a specific aspect of your drawing and painting is to take it out in isolation and practise it in a focused way. If it worked for value, why shouldn't it work for composition?
A Concrete Example
Okay, so I want to get better at composition now. How am I going to do it?
I've decided on my core skill, I've made an appointment with myself, I now need a method. I need a road map, so that when I keep my appointment with myself every day, I don't sit down and wonder what I'm going to do. I don't wander aimlessly. If my energy is focused, it won't dissipate.
Well Firstly, I have a roadmap ready supplied which I'm following in the form of a book called Composition by Arthur Wesley Dow. This book isn't a high level theory book, showing overlays of geometrical designs from the Renaissance and delving into the mathematics of the Golden Section. It's a very practical series of exercises to follow, a workbook. Just the kind of practical book I like.
Perhaps more importantly, it's obviously based around the principles I've described above. The meat of the book is a series of exercises, in line, value and colour, growing gradually in complexity and all based around developing a sense of proportion and spacing. Not a mathematical approach, this book is about practising repeatedly until this sense of design becomes internalised, intuitive.
I'm still working on the line section of the book, so I'm still in the beginning stages. Here's a few examples of the kind of thing I'm doing right now:
These two drawings are examples of drawing something from real life, then tracing over the original multiple times, changing and refining the design.
Both of these drawings are of Freesias, my Mum's favourite flower. If I get a good final piece out of all these I'll give it to her for her birthday. So far I like the one on the left more :-)
These are part of a series of Chinese brush drawings of clementines, sometimes with little flowers added. I've lost count of the amount of these I've done now, even with such a simple subject the possibilities seem endless. None of them are really seen as finished drawings, and I'm not working towards a 'final design'. I'm just playing around with shapes and spacing, the practice is an end in itself for these pieces. Each one adds a little incrementally to my feel for spacing and proportion.
Inevitably some grab me more than others though, and eventually I intend to pick one to reproduce in full colour in oils.
The one on the left here is an example of a repeat pattern design, done as part of the practice of the compositional element of - you guessed it - repetition. Whilst this may not be obvious as a way to practice composition, I do believe it's helping to develop my sense of design, proportion and spacing in a very specific and focused way.
I should hopefully be internalising the lessons naturally from this practice and find them coming out later on without having to think about them. They should, with enough practice, become intuitive. And designing patterns is a lot of fun!
The drawing on the right is an example of basing an imagined landscape on an abstract linear design. The sun/moon just happened, I wasn't expecting it. That's part of the fun too, I'm finding: The freedom to create instinctively without being tied to a visual impression. It allows a lot more freedom with the design.
All these practice pieces are done with a traditional Chinese brush and ink on newsprint, tracing paper or computer printing paper. I'll go into the method more in subsequent posts.
Specific, Focused, Deliberate
My practice and the improvements I've seen so far have convinced me that composition, in terms of a sense of design, can be learned and improved. There's no need to learn and try to remember multiple 'rules' of composition, or complex mathematical formulas. It's a skill like any other, and can be developed and strengthened with focused, deliberate and regular practice.
Perhaps more importantly, three things have happened to my practice:
It's become a habit. I don't think about it now. I get up, make coffee, start mixing ink.
I'm really, really enjoying it. It's no longer a battle of will to keep going. It's effortless.
I feel positive. I feel good about myself and the work I'm doing. The negative emotions tied up with the feeling of failing to keep to a draconian practice schedule have been replaced by a feeling of - I know this might sound trite but it's true - joy. Everyone should have a bit of joy in every day. It does wonders for your outlook on life. I'm getting mine when I practise composition first thing in the morning. It's a wonderfully positive start to the day.
I think I'm also getting better at designing pictures, bit by bit. Here's a simple example:
The version on the left was the first of many. The original was done on the spot in my local woodland park where I ride my bike, and this version traced from it.
Once I had the elements of the picture, I rearranged them multiple times, tracing and retracing the original. Then I drew a basic armature of lines, the second picture, related to the elements of the composition but concentrating only on spacing and the subdivision of the space within the frame.
The last one is based on the first drawing, but arranged around the subdivision of space in the second. What do you think? Is it a more balanced arrangement? A better composition?
What's Coming Next
The plan is for this practice to build into a regularly updated series of posts on the practice, my progress, and what I feel I'm learning. This will be a really good test I think of whether my ideas about practice methods and the early positive results I'm seeing are valid. And you'll be able to see yourself what's happening over time because I'm going to post it all here. Wish me luck!
The worst that can happen is that this practice method doesn't work as well as I hope and I'll have to reassess and try something else, or perhaps tweak it a little to make it work better. And isn't that just what life's all about?
The best that can happen is that I get better at designing compositions much quicker than I would if I just allowed that skill to develop as part of more general, unfocused practice. If that happens, you'll see it too, there'll be no hiding it.
In the next post I'll go into more detail about the structure of the Dow book and how I'm following the exercises. Until next time...