I’m teaching our five-year old son, Luc, to ride his new bike (a Christmas present from his grandma and granddad).
Here’s how we approach it: We begin at the top of a steep hill. He climbs on, and I give him a hard push. He has to hang on and try not to fall off. He has to learn how to use the brakes to stop himself at the bottom, or crash into a fence. If he falls off and hurts himself, he has to get straight back on again at the top of the hill and go again.
If Luc doesn’t learn fast, he’ll fall and hurt himself more often. Because the best way to learn something is to throw yourself in at the deep end, sink or swim. Pain is the best teacher.
Except that it isn’t.
And actually that’s not at all how I’m teaching Luc to ride his new bike.
This is how we’re really doing it:
We started by practising stopping. His new bike is big. He can’t get both feet on the floor while he’s sitting on the saddle, so we practised standing on the pedals, lifting his bum off the seat, and then putting one foot down when he stops.
When he started to get that, we started practising riding, me holding the seat and then letting go when he has the balance. We did it a little at a time; first a few seconds, then a bit longer. We did it every day for a handful of days. Now I can push him off gently and he can ride off on his own, feeling confident and enjoying himself.
On Fresh Starts
I’m writing this on new year’s day.
For a lot of us, the new year brings commitment to push ourselves further towards our artistic goals. But too often, those good intentions don’t even last into February. We fall off and we don’t get back on.
Wouldn’t it be good if you could get to the end of 2015 and be able to say “I made real progress this year. This is what I was drawing at the start of the year, this is what I’m drawing now. I can see progress. I got better. I can ride a bigger bike”.
Can you say that for 2014? I do hope you can. But if you can’t, I have an idea why that might be – and also what you can do to make this year different.
Painters don’t practice
When we don’t make progress, it’s because we don’t practice.
Visual artists seem to be particularly bad at practising. Visual artists produce, every time they sit down. Or at least try to.
Too often, the finished result falls well short of the vision. I’ve seen lots of justifications and rationalisations for that over the years. They’re all excuses, in different forms. They’re ways of avoiding the real issue, and worse, they don’t help us improve.
I think that visual artists more than any other group fall prey to pernicious ideas about creativity being a bolt from the blue. We’re artists, right? We’re not bound by the usual rules.
Except that we are. We’re bound by the same rules as people in almost any other human endeavour. The same rules as a basketball player, a golfer, a musician, a surgeon. Or a five year old boy learning to ride his first big boy’s bike.
And the first rule is, if we want to get better, we need to practice.
What practice isn’t
- Practice isn’t getting on the bike at the top of a hill and pushing yourself hopefully off when you don’t yet have the skills to ride – or even to stop.
- Practice isn’t forcing yourself to keep going when you’re blatantly getting it wrong. All your doing is encoding failure.
What practice is
- Practice is about encoding success.
- Practice is taking out the component parts of complex skills and running over them repeatedly, in isolation, until you get better at them. Integrating the skills into finished pieces comes later.
- Practice is only doing the 20% of things that result in progress, and leaving the other 80% for when you’re performing.
- Practise is focused, and it’s repeated. It’s most effective done regularly and for a short time.
- Practice sets short term, distinct goals (like stopping without falling off. Or being able to produce a smooth gradation with charcoal).
- And because practice is those things, practice isn’t scary and dangerous, it’s enjoyable and rewarding.
Too often I think, when we sit down at our easels or our sketch pads, we’re trying to produce something finished. We take the success or otherwise (usually otherwise) of each piece as a barometer of how good we are. More often than not, we fall short of our vision.
But what we rarely do is to make the one change that will really help us build our skills: We don’t commit to practice. Instead, we just do the same thing over again the next day.
We sit at the top of the hill, holding our breath, and push off.
And fall. Hard.
A fresh start
At the beginning of this new year, I’m exhorting you to take a different approach. I want you to get to the end of 2015, and be amazed at how much progress you’ve made.
I know you have it in you. If you practice effectively.
Every time I take Luc out, he gets a little better. He can see the progress himself. Each trip to the park leaves him flushed with achievement, bursting to tell his Mum how well he’s done – and wanting to do more.
He still sometimes stops by just pitching himself off the moving bike. He still takes some knocks (yesterday he rode straight into a tree). But he’s learning much, much faster, and having fun at the same time. Pretty soon, I won’t need to push him off.
I want the same for you.
You’re more than capable of doing this for yourself. And in fact, it may be better if you do, since you’ll be able to take all the credit for the achievement yourself, and that’s very empowering.
If you want some help with it though, and if you want to share the experience, have a look at the Creative Triggers practice community. I’ve developed it to help with precisely this. The exercises are designed to build specific skills. They’re designed to be done in a focused way, and repeated. There’s also help with getting a regular practice habit started.
It’s $1 dollar for the first month ($17 thereafter), so if you like the idea but aren’t sure if you’ll be able to commit the time regularly, you can find out for next to nothing.
I hope you have a great 2015.
Posted: 01 January 2015