I was feeling nervous and unsure. I didn’t want to start.
All my usual supports were gone:
- I wasn’t working sight size.
- I was painting into the light, so the form wasn’t clear. And I couldn’t use Munsell value chips to check the values.
- The subject matter was outside the range of paint – I couldn’t hit the lightest light and the darkest dark at the same time.
- I just had no way to check if I was getting it right or not, and I was going to have to paint by judging relationships on the fly.
I’m talking about the value practice that resulted in my latest batch of practice studies. Here are a few of them:
It’s not easy to work this way, just out of your comfort zone.
When you push yourself beyond what you’re comfortable with, when you change your usual process, there’s a really good chance you’ll fail.
Painting well is hard enough as it is, so why make it harder? Why put yourself through it?
Because it’s the best way I know to make progress.
The point of practice
Anders Ericsson has been studying what makes practice effective for a long time.
He wrote a book called Peak with Robert Pool. I highly recommend that you read it if you’re interested in the improvement of pretty much any skill.
The central point of the book (and one that’s often missed) is that the point of all practice is to develop ever more detailed and sophisticated mental representations.
A mental representation is just the model you have in your brain of a particular set of skills.
Take driving. Take it for granted, in fact, because we all do.
But when you first started, it seemed impossible to think about all those things at once. Because it is, consciously. So you stall the car.
But gradually, with repetition, the various skills that we need in order to drive become codified in mental models of what we do, models that we invoke largely unconsciously when we drive.
Repetition is not enough
An interesting thing about driving though: Most of us do it a lot. So you’d think we’d get gradually better with time.
But we don’t, we get worse.
The reason is that we don’t stretch ourselves. Once we get to a level we need to pass our driving test, we don’t improve much beyond that.
Repetition alone is not enough to develop a skill further. You need to make it gradually more difficult. As you become competent with your current level, you need to move on to more difficult challenges.
And that can be scary. But it’s always interesting.
An example closer to home
So I’ve been attempting to apply this to value practice lately.
I’ve done quite a bit of value practice previously, painting cubes and spheres in form light, sight size. I credit that practice with finally cracking being able to paint realistically – to the extent that I can, at least.
You can read all about how that started here.
That practice taught me so much.
I learned about the modelling factors, the spread of values from light to shadow for different value locals (no, it’s not always the same) and I also touched on different approaches to compressing vaues.
I learned about light.
But there came a point where painting more value spheres in form light wasn’t going to teach me a lot more. After a while, the returns begin to diminish.
So to push it further, I’ve recently changed my approach.
These two videos are edited down and pretty short – a few minutes each. They’ll show you how I’ve been doing my practice lately:
If you want to see the whole thing, blow by blow (I must warn you, they’re long) I streamed them both live on facebook and you can see them here:
Here’s an added bonus though: As a result of that practice, my painting has begun to change. I hope, to improve.
I haven’t really had to think about it too much – by which I mean I haven’t had to change it deliberately.
I did all the thinking when I was doing the studies, and that change in approach has naturally begun to percolate through to my painting.
I think this is because I’ve begun to develop more detailed and more sophisticated mental representations of value, as it applies to painting realistically.
And that was a lot of the point of my doing this practice in the first place – because I want to move my painting on.
And whilst it might well be possible to do that by just painting, I think there’s a more effective way to do it. I think you can do it more intentionally if you do it in your practice, rather than your performance.
Practice isn’t just painting
So how do you know if your practice is helping you make progress or if you’re just spinning your wheels?
Well, if it hurts, there’s a good chance you’re practising properly.
That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to enjoy it. I do enjoy this kind of practice, although it’s far from easy.
But if you feel nervous before you start, if you’re not sure if it’s going to work out, if it makes you feel uncomfortable – even a little scared – then there’s a good chance you’re doing it right.
I’m not recommending you follow my method. This is what it took for me to go just a little beyond what I usually do. You might need something more complex, more difficult, or less so – depending where you are.
And of course there are other elements of effective practice – taking one skill in isolation (for me here, value), getting timely feedback and repeating until the new knowledge becomes connected to your existing mental model.
But if you’re coasting, if you’re doing what you usually do, then you’re not learning.
The point is to push just a little into discomfort and uncertainty. Then keep going.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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