The Four Phases of Learning
Ordinarily, I'm skeptical of self development books and the like. I'm skeptical of any approach which promises to be a "magic bullet" for learning any skill. There are no short cuts, especially when it comes to representational drawing and painting. My experience of returning to drawing and painting after a ten year gap has taught me that. These days, any time anyone tries to tell me different, my bullshit detector goes off the scale.
Since I returned to painting, I've sampled one or two books which promise to have found a new approach to either the learning or the practice of drawing and painting. I won't deny it, I've been seduced for a time myself, at least in the early stages. These books are popular because everyone would like to be able to short cut their way to competence, like Neo learning Kung Fu in The Matrix by having it digitally implanted into his brain. Wouldn't it be nice of you could go to sleep with a tape playing in the background, and wake up the next day able to paint like Rembrandt? It isn't going to happen.
But some time ago, my advanced motorcycle riding instructor introduced me a concept of learning which splits the learning process into four phases, which I do believe has some relevance. Partly because it stresses the importance of practice, and I'm all about practice. It's the only way to learn anything, no exceptions.
These are the four phases of learning which this model postulates:
- Unconscious incompetence
You're unaware that there is a skill to be learned, and that you don't have mastery of it.
- Conscious incompetence
You're aware that there is a skill to be learned, and that you currently don't have mastery of it. You know just how bad you are and have some idea of how far you've got to go.
- Conscious competence
Through practice, you've become competent at the skill, but you have to think about it to make it happen.
- Unconscious competence
You've practiced so much that your competence has become unconscious, you can do it automatically without having to think about it. You've completely internalised said skill.
I do think that there's some mileage in applying this to representational drawing and painting. Other approaches, abstract or conceptual art say, I'm not so sure, but I do think that the lack of a benchmark for quality in these areas promotes the mistaken belief that you can move straight to stage four without having to bother actually learning anything, thus the (in my view) impoverished nature of much of this kind of work. A lot of people who do this work and believe themselves to be at stage four are actually languishing at stage one. Hmm. I've just convinced myself that it does apply, apparently.
Regardless, I want to paint stuff that looks like the stuff it is meant to look like. I would put myself somewhere between stage two and stage three, currently. Closer to stage two. I know I'm not very good, but I'm practicing in order to achieve stage three.
There's certainly a belief among many people that art 'just happens,' you either have it or you don't. I've never subscribed to this view. Yes, there's such a thing as aptitude, no thinking person would deny that, but it's perfectly possible, (again, in my view,) for someone with perhaps less aptitude to be better than someone who is more 'gifted,' through hard work and practice. If my old school teachers are to be believed, I've always had some level of aptitude for drawing and painting, but I've also been very lazy in the past, and haven't developed it.
Finding your level
Drawing and painting is a complex business which demands the mastery of many skills. As far as I'm concerned, the first and most important skill is seeing. I believe that it takes practice in order to see something properly, to become consciously aware of all the nuances of tone and colour, of the actual shape of the object. We need to take time to override our usual way of seeing the world symbolically. We need to get from thinking, "Lemon: Yellow, oval" to thinking, "This width, this height, this angle formed by the line from the point at the right up to the top. Small bright bit this shape, this intensity. Dark shape there." In short, what does it really look like. We have to do this before we even get to thinking about how we're going to represent that on paper or canvas.
I try to devote more time to this skill than to any other. Of course there are many other skills demanded by representational work: the motor skills required to make a line go where you want it to go, skill at handling various materials, balancing compositions, etc.
Becoming competent at drawing and painting requires a certain level of mastery of all these skills. When I returned to painting about ten months ago now, it became immediately obvious to me that, through prolonged disuse, many of my skills had atrophied. Looking back over the last ten months, I see it now as a period of finding my level with all these skills, of gradually realising exactly how far I've got to go. Of reaching the stage of conscious incompetence.
Although I realised pretty quickly that my work left a lot to be desired, I still didn't immediately find a good spot to start from, it's taken me some time to find my level. Always I've been trying to reach too far. I've repeatedly tried to do work which I really wasn't capable of yet, and have repeatedly proved to myself how much I had to learn by repeatedly falling flat on my face. Although I've told myself many times over the last few months that I shouldn't be trying to produce finished work, that I should be just practicing, practicing, and not worrying about the standard of what I produce, I've largely ignored my own advice despite myself. I've quite patently been trying to do work which I hadn't the necessary skills to do well, and this has meant a lot of heartache.
Take my paintings. Right from the off, I started painting. It's now obvious to me that I shouldn't have touched a brush before I'd worked on my drawing skills for a while, and before I'd learned to see a bit better. I've spent a lot of time on painting techniques when I couldn't even get an object the right shape, never mind the right colour or tone.
What's really brought this home to me is my current series of 100 still life drawings. I've found my level with these drawings. This series has shown me that what I should have done is started with drawing. And I should have started only with line. When I was reasonably competent at getting things the right shape, I should have moved on to tone. At some point, which I've yet to reach, I will hopefully attain a reasonable mastery of tone. Then, and only then, I should think about applying what I've learned in a new medium which will require the assimilation of more new skills: paint.
Learning the Lessons
So I've reached a decision. I'm going to give up painting for a while. I don't want to do it, but I think that if I do, I'll progress more quickly and in a more natural way than if I keep steaming ahead as I've been doing. It'll also be a much less frustrating experience.
My new series of still life drawings have helped me to see my paintings with new eyes. In all of them, I can now see errors in the tonal balance which are working against the feeling of light. Despite my initial obsession with matching colours as a route to catching light, I'm now realising that unless the balance of the tones in the picture is right, the light will not be as convincing as it could be, and it's all about the light, as far as I'm concerned. I've come round to thinking, through my tonal still life drawings, that matching the tones I see in nature is not possible, since my materials necessarily limit the tonal range available to me. I'm concentrating more now on matching the ratios between the tones, which is what I mean by the tonal balance. I believe that the more recent still life drawings do a more convincing job of expressing light than any of my paintings so far, and they're doing it entirely without the use of colour. I can't ignore that.
But there's something else. I think it's fair to say that all the painting I've done so far has been accompanied by frustration. Some of them I've enjoyed, yes, and some I've been quite pleased with, but they've been very hit and miss. I'll get something right one day, and think I've cracked it, only to get it completely wrong the next. I think that's partly why I've been yo-yoing between thinking I was doing ok, and thinking that I was failing utterly.
The still life drawings aren't like that. I'm pretty pleased with almost every one of them, particularly the more recent ones. They're a lot more simple to produce than the paintings, and take less than half the time per picture. That gives me the freedom to experiment more, to try out different lighting, different compositions, and different subjects.
More than that, they feel completely different when I'm working on them. The frustration has melted away, and I've really started enjoying my work. I was thinking today whilst I was doing a small drawing of a couple of garlic bulbs that I'm rediscovering the sheer joy of what it is to create a picture. It reminds me of when I was a kid, and how when I drew back then, I went into another world for a time. Drawing was an escape for me back then, an escape into a world where everything made sense, where I could relax and just live in the moment, engrossed in what I was doing. I didn't draw because I felt I had to, or because I had some particular goal that I was working towards, I drew because I loved to draw. With these simple, unassuming little still life drawings, I've been rediscovering that feeling.
That's what I mean by finding my level. I can do these drawings without any emotional roller coasters, without any histrionics, and without beating myself up about how bad they are. I just enjoy doing them. It requires no effort on my part to make a start on one, because I love doing them. So, through a gradual process of stepping backwards, I think I've finally found a level at which I can work comfortably. I've said before that I think that human beings, as a rule, do best at things they enjoy. For the first time since I started working again, I'm doing these drawings for the simple enjoyment of doing them. I think that the drawings are better for that, and also, crucially, that I'm learning more because I'm enjoying myself, and not clouding up my mind with negative thoughts about how good the work is.
So I think that these drawings will help me to get from conscious incompetence to conscious competence without having to do myself all kinds of mental damage along the way. The journey has just got a lot more fun.
Posted: September 10th 2006