Enjoying Practice For Its Own Sake
"There is more to life than increasing its speed" Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
I don't usually make new years resolutions. It strikes me as a waste of time since so few of them are kept. At least, that's always been the case with me.
I'm breaking with my non-tradition this year though, and making one that I think is going to be easy to keep. In fact, I've already started doing it so I suppose I'm cheating a little. I'm just resolving to keep doing it for the rest of the year.
My resolution this year is to stop obsessing about my drawing and painting goals and to enjoy my practice for its own sake.
I've been thinking about this for a little while, but a couple of things have inspired me to make a more conscious decision about it. The first is the arrival in our lives of a two year old little boy. My wife and I just adopted. Life has a new dimension and is already deeper and richer than I could have imagined. The second is a post I read recently - Sitting and Watching - at one of my favourite blogs, ZenHabits, on taking the time to enjoy things instead of rushing from one goal to the next.
Can being too focused on goals be counter productive?
Since I came back to painting and drawing in 2005 I've had a very goal oriented approach to picture making. My goal has been to paint full time some day. To do that, I thought that the main thing I needed to do was to improve my drawing and painting skills.
Undoubtedly true. But I became so focused on improving my skills that I forgot to enjoy making pictures, and that was perhaps my biggest mistake so far. Well, apart from stopping painting in the first place.
I rushed through practice like I rush through life, always trying to achieve the next goal. I believed that achieving each goal would mean that I'd arrived, and my dream of becoming a full-time painter would somehow be realised.
I was always looking for the 'key' that would unlock painting for me. What that key was changed depending on what stage I was at with my learning. At each stage, the key I was looking for became my new goal, all-encompassing and obsessively attacked.
At first I thought the key was drawing accuracy. My accuracy was pretty poor. So I practised until it improved.
But it wasn't enough.
Then I thought the key was value. I practised and practised until my values improved.
I was getting better. But I still hadn't arrived.
So perhaps the key was colour accuracy. I practised colour, using Munsell to break it down into value, hue and chroma. I've yet to write about this fully here, but I devoted a lot of time to finding a method for matching the colours I saw accurately using Munsell chips and a simple colour isolator.
It was very effective. I learned how the local colour of an object was changed by light and shadow across its surface. With practice, I came to understand colour, light and shadow much better. I could represent the colours I saw more accurately and could produce more convincing, life like studies.
By this time I had drawing accuracy, good values and colour accuracy. But still, when I went to make a painting I wasn't satisfied by what I was producing. Something was still missing. The frustration remained.
I began to think about composition. I practice composition daily now, as I've practised drawing accuracy, value and colour. But this time my approach is a little different.
I'm trying to learn from experience: This time I don't expect to arrive. In fact I don't want to arrive, because the journey is the point, and should be as pleasurable and enriching as possible; an end in itself.
As I thought about the kind of drawings I used to do as a kid, I remembered how I felt doing them. I would lose myself completely in them, whether it was a drawing of a robot from imagination or a copy of a drawing of Spider Man. I had no goal, I drew for the sheer pleasure and fascination of making things come alive on paper.
To a large extent, I've lost that fascination now.
So here's the paradox:
By trying so hard to improve my skill so that I could do what I loved, I took that very love out of it. My practice was characterised by striving and frustration, by a fevered desperation to improve.
People would occasionally comment on what a good work ethic I had. But now I think that kind of work ethic might be a less effective way to learn if taken too far, as I believe I did. I've come to the conclusion now that it's much more important to take the time to enjoy the journey. The destination can be left to take care of itself.
I'm not saying that I'm going to stop trying to improve. I'm not saying that I'm going to lose my focus either. In fact I plan to redouble my efforts to develop my drawing and painting skills. I'm designing practice exercises to help develop drawing and panting skills more efficiently and effectively. I spend a lot of time thinking about that now and it's likely to become the focus of the site in the future.
But I plan to take the pressure off, to do it for the love of it without any particular goal apart from getting better and enjoying myself doing it. Each practice session should be a positive experience, one that leaves me satisfied, not frustrated.
This realisation has also been driven home to me by the nature of the composition practice I'm doing at the moment. This is a relaxing, enjoyable form of practice, one I don't pressure myself about. I do believe that it's more effective because of that.
Why does enjoyable practice help you learn faster?
Because learning and developing skills involves changing the brain. It involves letting go of old, useless neural networks and building and then reinforcing new ones. And the neuroscientists tell us that this process works much more effectively when at least two conditions are present: Enjoyment and focused attention.
Enjoyment, because enjoyment releases chemicals into the brain, including dopamine, which aid the building of new networks. Attention because focused attention enhances plasticity in the brain and makes it more malleable, more susceptible to learning.
So my new year's resolution is simply to enjoy my practice
Since Michelle and I adopted our little boy, we've had the privilege of watching his little life awaken and unfold as each new day brings some new discovery for him. It might be something as simple as splashing in puddles. But when he splashes in a puddle, he does so with unreserved, uncomplicated delight. He's completely immersed in getting himself as muddy as he possibly can. It's a joy to watch.
So I'm trying to approach this new year with a new mind set. I'm trying to approach each day, and that includes my composition practice, with the same curious joy that splashing in a puddle gives our little boy. I might not always manage it of course, old habits are hard to change. I might even have the odd frustrated tantrum when things don't go my way.
The frustration of failing to keep up resolutions is similar to the frustration created by failing to reach goals that are too distant to grasp immediately. It can turn quickly into negative feelings about our own capabilities. That's just not healthy.
As I watch our little boy discover the world around him I realise that these moments won't come back and that I need to grasp them as eagerly and with as much joy as he does. And I think that's as true of drawing practice as it is of life.
So for 2012 I'm forgetting about my original goal, I'm just going to enjoy the journey for it's own sake. I have a feeling I'll travel faster and lighter that way, and probably travel further too.