John Healy is an ex-alcoholic, ex-boxer and for 15 years lived homeless on the streets of London.
He’s also a chess master and a prize-winning author. His best known book, the autobiographical “The Grass Arena”, is a penguin modern classic.
When he was a vagrant in London, he begged to survive. At the time, begging carried an automatic three year prison sentence. So he also spent some time in prison, and that was where he learned to play chess.
From the moment he began to play, he gave up drinking. Chess, he says, is a jealous lover.
Overcoming incredible odds to achieve a high level of skill, John Healy can play blind chess against 4 opponents simultaneously. In blind chess a chess master sits facing away from the boards whilst a number of other players (facing their boards) play simultaneously against the master.
So the master has to remember each game and the positions of all the pieces in it as he or she plays. It seems an impossible feat of memory. But in fact, it’s not memory at all. There are very finite limits to short term memory, and whilst you can improve things slightly with practice, those limits persist.
The incredible ability that chess masters like John Healy posses is due to highly refined, highly detailed mental representations of chess games.
Understanding the mind of a chess master
In the 1970s, researchers attempting to understand how chess masters could apparently memorise such large and complicated amounts of information devised a test: they took a group of chess novices, a group of medium-level chess players and a group of chess masters, and showed each of them a series of chess boards in which the pieces were mid-game.
As you might expect, the chess masters could remember many more of the positions of the pieces than either of the other two groups, the novices doing the least well.
Then something surprising happened. The groups were shown boards in which the pieces had been placed randomly. The masters could remember no more than the novices.
So the answer wasn’t simply better memory.
The reason that the chess masters could remember the positions of chess pieces in actual games is that they have much better and more detailed mental representations of the game of chess; its twists and turns, playing positions, strategies – all of which help inform what they see with meaning.
Novices see a random placement of chess pieces. Masters see the meaning behind the positions.
We all use mental representations, all the time. We use them to drive cars (representations of what the controls do, the movement of the car in space) and even to walk.
Any activity that requires too much information to hold in short term memory at once is helped along by our mental representations.
Mental representations can be more or less sophisticated. A racing car driver has much more highly developed mental representations of driving a car than you or I. They became that way through years of practice.
Don’t miss the point
Peak, by Anders Ericsson, is all about how practise can bring incredible progress in the development of skills.
If you’re one of those people that mistakenly believes that ability in the arts is due to an “art gene”, I’d suggest you read it. The part of the book that generally gets the most attention is the list of the attributes of deliberate practice.
But what often gets missed, I think, is that Ericsson himself believed that the most important chapter of the book is the one on mental representations.
The authors go as far as to say that the goal of practice isn’t just to develop skills, it’s to develop better mental representations.
What does this mean for artists?
Let’s look at an example: colour mixing.
I get asked a lot for recipes that will allow hitting specific colours in the Munsell book.
But the recipe approach is not really useful long term. Because you won’t be able to hold all the recipes you could possibly need in memory. You’d be like the chess novice trying to memorise the positions of the pieces without knowing what they mean.
What you need instead is a more sophisticated mental representation of colour and how to mix it.
To take the struggle and uncertainty out of colour mixing, you need to understand how your tube pigments interact, and how you can combine them to reach what you need.
What’s the most efficient way to develop that knowledge?
Well, you need two things:
- A method. A consistent, repeatable approach to colour mixing that lets you hit a colour with complete accuracy is absolutely necessary if you’re going to learn the range of colours you can hit with paint and which pigments will help you hit which colours. There’s a lot of knowledge to learn here if you want to develop mental representations of colour space and pigments that are detailed enough to make a real difference to your skill level with colour.
- Repetition. I can’t stress this enough. Repetition is simply the most important aspect of practice.Without it you won’t improve. Sorry, but there it is. This is realism we’re talking about, not “paint what you feel” modernism. And it’s hard. It takes skill. Skill takes commitment.
So now I’ve got two videos for you that will give you the method. It’s called bracketing, and it’s hands-down the most effective way to mix colour accurately and develop your colour mixing skill.
You’ll need to supply the repetition part yourself.
How to Mix Colour Using Bracketing
And here’s a q quick overview of Munsell and the three aspects of colour, in case you need a primer before you start:
Introduction to Munsell
What to do now
Take this knowledge and use it. Choose random colours that you see around you: the cover of a book; a piece of fruit; anything.
Now try to mix that colour with absolute accuracy using bracketing.
Now choose another one and do it again.
Things aren’t always what they seem. What appears to be an incredible feat of memory might actually be something rather different. What appears to be an incredibly large, memorised list of colour recipes is actually just a sophisticated understanding of the colour space, the aspects of colour and how to control them with paint.
And that’s actually a very good thing, because it would frankly be impossible to memorise enough mixing recipes to be truly effective with colour that way. Building more sophisticated mental representations may seem like more work up front, but it will really pay off over time.
It’s how you get good at colour.
If you want to learn more about mental representations and how they can be developed with practice, here’s that book again:
And if you want to learn more about John Healy’s inspiring (and sometimes harrowing) story, here’s his autobiography:
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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