For a lot of people, practice is frustrating.
After all, you know where you want to be; you want to be drawing and painting really well. At least, better than you do now.
You might even have particular artists in mind whose level of accomplishment you’d like to be able to emulate.
It’s just that boring part of doing all the practice you could do without. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just skip to where you want to be without having to go round the houses first?
So if you’re anything like me, your practice sessions can be fraught with frustration and impatience, and lurking behind them and feeding them, self-judgement and self-doubt.
We judge ourselves against our ideal and find ourselves wanting. We doubt whether we’ll ever be able to reach our goal.
The cost of impatience
If this sounds like you, there are two big prices you’re paying:
- Firstly, you’re not enjoying making art. So really, why do it?
- Secondly, you’re not making as much progress as you might. We learn much faster when we’re enjoying ourselves.
What causes Practice Frustration?
If working with impatience and frustration is such a negative and ineffective way to approach our practice, why do we put up with it?
The truth is that we’re driven to this ineffective way to practice by our culture; a culture based – even obsessed with – the achievement of goals. More than that, with the obvious achievement of goals.
After all, what use would being a highly accomplished artist be if no-one ever recognised it?
The uncomfortable truth about our goals
Let’s try to be honest with ourselves.
When we’re enmeshed in that mindset of yearning for artistic achievement, what we’re really yearning for is recognition of our artistic achievement. That’s a rather different thing than simply wanting to be able to draw better, but no more fulfilling in the long run.
Besides, when you reach the artistic goal you have in mind right now, it will seem empty and you will immediately provide yourself with a new one. You’ll be back to the same frustration.
It’s a pretty desperate state of affairs, but a very common one, and one I’ve lived with myself for a long time.
I do think there’s a better way though.
A better approach to practice
First, begin to accept that goal achievement isn’t the answer to your frustration. If you’re frustrated by your current level of drawing skill, drawing better won’t make you happier.
Second, accept that you won’t change overnight. It takes time to be able to let go of the obsession with goals and concentrate on the present moment instead. This is probably the most difficult aspect of changing your approach to practice. Because it takes patience to develop patience. Catch 22. The best way round this particular problem is to start small.
Practise being in the moment
Here’s an interesting test for you: The next time you’re walking somewhere, try walking there slowly. Really, really slowly. Instead of thinking about where you’re going, what you’re going to do when you get there, or any other random thoughts that might pop up, concentrate completely on each, individual step.
You’ll find that frustrating at first. Because we’re used to rushing everywhere, to trying to pack the maximum into every minute of every day.
Unfortunately, that mindset is certain death for practice.
A simple exercise for drawing more mindfully
After you’ve tried the walking game, try this simple exercise. It’s basically the same thing, but with lines instead of steps:
- Take a sheet of empty paper. Take a few calming breaths. Take a moment to remind yourself that you’re not going to rush.
- Now take whatever implement you’re happiest drawing with, and, starting at the top left of the paper (top right if you’re a lefty) draw a line vertically downwards until you reach the bottom of the paper.
- Draw the line really slowly. As your line moves down the page, try to keep your breathing even and calm.
- Now proceed across the sheet with more vertical lines.
Here’s a few notes about the general approach you need to take for this exercise to work:
- Don’t worry about wobbles, but try to keep the direction of your lines as straight as you can.
- Try to keep completely focused on the line as you draw. If your mind starts to wander, gently bring it back to the line.
- Try to keep the distance between the lines the same.
- Try to keep them parallel.
- Try not to rush! Forget everything else, but don’t forget this.
- Concentrate completely on each line as you draw it. Try not to think about how much paper you have to cover.
Here’s a video demo of this exercise (I call it “breathing lines”).
I like to do this exercise early in the morning with a Chinese brush and ink on sized Xuan paper. It’s outrageously hard at first. It’s not the drawing of the straight line that’s hard. It’s keeping your mind completely focused on each line for the complete duration of the line. Master that, and your lines will take care of themselves.
This exercise is a microcosm of the most effective way to approach all our practice. Focus completely on the moment, on the step we’re currently taking, and we’ll take it calmly, peacefully, and much more effectively.
It’s also an extremely effective way to approach everyday life.
Do this exercise regularly, and you’ll find that you’ll become more calm. Try approaching washing the dishes with the same mindset, or tidying up, or making the bed.
The real secret is that this exercise is not so much a drawing exercise as a meditation exercise.
But here’s the surprising thing: It will also bring you into more intimate contact with the lines you make than you’ve ever had before. That will, with time, bring you closer to your artistic goals.
And done right, it’s a cure for practice frustration.
Thanks for reading,
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