You’ve heard the advice plenty of times.
Draw every day.
It would seem to make sense – except that it’s perfectly possible to do that and not get any better at all.
Or to make such slow progress that you can’t actually see it happening, which isn’t very inspiring either.
That may seem surprising but think about it: Many people drive every day but don’t actually get better at it. In fact, most of us get gradually worse!
Something like this happened to me, early on in my current learning journey, when I decided to stop painting and just draw for a year, so I could concentrate on values.
I set myself to draw 100 value studies.
And that’s the standard advice too: Concentrate on value, it’s the most important part of painting.
There is at least some truth to that. In any event that’s exactly what I did.
100 seemed like a lot when I came up with the number. It really did. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to the end of that series.
This is the first one.
Some way in, I was beginning to see some progress. But it was slow, and I wasn’t seeing progress from drawing to drawing.
It became difficult to keep motivated and keep the series going. Very, very difficult.
But then something happened that turned that practice on its head.
I discovered Munsell.
(Cue choirs of angels and shining golden light, complete with cheesy voice-over: “and so a new day dawned, in which painters ceased to struggle with value and the world became filled with beautiful art…”)
Well, perhaps not. But it did change everything for the better.
What happened next made more difference to my understanding of value than all of the previous drawings I’d done in that series.
In fact, it made more difference to the quality of my painting than anything I’ve ever done before or since.
First, I practiced matching each of the values of the Munsell scale exactly. I mean, I was obsessive about it. If it was even a tiny bit out, I kept trying to get closer.
Then, when I could match the values exactly, on the advice of Graydon Parrish, I got 11 cubes and eleven spheres, and I painted 9 of them each one of the values of the Munsell value scale, and painted one black and one white. I did the same with 11 spheres.
Finally I did little paintings of each cube and sphere. Here’s an example.
Then a few with some real world objects too, of the same value as the cubes and spheres.
I worked out a way to accurately judge the values I was seeing on the cubes using a colour checker, like this.
By this time I was starting to get excited. I could already see that even though I was just painting with neutrals, I was already painting with a much higher level of realism – and also with more light, atmosphere and depth.
You can read all about that practice here:
So I did maybe 20 or so little value studies in paint, maybe a few more. It was a while ago and my memory isn’t what it used to be 🙂
The point is though, that after some of this very focused practice I went back to the value drawing series, with a new approach and a slightly different method.
And I found I’d gone from this:
Huge leap forward.
Why did I make so much more progress in such a short time, and from less work?
Because I was using a method that fitted with the most important principles of effective practice:
- Focus on one single skill in isolation from everything else – by painting cubes, I wasn’t trying to make a good picture. I wasn’t thinking about composition, whether I was making a nice piece of work, whether the subject was recognisable, any of that. I was just painting cubes, and I wasn’t trying to do anything except paint the values as accurately as I could.
- Get instant feedback. Because I had the colour checker to show me how I was doing, I could check on whether or not I was nailing the values. I had an independent means of checking my results without relying on my perception only.
Yes but practising is boring!
I know that some people will resist the idea of this kind of practice.
It seems unartistic. A bit too scientific, perhaps.
Just plain dull.
I get it, I do. But here’s the thing: If you want to make faster progress on specific skills, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a musician, a dancer, a surgeon, a sportsperson, or a painter, the principle is the same:
Practice is not performance. You need to practice.
If you just say you’re going to draw something every day, or “just paint”, that’s performance.
I’m not saying you won’t make progress, you may. But much more slowly than you could.
If you create a practice method for yourself and stick to it for a little while, you’ll see the progress start to happen very quickly.
If you just repeat what you already do, over and over, you’ll get very good at doing what you already do. And if you want to improve, then, by definition you need to be doing something you’re not doing now.
So what about workshops?
The reason I’m writing about this today is that I’ve just come back from Northern Ireland where I taught a 5 day workshop on colour, hosted by my friend Julie Douglas at the Belfast Academy of Realist Art.
I talked a lot about the difference between practice and performance when we were there. And I believe that’s particularly relevant at a workshop.
I can’t solve every colour struggle someone has in a 5 day workshop. I can’t really deepen someone’s understanding of colour that much in that time.
But what I can do is teach a method of practice that someone can take away and use to do all of that themselves.
I can show how effective the method is. And I can watch with delight as the light bulbs start to go on and people see it happen in their studies, realise they can nail any colour, get values right and create atmosphere, space and light.
That’s a really special experience for me, so much so that I’ve decided to start doing more workshops. So far I’ve only done three, and only two on colour. That’s going to change this year and next 🙂
That’s also why I give away all the materials I use to teach this method when I teach a workshop, including the cube and spheres I bring as subjects for people to paint. Because what I’m teaching is a method of practice, because I think that’s how people will get the most benefit from their time there.
So ask yourself: what do you struggle with most?
This is my advice to you, assuming you want a more effective way to build your drawing and painting skills.
Pick one skill you want to get better at. It might be drawing accuracy. Judging the value of colours. Mixing a colour accurately. Balancing a composition.
Take that skill out in isolation from everything else, so that you’re not tempted to actually try and make a piece of work, so you’re not tempted to perform.
If you can, make sure you have a way to give yourself feedback on how well you’re doing, an independent check. It’s not always possible to do this since some of the skills we want to develop are aesthetic. But if you can, it will put your practice on steroids.
Then repeat this exercise for a while until you see some results.
I’m willing to bet you’ll see them more quickly than you’d think.
Yes but it’s not art is it?
Perhaps you’re thinking that art is about more than skill. That drilling skills won’t help you make more meaningful work, or find your voice, or communicate emotional depth.
Yes and no…
If you’re not struggling with basic skills (as let’s face it, the majority of artists are these days since those skills don’t get taught in mainstream education) then you’re free to devote your time and energy to exactly those things. The things that really matter to us.
I mean only to help.
If your lack of basic skills has you struggling every time you go to the easel, it will be much more difficult for you to make progress on the big stuff.
And you know, it isn’t even that hard to do.
One last thing
If you have a specific skill you’d like to develop, stick it in the comments, and I’ll see if I can come up with a way to break it down and turn it into an exercise that will help you build the skill.
Best wishes and thanks for reading
P.S. Click this link if you want to see the full series of still life drawings. I’m not sure that they’re all there, actually, or that they’re in the right order. But the most recent ones, done after the Munsell-aided value practice, are at the top.
The Keys to Colour - Free 6 step email course
Learn how to:
- mix any colour accurately
- see the value of colours
- lighten or darken a colour without messing it up
- paint with subtle, natural colour