I’ll Let You in on a Little Secret

Practice does not make perfect and your life is a lie.

Is your mind blown yet? I can explain. We all grew up hearing ‘practice makes perfect’ and believing if we put in the time, if we just Did the Thing over and over and over and over and over, we would eventually become experts. I became aware of something recently, as I sketched and sketched and sketched some more – but before I tell you what I learned, let me just quickly explain something to you.

Creative growth isn’t a straight line. The artists I know work hard, their artwork improves, and then suddenly—down it goes. It’s very much like a roller-coaster. Each rise to new artistic heights is preceded by an extreme dip down. It feels like you’ve lost 99.9% of your talent and you’re three years old again, except this time you’re terribly self-conscious and aware of just how bad your art is. This happens, because creative growth is wibbly-wobbly. That’s the scientific answer.

Recently, my favorite nomadic troglodyte sent me an email. Now, Hannah is a renaissance woman – you name it, she’s dabbled in it. (Except alchemy, I think; we’re planning to learn that one together.) She had a good eye for art, but felt she needed to improve. Her email was an excited one – she was making progress. Huge progress. Leaps and bounds of it, because she’d been watching a YouTube series on improving your art, and it was working.

The thing is, it wasn’t that she hadn’t been drawing steadily before. She had. She’s been involved with artwork since I’ve known her, and that’s been years (and years). But it wasn’t necessarily the practice that improved her artwork. It isn’t necessarily the practice that improves mine.

It’s awareness. See, I like to sketch. I like to doodle. If my mind is otherwise occupied (a documentary, a sermon, a lecture) in order to stay focused on that, I need to be doing something with my hands (hence growing up as a Church Serial Doodler, when I wasn’t eating a box of raisins). The trouble with ‘mindless’ anything is the lack of awareness that accompanies it.

You aren’t going to improve if you aren’t conscious of what you’re doing. Any savage can dance. Anyone can doodle, and lots of people do – but there’s a difference between sketching and mindful sketching.

Sketching looks like putting a pencil to paper again and again and getting similar results each time with no significant improvement, because you aren’t really paying attention.

If you could hear my thoughts while I’m sketching mindfully, however, it would probably sound something like this:

‘The line of his forehead is too shallow, I need to bring it out. That eyebrow isn’t dramatic enough; gotta fix that. The nose is kind of disproportionate – his mouth is good, though. Wait, I need to choose a light source so I can add shading in the right places. Hair doesn’t naturally fall this way, even if it’s voluminous – it does if it’s windy, so I’ll make sure his clothing looks like there’s wind as well. Hang on, his neck isn’t looking right where it connects to his back, I need to look at a reference – ah, there we go. That’s much better. Now to make these folds of fabric drape realistically.”

And so on and so forth. Mindful sketching means looking at your work with a critical eye. It also means you look at references. It means you’re aware of things like shading and environment and expression and weather. It means when you draw something you don’t like, you purpose to figure out why you didn’t like it. And it means, rather than tuning out of your drawing, you tune in.

Once you start to really see your own work, you’ll begin to see mistakes (and improvements). You’ll begin to see what you could do better, and you’ll work on those until you get it right, and then you’ll fix something else. You will always, always keep improving because there’s always room for it – and so no, practice doesn’t make perfect.

But mindful practice just might.

January, 2017
April, 2017

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