Oil on Panel
No one will deny that brush mileage is one of the best ways to get better at painting. You can know everything there is to know about painting, but if you don’t paint all that often, you won’t know how to put paint on the canvas effectively enough to communicate your ideas. If you've heard of the 10,000 hours rule, you know this is probably the case for getting good at anything – simply put, most experts have put in the time.
But time isn't the whole story - most experts also know how to practice effectively, how to push themselves to the next level. If you practice the same thing over and over, you won’t get better no matter how many hours you put in.
So, what makes us improve? For me, it’s the idea of perfect practice, working thoughtfully on targeted areas. In the book “The Talent Code,” Daniel Coyle describes this kind of practice like this:
“Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them – as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go – end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it…. The trick is to choose a goal just beyond your present abilities; to target the struggle. Thrashing blindly doesn't help. Reaching does.”
- Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code
Practicing this way can be a slow, tedious process. You make mistakes, you think deeply about things that aren't working, and you try to apply different ways to correct those mistakes. It doesn't always happen overnight, but after a while, the things that were challenges become second nature. You get better.
For me, this means that I no longer set quantity goals for painting. Sure, painting 100 paintings a year is a good goal that will get me in the studio on a regular basis, but does it matter if I’m painting the same thing over and over? Now, I focus on stretching my abilities in a number of different ways. Here are some ideas:
Paint Something Outside of Your Wheelhouse
I’m all for painting your passion. I love being outside, so I paint landscapes. It’s different for everyone, but I guarantee you’ll paint your best when you paint what you love. That said, it’s easy to get complacent when you always paint what makes you comfortable, so it’s good to step outside of your comfort zone and paint something completely different every once in a while. For me, this means adding some architecture or wildlife to a painting every once in a while, or doing some figure painting in the studio to work on my drawing. For a figure painter, this might mean heading out to do some plein air. Either way, you’re developing skills that you don’t have, and it’s making you stronger.
Focus on Your Weaknesses
In order to improve, you need to think critically, identify some of your weaknesses, and then work on those things. I painted the painting above when I felt I was getting a bit too tight with my studio work – I set out a panel and told myself I was going to work on thick paint and softer edges, and ignore everything else. The goal wasn't a masterpiece or show painting, but rather a skill set. Working on those soft edges is like playing scales on a piano – I’m working those little muscles that I need in order to commit that skill to memory. If you have a tough time with clouds, go paint cloud studies. If you struggle with drawing, get a sketchbook and a pencil and get to work.
Change It Up
Are you comfortable painting small studies on location but clam up when it comes to painting something big? Or do you love the comfort of your studio and lose focus the second you get outside? If you run out of one color on your palette does it send you into a panic, or can you go with it? It’s easy to get comfortable with painting certain sizes, or in a certain location, or with a certain set of materials. But if you want to grow as an artist, you need to work on the edge of your ability sometimes. Work a little bit bigger outdoors. Do something in a different format. Use some different colors and see what happens. If you can handle a few changes, you’ll be more versatile as an artist, and your paintings will improve.
I’m all for plein air painting in the summer when the weather is perfect and the light is stunning, but I’m not gonna lie - I don’t get as excited about getting out there the rest of the year! Last year, I decided to just paint, no matter what, and learned a valuable lesson. I painted on cloudy days with flat light, and I learned a lot about greys. I painted in the snow, and learned a lot about brevity. I hauled my painting stuff up a lot of trails in a backpack, and learned that sometimes you just have to paint what’s in front of you when you get there. And when I got back into my studio after all of that, I had a whole bunch of new skills, and a new found appreciation for the coziness of my nice warm studio. Sometimes, it’s good to be uncomfortable. Say yes, even when you don’t want to.
What are some of the best ways that you implement “perfect practice” into your art?