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Practice Makes Perfect? Or does it?
As the Pastel Academy Online’s pre launch phase begins (see next newsletter) I have had many more questions put to me about ‘why’ I am starting it. Well maybe this blog adds a little to that understanding.
I can’t count the amount of times I have heard phrases like; The work of an artist is all about ‘Trial and Error’. It is a case of ‘Practice Makes Perfect’.
If anything is likely to get me frustrated it is those two phrases. Why? Because very day on my art Facebook groups, I see those phrases used more or less daily, and almost always they are used out of context. Potentially good artists diligently practicing methods which are to say the least – not the best or most productive ones.
So this blog is going to ask you a couple of questions – more on those later.
Why Practice does not make Perfect.
You have been practicing for what seems like forever.
Now you feel you are at least proficient with what you can do.
You have learnt the hard way – by trial and error.
I know because this describes me – the path I took and by circumstance I was forced to take if I were to learn what I wanted to learn in my art. But all I knew was that there must be a better way.
Did practice make perfect for me? Eventually yes – but I was pretty lucky in the choices I made. Very lucky in fact. So luck had a lot to do with it.
Having learned the basics of the head structure and perspective, this was a fruitful period of practice on self portrait drawings. I studied facial anatomy books – which is the hard way. Now I teach portraiture using the lessons I wish I had when I was developing. A good teacher will synthesize and condense the important lessons for you.
My Summer Portrait Seminar in the Ribble Valley; an annual seminar with a waiting list every year. The seminars were 7 days with studio live study work during the day and a lecture programme on portraiture in the evenings. Plenty of chance to pack in all the important basics which I wished I had been given when my learning began.
The Big Reality Check
Then there is the simple fact that should have there been better ways for me to learn – it would have come at quite a cost. That cost would have been on a few levels. For one thing money was tight. When I started my studies in earnest, I was living in a northern town with no university, and no ‘degree’ courses possible in the area. I was also a young Mum, and to make matters worse I didn’t drive. So finding an alternative way of learning for me was – it seemed – impossible. Of course there was no internet either. So I went on a self-taught track, and supplemented my learning with evening classes in art history.
If given the opportunity – would I have done it differently?
Well put it this way, yes I would. In a heartbeat. The self-taught route can not only be lonely, it can lead you up the garden path – the wrong path. It can also take an age to achieve relatively little in the process..
Oh in an Ideal World……..
Think about it this way. A musician goes to the Royal College of Music, or one of the other reputable musical academies. A painter is lucky enough to get a place in one of the top university art departments; the Royal Academy if they are lucky. A budding dress designer gets a chance of a place at the Royal College of Art. What have they all got in common? Well clearly even having been admitted they have their first real accreditation – they are good enough to have got a place. That knowledge is giving them a degree of personal and artistic confidence in the first place.
What else have they in common? They are lucky – lucky to have secured this head start – and they are going to get the specific education they need – what I call the recipes; the methods and techniques which are the best practices. The basic and fundamental stuff and when you have this quality input; specific focused knowledge – that is when practice makes perfect.
The reality for so many of us
So you are at home – maybe with a young family, or looking after elderly relatives. No chance of a place at the Royal Academy. SO you ‘play’ and try and work out your medium and how it works, and it’s the trial and error game. Not so bad when you are young maybe, but as you get older ‘time’ takes on different meaning. There is less of it. So eventually you might get a result – develop a technique maybe – that you are happy with and seems to work for you.
On your personal artistic growth scale you might have gone from 1 – 4 (on a scale of ten). But how would you know? By your own judgement? You are not in a college with other students learning at the same time to compare your efforts to.
Beware the Praise of loved Ones!
In as much as their praise and encouragement is given in the very best of intentions, you need to ask yourself this: How long has it taken me to learn what I know so far? Does my Mum or sister or Dad really know anything about what I am doing? My father had a massive influence on my young teenage art ‘career’, but his idea of art was making it look like a photograph. Did that help me? No it didn’t. But his views are widely echoed especially by those who have not read a book about art, and never intend to, like my father. What my father gave me was encouragement and support, but his opinion on my work had little value.
So I was destined never to have an objective opinion for a long time. And without that – we are back to our lonely position of doubt. No wonder so many self-taught artists are lacking in confidence.
So Practice Eventually will make perfect – Yes?
All too often the answer to that is no. Why? Well the idea behind practice makes perfect is simply this; like the kid in music school – they are taught the musical scales – and told to practice and practice.
The key is of course they were taught the musical scales in the first place.
Having been given the tried and true recipe, yes practice will make perfect. Without the initial information that you need, you might well be ‘making do’.
‘But you shouldn’t be just making the best of poor or ineffective methods – methods that are probably holding you back – maybe a collection of poor habits you have become accustomed to and that is even worse for your artistic development.’
I cannot think of a worse scenario than spending months practicing a method or technique that was doomed to fail in the first place. But you weren’t to know. Stabbing in the dark is just exactly that – sometimes you will hit your target – sometimes – most times you won’t. You might buy a book of another artists work and copy their style, and methods and you will make some headway, but at best you will only that one technique – and many practical art books are put out by artists who specialist in just one method – in one medium and in one technique, and very often using specified materials. What you are doing in fact is a little like attempting to learn how to fancy wedding cake – without having learned how to make a simple cup cake and measure the ingredients first. Trying to make a ballroom gown without a clue how to use a sewing machine.
More practice by way of my self portrait series and at this stage I was looking for ideas to bring something different to the sketches. I was particularly interested in expression as can be seen! All this was live in the mirror of course – it is the only way to develop real control over your portrait skills. When I need to or have to I can turn these skills to working from photography – and can do so without ‘copying’ an image as much as interpreting it with a view to breathing life into it.
So is there any Merit in Trial and Error?
Learn the best practices and the tried, true and tested methods, and yes – then practice can make perfect.
In fact it is the Perfect practice that makes Perfect.
Well experimentation is a key principal of traditional art training. Picasso is the perfect example. But practice is most effective in the hands of the student who has learnt the basics and understands what they are practicing! When you are trying to learn the basics by trial and error – it is just an exercise in frustration and patience, and all too often, wasting time. So for many trial and error is a pain, and when all is said and done – how do you know what is working?
So lets get back to that Ideal world……….
What are the best ways to learn and develop as an artist? Ways that don’t cost the earth and give more results for your money? Well to start with try very hard to get some training in the basics in art. That means stuff that isn’t medium specific – but applies to work in all mediums; composition, tonal values, colour theory, perspective. Unfortunately, all too many developing artists go for details and technical tricks first. And also they go to occasional workshops set up by other artists who don’t teach the basics – and frankly probably don’t even know them. This is the one method, one way, kind of workshop – where a group of people get together in a room to all paint the same painting. Fine – once you have learnt the basics! But often this approach is poor educationally.
Then consider not trying to ‘Specialise’ too early.
I did, because I began as 13 year old who loved portraits. IAt that age I was basically just following one path instinctively. I eventually diversified, and wish I had done it so much sooner, but I got into the trap of trying to earn a living from my ‘art’, out of necessity – which works for a while. But I wanted to improve as an artist – not become complacent with a few techniques under my belt. Learning landscape has taught me the real important stuff I needed to develop my portraiture. Strange but true! (I later learned that this is why top university art departments take the same approach.)
Have your ultimate goal in mind but step outside that single minded frame of mind when you can – you will be amazed at what you learn. Whatever you circumstance and whatever your relationship to your creative art is – I hope that some of what I have written here resonates with you. And it is so important to push home the point – it is never too late to learn – and to improve and above all else to feel good about your work and how it is developing.
So as I said in the beginning of this blog – I have a couple of questions for you:
1. Have you ever questioned the idea that some practice might not be productive?
2. Are you also self taught? Have you been frustrated by lack of guidance? Have you learnt from books?
3. If you have attended college courses, have you this far managed to get some tuition on the basics? Colour Theory? Tonal Values? Basic Drawing? Composition? Perspective? Or did you learn them at school?
Please use the comments section below and I look forward to hear your stories.
Click on this link for the download of the Leisure Painter article and look out for my new article in next months issue!
Meanwhile I am on my own learning curve – finalizing the launch details of the Pastel Academy! News on the opening is coming very soon. The first step will be to invite some beta testers! So more on that in a couple of weeks.
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