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Deliberate Practice

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scienceWBI get asked in class often what’s the best way to practice this or that skill, or drawing as a whole.

It’s a question that gives me pause because the instinctive response is my course plan is all these discrete things to do: Gesture studies, observational sketching, pattern exercises, etc! These are the best ways I think. DO the work, do the assignments, that’s the practice I recommend. DO THE WORK!

But, I hesitate to just say that, because I suspect that’s possibly not really the question they mean to ask. I think what they are really asking, is how do I do this, and learn from it the most effectively.

So I’m going to try to get down here, the method behind the madness of Dynamic Drawing as I teach it. First, check fear at the door. Mistakes are good, we learn from mistakes. Go a bit boldly into things, take note when you trip up and learn from it.

The course is I often say, a developmental program, and designed to teach students exactly this. How to best practice, in order to develop their skills as fast as I think is individually possible. And that’s not as much about doing things the hard way, as it is being smart about it. Don’t get me wrong, I think if a thing proves hard to do, it’s probably something you need to work on still. But, there’s smart ways to do that.

Dynamic Drawing at Syn is build on the idea that deliberate focused practice on discrete skills is better than trying to learn by doing whole drawings, straight through from start to finish, aspiring in each one to some kind of perfect finish.

I reject the idea of a singular perfection anyway, the idea there’s a SINGLE “right way”, to do almost anything. Just about every artistic skill has multiple ways it could be executed, many giving great results potentially. And the goals of each artist are not uniform. So there’s no “perfect”. It’s quite subjective.

And to discover one, the best, or many ways to do things, takes an independent drive. We often start out with some as kids, and have to lose any Learned Helplessness. To take charge of our own development.

And to be truly Dynamic in your art, you need a broad diverse range of skills. In my own work, I favour pencil and ink, but use everything from digital tools, paint, crayons, anything that will make a mark possibly.

Those skills are each good things to take some time to refine, and while I’m all for diving in with a bit of fearlessness, and making art. One of the keys to study is learning that the mindset needed to learn, is different from looking to impress; make something exceptional and striking; or fulfill a client’s demands. Away from the goals of a completed work of art, it’s not to have already mastered the thing, but to engage in deliberate focused practice on discrete skillsIronically it’s all about learning to become fearless. But to do that at first, start by separating the Doing, a public act from the Practice, a possibly more private study and always with outcomes secondary to your attention to process journey and method.

I take this approach due to my own experience but it’s also backed up by some research and the experience of other creatives.

So first
we make a point
at the start of the course,
to remind students there is
a difference between Doing,
and Practicing.

The goals of each of those two things are very different, and if you don’t keep that in mind, you’ll be prone to poor study/practice habits and lots of either unfinished efforts, or finished work that looks like problem solving more than a dynamic polished piece of art.

The emphasis on the QUALITY of our practice should be underlined, there’s been a lot of talk about how all it takes to master something is 10.000 hours of practice, and critique of the meme. Interestingly many of the critics, Malcolm Gladwell, and Anders Ericsson, the professor he cited will adamantly tell you the point either made was meant to be taken as hinging on the quality of practice.

For one thing, IMO if practice doesn’t’ hurt sometimes, you’re probably not doing it at peak efficiency. Not that pain is always good, but feeling drained and sometimes confounded is a key part of learning. Making what we experience as an effort that taxes us some, is a biological indicator that our brain is still learning how to process and perfect a new skill. This is a mapped and known phenomenon. So if you’re not feeling it a little bit, you’re probably not learning a lot.

So push your limits, try new things, make developing, learning and diversifying your skill base the reason for lifelong learning. I’m still practicing after 25 years as a profesional, and working to get better.

To make it more efficient, separate deliberate focused practice, from work you do to please yourself, or for a client/job. That stuff is best executed applying the same way you think about walking across a room, assuming you’re of average mobility. That is not to think about it, just Do it. If you think about too much once you have a muscle memory of how to walk, it tends to even make you stumble more.

When we Do, we’re applying the skills we learn practicing, and looking to come as close to matching the internal vision of the work we had at the start as we can. To DO our best, we must be prepared by practice.

Perfection should not be a goal I think, that’s not healthy or realistic IMO. But as good as we can personally is always a worthy goal. For myself i’m not often happy unless I can feel like I did my best, and maybe learned something new getting there.

When we Practice, we don’t care about the final results as much as what we can learn from them. We can practice for a project, that’s part of study. In the course I present the idea of a Long Series Study to go through the motions of what I do myself on jobs.

For example, for Dracula Son of the Dragon, I had to learn how to draw a lot of Byzantine period places people and things. That’s a short way of saying a LOT of stuff. So i created a massive image morgue, and started sketching. This FB image set is just about half of the reference file collection I created to work with.

So before I tried to draw the book, I worked on honing in on the look and feel of things a few times. I still research things as they come up in the script, planning them out so I can draw them with more confidence and clarity when it’s time to do.

Study is invaluable in the goal of making things appear effortless, and to do it well it’s best to step away and put in the sweat equity before you try to take the sage.

To facilitate this I recomend we step away from the likely initial goal of a final completed drawing, and in order to learn each new skill, break it down into more discrete separate exercises and tasks we can tackle in short intense focused sessions with the end goal being ONLY to improve on the last attempt to; Make a straight line; Hatching; Countries; Anatomy: Etc.

We have the various Pattern Exercises for example not JUST to memorize how to draw them for when you have to in a future drawing, isolated from the effort of composing a whole image. Allowing us to focus just on the repetitive movements and how much repeatability/chaos to have in the form for a given result.

Hatching for example, can describe glass or rough rocks. It’s really very much like handwriting exercises, but more wide ranging in subject and skills. Indeed calligraphy of all kinds is an excellent thing to practice for superior line control.

Texture is another topic. It’s all down to smooth regularity or a thoughtful application of the appearance of randomness, and roughness. To study that we put aside thoughts about anatomy, composition, etc, and JUST focus on how to do Hatching. Or Feathering, or circles, or even simply working on a smoother line for those strait OR contoured.

When we do Gesture Study, we’re learning how to master the loose flowing forms of gesture drawing. Again, deliberate focused practice of in this case, getting comfortable at the start of the classes with long flowing lines, calligraphic lines, in place of sketching, hesitant lines.

It also gives us the opportunity to study capturing the human form in a faster, more impression based way than constructive anatomy does, and hones our observational skills if we’re doing it right too!

So, this is my recommendation for the best kind of practice. Isolate a specific skill, or subject you want to work on. Set out a schedule that looks a bit like this…

Do focused and repeated studies, in short bursts. Often I think between 20 to 30 min is best, then take a  break to look at the work done to consider the results. Make sure at the start of a sessions, to form a clear idea of what you want to do – patterns, observation, anatomy, composition study. Clarify what it is you’re focusing on, and the areas of it you feel you need to improve on.

Remember if you simply judge it as like/hate, you’re not analyzing it your rating it. As a student you only want and need to analyze it. Does the line work, what is it doing, is it doing what I had intended. How could it be more like I intended, and perhaps, is it better by accident?

Always be ready to learn from accidents. If you only focus on intentions, you’ll be prone to reviewing the work, finding it wanting, and missing lots of things you can learn from it.

This also means don’t erase your mistakes, especially when practicing vs doing. Keep them on the page so you can compare the so called mistakes with other lines.

Many of us have to work around a schedule of day jobs or school, but with that in mind, note that focus is very important. Mindless repetition is not the best kind of practice at all. 
So as much as you can, keep practice sessions limited to a duration that allows you to stay focused.

Try to do the work when you’re alert and able to attend to it best you can. It could be before going to bed, but if you can’t keep your eyes open then it’s probably not going to help. Don’t trust memory: Use a practice notebook. Schedule out your practice, MAKE time for it rather than just intending to do something and waiting for the opportunity. Here’s an example of a practice regime schedule. Commit to a 45 min block of time.

1st Ten minutes, warm up: Do the stretches. Skating the page before working with a live model is a good way to limber up for drawing from life, doodles are good before patterns.

15 min of uninterrupted exercise: Patterns, copy an image, do short fast gesture studies, or…? There are numerous options. The what is up to you to decide. What about your work needs attention just now?

5 min to consider the results: analyze the lines and forms, check those against your goals and try to work out if you’re having any specific issues. Write down notes for yourself about what those might be, and what you might be able to try to address them? Line quality, grip, an unknown bit of anatomy leaving you unsure as to what to do in a given situation.

15 min now dedicated to addressing those findings: It might be to do more of the practice trying a new grip or tool, it might be taking out an anatomy book to learn more about that bit of the body that was stumping you.

End by making final notes for yourself about what was done:You can repeat this for longer periods of practice, but there should be no excuse for not doing this at least once a day even if we’re busy.

Keep track of your goals and what you learn during your sessions. You can work longer if you have the time, by simply repeating this for another area of study, or even revisiting the same one if you have the focus for it. Habit and acknowledging your improvements to yourself are key to getting into a good routine.

Being able to see the things that bother you is important too. Everyone is bothered by their own drawings. They can always see what it could have been in their head. Use that to look for what you can do better, rather than reasons to hate it and look away.

When you stumble into new insights write it down! This will help you later to remember, and become more mindful in your practice and the reward of making many mini-discoveries will accumulate quick.

So that’s how I think you should practice for the best results. Check out other perspectives on this, it’s good to get many points of view I always say. I’m currently investigating the Pomodoro Technique to structure my working time, it’s a very similar kind of structuring of work time, planning and being deliberate and focused about getting things done.

I’ve done this in more structured environments, at school briefly and in the context of learning on the job, which makes some of it easier. When i worked at an animation studio, my time was more scheduled for me for example. And my goals were dictated by the style guides of the shows I worked on. I had to adapt to each new production quickly, less I be fired!

But you don’t need a day job to do it, its better to learn how to do this on your own before you’re in the position of having to learn it on the job!

A lot of people will do almost anything to avoid deliberate practice. Instead they just draw and draw, which in an unstructured way is kind of practising. And enjoy the hot flashes of inspiration when new insight hits us and we find we suddenly understand something better, or grasp some new whole concept.

Don’t get me wrong,
I’m not saying either of those ways
of learning more passively are bad.

But just drawing passively, drawing without a focus, innately teaches us by accident. This is a slow way to learn and gets old fast for many, we tend to loose our passion for drawing if we don’t see improvement in our work. Learning a deliberate approach can help when we get stalled by creative blocks too.

Flashes of inspiration, we all love those, welcome them for sure. But you can’t bank on them. And, you get more of them when you have a more focused regime to fill in the gaps.

Deliberate practice is what makes the other two complete. When you add that to the mix, you’ll be cooking with fire!

Here’s a great clip from Youtuber Jazza, about how to practice that basically summarizes the very same ideas. Being a big fan of repetition in helping bake things into our brains, i encourage you to watch it and the next one to help fuel your endeavors!

That’s good stuff. This is too, a clip about the concept of FLOW, which if you’ve been drawing for a while or doing anything creative you enjoy, you’ll be familiar with to some extent. Often I’ve found falling into a FLOW state, is desireable to the process of deliberate practice, and often an outcome of it. So check this out, take note of if you’ve already experienced it, in order to better know what you will want to look for, when things are working and the practice, flows.

I noted in the article how we know that learning a new skill makes us feel tired and sometimes stressed, because we do real work to do it. Check out this great clip with David Eagleman!

And I mentioned Learned Helplessness in my opening ramble, linked there to this Veritasium clip. In case you didn’t click, here’s my recommendation again to watch it embedded here, and read and watch, and watch more on the subject.

Consider overcoming any aspect of that you might find in yourself as both to be expected a bit–it’s not a failing of integrity or something–but also something to aspire to overcome! And it’s not papering over inexperience with false bravado, but taking charge of our own betterment! Continuing to practice with focus and deliberately, and find the confidence that comes from actually getting better and we work towards making skills and knowledge, part of muscle memory. Working towards some degree of mastery of your tools and trade.

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