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What is the best way to practice a skill?

First, check fear at the door. Since I read Dune as a kid I’ve had a Litany Against Fear, used for dealing with more serious issues growing up but also it made dealing with fear of failure, a lot easier actually.

Fear is the mind-killer.
I face my fear.
I permit it to pass.
In it’s wake only I remain.

What can I say, I like poetry and Sci-fi, it’s a pretty way to remind myself the steps to riding out anxiety. And with drawing and story telling, truly there’s nothing to really be afraid of. Mistakes are good, we learn from mistakes. Go a bit boldly into things, take note when you trip up and learn from it. That’s how to get better.

A lot of my art teaching 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. And over time, I recommend a rinse, repeat pattern sometimes called Spaced Learning.

I also personally reject the idea of a singular perfection, the idea there’s a SINGLE “right way” to do almost anything. Just about every artistic skill and technique has multiple ways it could be executed, many giving great results.

And the goals of each artist are not uniform. So there’s no “perfect” to worry about achieving, just the goals you set for yourself. It’s quite subjective. When i’m working, done is better than perfect. And when studying, learning is.

Also be aware of the pitfall of Learned Helplessness. It can become an obstacle to our growth in most respects if we’re hung up on that, be aware, unlearning it and take charge of your own development.

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

To accommodate proper practice
attitudinally, I make a point
that 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. 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.

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. Not that we should t bother to finish things, but if we love it or it’s great isn’t the point, it’s the lessons learned and new ideas broken in and exercised that count.

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 as much as is practical, don’t erase your “mistakes”. This is actually a good pro tip even when it’s time to DO. But especially when practicing keep them on the page so you can compare the so called mistakes with other lines. Lighten them up but you want to be able to see what you’re revising.

Mindless repetition is not the best kind of practice at all as well, this is where the Focused part comes into it. I like to emphasize that intentional aspect of the process. So as much as you can, keep practice sessions limited to a duration that allows you to stay focused. For most that’s in the 45 min to an hour range, not a lot longer. If it is for some reason take micro breaks to take notes, drink water and stretch.

The main thing is to 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. if you’re doing dynamic gesture studies try loosening up with skating the page before working with a live model, doodles are good before patterns. A bit of both perhaps before more involved observational studies.

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? Need to work on Perspective? Hit that with a sheet of free-handed forms like these.

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 and use the Spaced Learning protocol to revisit and encode it more efficiently into your long term memory! ! 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’ve tried things like the Pomodoro Technique to structure my working time, it’s a very similar kind of structuring–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!

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 practicing. 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 I think the ideas above are better.

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!

Another thing I want to mention here is 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 desirable to the process of deliberate practice, and often an outcome of it. Experiencing Flow while drawing is generally an expression of your skill, and how it’s matched to the work you’re trying to do AND your expectations of it. Remember Doing vs Practicing?

If you have already experienced flow or the zone in your work or other activities, you have some idea of what you’re looking for. To achieve Flow in the process of study, it’s best to focus on the goal of improving on your last attempt, rather than a given study be a lovely thing. To clear your mind of other distractions and be only about the line. When drawing from life the dynamic shifts but it can still be there when you’re able to make the marks you want to with the same degree of thoughtless effort you put into walking across a room.

To get there you have to develop your visual vocabulary and hand-mind-eye dexterity and synchronization. Speed sketching, and sustained deliberate study series of any subject I feel i’m currently soft on, and the work itself now, are the main exercises I use to push my limits. You can’t always count on Flow to get work done as a freelancer mind you. Important to know, don’t sit around waiting for inspiration or flow. Make it by doing.

Sometimes if it’s your job that will mean grinding through the tough bits will little or no flow. I’ll end this part off by saying on one hand you should listen to that, and on the other if it’s your livelihood, if you’ve committed yourself and made promises sometimes you end up having to do things anyway. Sorry it’s not an easy anser thing, a bit of a personal call, when to walk away

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 that illustrate why!

I mentioned Learned Helplessness in my opening ramble and in nearly every class I have there’s at least a few people who are wrestling with it. Some have no idea they just don’t think they have any control over learning, others know it’s name. In either case I find naming the beasts is empowering.

It’s really pretty simple. It’s feeling like you can’t do or figure out things for yourself due to a negative framing of our relationships to the tasks. It might be because of something we were told, or failed at in the attempt in the past. We all experience this at some point I suspect and It’s easy to induce. Being mindful of it and less vulnerable to it in ourselves is super valuable to learning art, but also simply living! So a good thing to know about IMO.

A related haunting of the confidence of most artists is Imposter Syndrome, it’s common, and one should not have an over inflated ego either. But we frequently overcompensate and psych ourselves out. Remind yourself it’s just drawing, not neurosurgery. Worst case you start over.

I’ve embed this Veritasium clip on Learned Helplessness. 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.

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