Sunday, January 11, 2015

210: Art Hurts–the pain of Deliberate Practise

In blog 205 I wrote about Deliberate Practise. Much has been written about practising deliberately for musicians and athletes but what form would it take for painters?

The kind of deliberation depends on what kind of art you practise. If you paint in an academic tradition a portion of your practice should include a focus on muscle memory–just like an athlete. This means you will devise a routine to rehearse the physical techniques required for the genre–how to hold the brush, moving the hand in a graceful sweep, applying the exact layer of paint to canvas to achieve a precise surface.

Rustic Sentinels, 10" x 10", 8 color woodcut
Other genres–those that depend less on procedure–will require a different type of exercise. If your technique is highly original you will have to create your own series of exercises.

Doing what you normally do to create a painting is not Deliberate Practise. You have to set aside time to practise specific techniques. I accidentally discovered this process with my abstracts. Initially I was making small paintings with massively large strokes to experiment with different ways to apply broken color. If I were to devise Deliberate Exercise to replicate such experiments I might buy 100 small panels and do five paintings a day before I start my regular painting session.

I would augment these sessions by keeping a journal and recording what I'm trying to accomplish. What did I discover that surprised me? What disappointed me? How can I use what I learned in today's painting?

You isolate your weaknesses and devise experiments that strengthen those weaknesses until you have evolved the expression that satisfies you. You keep a list of obstacles and experimental solutions. You have to be brutally honest. Then you practise until you notice improvement. Anything else is a waste of time.

Deliberate Practise is harder for artists because you have to invent the type of practice that will yield your unique style. If you follow the practice pattern of John Singer Sargent you will end up painting like him. Which is a productive path only if you honestly feel you can surpass his genius. Or if you suspect his technique is a necessary step in finding your ultimate style.

Such experiments require highly individual decisions and need as much creativity as your paintings. It is unlikely your path will be a linear progression to your final style. Most likely you will make many false steps forward. It will seem like much of your invented practise was not an efficient use of time. But such is the path of the artist.

Deliberate Practise is not expressive. It is analytical. You are trying to achieve a deliberate objective. It is not fun because you are trying to achieve virtuosity*–a kind of thoughtless excellence–which you have as yet not achieved. You have to bear the boredom and pain of repetition and failed effort. A part of you will insist you are wasting your time and that you need to get back to the fun of painting gallery-ready work.

A patron sitting for a portrait noted that Sargent would paint a section of the portrait, step back to observe his work, step forward and remove the passage, paint it again, remove it, and repeat this process multiple times. The idea of Deliberate Practise had not emerged in Sargent's time but it's a good example of the theory. We can guess that Sargent had a specific image in his mind each time he painted the passage. But each time he failed to realize that vision. So he removed the paint and tried again. This is the kind of persistence and deliberate effort that is a part of Deliberate Practise.

*By virtuosity I mean a mastery of your medium no matter how controlled or spontaneous your paint application.

Brad Teare–January 2015


  1. Hi Brad:

    I really enjoyed this post very much. I've not yet found my personal style. I'm passively looking for it. I used to worry so much about it as I know how important it is to have a very unique and individual style in the market place. I used to have so much worry over it. But I figure it'll show up when it's ready. At least, that's what I've read. It'll happen.

    But your notion of deliberate practice is 100% at the heart of so many aspects of being a painter. I think it is vital to identify a particular aspect of art you need to work on and focusing on it with intention.

    Many times, I get in front of the easel with a specific intention on practicing an approach, technique, or some other aspect that needs development.

    It's vital for growth and development as a painter. This notion of deliberate practice.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks Bob! I'm glad you liked this entry. You are right, style has to evolve naturally. No use forcing it because it will come off as inauthentic (of course). Always good to hear from you.


Thanks for your comments!


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