Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Improving yourself

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One of the reasons I like to do things  (really anything if it comes to it) is because I think I might, with practice, be able to do that thing better.  A lot better!  I was one of those good all round people – except at sports where I was truly horrible! I remember shivering on York Knavesmire ( a muddy field for knaves to exercise!) trying to shelter beneath a hockey stick!     So I always wanted one day, to be really good at Something.

Over 100 years ago, John Ruskin said practicing drawing for an hour a day guaranteed you could draw in 6 months.    But I wonder if this idea of practice leading to improvement is actually true??  When I look back at quilts I made ten years ago, I think some of them are better than those I’m making now – yes!  some are definitely worse!! and I’ve learned a little about what NOT to make..but I begin to worry that the “good” ones are not getting any better. The same is true of the watercolors.  And,  I don’t think my cogitations are getting any better, either, but perhaps my Scrabble is improving!!

Does anyone else make things in the hope that by the making of them they will get better at making?  In a way one would not really expect just by repetition that one would improve.  Even though that’s what “they” always advise.

Doing a little research on this I came up with some interesting suggestions from the net – the ideas  were actually suggested for improvement in other things but I think they generalize.  The problem is,  are they right?

  • Everything you do regularly is improvable. How fast you improve is different for everyone. The thing that would speed the process up is to practice as much as possible and with different players. Work with someone who is much better than you.
    Sadly, different players not possible in art! though that would be a lot of fun and would definitely lead one to up one’s game I would think. I would love to work with someone better than me, but I find that most “good” artists really prefer to work alone.

  • Improvement in  something involving logic will happen for as long as you keep trying – even the best still will get better over time and with more practice, trying out different ideas as they go along.
    Hmm, there’s some logic in art, but not a lot!

  • There are many books, focusing on a different aspects of this activity….try reading a few, you will improve faster. 
    I have read the books, though there are few (if any) good ones particularly pertaining to art quilts, and definitely have a lot more actual knowledge, but does it improve the work?

  • Stay at it and  work carefully. Do not focus on irrelevant details, but instead on an overall plan.  Just stay at it and as you work more you’ll learn more strategies.
      I can see that it’s important to not worry about details in composition, but are there irrelevant details that will affect learning? That’s an interesting question.  I’m sure many a trainer would like to know what their trainee should NOT waste their time on.  Of course things like ironing and petting the fabric come immediately to mind!!  but, such a source of pleasure should not be eliminated!

  • It depends on how often you have a mentor check your work.  Get a coach and work with them.
    This does sound like a good idea and is a great reason to take a class or even spring for individual lessons.  I think if you just keep doing and doing and doing without any external input there’s a limit to how far you can get.

  • Average people start out terrible, they also don’t improve really fast (just like anything), but this doesn’t matter, these people can still go on to become really good if they love it and practice every day.  You need to practice every day which is good because it takes thousands of hours of study and practice.
    Daily practice, daily practice…it sounds good but I wonder. There’s a faintly religious tone to this suggestion.   Has anyone actually checked?  Like the exercises the physiotherapists give you; there’s always 3 sets of ten repeats.  Why?  why not two times 15?

  • Have fun with it and the improvement will follow.
    I cannot see how this can be true, except to encourage more practice!  Certainly I don’t know that anyone has tested the theory that having fun will improve one’s ability though it definitely would improve mood!

  • Improvement is a herky-jerky affair. You study and see no improvement for weeks or months, then suddenly you wake up one day and you’re "seeing" more clearly. Go through one or two of those vision plateaus and you’ll be good enough…good enough. .
    Ha! I’ve heard too much about this mythical plateaus; I see no reason why learning should not be linear if it’s done properly.

  • Positive thinking.
      Now I used to be in the  psychology trade for a while and positive thinking can certainly help you in some areas -  specifically in overcoming negative thinking!!  but I really don’t see how it could ever help you to learn something new.

  • The best way to improve is to work on the fundamentals.
    I like this idea, it definitely makes sense.  And this is something I definitely focus on in both my actual and virtual classes.  Sometimes you just have to take stock and go back to the beginning, asking yourself what is strong and what is weak in the work.

  • If you want to progress, you need to learn how to criticize yourself. It is easier to criticize other’s work than our own but the art of self criticism is essential to learning from mistakes and improving.
    While I’m sure this is true, I’ve always felt that criticism without guidance is totally meaningless.  “Don’t do that” is just useless – though how very often I’ve been told that in my life!! What works better is “don’t do that, do this”.  But rarely do people take the time, or have the knowledge, to do that.  I’ve found that even “famous” teachers will simply say “well this isn’t well resolved”.  Yes! and…..????

  • Self criticism means being honest with oneself. There is no benefit from rationalization.
    I have definitely found this to be true with a few people I meet in workshops; sometimes it’s rational to rationalize, other times it ain’t!

  • Invite suggestions from others.
    This one is helpful only if the others give useful advice!  but sometimes it can be gathered in unusual places.  You don’t have to be an art teacher/curator etc to have an “eye”.  A good engineer can often detect what is wrong with the structure.

    Okay, enough rambling, time to go out and Improve!  I’d love to hear what you’ve found helpful in trying to improve – or, alternatively, not helpful and simply a waste of time and money!! 
    And, if you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth

    P.S. Some people asked about classes: my online Working in Series on won’t be actually On Line for quite a while, though I will announce it when it is.  But, I am teaching the same subject at Hudson River Valley fiber art workshops this Spring (first week in May) and there are a few places left in the class.  It’s a lovely spot and easy to get to via shuttle from Albany, NY airport, or Amtrak, or by car, donkeys  and bicycles take a bit longer!

  • 16 comments:

    Karen M said...

    Perhaps the good earlier quilts are as good as the good later quilts only because you were working on an easier problem at the time. You seem to be working with more complex subjects, and more complex issues around those subjects, thus essentially raising the bar on yourself. The improvement is there because you can now handle a subject on a deeper level than you could before.

    cyn said...

    well, here we go...
    out into the great wide open of defining art goals...!
    "when i paint my masterpiece," as the great ones have sung.
    i think each artist must ask... before deciding methodology or while deciding methods or after trying methods:
    what does improvement mean to me?
    where am i going?
    am i looking to make individual pieces better or am i seeking to shift a whole body of work?
    who is judging? me? buyers? jurists? my family? my guild? whose eye matters to me?
    i'd love to go point for point over the improvement techniques you've mentioned. i feel i learn a lot about my sewing by doing and thinking non-sewing (garden, cook, photo, talk). maybe you can come lead an art quilter's philosophy workshop on the west coast. :)
    or... if you'll be in Denver at the SAQA event, we can do a latenight bar session. I know several who would hoist a few beverages over this very topic who will be in attendance.
    :)

    Pat said...

    I think you are wrong about progress being linear. I have always found progress to be linear then a plateau then a sudden leap.

    Probably very personal but I find that, if I start dreaming about a technique, it is the precursor of a leap in ability in that technique!

    Jane said...

    I don't think anyone will improve unless they work with the intention of wanting to improve. For myself this means studying my work as it proceeds, looking for new ways/techniques to express ideas, following my intuition, letting the piece tell me when it is done. There is nothing new in any of that; but if the intention is not behind it, I find myself running in place.
    I took a class with Nancy Crow where we had HW beforehand. It involved showing up with 30 plus different ideas to work from. After several months of preparing, my brain was humming, tuned up and ready to go at that workshop. There is definitely something to be said for putting in the time.
    As always - lovely thought provoking topics - I so enjoy reading!

    Kay said...

    Isn't it Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers who proposes the 10,000 hours theory? Something like that, anyway. The point being that it takes a tremendous amount of time to excel. Practice every day would mean more like 8-10 hours a day.

    Kristin L said...

    My kids' taekwondo coach says that it's not "practice makes perfect," but rather "Practice makes permanent." So, though after many hours of practice you might be able to do a move instinctively, it won't be correct if the repeats you've been doing were wrong to begin with. There's no right and wrong in subjective creative endeavors, but I think Jane has her finger on it when she wrote that you must have the intention to improve. The same mediocre work will remain mediocre (permanent) if there's no effort to improve. Putting in the hours while questioning, observing, and being honest with oneself is more likely teh practice that will make perfect.

    Terry said...

    I find that practice improves the mechanical things, like drawing, free-motion quilting, etc., but I despair sometimes about how to improve my vision, my imagination, my problem-solving abilities. Sometimes I too look at an older piece and am kind of astounded by it. I can't even remember how I felt doing it or where the inspiration came from. It is like someone else's work. Being self-critical is, as you point out, not a problem for me, but giving myself advice as to how to improve is the hard part. I keep feeling like there is a focus that I need to achieve that I haven't gotten to yet. Maybe I need to stop reading blogs and looking at other people's work!

    mad elena said...

    Terrific food for thought, Elizabeth.

    If it's a technique or skill, like sewing a straight seam or cutting a straight line without a straight edge, then yes, practice is worthwhile.

    With an expanded definition to doing or making - practice can lead to exciting new explorations and results. But only if I'm willing to travel down a more varied path and not repeating the same o' same o'. Otherwise, what's the point of re-doing?

    In regards to composition or design or the "eye". Improvement does not happen in a vacuum. That needs someone who has "it", like an instructor or guide, who can communicate and show you what s/he sees. And from that you must be able to see what s/he sees too, otherwise the info is lost.

    In a workshop Nancy Crow pointed out two quirky spots in a composition – one to redo and one to leave in. Despite her explanations why one is acceptable and the other isn't, I couldn't see the difference and remain confused. Maybe with more "eye" training, I may one day understand that differentiation.

    I am "practicing" to be a good artist by learning techniques then using them to pursue possible paths. As I explore these paths, I hope my eye will get more discerning & my work will develop, change and deepen. Put that way, practice does leads to improvement.

    You have put those 10,000 hours in a different light. Thanks!

    sandra wyman said...

    Practice on its own doesn't do it for me UNLESS I am also prepared to challenge myself. Going outside the comfort zone is scary: but - as I found when I attended drawing lessons - provided you can learn from mistakes and failures (which means being prepared to learn to love them!) they are the most valuable way of getting to where you want to be. However, working outside your comfort zone ALL the time can also be dangerous as you also need time to consolidate what you've learnt. As ever, it becomes a constant balancing act!

    magsramsay said...

    I had several years when the only painting I did was in 2 or 3 week long courses a year. The first few days were always spent relearning and getting to the stage I'd been at the end of the previous course although I found it took less and less time to get to that point. Of course the tutor said that if I did more in between I would be so much better and he was right and I'm trying to do more of a daily or at least weekly practice. But there's something very pleasurable about seeing substantive progress - it's so difficult to plot when changes are so subtle.

    At any one time we can make stuff that's really good and some that's mediocre , it's just that (hopefully!) the proportion of good stuff increases.Now and again we achieve what a music teacher friend calls 'playing beyond yourself'- producing something that is really better that our current capabilities , that gives a taste of what might be achieved if consistently improve.
    Some of my best ( and worst) watercolours were in the very first travel journal I did in Australia in the 90's when the medium was new to me and I was experimenting, learning fast but also paying attention to what worked or didn't.

    Ruth said...

    Actually being a physical therapist, there have been studies on the number of repetitions that provide the most gain in strength and that number is 7-10. I'm sure everyone uses 10 because we have 10 fingers to count on when doing said exercises.

    Kaylene said...

    Elizabeth, how true your comments on improvement. I have certainly noticed the difference in my work and how I think about it from the various online classes I have taken over the past two years.

    Ellen Lindner said...

    I used to be a flight instructor. (What's more challenging to teach than flying?) Anyway, based on my experiences, I'll comment on just a few of the many good ideas you've listed for improvement.
    - Pleasant experiences DO enhance learning. So, I think the "have fun with it" idea has merit.
    - Learning plateaus DO happen. It's a good thing for us to recognize so we dont' get discouraged when I progress stagnates.
    You've DEFINITELY improved, Elizabeth! (Refernce your previous post for many excellent examples. WHO can think that way but you?)

    Ellen Lindner said...

    P.S. Clearly my spelling hasn't improved!

    tongfengdemao said...

    I think that if I am constantly seeking not only to improve, but to stretch, reach for the new and different, what I create will probably be uneven in quality. Once I have the fundamentals, I think the quality of those should only improve, but experimentation may sometimes even thwart that somewhat in the actual execution.
    When I look at your two examples, I prefer the first, but really only because I prefer the color and subject. I haven't done any art long enough to have that look back in a comparative way, but sometimes I think "What was appealing about that item?" and other times it's "Why didn't I do more of that? I like it." So, I think part of it is that as we grow, what we consider good is somewhat (or greatly) altered and that element will always be subjective.
    I think perhaps I've been rambling, but you do make me think!

    California Fiber artist and composer said...

    I definitely do things repeatedly with the hope I will get better. In exercise and cycling it pays off. In machine quilting it pays off if I do it very regularly. In other areas such as design I have my doubts. Some of my older quilts are definitely better both design and workwomanship-wise than my present work.