I decided to take a painting class in my quest for self improvement. During a recession when both goods and services are in much less demand, one way of using the extra time is to improve at what you do. While I’m a great believer in learning from books, all the evidence is that two things are necessary for improvement: 10,000 hours of practice and a good teacher. Very often the teacher is a father (Mozart, Tiger Woods are often mentioned in this regard), or in countries like the China of former times, one apprenticed oneself to a teacher. It is difficult to find the right teacher, but I think one can learn something from anyone who has practiced a skill a lot. The importance of a good teacher or coach is really evident if one reads any athlete’s biography: Andre Agassi’s book Open describes the difficulties involved with poor teachers, recent discussion re Andy Murray’s loss in the Australian Open finals suggests that one factor that was that his coach was not there in the Final.
Scientists in different parts of the world have studied the “genius” phenomenon and all have concluded that it takes a tremendous amount of time on task to improve. Neurologist Daniel Levitin stated: "It seems it takes the brain this long to assimilate all it needs to know to achieve true mastery.” The Beatles apparently played at least 1200 concerts in Berlin (more than many other bands play ever), playing at least 8 hours a day 7 days a week, before being acclaimed as a new wonder band, an “overnight success”.
Much of the controlled research both with the British scientists studying violinists in Berlin and the scientists from the University of Florida has been done on musicians. However, the fact that an incredible amount of practice is necessary for excellence in any field is revealed over and over again: in writing, in scientific discovery, in sports, in complex games like chess and many other fields. Interestingly, I don’t know of any particular research in the field of art, but if you read any artist’s biography you’ll see that often they were drawing on the walls of their nursery from babyhood and simply never stopped! Well I don’t know if I’ve got 10,000 hours left in me!! At a modest rate of 4 hours a day (probably about all most of us can manage in this complicated age), that’s about 7 years. Well.. possibly!! hmm…let’s try!
And it is the amount of practice that makes the difference between good and brilliant. Top performers, by the time they celebrated their 20th birthday, reached 10,000 hours of practice, but those who simply showed good results achieved the amount of 8,000 hours. I’d be happy with being “simply good”!!
And of course it is important that the practice be guided, encouraged, even dictated. Sadly (or perhaps just as well!) most of us don’t have a father like Mozart’s standing over us, so I think taking a class helps one to focus on doing more with the added benefit of the outside coach. Even if the coach is saying stuff you know very well, it needs to be applied over and over. I’m also interested, too, in how a different teacher approaches a task. In what order should things be addressed? Well last night’s teacher began with value studies – we only have to do one. But being an over achiever I’m going to try to do a LOT. And instead of taking the first one I like, I’m going to do as many as I can, pin them up on the design wall and live with them.
So why bother with value studies anyway? Because research has revealed that taking apart the steps involved in any complex task and become a mastery at each one of them, practicing over and over until the brain can do it automatically, is what is required for improvement. One of the most important things to get right in composition and design is a mastery over value.
Okay, so how do I get from being fairly good to being very good? (forget genius!! I’ll accept “very good”!). Obviously lots of practice, but it doesn’t have to be the same thing over and over. There are lots of different ways of doing value studies which I think that will help to keep it interesting.
1. I think the very first step is to focus only on value. Pure value with no other distractions. Pencil and paper is the simplest of all. I shall practice drawing a scale with as many values as I think I can discriminate. The goal is to get to ten: from white to black, each time adding 10% more grey to white, hmm I guess that’s actually eleven!! (thinking of how many telegraph poles you need at 10 yards apart for 100 yards!). We are all used to working with three: light, medium, dark. It’s a case of working up from there. Actually this kind of shading practice can be done in many different situations – in waiting rooms, while on hold, in those dreadful staff meetings I retired to avoid!
2. I can also focus on value with fabric – since most fabric is colored and not just grey, this will add a level of complexity(but if not sure I can always photocopy in black/white a scrap of the fabric in question). I’ll first sort into three values (light, medium dark), then try four (light, medium light, medium dark and dark) and keep increasing the number of values and see how far I can get. I don’t know about you but it helps me to put a name to the shade: so 5 values would be: light, medium light, medium, medium dark and dark and so on.
3. I can try this on my daily walk: okay is the pavement lighter than the grass? is this tree darker than that? and how do they compare to some absolute grey scale?
3. I can do this with snippets of grey cut from magazine advertisements.
4.And with shades of grey in Photoshop. If I scan in an outline sketch, I can choose many values of grey from any of the colour charts and fill (using Paint Bucket) in the different areas of my sketch.
5. I could even get out my paints! It is after all a painting class.
So, have you any other ideas as to how one could develop mastery over value?? And – keep it interesting? I’d be happy to learn!! I shall set myself a goal of 100 little value studies of all these different kinds and hope that some improvement will then be evident! A little encouragement and direction goes a long way…..
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!! AND commenting!! that’s the good bit! The marzipan on the cake! (forget the icing, it was the marzipan I always loved).
PS The quilts are from my “grey” period!