Thursday, February 3, 2011

The practice of value and the value of practice

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.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         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.

onthelatchhp 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!milltown

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!  


Lorie McCown said...

How nice to discover your blog. I love your approach to art making. For those of us that slogged (yep, it was a slog some days) through art school, I think we take these art basics for granted. It's always important to review (or learn!)the very basics, value, line, form, color etc.. and as you stated, repeat them over until they become natural. Like an athlete or musician who trains and practices, artists need the training as well ( I think). I like to keep a sketchbook of these types of excercises, and work quickly, every day on just sketches, and such. Helps keep my brain in the 'art' mode vs. the myriad of other modes it tries to slip into. Nice post!

June said...

I think the hardest (hence perhaps most valuable?) way to asses value etc is in the real world, where comparisons are most difficult because of confusions of light and hue. Practicing with black and white and gray is a good start (not that you are at the starting line -- more like nearing the finish) but your walking and trying to suss out the differences sounds to me like the ultimate challenge.

One of my earliest workshops was from Nancy Crow who had us bring 100 different solid colors -- and the first task was to sort them by value. But that was years ago; I think I'll go outside today and practice. Thanks, Elizabeth.

And you are right about taking classes (perhaps better than workshops) where you get ongoing feedback. There too I'm behind my own theory. But it only took Van Gogh five years to achieve mastery, so there's hope for both of us.

Jackie said...

I am currently in your online class and have taken class in person as well. I'm taking this class to spur myself into following a sequence for designing, which includes value studies. I HAVE taken class from you, I learned--truly--the importance of value studies, and yet, I thought I'd just hurry by with them and DO them to get on with the process. Lo! and Behold!!! I've finished studies two designs so far and realized that the second was much more interesting with the values reversed, so I made a third on that premise, since not all the values worked in a reversed mode. So knowing and even having done the process, is not enough. I think I require 10,000 hours on values alone. Someday I'll be a very old success! But thank you for sharing the methods of rehearsing outside the studio, most useful!

Diane Melms said...

How about playing around with value scales done by changing the density of black marks you make on white paper. You can try it with all kinds of patterns. My students did stunning portraits this way after practicing a series of value scales.

Kristi said...

There are no Outliers! We can all put in 10,000 hours and become great. However, some just want to call it good at 1,000. My desire has never been to achieve accolades, but to be able to express my view of the world in a competent way. That takes practice!

Lori LaBerge said...

You've got me searching for my Josef Alber's books tonight. In classes I often use paint chips and have students start with the neutral white to black and progress to putting 3 different colors in value order, then 4 and so on. There are often disagreements as these progress and I'd like to read more on how individual perception is involved in value differentiation. One person's blue can be another's green. Is value affected the same way? Thanks for bringing this up as a topic.

Elsie Montgomery said...

June raises a good point. I saw a trio of quilts using small squares of solids from the color wheel (12 colors) plus tones and tints, also solids. The three quilts had different backgrounds: white, black, and gray. Amazing how different those small squares looked in a different setting, even though they had not changed. Value is so very relative. And when I think I am "very good" and sit beside you, or someone else who is "very good" suddenly my value changes! Love this blog!

cyn said...

hmmmm... seems you're not the only one thinking in terms of practicing to 100 this week.
check out little wolf's mark making practice. got me to thinking about how to do the same thing with stitches... sort of a dictionary of "my" stitches.

Elizabeth Barton said...

they're still doing the 100 drawings on little cards in art school - I saw them all taped up on the walls last semester - a whole gallery full. It looked pretty neat...but I'd love to know what the real practice is about.

Sue Walen said...

Ah, I remember that sorting in Nancy Crow's class. Here's a little tip I learned somewhere along the way: set your camera to shoot only B/W. Even if you don't click the shutter, it allows you to look in only grayscale, and when sorting different hues for value, it's invaluable.
Thank you for the tip to practice when walking. There, the "squint" is the tool (altho' it probably doubles our wrinkles!).