How to practice drawing efficiently n°1 : by considering learning itself as an art.

Our cultures don’t encourage us to think much about learning. Instead we regard it as something that just happens to us. But learning must itself consist of sets of skills we grow ourselves; we start with only some of them and slowly grow the rest. Why don’t more people keep on learning more and better learning skills? Because it’s not rewarded right away, its payoff has a long delay. (Marvin Minsky)

Marvin Minsky might be right in thinking that learning is an art by itself. That implies that learning drawing is more complex than what it appears. We have to learn to learn before we learn to draw.

Why successful artists try to hide this second part of their lives is not really a mystery : who would want the hard work behind one’s magical skills to be uncovered?

To write this article, I have relied heavily on psychology, philosophy and literature as a way to widen my insights into the subject of learning. It is a difficult article and you might have to consult it many times before understanding anything. In the previous article, I had explained why it is so hard to practice drawing. In this one, I go deeper into the subject and give the principles behind applying problem-solving to one’s practice. But first I need to define what the word practice means.

How to practice drawing efficiently n°2 : by understanding what the word practice really means.

According to the Cambridge dictionary, the word practice has several meanings:

  • action rather than thought or ideas
  • something that is usually or regularly done, often as a habit, tradition, or custom
  • the act of doing something regularly or repeatedly to improve your skill at doing it
  • a job or business that involves a lot of skill or training

The first thing we realize is that definitions 1) and 2) are not directly about skill as opposed to 3) and 4). And in fact, I think a lot of people only act upon 1) and 2) and forget about skill. They usually think that taking action is synonymous to efficiency. But why should it be?

How to practice drawing efficiently n°3 : by paying attention to your mistakes.

Practice is not a linear activity. Obstacles pop up all the time like the snake in the Garden of Eden. You should not dismiss them as they contribute to whatever you’re trying to achieve. Don’t underestimate your capacity of forgetting your errors and the inverse capacity of others of spotting them.

Is the fundamental problem of practice related to the limitations of our vision system or what I call our confidence in thinking we “see” everything that passes in our field of vision? Psychological experimental results have long been saying that contrary to our perception, we are “mostly” blind. An explanation might be that we only see what we want to see or what we are competent to see.

While this is certainly healthy, to improve the level of our skills, it is my belief that we won’t achieve much only by “practice” (meanings 1 and 2). We have to be more specific : we have to pay attention to what we might be doing wrong. Now here, we have to be careful because paying attention and thinking don’t seem to be the same thing. In fact, scientists have theorized different brain circuits for attention.

Without attention, we might get trapped in a “sterile” loop and repeat our errors forever. A little bit like Joseph Grand, Camus’ writer in The Plague, who never goes further than writing the first sentence of his book!

There's always an anomaly lurking somewhere in our drawings and paintings. Will you see it?

In searching for your errors, you have to pay attention. Paying attention does not call to “the same brain circuits” than thinking or speaking. “It’s watching for what you don’t know”. “Watch your [drawings] like a hawk [and your drawing will tell you what’s wrong]”. “That’s the metaphysical space that artists occupy.”

How to practice drawing efficiently n°4 : by dealing with errors forthrightly.

Once we have paid attention, there’s something else we need to know. Peterson’s extract here below will give us useful clues. At first encounter, anomalies in our drawings will awaken either negative emotions or indifference. Which one it will be depends on whether or not they are relevant to our goals.

If anomalies are jeopardizing our goals and we’re conscious of it, then they must be dealt with. That is more difficult than you’d think because we usually underestimate the psychological impact of our drawings. In fact our artworks are often symbolised as self-portraits and usually not flattering ones. It is similar to what the portrait of Dorian Gray represents in Oscar Wilde’s novel. So who wouldn’t want to sweep that “ugliness” under the rug and act as if it were “only a drawing”. But if we aim at being professional artists, we must look at these errors in the eye. They should even be viewed as life-threatening because, as Peterson suggests, these inconveniences can destroy your goals. Therefore, we have to be aware of the unconscious drives that threaten our progress here.

To address that, there is no other way than to understand that the methods adapted to grasping errors in a drawing are themselves a set of skills. I’ve gathered here below a few examples of what I think these skills are. It’s not an exhaustive account by any means. I’m afraid the subject is too complex and goes beyond anyone’s full grasp.

“We tell ourselves stories about who we are, where we would like to be, and how we are going to get there. These stories regulate our emotions, by determining the significance of all the things we encounter and all the events we experience. We regard things that get us on our way as positive, things that impede our progress as negative, and things that do neither as irrelevant. Most things are irrelevant – and that is a good thing, as we have limited attentional resources.
Inconveniences interfere with our plans. We do not like inconveniences, and will avoid dealing with them. Nonetheless, they occur commonly – so commonly, in fact, that they might be regarded as an integral, “predictable,” and constant feature of the human environment. We have adapted to this feature –have the intrinsic resources to cope with inconveniences. We benefit, become stronger, in doing so.

Ignored inconveniences accumulate, rather than disappear. When they accumulate in sufficient numbers, they produce a catastrophe – a self-induced catastrophe, to be sure, but one that may be indistinguishable from an “act of God.” Inconveniences interfere with the integrity of our plans – so we tend to pretend that they are not there. Catastrophes, by contrast, interfere with the integrity of our whole stories, and massively dysregulate our emotions. By their nature, they are harder to ignore – although that does not stop us from trying to do so.

Inconveniences are common; unfortunately, so are catastrophes – self-induced and otherwise. We are adapted to catastrophes, like inconveniences, as constant environmental features. We can resolve a catastrophe, just as we can cope with an inconvenience – although at higher cost. As a consequence of this adaptation, this capacity for resolution, catastrophe can rejuvenate. It can also destroy.

The more ignored inconveniences in a given catastrophe, the more likely it will destroy.”

How to practice drawing efficiently n°5 : by keeping track of your problems and their solutions.

Before I delve into the strategies, you need to understand one thing about memory as explained in this previous article. If you rely on your own experience and not on common opinion, you will realise that we are not as good as we think at remembering. It shouldn’t be a surprise : we’ve had experimental results confirming that for more than a 100 years.

But it’s even worse than what you’d expect : according to the forgetting curve, we forget in an exponential manner. There are strong vital reasons for that as Nietzsche explains in the Genealogy of Morals.

But because we need to memorize our drawing errors (and their solutions),  we need a bit of strategy for not forgetting. Among strategies that address memory, there’s one that’s not very costly to our “digestion” and that appears time and again in artists’ habits : taking notes! So take notes and review them regularly. They will become part of your art. Proust and Nietzsche made an art out of that.

“Forgetfulness is not just a vis inertiae, as superficial people believe, but is rather an active ability to suppress, positive in the strongest sense of the word, to which we owe the fact that what we simply live through, experience, take in, no more enters our consciousness during digestion (one could call it spiritual ingestion) than does the thousand-fold process which takes place with our physical consumption of food, our so-called ingestion. To shut the doors and windows of consciousness for a while; not to be bothered by the noise and battle which our underworld of serviceable organs work with and against each other; a little peace, a little tabula rasa of consciousness to make room for something new, above all for the nobler functions and functionaries, for ruling, predicting, predetermining (our organism runs along oligarchic lines, you see) – that, as I said, is the benefit of active forgetfulness, like a doorkeeper or guardian of mental order, rest and etiquette: from which can immediately see how there could be no happiness, cheerfulness, hope, pride, immediacy, without forgetfulness.”

“Hermann Ebbinghaus, in one of the first psychological experiments in history, spent years memorizing nonsense syllables, much in the same way Richards memorizes Scrabble words, and carefully tracking his ability to recall them later. From this original research, later verified by more experimentally robust studies, Ebbinghaus discovered the forgetting curve. This curve shows that we tend to forget things incredibly quickly after learning them, there being an exponential decay in knowledge, which is steepest right after learning. However, Ebbinghaus noted, this forgetting tapers off, and the amount of knowledge forgotten lessens over time. Our minds are a leaky bucket; however, most of the holes are near the top, so the water that remains at the bottom leaks out more slowly. Over the intervening years, psychologists have identified at least three dominant theories to help explain why our brains forget much of what we initially learn: decay, interference, and forgotten cues. Though the jury is still out on the exact mechanism underlying human long-term memory, these three ideas likely form some part of explaining why we tend to forget things and, conversely, provide insight into how we might better retain what we’ve learned.”

How to practice drawing efficiently n°6 : by slowing down.

“There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.” It is obvious why Kundera would make a 18th century love affair the playground for such qualities. But art is another sensual playground for slowness.

“When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain about anything, about anything at all, not even about himself”(Kundera, Slowness). Errors or unwanted idiosyncrasies have a tendancy to hide in between the lines. If we play the music above our pace, we will never “see” our mistakes.

Think of the object you’re drawing as a piece of music playing itself before your ears (and eyes!) You can hear the music but, unless you’re a trained musician, in order to analyse it, you need to play the music more slowly. Observing things more carefully means slowing down.

“By slowing the course of their night, by dividing it into different stages, each separate from the next, Madame de T. bas succeeded in giving the small span of time accorded them the semblance of a marvelous little architecture, of a form. Imposing form on a period of time is what beauty demands, but so does memory. For what is formless cannot be grasped, or committed to memory. Conceiving their encounter as a form was especially precious for them, since their night was to have no tomorrow and could be repeated only through recollection.

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. Consider this utterly commonplace situation: a man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down. Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time.”

How to practice drawing efficiently n°7 : by breaking down your drawing exercises into simple pieces.

Again, this is common sense in music. You need to decompose your work and climb the ladder of complexity step by step. Of course, you can’t do that unless you slow down.

Don’t underestimate how difficult it is to decompose your field of vision. Vision scientists and artificial intelligence experts (see Marvin Minsky below) have not really been successful at making computers do that task.

More generally, decomposition is a strategy for handling complex subjects. So next time you have something to practice and it seems difficult, “break it apart” and make small digestible meaningful sections. Write all of this down for reference and start practicing the sections that are not at the level you’re aiming at. If there are sections that are satisfactory, don’t spend time on them. Move to the difficult parts.

If at one point you realize some section is still too complex, break it down again in even smaller pieces. Break it down to the most elementary level if you need to. As a helpful analogy, you should know that most musicians break down pieces they’re learning to a measure of music if not single notes.

Of course, decomposition is not so intuitive in drawing as there aren’t such strong conventions for ordering sections of a work. Also decomposition never comes without its alter ego : unification. But we will leave unification for another article.

“I like to think that this project gave us glimpses of what happens inside certain parts of children’s minds when they learn to “play” with simple toys. The project left us wondering if even a thousand microskills would be enough to enable a child to fill a pail with sand.”

How to practice drawing efficiently n°8 : by analysing and prioritizing each skill.

Here are the different ways in which you can break down your practice, drawing exercises or works.

If you’re studying a drawing exercise, first try to execute it without questioning the instructions. If the result is not satisfactory, try to see how many skills are involved and how many you already master. Leave the latter aside and concentrate on the skills that are problematic. Try to give them a priority depending on your own judgement of what is really important to master first. In doing that, don’t plow before the horse! Start with the low level skills : meaning those that are a pre-requisite to the more difficult ones. At the end, you should come up with an updated personal version of the exercise that answers your needs as a student. This is an iterative process and if your assessment is wrong you can refresh it.

For instance, it is not wise to start drawing the figure in graphite before understanding anything about graphite pencils, what their advantages and properties are, what paper to choose for graphite and so on. If you don’t go through this step, you’ll have everlasting difficulties mastering the graphite when drawing the figure.

If you’re making a whole drawing, one method realist artists frequently use is to start the work by isolating a portion of the object and concentrate on that. If it’s a photography of a figure for instance, they try drawing only an arm or a leg or whatever. The whole figure is too overwhelming to be tackled at once! So if the subject leaves you undecided to how you should isolate one part, then choose the most simple one. If there is a very dark background in the scene for instance, choose that so that you can calibrate all the rest to the value of the background.

Before you plunge into figure drawing with the live model in graphite pencil, it useful to learn thoroughly what graphite is, what its properties are and make yourself a body of experience from simple graphite studies. This an example of how you should order your different skills in order to be good at graphite drawing. If you want more info about graphite, click on my article.

How to practice drawing efficiently n°9 : by looking closer or further, by magnifying or reducing objects.

Very good tools for studying objects, whether they are real or from books, are magnifying glasses and binoculars. Anything that allows you to blow up some difficult part of a frame is a useful source of information.

As I explained in my article on realistic drawing, it is useful to make the following experiment to get a taste of how rich reality is : take a photograph of anything you like and start counting how many different entities you see. These can be anything from a line, a dot, a spot, a part of an object, a whole object and so on. You can use a magnifying glass to bump the details.

Blowing things up allows you to concentrate on a small fraction of space and try to find interesting patterns. Of course, looking at things at a big scale is also interesting but the patterns you will see will probably be of a different nature. Both ways of looking are valuable.

“Blow up” like a photographer whatever it is you’re working on. If you can’t see what you’re looking, try looking deeper.

When did artists start searching for reality as if we could never have enough of it? Wasn’t there a time where proximity to the real was deemed ungraceful and profane? Because, after all, why go through all the struggles of realism if this not really what we desire as an aesthetic goal or as the future of Art.

How to practice drawing efficiently n°10 : by using a frame of reference.

At this stage, you understand that you need to slow down and decompose whatever gives you difficulties. This is usually where your elementary errors pop up. If they don’t, you should find ways to compare what you’re doing to a relevant frame of reference. This can be the objects you are depicting, the original drawing, the same drawing done by someone else, some other drawing of similar objects, the teacher’s advice and so on…

For beginners, it is best to take the most simple frame of reference possible. That’s why photographs are highly productive tools. It is even better when these photographs have themselves been simplified to make the drawing easier. However, when doing that, be aware that this is by no means a way to validate photographs as perfect representations of reality. Photographs are interpretations of reality and are meant to be used as learning tools.

One method that also works well this way is sight-size drawing (see feature image of this article above). By placing subject and object side by side and by drawing both the same size as seen from a few feet away, you will spot anomalies more easily than if you were using comparative measurements.

How to practice drawing efficiently n°11 : by getting good at research.

You have now slowed down, decomposed, compared your work to some frame of reference and have thereby found a lot of solutions to your problems. However, there remains some difficult part where you have been stuck for a while. That probably happened because you are missing some useful piece of information that you can’t deduce or invent by yourself. You will learn that all routes to learning are not direct. Therefore you need to get away from your easel for a while and get good at your research skills. 

You need to use whatever resources at your disposal to deepen your understanding of your subject : teachers, books, Internet, Youtube, whatever works…

Let’s say for instance that you’re practicing making light gradations and you’re having problems getting rid of unwanted transitions that make your work uneven. You’ve tried almost everything but you still get these breaks in your drawing.  You need to research videos of artists executing gradations. Youtube is usually a good place to start but odds are you won’t find there exactly what you need. However, by following the comments, links to websites or books, it is probable that you will get closer to a solution.

This can be quite frustrating and can take a long time (days, months or even years). In some cases, the information you’re looking for might not be available or almost impossible to find. But you need to keep practicing this frame of mind. It is the only way of solving very complex problems and it is totally worthwhile in the long run.

While you are researching, don’t forget to save all the useful links and info (remember Proust and our memory problem)!

How to practice drawing efficiently n°12 : by working a small amount every single day

To conclude this article, there’s one last thing you need to be aware of. You need to know that while you are problem-solving, you will experience a lot of cognitive stress. Usage of the analytical parts of our brain is very costly. You will get tired more and more rapidly than before. Don’t panic if you get angry or frustrated. Take more rests and do not practice more than 1 hour per day. The shorter and more efficient you can make your practice, the better. However, to be a professional, it is essential that you practice every single day.

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