Tools and Writings for Oil Painters, Draftsmen and Artists

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.

Now that we have introduced why it is so hard to practice drawing in our previous discussion, let me give you an idea of what an implementation of problem-solving into your practice can look like. But first of all we need to define what the word practice means.

1)What does the word “practice” mean?

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 and improvement. They usually think that taking action is synonymous to efficiency. But why should it be?

2)What usually happens when we practice drawing?

Practice is not a linear activity. Obstacles or errors pop up all the time like the snake in the Garden of Eden. One should not dismiss them as they contribute to whatever you’re trying to achieve. Don’t underestimate our capacity of forgetting our 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 see only what we want to see, what we are searching for 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. Paying attention and doing or thinking don’t seem to be the same thing : scientists have theorized different brain circuits for attention.

Without attention, we might get trapped in a “sterile” time loop and repeat our errors forever. Why does Joseph Grand, Camus’ writer in The Plague, never go 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.”

3)Your drawings are constellations of potential errors or inconveniences

Once we have paid attention, there’s something else we need to know and Peterson’s extract here below will give us useful clues. At first encounter, anomalies will awake negative emotions or indifference in most of us. Anomalies are relevant or not depending on our goals. If we have spotted an anomaly and it is not jeopardizing our goals, then it is not really an anomaly (even if it might be from someone else’s viewpoint).

However, if anomalies are legitimate, then they must be dealt with. That is difficult since each drawing might be looked at as it were an unpleasant self-portrait similar to Dorian Gray’s. Who wouldn’t want to sweep the “ugliness” under the rug and act as if it were “only a drawing”. We have to be aware of the pitfalls and unconscious drives that threaten our progress here.

I have come to understand that the methods adapted to grasping errors in a drawing are themselves s 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 a lifetime work in progress.

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.

4)An effective drawing practice needs a good memory strategy

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. And there are vital reasons for that as Nietzsche explains in Genealogy of Morals.

But because we need to memorize our drawing errors (and their solutions),  we need a robust strategy for not forgetting. Among strategies that address memory, there’s one that’s not very costly to your “digestion” and that appears time and again in artists’ habits : taking notes, reviewing them regularly and integrating them into your work. 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.”

5)Slowing down as a way of giving form and making art

“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 that works.

“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” the mistakes.

Think of the object you’re depicting as a piece of music playing itself before your eyes (and ears!) 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.”

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

6)You need to simplify and break down your drawing exercises into simple and meaningful 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 objects that are presented to you in 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.

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, then 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 aspiring musicians break down pieces they’re learning to a measure of music if not single notes.

Of course, it is not so intuitive in drawing as there aren’t such strong conventions for ordering sections of a work. I will elaborate more on that later.

“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.”

7)Drawing against 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…

One method that works well this way is sight-size drawing (see picture 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.


8)Why you need to get 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, 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 worth the while in the long run.

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

9)Why you need to be courageous to solve problems in your drawing? 

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. I advise you to take more rests and not practice more than 1 hour a day as a beginner.

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