When I was in middle school I wanted to be a writer of science fiction or fantasy novels. Our school had a well published children’s book author come in to talk to us for a while and I was very excited because she had just written a book for children who wanted to become writers, and that was going to be a focus of her talk. Everything she talked about that day was drowned out by one quote that has either haunted me or helped give me perspective since. I can’t claim to quote directly, but the idea is something like this:
“Ask yourself: do I want to write a book, or do I want to have written a book?”
This points to the dream of the end reward as opposed to the reality of the hard work that one needs to put in before that goal can even begin to materialize. Strangely enough I wrote quite a bit, and continued to do so for a few years, until a growing sense of unease about the quality of my work started to have a negative feedback loop. The more critical of my own writing I became, the less I felt like trying to write in the first place.
Putting work into any craft is the only way to realize results. I would be surprised to meet anyone who hasn’t heard a version of the phrase: “practice makes perfect”. The disconnect, however, between the hard work required at the beginning and the eventual payoff is often extremely difficult to overcome. For me, framing it in the sound logical perspective of rationality wasn’t enough to get me going on a path I thought I wanted.
Visual art was the next interest that began drawing me in. I think one of the appeals, and ultimate distractions, of “art” class in American education is the variety of media. Boiling down the education of creative visual problem solving into a handful of survey classes is a huge disservice and also gross misrepresentation of what students could be learning from these classes. I fell into the same trap that most other do, namely mistaking a variety of projects, mostly different kinds of media, for building skills.
What was most difficult and damaging about creating visual art in this way, was that no one taught the student how to learn from failure. In fact, there is such an emphasis in the curriculum currently on relativism, that it is difficult to even talk about a work as being “unsuccessful”, because who are we to judge the creative work of another person? After learning the vital skill of critique later on it came clear to me that quality could be assessed. Achieving better results, however, wasn’t quite so clear. Assignments were given and students were pushed to create more, forcing them to practice, but never was it framed in those terms. Each project was an end in itself, and we were supposed to come away with a successful project. The emphasis was still that each piece created could be good.
Again I took a break, and again I came crawling back to art on my own accord, feeling a connection that I couldn’t shake. Following the advice of practicing artists I decided I needed to just start creating things, as much as and often as I could. It was still a retrospective process, however, related what I had learned about writing a book. I was interested in the final product. Working quickly I could get there in one sitting and have something to show for it, but much more often than not I would be disappointed by the results.
I wanted to paint an image, but wasn’t exactly interested in the process of painting itself.
As I started to transition into more illustrative works, my technique shifted towards more detailed, and therefore more time-consuming work. I began reading about capital “P” practice that professional illustrators embrace: building up shoulder muscle strength through the repetition of drawing freehand straight lines. Building muscle memory and perceptual awareness by learning how to freehand three-dimensional boxes rotating in space as seen from any angle, and copying proportions of anatomy over and over again.
Drawing and painting, like any skill, can be taught step by step. The carpenter learns essentials about how to form, treat and fit wood together in an organized fashion so that they can go on to flex their creativity.
Breakthrough came upon picking up the camera seriously. For the first time I experienced joy in the practice. Rather than getting myself to sit and do what needed to be done to build my skills, I find myself eager to go out and shoot. I enjoy the results, but I enjoy the process just as much. This, I think, is a kind of balance that we are all seeking.
For this reason, the sage acts but does not possess, completes his work but does not dwell on it.Tao Te Ching chapter 77, Victor H Mair translation
Water doesn’t need practice in order to flow downhill, it is the nature of water to do that. I think that finding the pieces of ourselves that come naturally and bring with them joy and inspiration are the ways in which we connect most closely to our own nature.