At a glance, there’s futzing around and there’s “serious, quality” practice. Is futzing really a form of procrastination or is it legitimate practice? How do you know if you’re engaging in quality practice? We’ll explore these questions in this article.
First, let’s define practice. Used as a noun, Google Dictionary defines it as “…the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something.” As a verb, “…carry out or perform (a particular activity, method, or custom) habitually or regularly.” Habitual seems to be the key.
There are so many books, blogs and social media posts about how many hours you must practice to become good or an expert or a master of something. Many viewpoints, but the consensus is the time must be spent inquality practice.
In its report, The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education, The Wallace Foundation states: “A complex array of factors, actors and settings must be in sync to achieve high quality arts education.” They go on to say that in art instruction and programming, high quality is determined by responses to key questions such as who is teaching, where the learning takes place, what is taught and the method, and how successful learning is assessed.
How does this apply to our individual practice?
In our pursuit of creative expression, we can use the above paradigm to craft quality practice. For us the questions become:
What are we focusing on during a practice session and what is our desired outcome?
Focus is vital to quality practice. Get very specific about your practice. For example, this month I’m learning to draw bears. Because of a bear’s complex structure of bones, muscles and fur, I have to break my practice sessions down to elements of the bear: skeletal studies, muscular studies, fur texture and drape (as in over the skeleton and muscles). Then there are the parts of the animal: the head, paws, body, etc. I break it down even further by facial features and other details. Then apply what I’ve learned to bear movement, spatial relation to habitat, relation to elements such as water and wind, etc.
Rather than include everything in each practice session, focus on a part of the whole. Master that and move on to the next part. Rinse and repeat.
What is our source and breadth of instruction?
By this I mean what books, courses and examples are you using. Let’s go back to my bear example. I’m taking a wildlife art course with Aaron Blaise that specifically focuses on bears. I also have several wildlife drawing books. With the internet I have access to a multitude of still and video images, which help with observational studies. I could take field trips to nature preserves and bear conservation centers to observe live bears, too.
Quality practice is instigated by good teachers, good examples and your own observation. Then applying this in your practice session, seeing what works, what you can adapt, etc. Creativity is a holistic activity – study many parts and combine to create the outcome you desire.
Do we have a dedicated creative space?
Guess what? I don’t think you need a dedicated creative space to practice. Whaaat?! If you have a room or a studio to work in, that’s awesome! But if you don’t, no biggie. Make your creative space wherever you are. Create a field kit to carry your supplies to draw, paint or sculpt anywhere (click here if you’d like a free pattern and instructions to create a painting/drawing field kit out of canvas or old jeans).
For the last two years I’ve been lucky enough to have a small studio in my home, but before that I had to improvise. I kept my supplies in a plastic bin and just cleared off a counter or table in my kitchen to work. Often I would draw or paint in the front seat of my car (I still do that in the winter for plein air painting). In fact my studio is not equipped for papermaking, so I still have all my equipment and supplies in a bin that I cart out to my parking pad to work when the weather is warm.
You can create anywhere, so begin with creating a system to make temporary studio space when and where you need it.
And lastly, how we measure the outcome?
Determine what it means to successfully meet your practice goals. Are you measuring the outcome based on hours you’ve put in? Or is the outcome tied to the completion of a final rendition of your work? For me, I’ll have successfully met my goal of learning to draw bears when I have several sketches to turn into watercolor illustrations. This is a big, overarching goal with many subgoals that serve as my benchmarks along the way.
Think about desired results and what that looks like to you.
You get better at anything by doing it over and over and over. In a word, quantity. I advocate that you have quality practice sessions and a lot of them!
Quality practice isn’t about making something beautiful at all. It’s about learning a skill, mastering it, then applying it and experimenting with it. That takes focus, education and awareness as described above plus repetition. So grab your diary or agenda or open up your Google calendar and block in some time to practice. (I wrote about finding time to make art here a little while ago.) Set it to repeat at regular intervals and stick to your schedule.
Rare is the person who can just begin anything without warming up first. Athletes, chefs, artists, musicians – all need to warm up first.
Your ego will try to dissuade you the moment you start to work by making you think you are wasting time – or “futzing around.” Does this sound familiar to you?
Ewww, this is not working! Everything looks awful! I can’t draw (sing, sculpt, knit, quilt – insert creative act of choice)! This is such as waste of time…
Futzing around isn’t as unproductive as your ego would like you to believe. I am a huge fan of sketchbook work because it’s a safe space to futz around and then sink into the work. It’s difficult not to get discouraged at this stage, but just keep going. You’ve committed to this time so draw over your initial sketches, and then draw over that work too. Turn the page and start anew. Look at the “disaster” from a week ago that you abandoned and just draw on top of it. It doesn’t even have to be the same subject – just cover it up! (By the way those abandoned pieces are awesome to draw over – eliminates “blank page” fear.)
Make A Mark To Adjust A Mark
A few weeks ago I was listening to an interview on one of the many podcasts I love (can’t for the life of me remember which one! Aaaargh!). The interviewee said to begin just make a mark to adjust it.
It stuck with me, and has been an incredible help in shifting my perspective. So I pass this along to you. Just make a mark to adjust a mark, and repeat often. This is how to begin your quality practice, as well as how to increase your quantity of practice.