Thursday, September 21, 2017

Six-Year Musings, Part 1: Practice

9/25/11 This was my first urban sketch ever!

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how, after years of struggling with watercolor, I had committed to focusing on colored pencils and was finally starting to make progress. That post and another that followed prompted some comments and discussion that have gotten me thinking more lately about practice and learning and how they are related to style (whatever that may be).

Since I seem to be in a process-oriented frame of mind, and because today is my sixth anniversary since I started drawing, I decided it would be a good opportunity to explore these thoughts in relation to my experiences the past six years and see where they took me (often I don’t know what I think until I write it). I had so much to say that it turned into a three-part series. Today I’ll talk about practice; the next two days will be about style and learning.

(Shown with this series are some of my earliest urban sketches from my first year.)

Regular practice – in my case, drawing every day without fail – is something that comes up whenever a well-meaning Facebook friend or stranger on the street compliments my sketch and then mentions, with a wistful tone, their desire to have “talent” like mine. My response is always that before Sept. 21, 2011, I had no more “talent” than they do, and the only difference between what I can do now compared to what I could do then is the result of regular practice.

I sometimes used to look at those daily practice sketches and question whether they are actually adding to my collective learning about drawing, or whether they are simply part of the accumulation. According to Windows File Explorer, I have more than 6,000 scanned sketches on my laptop. Not included are most of my sketches from the first half of the year before I started blogging (and therefore didn’t scan) and some others since then that I haven’t bothered to scan because I didn’t write blog posts about them. While I have many sketches among those 6,000+ that I believe are adding to my collective learning in some way, many others are nothing more than repetitive.

Does regular practice really help? In some ways, I can see that it does – I look back over my six years’ worth of sketches, and it’s very clear that ongoing practice leads to progress. And regular practice is important in cultivating a habit so that drawing doesn’t depend on inspiration, sufficient time, the right mood, or other nebulous requirements that could prevent me from simply doing it.

But is it enough? That’s what my recent musings about my focus on colored pencils were trying to get at. When learning a specific medium or technique, I don’t think practice is enough, because without instruction of some kind – a book, a video or, ideally, a good instructor or mentor who provides constructive feedback – I’m likely to form a habit of simply repeating the same mistakes. The hard part is keeping up that practice even after you realize you aren’t making progress. I think that’s when many people give up. They have the discipline to practice, but if they aren’t rewarded by progress at least some of the time, it’s too discouraging to continue. That’s the point, I think, when it would be helpful to seek feedback so that you can push past the repeated errors and move forward.

Here’s one more thought about practice that hadn’t occurred to me until recently, and I think it’s important. A discussion in a Facebook group was started by an artist who had posted a drawing in a style that can be called “photo-realistic.” A commenter lamented about her own lack of “talent,” that she would never be able to draw as well as that, and others pitched in with their views. One commenter was especially insightful (I regret that I didn’t copy and save her comment at that moment, as now it’s impossible to find on Facebook, so this is a paraphrase):

An art teacher for many years, she said that while photo realism is one style of art, it is not the ultimate goal or even desire of many artists, and the ability to draw photo-realistically should not be a measure of one’s “talent.” What should be the goal is finding one’s own artistic expression, whatever it is, and one way to find it is by drawing every day. She said she always assigns her students to sketch daily in a sketchbook because even simple doodles done regularly eventually lead to figuring out what kinds of drawings they enjoy making. And if they enjoy it, they’re more likely to continue doing it.

I heard much wisdom in that teacher’s comment. While eventual improvement is good motivation to draw every day, a more important reason to do it is that it teaches you what you like to do. And over time, what you like to do becomes your style.

(Once a year on my sketching anniversary, I write a retrospective post. You can read the previous years’ posts here: 20162015201420132012.)


  1. Wonderful post! This is very encouraging to continue with my sketching even though I don't seem to have a typical photo-realistic style of drawing. I esp. like the last paragraph, draw everyday, not just because you might improve, but it will teach you what you like to do. Thanks Tina, you help give me inspiration!

    1. I'm really happy to hear that my blog inspires you! Thanks for reading, Cathy!

  2. Cracking post and really an encouragement as I am just starting out. As to photo art - there's a little bit of me that mutters "why not just take a photo". It's probably just envy, But the pictures that inspire me are usually giving the feel of a place. An impression rather than the whole thing unedited.

    1. Thank you, Jan -- it's good to know my experience is encouraging to you!

  3. I've been reading your blog for about 6 months now, and I think I'm ready to make the plunge and begin my own daily habit. Thanks for sharing your discoveries and your well-earned wisdom!

    1. Yay! Glad to hear you're ready for the plunge. :-) Let me know how it goes!

  4. Somehow I missed this. I had a teacher like the one you quoted. She required us to keep a sketchbook and a certain number of drawings per semester. She didn't care what we did in it as long as we drew everyday. It was my favorite "homework"!

    1. I had a teacher who assigned us to write in a journal each day -- a similar exercise. Most students hated it, but that journal was my favorite homework! I guess that's why I became a writer. ;-) Wish someone had assigned me to draw every day, too. ;-)

      - Tina


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