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Friday, January 13, 2012

Ten Thousand Hours

We listen to music, we look at paintings.  We play a musical instrument, we compose paintings.  But what's behind it all?

Referring to the Compose tutorials of the past two weeks,  Ann Feldman commented:  "Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers...hypothesizes that mastery can only be accomplished after 10,000 hours of dedicated practice in any field, including art, music, and sports."

Ann continued, "Makes me think that an artist can only relax and allow the painting to be discovered after that artist has spent many hours learning the underlying techniques of art. Until an artist feels comfortable in his or her understanding, that relaxation is elusive! Do you agree?"

Gesture drawings by Rodney Grainger
following the Nicolaides approach

I cut my teeth on The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicolaides. I did not realize as a young art student that Nicolaides' approach was the key that would unlocked my journey as an artist and as a teacher.  Nicolaides emphasizes process over product, a concept I believe underlies all artistic success.  So to answer Ann's question, I believe an emerging artist can become comfortable within every layer of the process.  In Gladwell's hypothesis, I believe "practice" is the emphasis.

There is always a degree of awkwardness with anything new. But that awkwardness dissipates as we  practice.  With practice the newness wears off and what was once new now is familiar. And the more familiar it becomes, the more comfortable we become until it what was once new is now second nature.

Thinking about Sharon Isbin's mastery of guitar playing, I think back to when I was age nine taking my first guitar lesson.  It was all new--how to hold the guitar, how to place my left fingers, how to use my right fingers, how to read the music score, and how to strike the strings. Add to this that those tiny young fingers were too tender and lacking in muscle dexterity to hold the strings tight to the guitar's neck.  A year later,  my fingertips were toughened, my finger muscles were toned, I held the guitar correctly without a thought, both right and left hands moved automatically and the score was like written words on a page. I could play "Danny Boy" without thinking.  I was ready for my first recital.

Learning to paint is exactly the same process, just different materials. Perhaps the most important similarity in the two is that neither can be done without practice.  But what does practice mean?  Doctors practice, but they already have their degrees. (Even so, we hope they don't stop learning.)

Practice means to exercise and perform repeatedly to improve and/or maintain what one has gained.  When we study techniques, we practice; when we're making a painting, we practice.  When we do exercises, we practice.  Practice is essential to the process no matter what we're doing.

Leonardo da Vinci practicing
Leonardo da Vinci practicing some more

Whether it's painting or guitar playing or figure skating, our practice undergirds the process that enables us to master new levels. Within each level once the awkwardness has given way to relaxation, we can discover.  I don't think we have to wait until we've put in those 10,000 hours; I think the painting can be discovered at any level of competence.  It's a matter of attending to the process rather than focusing on the end product, finding our comfort zone in each of those 10,000 hours, all along the way.  If we do this, mastery after 10,000 is virtually a guarantee.


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Diana Moses Botkin said...

Thank you for these excellent reminders, Dianne. My, my, if Leonardo felt he needed practice, how much more do I.

Dianne Mize said...

And I, too, Diana. The thing that so fascinates me about Leonardo and Rembrandt--and others to whom we're indebted for the notebooks they left behind--is they never stopped practicing while they were producing master works. To touch the hem....

Ann said...

Thank you so much for sharing your views with us on this subject! I completely agree that it's not necessarily the 10,000 hours, but the sense of familiarity and mastery along the way that allows us to relax in the process of creating art.

And if we can relax and enjoy the journey, it might be possible to wake up one day and realize that wow! I may have put in my 10,000 hours after all, and not even realize it!

Your wonderful description of learning to play the guitar illustrated the learning process so perfectly. Thank you for shedding light on something that I've been thinking a lot about lately!