Photo courtesy SXC.
Practice is one of the factors in developing and maintaining creative momentum that seems like it should be obvious but often it isn’t. I like to call it a secret hidden in plain sight.
Much of this is due to the creative world’s version of the nature-versus-nurture debate, “talent versus persistence.” It crops up in other areas of endeavor, too—during the Olympics that ended today, it can be easy to admire the physical prowess of the athletes and assign their success to inborn ability—and forget that every participant in the games was there in large part because of the thousands of hours of practice they put into learning their sport.
In the world of art, it’s easy to look at the work of a master in your medium and declare that they’re talented and you are not (or at least not to the same degree). But science is really on the side of the persistent person with average talent—As I’ve written before, research by Martin E. P. Seligman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, and others indicates that as much as 75 percent of lifetime success is determined by a person’s willingness to persist in the face of the setbacks that typically occur in any long-term endeavor.
In some cases, being a prodigy in a creative field can actually be a challenge to success later in life, as many artists blessed by exceptional talent that manifests in childhood struggle to make the shift as they grow up and encounter seasoned colleagues who have made the most of their talents, leveling the proverbial playing field between them.
How practice increases creative momentum
Regular, focused practice improves your ability to maintain creative output for several reasons.
¨ It builds positive habits and rituals. It’s intertwined with my second element of creative momentum and awareness of each element’s power makes them doubly effective when applying principles from both areas.
¨ Practice builds automaticity and fluency, which are essential to being able to perform artistic skills in real-time situations with accuracy and without hesitation. Educator Carl Binder has asserted that many children who don’t practice skills to achieve fluency eventually “burn out” in topics such as math because they build a shaky foundation of half-mastered skills that eventually collapses when they attempt higher-level work. I think it’s likely the same thing happens to many self-taught artists, who are unaware that lack of talent might not be what’s holding them back, but lack of fluency-focused practice.
¨ Practice keeps you tuned in at a micro-level to your current level of skill. No guessing at whether you can play a particular musical passage at the proper tempo—if you practice regularly, you probably know whether you can or can’t and what it would take in terms of practice to enable you to be able to perform the passage well.
Practice and Feedback
K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University, has written at length about the necessity of feedback in increasing one’s expertise level in a given domain. According to Ericsson, “deliberate practice” is a very particular kind of challenging practice routine, involving “activities designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.” In other words, it’s not enough to endlessly run scales on your instrument or do sketches in your daybook—to master your craft, feedback on how those exercises are going is essential.
For artists in need of feedback, who lack the resources or the motivation to go one-on-one with a teacher, there are some other options which may provide useful help in mastering specific techniques.
Group lessons and classes: some of the same advantages as one-on-one coaching, plus feedback from and exposure to other artists’ work.
Workshops: Same advantages as a group lesson or class, and time-limited to one or a few sessions. Some workshops can focus entirely on a single skill, such as shading or perspective in drawing.
Comment feeds on “show-and-tell” sites: If you have a Flickr or YouTube feed, or another online place to post your work, and you solicit comments there or on your blog, you may get some helpful observations or links. It is harder to judge the validity of the observations, though, particularly from anonymous posters.
Contests: Some contests feature detailed feedback from the judges. If you think you can compete with others in the event, and can ascertain the validity of the feedback you receive to your artistic goals, go for it.
Auditions: More risky than contests, but possibly still useful. But don’t apply if you don’t really want to be in the show/band/film, etc.
Portfolio Reviews: Like an audition for non-performance-based work. Comic-Con offers space for vendors to do portfolio reviews with convention attendees; art schools such as the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design do portfolio review days too. Useful for receiving feedback on a larger body of work if you’re serious about the offer the sponsor of the review is making (working in the industry, attending art school).
Helpful links related to practice
Practiceopedia: huge encyclopedia of practice techniques aimed at young musicians, but which can be used by any musician at any level.
Mastery: The subhead to this book by author and martial arts teacher George Leonard is “Keys to Long-Term Success and Fulfillment,” and he means it. Instruction and practice are integral to Leonard’s definition of mastery, and he also offers wonderful advice on “loving the plateau,” or what to do when you feel “stuck” at a particular level of skill and nothing seems to be propelling you forward.
Creative Writing Exercises and Advice: A compilation of writing exercises from About.com.
Daily Paintworks: An online portfolio for 12 “daily painters,” who are part of a movement of painters who try to paint something everyday, often on a small scale, in order to practice new techniques and/or broaden their subject matter.
BetterPhoto.com: Very helpful site for photographers wanting to improve their work through practice, with many online class opportunities, a useful instructors’ blog and lots of free resources.