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The Secret to Effectively Practice Art (from Exercise to Mindset)

I remember a time when I felt lost and didn't know how to practice. Learning how to practice is part of the artistic journey. It's not something you need to know before you start. That being said, I want to help you skip the bullsh*t of all the self-help books, YouTube videos, podcasts, and years of experience I've spent searching for the 'secret'.

I've found the most power in repetition.

Drawing something once and wondering why it didn't work out and you didn't learn from it is exactly the problem. You must draw it 10 times. 20 times. 100 times. Only then will you visibly notice your improvement. It IS hard, time-consuming, and frustrating. That's why we value those who do it so well. There are fantastic resources on YouTube, but I've found that most people groan that they aren't getting better without actually doing the work (myself included). Don't compare yourself to other amazing artists. We all come from different backgrounds with varied experiences and different goals in mind. Save the drawings you've done now. Compare your drawings in 3 months, 6 months, and a year from now to them! If you're putting in a consistent effort to better yourself, you'll see the improvement even if it's not apparent just from looking at your recent work.

The hardest part of pursuing your creative passion is getting started and taking action, and of course, (cue groan) it's the most crucial part! Ask yourself how frequently you actually spend working on your craft. Be honest. After graduating, I made a single painting once every 1 or 2 months, and sometimes I'd go weeks and weeks without even touching my sketchbook. Now I make consistent efforts to work on my art 3 times a week and I saw an explosion of inspiration and improvement after a few months of that consistent effort. There's no special video or secret that you're missing. You can do it, but that's just it. You have to DO it.

Alright alright, you've heard it all before.

You're willing and ready to put in the time, but where on earth do you start?

How do you practice?

Don't focus too much on the 'how'. There isn't just one way to do it and if there were, do you think that one single way would apply to millions and millions of unique individuals? I understand wanting to be efficient with your efforts, but discovering how to effectively practice is part of the journey. Your journey. Stop searching for the 'secret' that all the successful artists know that you just can't seem to discover. As frustrating as it is, the 'secret' is simply to make art, and lots of it. Ask yourself: What do you want to create? Start there! Then recreate it after you've finished. See if just making it one more time will show noticeable improvements. I've seen artists time and time again jump from subject to subject, but never take the time to recreate something they've already made. If you failed, GREAT! Try again. Don't move on to a different subject in hopes you'll succeed there. This is where you'll see visible improvements.

I noticed the most improvement in my art when my drawing professor assigned us fifty figure drawings within a month. I of course procrastinated and drew them all within the final two weeks... okay, most were drawn in the final two days. Some were super loose and total garbage, but it wasn't about drawing them all well and I didn't dare post any of them on social media. It was about putting in the work. Not every piece is destined to be a masterpiece. Sometimes their only purpose is to serve as a stepping stone toward improvement. This experience served as a valuable lesson: it doesn't matter how many months or years you spend on your craft. You can consolidate the experience. What matters is the number of pieces you create, regardless of the time frame. In fact, a majority of what you learn is forged through the beginning fundamentals of each piece: the initial sketch and composition design. We spend the majority of our time fiddling with the final details, shading, and highlights. These efforts create a more polished and finished piece, but for the sake of improvement, it isn't the hours you spend it's the number of times you walk through the process from beginning to end. This may take many hours, but do not be deceived. Spending 100 hours on a single piece with not teach you as much as spending 100 hours on 50 pieces.

Putting in the work

If you like portrait work, draw pages and pages of noses and eyes and lips. Draw 100 portraits! Do it from different angles. Draw the skull to understand the form underneath the skin. Approach the subject with a childlike fascination. Try new ways to make the same mark. Try shading with higher contrast. Introduce texture or hatching or see how different your lines look with sharper angles or smoother curves or vary them from thick and thin. Try to subtract as much visual information as you can while maintaining a visual description of the subject. Deconstruct the way you approach the subject. Do you start with the eyes? Leave them for last. Play with color. Providing limitations like a limited color palette, or utilizing just 4 values can inspire new ways of thinking and problem-solving. Try to create the subject with value instead of lines, or lines instead of value. Approach the subject like you're carving a sculpture on the page. The options are endless but don't forget to apply this idea to your art not just your practice. Draft thumbnail sketches and smaller-scale versions of your ideas prior to the final to work out problem areas, explore risky techniques, and better understand your composition.

All that being said, don't lose sight of the end goal. Building a creative habit can be difficult, but beating yourself up for skipping a day, falling short, or not seeing visible progress does nothing to push you toward your goal. In fact, a negative motivation of not feeling good enough will not get you as far as a positive one stemming from a love of learning and a desire to improve one's self. If you keep finding yourself dissatisfied and always falling short, it may be time to stop scrutinizing the practice and start scrutinizing the goal itself.

Scrutinize the goal

Another artist approached me for advice on achieving their dream: to draw from imagination. To achieve this goal should you practice from reference, or is the act of 'copying' detrimental to this goal? It's difficult to know how to fix your mistakes when drawing from your imagination because there's nothing to compare it to. On the other hand, working from a reference can look stale, unoriginal, and artificial and the results may frustrate you and take you farther from your goal.

I struggled with this too. I felt like a fraud. Sometimes I still do. After I graduated with my degree in art I found out that I have aphantasia, and drawing from my imagination like that just wasn't possible. People with aphantasia cannot conjure imagery in their mind's eye, and to some extremes, it can affect the other senses and the ability to imagine scents or touch. Regardless if you have aphantasia or not, everyone exists on a spectrum of vivid imagery they're able to picture in their head. Anyone can be an artist and my advice remains the same.

I rely heavily on references, but I try to ensure my work transcends the reference after I've got the basics down. It's quite possible that drawing from your imagination in the way you want to isn't how making art actually works for you. It's what you think happens behind closed doors for other successful artists, but you somehow seem to struggle. It's a fruitless pursuit and with an unachievable goal like that you're just setting yourself up to fail. Set smaller, more realistic goals. Building a habit of consistent effort is a great starting point and a measurable goal. When you're learning, it's important to have a reference to compare and see where you can improve. Even if creating from your mind's eye is still your goal, developing a repertoire of visual imagery you can create well before you abandon reference is crucial. Even if you are capable of drawing from your imagination, that shouldn't be the first goal you focus on. Come back to reference. Draw your subject with reference, then draw it without. Compare the two. See what your mind's eye doesn't see. Then try it again.

My personal solution is combining multiple references and photoshopping them together (either literally or just in my mind) to create the image I want to make. Creating a dynamic piece might mean finding a great action shot for body language, yet another image for the face, and multiple references for the background. You're still working toward your goal of creating from imagination to bring that image to life while using existing imagery. It's not just copying. To pull this off successfully, you need to be mindful of color, light, perspective, and atmosphere. Transcend the reference material to make each unique puzzle piece exist in that space. Do not simply copy, but utilize reference as a framework to bring your imagination to life. Once you've got your proportions and basics down, continue work without the reference. How can you alter the subject to make it look more believable in your creation as opposed to reality?

This is what worked for me, but we all have our own unique strengths and weaknesses. Eventually, you'll find what works best for you, but the solution is always to make more art.


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