This Is Why Performance Kills Artistic Growth

Recently I watched a video of artist Bryan Mark Taylor’s “The Master’s Mind” presentation at a plein air painting convention. Bryan is an accomplished painter and inventor of the Strada easel. I was so impressed with the concepts in the video presentation that I ordered his complete “The Master’s Mind” instructional video (hopefully it will arrive today or tomorrow).

Bryan discussed several concepts but I want to touch on one excellent observation: Understanding the difference between performance and practice.

Most of us are performing when we paint (or create). What we need to do more of is practice. If you think about it, what most of us do is sit down and work on a new painting or piece of art. We try to do as good a job as we can. We slave away until we (hopefully) are pleased with the result. Or, if we’ve reached a certain level of accomplishment with our work, we just keep doing more of the same.

When we attend workshops we often try to paint a pleasing picture. We all have egos and want others to recognize our ability. Instead of absorbing and applying the new techniques taught, we tend to fall back on what we know. We perform.

When instructors are doing a demonstration they are performing, too. They have reached a certain level of confidence and muscle memory. Tons of brush time enable instructors to confidently produce well executed paintings. They are performing.

The problem is that performing might be satisfying, but it keeps us mostly at the level we are. In order to reach higher levels of proficiency and accomplishment, we need to practice. And we need to practice intelligently.

Doing the same thing over and over again is unlikely to help you grow. When you go into your studio or out in the field to practice, you need to abandon your ego and truly practice building new skill sets. Old school artists used to copy master works in order to learn how problems were solved. They also sought out quality instruction. They broke down their abilities and practiced weak areas.

Bryan Mark Taylor talked about how he practices painting every night between 8 to midnight. This is deliberate time he has set aside to learn new techniques and improve his work. This disciplined approach is probably why he has achieved so much success so quickly.

I painted the above piece during a short video some friends shot for me a few years ago. The funny part was, the video scene was just meant to be sort of background of me painting. So there was no pressure. I literally just made it up as I went along. I remember telling myself to shoot for a higher key painting. So I practiced mixing some puddles of higher key color and practiced quickly moving shapes around. I was also trying to paint loosely.

I never finished the piece because I was just practicing. Afterward, I realized the mistake of putting the tree smack dab in the middle. But the experience was useful, because I realized that I needed to do more “no pressure” practice.

The above little study was done years ago in Scott L. Christensen’s studio. We were practicing clouds. Scott is a big proponent of “practicing” at the highest level. I remember him saying, “What’s the point of painting a big canvas if you haven’t learned how to tackle the parts.” In other words, if you don’t know how to paint rocks well, then doing a huge mountain-scape probably isn’t going to turn out great.

Scott encouraged students to tack strips of canvas on a board and practice little landscape vignettes. Strips of canvas are kind of like cheap pieces of paper to sketch on. You psychologically feel less pressure if you mess up, versus using a nice linen panel or canvas.

Here’s a copy of one of Scott’s paintings I did. Copying masterful artwork teaches you a lot. Long after you finish your copy you remember certain things you did. The more you copy, the more you pick up. It’s cumulative. The only caution is that it’s easy to start emulating the artist’s style. And you might subconsciously paint works that are too similar to the masterworks. Never sign or sell your copies. They should remain in your studio solely for your education and artistic growth.

Sometimes I practice during downtime at work. The above doodle was done at work, after hours, while I waited for a city council meeting to start. I keep a small watercolor kit in my desk and use my downtime to experiment with colors. A lot of these practice sessions will produce major clunkers. But if you focus on specific goals, like rendering better trees, or mixing subtle grays, your art will improve.

Sometimes I like to paint a piece and then come back and re-work it. The artist Walter Paul Bebirian is a big proponent of saving or recording each iteration of the work as you go, because each version becomes it’s own stand alone image. Also, you can view the progression of the work. I took the above piece and morphed it into the following piece, below.

As I forage through a few boxes in my studio closet, I find lots of little studies where I practiced to achieve or learn something specific. In the following piece, I was working on how to render rocks. Tip: palette knifes are helpful here.

In the below practice session, I was trying to push a foreground, middle ground and background of varying colors. Aerial perspective is important in landscape work, and learning which blue tones recede and which earth tones and reds march forward is really helpful.

I took the below photo of a group of palm trees while I was in Costa Rica. I don’t often paint palm trees and wanted to have a reference photo. Also, I thought the arrangement of palm trees in this photo would make a pleasing design for a painting. When I got back from my trip to Costa Rica, I used the photo to practice painting palm trees.

Using the above photo, I was able to practice and ended up with the painting below. As you can see, it’s not an exact copy. The point was to learn the architecture of palm trees and how to make them stand out and blur the background a bit. Sometimes, when you’re lucky, your practice paintings can become finished pieces (although this should not be your goal). Your goal is to practice and improve.

If you’d like to view the plein air convention speech that Bryan Mark Davis gave, you can access it here. The link also provides info for how to purchase the entire instructional video, if you like (this is not an affiliate sale and I receive no funds for recommending the video).

Performance kills artistic growth because it prevents us from deliberate, focused practice. Instead of repeatedly painting or creating what you’re already good at, why not focus on where you need to improve? Also, breaking out of your genre or subject matter can pay dividends too. If you’re a landscape painter, try figurative work. If you’re a wood sculptor, try clay. If you’re a non-fiction writer, give fiction a whirl.

Setting aside regular time to practice, just as a concert pianist practices scales. Ask yourself what area you want to work on and improve. Copy works that contain subjects you need to work on. Find instructors to push you forward, or quality videos and courses to help hone your skills. Yes, by all means, enjoy your performances, too. But remember, it’s the difficult and consistent practice that will take you to ever higher levels of accomplishment and achievement!

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I’m John P. Weiss, fine artist and writer. Get on my free email list here to receive the latest artwork and writing.

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I write elegant essays about life, which I illustrate with whimsical cartoons, fine art, and classic black & white photography. JohnPWeiss.com.

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John P. Weiss

John P. Weiss

I write elegant essays about life, which I illustrate with whimsical cartoons, fine art, and classic black & white photography. JohnPWeiss.com.

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