July 5, 2017 – 10,000 hours – sticking with it

Mama (Niz) and me with Kaleidoscope – it won second place at the fair!

This is a re-post from June 7, 2016 – 13 months ago.  It’s late again today – the holiday yesterday and a project that had to be done today kept me away from writing.  I’m still not quite on this time zone after a very wonder-ful trip to Italy.  So, I’ve decided to do something I’ve not yet done – repeat a post from the past, rather than attempt to write as a zombie.  Whether you remember it or not, I hope you find it useful.

It’s late.  I’ve not started a post this late on a Tuesday since I started writing every week.  I’m working against a deadline on this painting and last night I got the somewhat crazy idea that I might be able to finish it by late this afternoon- when I had an opportunity to have it captured for my reproductions.  I painted until about 10:45 – which may not be all that late for some, but I’m a morning person and when I noticed I was, as I call it, “stupid painting” I knew it was time to get to bed.  I was back at it at 6 this morning and painted until about 2:00 at which point I was able to make other arrangements for it to be scanned this weekend instead today.  Whew!

The good news is that I made serious progress on the painting and I watched myself focus in a way that I’m not sure I have on a painting before.  Not that I can remember anyway.  I did stop for some exercise with Bo and to feed my brain healthy food, but I stayed with my painting like it was a patient that needed my care.  I avoided putting away the dishes, I didn’t check email, I didn’t play spider solitaire like I do some evenings before painting (did I really write that!?).  I painted:  this petal, then one two over, then another layer on that one, soften edges on that one there.  More quinacridone rose on one I painted last night – darker on the nooks and crannies on those lower blue ones.  I just kept going.

After I realized I was given a reprieve on getting it done today, I picked up other balls I’d dropped (including getting to the polls to vote!).  I’ve just returned from the reception for a show of Paulette Engler’s beautiful watercolors.  (Check out her gorgeous website.)  Paulette is a steadfast member of our Thursday group and is a prolific and dedicated painter.  She calls herself addicted.  When I’m going to be away she makes sure to have plenty of work drawn and ready to paint, for fear of being without.  She paints just about daily at home in between Thursday sessions.  And it shows.  Paulette’s work has evolved markedly in the 4 ½ years she’s been painting with us.  There is no substitute for time in.  But, in addition to the time, she also is very intent on growing as an artist – in skill and expression.

Last night while I was painting I listened to an interesting interview – no, not more Krista Tippet – this time it was Jonathan Fields the host of the Good Life Project podcast.  Jonathan Fields is also a wonderful collector of amazing people.  This one was a conversation with Anders Ericsson, the researcher who is the source of the 10,000 hours to mastery that Malcolm Gladwell made into conventional thinking in his book “The Outliers.”  It turns out that it takes more than spending a whole lot of hours to get really good at something.  It matters how we spend those hours.

Anders Ericsson illuminated this by comparing playing tennis doubles for enjoyment and exercise vs. playing tennis and practicing to become a great tennis player with a coach.  If we hit or serve the ball unskillfully, a coach will take us through it and point out how to do it better.  But if we are playing for fun, we likely will not pay as close attention to what we did and won’t learn as quickly.  If we practice our 10,000 hours with this level attention and intention we progress much more rapidly.  I can’t help but think about this when looking at Paulette’s body of work, her dedication to Thursdays and the questions she asks – she doesn’t just want praise, she wants pointed feedback.

Anders Ericsson said something else that caught my ear:  he sees college students, in order to decide what path to take, seeking out what their gifts might be – as if we are born with all our abilities.  (I remind people I have a computer science degree and had no idea this art was in me until I started really painting.)  He went so far as to say the only qualities from birth we should concern ourselves with are our physical size and shape.  Regardless of how much focused practice, a short person wouldn’t make a good forward in the NBA, and a big person doesn’t make a good jockey in horse racing.  Instead, he suggested we look for what we are interested in, what we want to do – and I’d say what we love.  It is this desire that naturally springs from the center of us that gives us the fuel to keep going for all those hours of focused practice.

Jonathan Fields asked him what helps people keep going through what can be grueling work – all those hours of practice.  His answer was:  progress.  We are motivated by marking our improvements over time.  I so appreciate discovering information like this interview that supports what I see every week.  Some might think I gush a lot over my artists’ work.  But I firmly believe that every effort is worth celebrating.  I’ve seen enough budding artists arrive with nearly paralyzing fear at just putting paint onto paper.  And I’ve talked to others who haven’t yet made it through the door.

Intimidation is a serious hurdle.  We all have a hope, if not a fully-formed vision of how we want our artwork to come out.  My experience is that we are never further from that hope or vision than when we first start.  There are all levels of artist in our groups, so it’s easy for a brand new painter to compare her work to that of more experienced artists and note how far she has to go.  But when compared to someone who has never painted anything at all, making a whole painting, based upon an image she’s chosen, maybe even one she captured herself – of something she loves – is an enormous accomplishment.  It is big progress, right from the start.  And it’s also encouraging for new artists to see the early work of other artists (including me) and the progress that we’ve made in our work by putting in the time. We all start at the beginning.

This brings me to how much a supportive environment matters.  To grow we have to try new things, let ourselves have new experiences.  To let in what’s new we need to open ourselves – and we open much more readily when we feel safe.  Then, as time goes on, we keep growing when our achievements are celebrated and our progress is noted – at least by ourselves.  But, it’s my experience that the impact is considerably greater when we have a tribe to cheer us on.  There were eight other artists from our groups – plus a few husbands – who were there for Paulette this evening – appreciating her accomplishment, her beautiful work and cheering her on.  There is no way she’s going to stop painting anytime soon.

Whether or not any of us will spend our 10,000 hours or reach anything near mastery, all effort is worthy.  Progress builds upon itself.  We have paintings to show for it – our gift to the world.  Plus we end up changed along the way.

Here’s to all of our creative unfolding.  Now, go.  Paint your love.


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