Archive for the ‘academic’ Category

Monday, June 20th, 2016

Art Education: Your Practice Habit

While practicing your craft you may find yourself wanting to devote time to practice, but finding either little available time, or a lack of motivation to begin work. Commonly, many artists will wait for inspiration to strike before they begin working, and then will feverishly work for hours on end while the inspiration lasts. Later these same artists many times leave their work unfinished, forever waiting for their fickle inspiration to return. Others are frequently paralyzed by indecision as they wrestle to find the right idea to work on in the right way. Even productive artists can suffer from their habits, working themselves sick by missing out on sleep and meals.

If these scenarios describe the way you work, then what you need is to form your own Practice Habit. Consider the many daily activities you do without any prompting: eating meals, brushing your teeth, watching a show, etc. For almost all of us, our daily lives are filled with activities which we perform at the same time in the same way every day, which we no longer even think about. We want your artistic practice to be one of these automatic activities (or at least we want starting practice to be automatic, not the work itself).

The Habit Loop


The core loop of habits

We can use certain psychological tricks to establish and reinforce behaviors until the become second nature. Doing this takes time and discipline, but once established, makes work pleasant and regular. I have experimented on both myself and on students in using this method and have had much success altering our habits for the better over a period of about a month before the habit was solidified.

It’s important to note that replacing an established habit with a new one is much harder to do than institute a fresh habit without competing. Therefore starting this process immediately following a vacation or the end of a school quarter is particularly effective. Additionally, any disruption of your routine which lasts more than a week may destroy your current habits and force you to establish new ones.


Firstly, you need a signal to activate your habit. This can be as simple as an alarm on your phone or computer, or you can piggy-back on an existing cue such as the end of work, class or a meal. Make sure that the cue is unavoidable and clear so that you don’t accidentally miss it.


This is your actual practice. You should set up your work space and materials in the same way, preferably in the same place every time you begin work. As we’ll see, the work itself shouldn’t be exactly the same day to do lest you risk artistic stagnation, but the circumstances under which you work should be as consistent as possible to reinforce  your habit and reduce distraction.


This is the positive feeling or result of having worked. You can also use a material reward on yourself if you find it necessary such as a snack or a game. With artistic work, this is usually not needed because the work process itself is quite rewarding on its own.

Be Consistent

We want to create a daily artistic practice, meaning that if at all possible, you should pick a time to work which is available seven days a week, every day of the month. Because of work and family obligations, working on your art everyday may not be possible. Obviously we want to skip as few days at possible, but if you must skip a day, try to make it the same day every week or try to pattern the days to skip the fewest number of consecutive days. The worst case scenario which will still work for establishing an art habit, is to work on your art every other day.


Take the time of day into consideration as well. Most people have a particular time of day which is best for working, so try to think hard before choosing your’s. In the past when you’ve worked on your art and felt good about it, was it early in the day? Was it immediately after lunch? Late at night? Whenever it is for you, try to make that time your work time.

Similarly, you should pick a work space which is consistent as well. Being in the same place will help to reinforce your habit by making the physical location a part of the routine. Try to pick a place which is always available to you and free from distraction.

Plan to Begin

The goal for habit forming is to start working. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if you then proceed to work for an hour or for 10 minutes, the important thing is to establish a time to begin working and allow for time to continue if you feel like it (in my experience, most artists will happily continue working, but starting work is the hard part).

Now you may be saying to yourself, “Why shouldn’t I plan to work for a few hours?” Forcing yourself to work, although necessary in a professional environment, is not what we should do for our personal practice, and the reason why has to do with the Reward step in the Habit Loop.

Imagine that you begin work and can’t do anything right that day. You try and fail, and force yourself to keep going for the whole duration of your planned time. You feel awful right up to the end of the session and exasperated, quit when the allotted time is up, happy to be done with it. How will you feel the next day when you have to sit down to start work again? Do you think those negative feelings might influence your attitude when you start working the next day? For me, and for many of my students, it does, which is why I never recommend forcing a set duration of work.

Instead, I recommend planning a start time only, providing available time to work in if it happens that day. The benefit of this is a lower amount of pressure daily and permission to fail to work on a given day without heaping guilt on yourself. So you didn’t get anything worth while done today? So what? You worked yesterday and you’ll work again tomorrow due to the daily component of your practice habit. Consistency is very freeing, as it ensures that regular progress takes place, while providing forgiveness for work lulls.

Don’t Distract Yourself!

Remember that the purpose of this time is for personal work only. This means don’t turn on the TV or Netflix, don’t listen to podcasts, don’t start an hour-long phone call while working. Concentrate on only your art. As stated in Richard Williams’ “The Animator’s Survival Kit” this advice alone has the power to radically increase your productivity.


Milt Kahl on working while listening to music.

The compound problem with working while distracted is that we’re trying to establish a practice habit. This means that if you establish a habit of working while watching Netflix, you will always need to work while watching Netflix! Don’t make a distraction a part of your habit.

If you’re working at home or in a school lab, set yourself up for success by letting people around you know to leave you alone at this time. Turn off your phone if you have to. Sequester yourself in your locked room if you must. Do whatever it takes to get time with just you and your art, you wont regret it.

Use Motivation Tricks

Get others to monitor your progress. If you promise your friends and family to show them your work daily, then you must have work to show daily. This little trap can make it a lot more important to you to work consistently than working alone.

Work near other artists (or at least in parallel). If you can arrange it, have someone else establish a practice habit at the same time you do. You don’t have to work in the same room, but you should frequently check in on the other’s progress. There’s nothing wrong with a little competition.

Keep track of the amount of work you’ve produced. This is very simple, whenever you finish an animation, or painting, or page of drawings, add 1 to the total you’ve completed and keep the total number visible. Human beings love watching numbers tick upward, and this tiny effort can have a noticeable impact on your throughput (especially when combined with the previous method).

Set a numeric goal for your work. Anything will do, such as 100 drawings, or 50 seconds of animation, etc. A medium to short term goal is a great way to push your work forward and keep the wheels of progress turning.

Finally, remember to set small goals which you can maintain. When you realize that your previous goal has become second nature, set another small goal which builds on your first. If you are able to incrementally ratchet your work upward by small degrees, you’ll find that before too long, you’re much more productive than you were before.

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Monday, April 25th, 2016

Art Education: Practice Types

Last time we talked about how to objectively judge a person’s current ability within a discipline using the Dreyfus Model. Today I’ll be giving my personal theory about what types of practice are best for students and professionals of various levels, and how to determine what type of practice is right for you.

I formed this theory by combining my own experiences learning sports, art, music, and mathematics with advice given by notable teachers of animation and art. My litmus test has been that I must be able to apply these practice methods to any subject a person might want to learn, although practicing skills is this system’s focus, not academic memorization.

The five categories I’ve identified are listed below with a short description of each and an example of the type of activity you might engage in if your goal was to learn how to draw. Remember that these are broad categories however, and may be applied to any skill or discipline.

Willy Pogany’s Life Drawing Lessons


When first approaching a subject, the concepts and working methods are all completely new, therefore the first and most basic type of practice is the type which is most widely used in the classroom: Academic practice. This would include all newly introduced or researched information which comes from an authoritative source such as a textbook, tutorial, lecture, or guide.

This type of practice is most helpful right at the beginning of a student’s study. If you find that general knowledge about the way your discipline works is absent, or that parts of the working methods of your skill are hazy or poorly understood, this is the type of practice you should engage in first. However, as soon as a workable understanding of the concepts is obtained Academic practice should be abandoned in favor of a different type to allow the student to internalize what they’ve learned.

In drawing this would be the equivalent of learning body proportions and anatomy. These are very critical and useful areas of study, but if that’s all you practice, your work can only ever look like a textbook illustration.

Public Sketching – Gordon Grant


In order to become a confident and skillful practitioner, a student must commit to hours of practical application. In sports all minute aspects of the game are drilled endlessly until each action becomes as natural as breathing. In music, scales and rhythm exercises are used as warm-ups even by highly accomplished musicians so that they become second nature. Drilling is any task which you already know how to do, and can perform repeatedly in small rapid bursts.

This type of practice is the next most common type of activity employed by students and professionals. In essence, the purpose of drilling is to gain confidence and familiarity with your working methods. A pleasant byproduct of drilling is an increase in speed and a decrease in error making. Many professionals if not most of them continue using drilling throughout their careers as a way to keep sharp.

Drilling in illustration would represent public sketching, thumb-nailing compositions, or plein air painting just to name a few.

William Lee Hankey

Quality Test

At the point where a student believes they have learned enough to become competent, it may be time to put all of their acquired skills into practice by attempting to perform their discipline to the best of their ability. In sports, this would be game day, in music it would be the concert or recital, and in art, this would represent a single piece of artwork meant to  showcase the artist’s talents.

Art made for a quality test should be made carefully, slowly and deliberately. No time limit should be imposed and the artist should be as thorough and careful as they can possibly be in order to push the limits of their ability to the extreme.

Performing work of this type may often have humbling results, revealing exactly what shortcomings the student has yet to overcome. As a diagnostic tool, this type of practice is invaluable, and also provides milestones for the student as they progress so that they can compare their current work to their past work.

Quality illustrations should  make up much of a student’s portfolio along with life drawings.

Gustaf Tenggren Comparison


After mastering the basics through the use of Academic and Drilling practice, it becomes necessary for a student to explore their own preferred methods and to attempt to expand their ability beyond what can be taught to them explicitly. Experimental practice is done to attempt to create a new work method or a unique result which is entirely the student’s own. It is important to note that this type of practice is most useful in the hands of an already skilled practitioner of their craft, but it may be useful to novices as well, as a method of discovery.

In my opinion, this is where many graduate students and professionals fail to expand their abilities. It’s very easy to copy and reproduce from textbooks, instructors, and tutorials, but it’s a very different and altogether more frightening thing to try to create a new method of working, or a new way of seeing the world.

In illustration and art in general, those artist who are synonymous with a particular style or artistic movement likely owe their success at least partially to experimental practice. The need to perform this type of practice need not be that grand however, as even small modifications to an artist’s working methods help to personalize and internalize their craft.

Albert Hurter


The last form of practice is the free and non-structured kind which children indulge in. Although non-academic and not strictly intended to improve a practitioner’s ability, freeform practice serves as a crucial way for the student to enjoy themselves with their chosen craft. Although it may seem unnecessary to list it here, I believe that maintaining a fun and creative attitude toward your work is at least as important as academic study, if not more so.

Work of this type has one goal: to make you happy. After all, why are you putting in all of this time becoming skillful if not to use that skill in a way which pleases you? Very often unfortunately it seems that the mark of a professional artist is that they draw at work but not at home, having long since ceased to enjoy what it is they do for a living. Don’t fall into the trap of slowly choking the life out of your art, have a little fun now and then!

I hope these practice methods are helpful to you or your students. Next time I’ll be talking about motivation and forming a practice habit!

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