Quantity, not Quality

wren carolina rump coldWhat is the best way to improve as a sketcher? To focus on the quality of our work and strive to improve it, or to put our energy into making lots of pictures. Contrary to standard wisdom, I have found that the best approach is simply to make lots of drawings.

If you focus on trying to make pretty pictures, it is easy to become discouraged when one does not come out the way we want. If we try to force it to work, the result is seldom satisfactory. This is not fun and it is all the less likely that you will pick up your pencil and work on another drawing the next time. Drawing with the goal of the drawing itself makes a fetish of the product. The judgement of  the art critic are useful in an art class but have no place in field journaling. They slow you down and actually block you from present observation.

In contrast, just enabling yourself to make as many pictures as possible opens doors. Each drawing becomes less important to the ego and one drawing invites you to the next. Sketches without judgement help you maintain your focus and embed you in the moment. This is where journalers experience flow, a state of utter concentration, fascination, and connection. The sketcher often loses all sense of time. The experience motivates you to continue and do it again.

I draw for two reasons, to see and to remember. Let go of the goal of the pretty picture. If it ends up pretty that is OK, if not, that is OK. Each drawing in not an end in itself. It is a vehicle to help you focus your attention. As you draw, you quickly reach the threshold of your knowledge and must rely on what is real and in front of you for answers. As you draw the legs of the avocet, you need to look up to see where they emerge from the body, how far down the leg the ankle joint is located, or the angle to the ground. Without the prompt of drawing there would be no reason to look so carefully at these details. The drawing also helps you remember. Our brains quickly wipe all but the most traumatic experiences from our minds. The process of sketching takes what would have been an ephemeral moment and ties it into the fabric of our long-term memory. If by making a sketch you notice something that otherwise you would not have seen or are better able to remember what you saw, the drawing is successful.

What we have learned from neuroscience supports this approach to mastery of a skill. If you want to get better at something, do it a lot. As you practice a skill, you brain will lay down sets of neurons specific to this new activity. The more you do it the more this part of your brain physically grows. If you keep drawing, you keep getting better. It never stops. There is no masterpiece. Each drawing that you do is practice for the next. Here is the paradox. If you want to make pretty pictures, do not focus on pretty pictures. It is a numbers game. Just make a lot of pictures. The pretty ones will come on their own.

“The ceramics teacher announced that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its¬†quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. At grading time, a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

– Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

10 thoughts on “Quantity, not Quality

  1. Mike says:

    Great post John. I really love your work. I totally agree with what you said about looking at something and committing to memory. My favorite art quote is from Frederick Frank -“I have learned that what I have not drawn, I have never really seen…”. After I have drawn something (a tree, a rock, a building) I remember for so much longer and in much greater detail. I looked so close at it that I often see things that no one else has and I love that.

  2. will says:

    Excellent post, and great blog! .Your advice regarding the purpose and ends for drawing is the best one to give to any artist. Of course, there are drawings that can be worked into a ‘finished’ work of art. But using drawing as a tool for, as you say, see and remember is a powerful means for improving skills. And also preserving spontaneity, which sometimes turns these quick sketches into lovely pieces, more full of life than an overworked ‘finished’ drawing.
    I admire your knowledge and wonderful skill in drawing birds.
    At my modest level, horses are my subject. You are welcome to visit my blog.
    Will

    • Will, I just finished looking at your blog in detail. Your watercolor work is inspiring and you know anatomy of horses and humans in such depth. Thank you for putting me on to this site. I agree with you that creating finished work is of great value. Thank you for your comment.

  3. Betsy says:

    Great post, John. Thanks.

    Some of my most successful drawings have been quick sketches; in them, there’s something about the freedom of line that really seems to work. Working too carefully often produces a flat, lifeless drawing, at least for me.

  4. will says:

    Thank you for your comments, John. They are very valuable to me. Would mind if I put your blog on my ‘favorites’ links list?

  5. Kim Packard says:

    I’m wanting to start sketching and drawing again after a long hiatus and hope to keep my activity cruelty-free and environmentally friendly. Also, I need to stay away from potentially harmful products that can irritate my sensitive lungs. After looking into different products, I’ve concluded that it would be safe for me to use graphite pencils and charcoal pencils but wherever colors are involved I need to be careful.

    There are several websites on vegan art supply, many of which are mentioned here. http://www.itseasybeingvegan.com/2012/07/18/evolving-vegan-art-supplies/

    I believe most of Daniel Smith pigments are derived from minerals and cruelty-free. I would appreciate it if you could recommend a palette for vegan watercolor artists.

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