Dilute Lexington grey in fountain pen and water-brush, water-colour, A6 – 20 minutes
Here’s Matthew Syed presenting at a conference I went to recently. He’s a journalist, former UK table-tennis champion, and the author of ‘Bounce’ where he explains the importance of ‘purposeful practice’, and how the myths of ‘innate talent’ and ‘genius’ do us all a disservice.
Although many of his examples are taken from sport, his ideas have a lot of relevance to art and perfectly parallel Danny Gregory’s enthusiasm for daily sketching. He explains a tennis player’s skill at returning a fast serve, and a Grand Master’s ability to play 20 simultaneous games of chess blindfolded as the learnt ability to “encode complex information in higher order chunks”. And I think this is what sketching is; the ‘complex information’ is the chosen subject, the ‘higher order chunks’ are the expressive lines we make on the paper, and the ‘encoding’ is the way we arrange these lines.
Every time I draw a person I’m learning new and simpler ways to represent, or encode, human figures; the particular curve of the fore-arm, the ways that cloth drapes over shoulders. You can see the process at work in the four figures above; I improved the proportions of the legs and torso (but then lost the scale of the head), and although the arms got better the last hand was a complete mess. As I continue to practise I become better at doing more of these complex ‘encodings’ at the same time, the lines become more expressive, and I become a more fluent sketcher.
Syed says that “in the construction of complex skills the evidence is overwhelming that the importance of ‘talent’ is very, very minimal and far less relevant than hard work.” This is highly encouraging for sketchers as our ‘hard work’ is the pleasure of regular sketching! Daily drawing with new challenges helps to build the necessary hours of ‘purposeful practice’, familiarity with occasional ‘failures’, and the satisfaction of a good sketch feeds the vital ‘internal motivation’. The only part of Syed’s recipe for excellence that is missing for most sketchers is the presence of a coach, and perhaps that’s why so many of us blog, to get the feedback we need to improve?