Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Is hard work the new sure-fire formula for success?


It seems that by being interested in this whole ten thousand hours thing, I've inadvertently hit top current culture at its vortex. Oh, and I was wrong. The book is actually called Outliers.

(you can read my previous post here) http://tabithapaints.blogspot.ca/2013/10/why-artistic-failure-is-landmark-of.html

Carrying the book with me, I poked into a store before heading home. "Oh, Outliers! Isn't it good?" The hipster sales clerk leaned over his glass desk.

"Uh, hem?" Like an idiot, I hadn't even read the cover. I had no idea of the title of the book I was carrying.

"Your book!" Luckily his enthusiasm carried him past my obviously uncomprehending fish eye. "Isn't it great?"

"Oh. Right-- well..." and I launched into an explanation about how I've been pondering art, and ten thousand hours and everything.

"I know. It's so true!" he gushed. "It totally turns the conventional "success" thing on its head. Like how it takes time to get good at stuff and there really aren't any naturally successful people out there. There's this rapper Macklemore--you know him?" (which of course I didn't) "He has this song about ten thousand hours and one of the lines is
the greats weren't great because at birth they could paint
the greats were great cause they paint a lot
and I think that's just what our generation needs to hear. Greatness doesn't just find some people and not others..."

We talked for a long time and then I left, full of thoughts.

*  *  *

I wanted to share the few paragraphs which lay out the concept.

"The striking thing about Ericsson's study is that he and his colleagues couldn't find any 'naturals," musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any 'grinds,' people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn't have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the top don't work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

"The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.

" 'The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert--in anything,' writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. 'In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn't address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.' "

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcom Gladwell, 2008, p.39-40

Now that I've read the book [books, actually--he's written a few], I have more to think through. My poor husband: he has to put up with my unending analysis. After my latest musings on how Outliers relates to my pursuit of visual art, he finally burst out with, "This is popular writing, Tabitha. You just read it and ask yourself whether it's generally true. There's no need to dissect every point!"

Fine. But on the other hand: if what Gladwell says is true--if this book [as the front flap of its book jacket claims] unlocks the "peculiar and unexpected logic" of turning an average person into an Outlier (one who is extremely successful), must it necessarily follow that this can be used as a "blueprint for making the most of human potential?"

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Greatness without fame: is such a thing possible?


"Auntie, I think I should like to be a painter."

"Why?" returned his companion.

"Because then," answered the child, "I could help God to paint the sky."

What his aunt replied I do not know; for they were presently beyond my hearing. But I went on answering him myself all the way home. Did God care to paint the sky of an evening, that just a few of His children might see it, and get just a hope, just an aspiration, out of its passing green, and gold, and purple, and red? and should I think my day's labour lost, if it wrought no visible salvation in the earth?

But was the child's aspiration in vain?

Could I tell him that God did not want his help to paint the sky? True, he could mount no scaffold against the infinite of the glowing west. But might not he with his little palette and brush, when the time came, show his brothers and sisters what he had seen there, and make them see it too? Might not he thus come, after long trying, to help God to paint this glory of vapour and light inside the minds of His children?

"So for my part," I said to myself, as I walked home, "if I can put one touch of a rosy sunset into the life of [another], I shall feel that I have worked with God. He is in no haste; and if I do what I may in earnest, I need not mourn if I work no great work on the earth. Let God make His sunsets; I will mottle my little fading cloud. To help the growth of a thought as it struggles toward the light; to brush with a gentle hand the earth-stain from the white of one snowdrop -- such be my ambition! So shall I scale the rocks in front, not leave my name carved upon those behind me."

Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood
P. 15-16
George MacDonald
1867

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Worlds Collide



We've all heard the clashing claims.

Side one says that ground-breaking artists work alone; that introverted personalities are generally more artistic; that talking about a goal before it is achieved greatly reduces the chances of it ever being accomplished.

Side two says that there is enormous value in working in groups; that there is an unmatched synergy in working together in artistic communities; that when you work with other artists you will be more creative, productive and will achieve more together than apart.

By nature, I'm a "side one" kind of person. An internal processor. When I'm by myself, I'm at my best-- learning, experimenting, noticing. Alone, I make up my mind and it takes a lot for anyone to talk me out of it.

People call this obstinacy.

Whatever. That's their opinion.

But a few years ago, I was invited to a weekly art studio. For the first year, I declined.

You have to understand, I hate working in groups. At summer camp, I could never finish my crafts because I wouldn't ask for a turn with the scissors.

But then I decided to give it a try, and for this stubborn, solitude-seeking artist, it has opened doors I never even knew existed!

*  *  *

"Did you see the sky last night!?" exclaims my sparkly art group host, "It was just gorgeous! I snapped a few pictures on my way home." She begins swirling the clouds onto a bathtub-sized canvas. "Ah. Here's my happy colour."

For me [I've been known to hold a picture in my mind for six months before putting it down on canvas] her flash plan / total commitment approach is like a trip to Mars. And the aliens are painting.

Like no quiet personal revelation could, her words catapult me into another world. A world of zero second-guessing, of creating on the fly.

She makes me hear the song again: trying without fear; appreciating this particular scene not because it's Best, but because it's Beautiful.


Saturday, 12 October 2013

Why artistic failure is a landmark of success

I look up from my canvas and sigh. There she is: a Quasimodo of gnarled chin and bulbous nose. I grin. How could a perfectly good painting go so wrong? I started this particular face just as carefully as anything else, and yet here she is... an impossible tangle of shadows and scuffs, the nose rising far too high between mismatched eyes; ugly.

I don't think there's any way to fix this mess -- the only thing to do is to begin again.

There's this interesting tidbit I've been turning around in my head recently. I wish I could say it was from an amazing book that I read, but the reality is a bit more embarrassing.

So actually, someone recommended a book to me and I haven't taken the three seconds to put it on hold at the Library. Okay, if I am to be completely honest, I haven't taken the three seconds to get my husband to put it on hold at the Library.

(I pretend like it's more efficient if I get him to reserve it, but we all know it's pure laziness.)

Anyways. It's called Breaking Points, and -so I've been told- it talks about how ten thousand hours seems to be a breaking point... how if a person spends ten thousand hours working at something, he or she crosses a threshold from being pretty good at that thing to having mastered it.

The book [apparently] cites the Beatles, how they had a regular all-night gig, and how putting in all that time forced them to be coming up with new material constantly because they couldn't just play the same five songs all night.

*  *  *

It got me to thinking. I want to be good at visual art. What, exactly, I'm not sure I could put into one knockout sentence.

I'm just learning. Which gives enormous freedom, because I don't have to turn this specific piece that I'm working on into my Magnum Opus-- I can relax and experiment a little, and if it doesn't turn out, so what? I'll be back at my easel tomorrow.

I notice just how intricate a hand is, and in getting it all wrong, it shows me what a miraculous thing the hand is, and gives me the spark to try again... to study the original until I can see where I went wrong (half the problem) and revel in the beauty of light and shadow wrapping around flesh.

My arithmetic is poor, so I sat on my patio steps in the sunshine for several minutes, counting on my fingers with a Neanderthal frown. And I think, at my current rate of study, when I am 49, I will have put in my 10,000 hours.

Wondrous news! Not to have earned a scrap of paper or the applause of The Public, but within myself-- imagine the satisfaction, the delight, of being able to convey beauty onto canvas!

Graspable. Just two hours a day.

*  *  *

Now that I've written a heady post I had no business writing about a book I've never even read, the guilt's layered on pretty thick.

I think I'll get it out of the Library. Tomorrow.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

If I sketch your face, is that stealing?

I talked with the man who does those pencil portraits of famous people and sells them at the Old Strathcona Farmer's Market every Saturday. Because I figured that if anyone had studied up on this, it would probably be he. Turns out my hunch was right; he'd consulted a lawyer about the whole copyright conundrum.

He explained that if you are creating art out of a famous person's portrait, there are two considerations:
1. the subject
2. the photographer
And basically, if the person is famous enough, they are never going to bother tracking down every little artist who copies them, so go ahead and sketch away.

But what if people aren't famous? How about the pictures of Everybody-- what are the proper ethics of painting people we meet on the street? I've been told that general "humanity" portraits are fine to do without the subject's permission. So it's okay to just sneak out your iPhone in a café and take a picture of two strangers because she was in a green sweater and he leaned forward when he talked. But for me, pushing toward accuracy in portraiture, when does this become unethical?

How recognizable is too recognizable?

As yet, my portraits are garbled enough that I am unabashedly using faces that I find on the Internet. I'm typing genius combos like "side lit, wrinkles, woman, portrait, three-quarter angle" into Google images and using the results for further study.

I should just make a pin for my jacket that says "Am trying to improve my drawing. May steal your face. Results guaranteed to make you look fatter and more haggard than real life. I do not actually find you that ugly."

Or maybe this current generation is so busy trying to get noticed and go viral doing seven second ostrich dances that my concerns are as archaic as the notion of a National Geographic photographer on assignment stealing a person's soul.