Ask the Art Prof: How Does a Visual Artist Develop Patience for Learning Curves?

Chipboard Sculptures

“Do you have any recommendations in developing patience for learning curves? Is there a way for an art student to learn patience for things that seem like they may not click any time soon?”

Being an artist will test your patience in so many ways, and learning curves are no exception. Those learning curves don’t even end after school is over. With every new project that I take on there is always some new skill that I have to learn on the spot in order to proceed. Just yesterday I was complaining to my husband about not having the patience to learn basic video skills in order to make my new video series. There will always be something new that you need to learn, why is why honing patience is crucial.

Anytime I start learning a new skill, I always feel like someone has dropped me in the middle of a foreign country with no resources.  I feel incredibly clumsy and stupid, and it feels like everything I do is a mistake. As frustrating as those mistakes might be, they’re important because they teach us to value the right way to do things.

Studio Views

When I was in graduate school studying sculpture I knew that eventually I would have to learn how to make molds and cast.  I have this very clear memory of looking at a huge plaster mold in the hallway the first week of classes and being completely overwhelmed and intimidated by how complex it looked. I was so afraid of the process because of how mysterious it was to me.

Studio View

My first plaster waste mold was an absolute disaster, it was just as terrible as I had imagined it would be.  I had no clue how to apply plaster properly, and ended up smearing the plaster all over the sculpture with my hands which created a horrible mess.  I was lucky that one of my peers recognized quickly that I had no idea what I was doing, and came over and gave me a crash course in applying plaster. He taught me his special trick for mixing plaster to just the right consistency, and how to use a butter knife to spread the plaster like frosting on the surface of the sculpture. He applied the plaster with such deft and skill that it inspired me to keep going. After such an awful start, it was a huge relief to finally learn how to do it right. Moldmaking and casting are now some of my favorite technical processes.

Studio View

A large part of developing patience is simply instilling faith in yourself that eventually, you will get there.  Surround yourself with others who are learning the same process, and commiserate with each other when you make the same mistakes. Take advantage of every chance you get to see a professional in action. I know that when I was first learning how to teach, watching others teach was tremendously influential. You can verbalize and theorize how to teach all you want, but that won’t substitute seeing someone actually doing it.

Celebrate small victories when you’re learning the process, and use those achievements to help you continue and persevere. Savor every breakthrough.  Look for progress in your work.  Sometimes you won’t see the progress unless you make a concerted effort to find it.  At the end of the semester, many of my students at RISD comment about how interesting it is to look at their drawings from the first day of class, and how satisfying it is to see how dramatically they’ve improved since then.

Writer Malcolm Gladwell has a “10,000 hour rule”, meaning that to learn any skill, you have to log 10,000 hours practicing it. I think this rule provides some real perspective on what it really means to be an expert in a skill. 10,000 hours means real, meaningful commitment that goes well beyond being a Sunday painter.

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5 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: How Does a Visual Artist Develop Patience for Learning Curves?

  1. “one of my peers …”

    This is so depressing. At art college you’d hope you’d be taught technique by tutored sessions not hit-and-miss peer education.

    1. I have to respectfully disagree. I think it’s wonderful that I had a peer who was so skilled and so willing to help me. I like to think about everyone around me as a teacher, whether they’re technically a peer or a teacher does not matter to me. One of the best things about being in art school is the community you get to be a part of, and the opportunity to learn from everyone around you.

  2. A lot has to be said for learning directly from others, whether it be peers or teachers. My skills jump leaps and bounds every time I get taught by a teacher. It’s like every 1 hour of tuition from a teacher is equal to 20 hours practice. Obviously you need practice too but being taught definitely helps with the learning curve.

    1. Being taught by a teacher really is the ultimate launching pad for learning a skill. Sure, we can practice all we want, but nothing substitutes learning directly from someone who knows the skill inside out and has hands on experience with it.

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