How To Get Better at Painting - Without Painting Anything

By Paul

oil painting detail, orange rosesJohn Wooden died in 2009. But if you’re a basketball coach today, you’re still living in his shadow.

And for good reason. Wooden’s record as a basketball coach for UCLA remains unmatched. He was notorious for his attention to detail, down to training his players how to put on their socks and lace their shoes correctly. He wrote books that applied his winning formula on the court to life in general, and his TED talk of 2001, The Difference Between Winning and Succeeding, has over four million views.

His methods have been studied extensively by people who hope to replicate his success in other areas, but with mixed results. In fact, few manage to come close.


According the book Practice Perfect, most of Wooden’s imitators fail to recognise the most important factor that contributed to his amazing results:

His obsession with practice.

We’ve all heard the oft-quoted “10,000 hour” rule that Malcolm Gladwell borrowed from K. Anders Ericsson and then popularised in his book Outliers. If we want to get better at something, we need to do it a lot.

But that’s not even half the story.

Just doing something a lot will not guarantee improvement. Depending on the way that thing is done, it may actually have the opposite effect. Because the 10,000 rule, in the simplified form we usually find it in handy quotes in blog posts or on Facebook, misses the difference between performance and practice.

And that difference is key.

The difference between performance and practice

Performance is:

  1. The employment of a lot of different skills together, at the same time. If you’re painting, you’re having to think about values, brush control, colour, technique, composition, drawing – all together.
  2. Creating something finished. For us, that means a drawing, painting, or sculpture. That also means pressure, since we tend to judge ourselves by the results.
  3. Repeated mistakes. It’s too easy to fall into the same patterns, the same idiosyncrasies, when performing. Very often, that can mean repeatedly doing things in a way that doesn’t result in improvement at all. Think about drawing accuracy. If you repeatedly misjudge distances too large, but never check to see that you’re doing that, you will further ingrain the bad habit by doing it more often. You get better at doing something badly.

Practice is:

  1. Doing one thing at a time in a very focused way. Instead of trying to get the drawing and the colour right at the same time, you might be practising only judging distances by eye (which will improve your drawing accuracy), or mixing colour, or matching values.
  2. Done purely for the sake of improvement. The intended result is not a beautiful painting or drawing, it is improvement in the skills that the creation of a beautiful painting requires.
  3. Repeatedly doing it right. By using feedback to make sure that you correct habitual mistakes and practice doing things the right way, you ensure improvement over time.

Those short lists give us a good idea of the difference, but that’s not the whole story either. Because there are two ways to practice; one is extremely effective, the other much less so – but is the one most commonly done.

These approaches are scrimmage and drill.

The difference between scrimmage and drill

Scrimmage attempts as much as possible to replicate the conditions of performance, but under more controlled conditions. For painters, an example might be painting a small still life that you can complete quickly, or doing a block-in for a portrait.

But it’s not where you develop your skills. The big drawback of scrimmage is that, like performance, it allows you to persist in bad habits. Because, as with performance, you’re employing and integrating a lot of different skills at once. You don’t know what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong.

Drill, on the other hand, means isolating a specific skill – judging the distance between two points, say, or matching a perceived value as closely as you can – and practising it repeatedly, with feedback, so that you can see what you’re getting right and what you’re getting wrong.

If you practice matching values for a while, you’ll probably find – as I and many of the people I work with at Creative Triggers found – that you consistently estimate them too light. That’s a habit that you can correct, and that correction results in real improvement.

But drill isn’t popular. It’s widely seen as boring. Worse, there’s a body of opinion, especially in education, that considers it an ineffective way to practice. That’s a shame, because it’s the most effective way to build your skills.

Wooden used drill much more often, when his contemporaries were concentrating on scrimmage. Wooden only used scrimmage to evaluate the results of drill. So if you want to improve your painting, and you’re prepared to practice, you’d be well advised to eschew making paintings so much – even small, “practice” pieces – and drill instead.

But surely art is different?

You may be thinking that art is very different from sport, and Wooden’s example doesn’t travel well to our field. You might think that art springs from the soul, that you can’t practice inspiration, and that talent and practice are different things.

You’d be wrong. And unfortunately, you’d be preventing yourself from making progress with that mindset. I don’t want that for you. I want you to achieve your goals with your art, to realise your dreams, as much as I want to realise my own.

Practising drawing and painting obeys the same basic rules as every other human activity. Those rules are established by the way our brains work when we’re learning something new and developing our skills. Those rules are the same whether you’re learning to shoot hoops or create a beautiful composition.

Here’s an example a little closer to home.

How drilling composition improved my paintings

For five years, I didn’t paint.

There were a few reasons for that. We were about to adopt our first child (the first of two, as it turned out). The back bedroom in our small, two-bedroomed house just outside London that had served as my studio was surrendered to make room for the impending little one.

At the same time, my freelance work dried up and so did my wife’s. But the bills still needed paying.

So I went back to a full-time day job. I’d lost my working space and my painting time. The easel and paints were packed away, and we embarked on a wholly different journey. Three years later, just as the dust was beginning to settle, we adopted our second little boy.

The effect of all this on my painting was that I didn’t actually try to create paintings again until very recently – in fact, until I was made redundant last September from said day job and found myself with a little time on my hands. You could say that life has been interesting lately!

So I found myself with a little time to paint, and the living room now doubles as a studio space now and again. I’m back at the easel for the first time in over five years.

Can I still paint?

I expected to be very rusty when I first picked up a brush. I expected to struggle. But I was surprised to find that I paint just as well as I did before I stopped. In fact, I think I’m painting better. And I think I know why.

For the last five years, although I didn’t paint, I did get into a habit of drawing regularly. For much of that time, I was deliberately practising something very specific: composition. I was lucky enough to find a book that was filled with some very effective exercises designed to develop sensitivity to spacing, proportion and pattern – Composition, by Arthur Wesley Dow.

The Dow book exemplifies the concept of  drill. Each exercise isolates a specific area of composition and places emphasis on practising repeatedly to develop skill at it. The exercises are simplified. For months on end, I did nothing but simple line drawings of plants, and then took crops of those drawings and repeatedly refined them by tracing. I’ve done literally hundreds of these simple little drawings. I credit this practice with developing my sensitivity to spacing and proportion.

Composition practice drawing of hollyhocks

Cmposition practice drawing of hollyhocks

I also did some practice with line quality and value design (which Dow calls notan). One way I did this was by redrawing the same simple picture of a lily 100 times, in two values.

practice drawing of a lily, ink and brush

That’s drill, not scrimmage. Here are the specific skills I was working on:

  1. Motor control skills. Quite a lot of the practice I did was with a Chinese brush and ink. If you haven’t tried it, I can tell you it’s a really challenging medium to work with – way harder than oils to control. Creative triggers members are often surprised at how tough it is even to draw a straight line with a Chinese brush and ink.
  2. Design. Before all this practice, I used to think that I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the design of my paintings – despite being disappointed when they often didn’t come out well! I thought that considering the design of a painting before painting it was enough. I’d paint a few thumbnails, think about the values. But I hadn’t done any of intensive practice that stretched the skill itself. I hadn’t done any drill.

Now I have. So when I think about starting a painting, my more developed “design” mental networks come into play before I even pick up a brush. And when I’m sitting at the easel and painting, I don’t have to devote quite so much brain power to brush control or value design or proportion as I go along, because some of that processing has become automatic for me.

The practice has changed my brain.

Here’s a few of the things that came off my easel since I got back to painting again:

pink rose, oil on panel

orange roses, oil on canvas panel

Red roses, oil on canvas panel

I know I shouldn’t be surprised by the fact I can improve through drill. After all, that’s what the neuroscientists are telling us: That what we repeatedly do changes the wiring of our brains.

Still, when you see it happen, it is a little surprising. I haven’t been painting for 5 years. But in that time, I’ve developed my design skills to the point where I now think differently about picture making. And for the better. I’m not saying that I’m brilliant at either of these two things, by the way. Just that I’m better at them than I was five years ago.

What I hope you take from this:

The first thing I hope you take from this is that no matter whether you have the opportunity to devote all your time to your art or not, never stop drawing. Never stop. Because you don’t know when opportunity might find you again. And when it does, you’ll not only be ready for it, you’ll be further along.

The main point is this: If you want to get better, seriously better, try staying away from performance for a while. Constantly performing without ever practising is how amateurs approach things in other fields. Amateur golfers never drill, they just play. And being an amateur is fine. Painting for a hobby is fine.

But if you really want to improve, look at it like a professional. Even better, look at it like a professional sportsperson at the top of their game. They don’t just perform, they practice. They drill. And they know the difference.

When you’re thinking about practising, make sure you include these three things, and you won’t go far wrong:

  1. Isolate a specific skill.
  2. Incorporate a feedback mechanism. If you’re practising values, for example, practice matching local values and test your results. That will keep you from repeatedly practising doing something wrong.
  3. Drill more than scrimmage.

I’ve included the following quote in posts more than once before, and I’m including it again because it’s so true, and so relevant here. When in his senior years, world famous ‘cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he still practised every day. He said:

“Because I think I can see some improvement.”

Best wishes and thanks for reading,


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