What I Learned About Process + Learning, from the Process of Creating Art

Yesterday I had nowhere to be.

I could barely wrap my head around this predicament. For the first time in a long time, I had the luxury of having a whole day to myself! When was the last day I had nothing scheduled? No children’s workshop to run, no fitness classes to teach, no work to supervise, no meeting to attend, no reports to write, no spreadsheets to look over. Not a single pressing deadline! The daily grind could wait until tomorrow. Or even the day after. I was beginning to fear I was forgetting something!

You should probably stay home and do nothing then,” my brother told me when I shared my bare-boned Saturday plans, “This is rare.” With two day jobs and a number of volunteer positions – a quiet, slow day is a treasure!

Despite the day off, I was determined to do a number of things; a number of restful, enjoyable, life-enriching things:

1. Wake up slowly, but not too late in the day.  
2. Not do anything work-related – not even problem solving in my head, checking emails or reading work-related articles.
3. Write, read, or draw.  
4. Not waste away the day scrolling down social media news feeds.
5. Watch a film.
6. Do some chores. 

I don’t think I did too bad. I woke up a little after nine in the morning – not too early nor too late, with many free hours ahead of me! I steered away from even thinking of work obligations, and except for checking my email twice (just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything urgent!) I didn’t even look at my favorite management or leadership blogs. I wrote, read and drew. I spent very little time on the typical social media sites, even less than I do on a regular day. I watched multiple films, not just one – great sappy background to my drawing session, pairing well with the heavy rain outside. I even got my laundry done! (I had to feel at least a little bit useful!)

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A drawing by yours truly.
Original photograph by Tim Barker, captioned, “At Petra in Jordan, a man wears the traditional costume of the Nabataean culture that established Petra as their capital around the 6th century BC.”

But really, I spent the entirety of my day drawing. (Read more about it here.) All the hours working in my sketchbook yesterday reminded me of the wealth of time I spent simply working on art in college. I had to, it was my major. And for every hour of class in college, you were expected to work a minimum of four more hours outside. More often than not, that wasn’t really enough time to get your work done. Making art is really much more time consuming than most people expect. You could be working on a square inch of space for days! A small piece of art is sometimes made up of thousands of tiny strokes, all patiently put together by hand.

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Slice of my senior year studio at college.

It was this process of creating art that really helped me understand more about the process of learning. Here are a few reflections:

1. Just put in the hours.
When you don’t, it shows. Sometimes the hours are spent staring into space or doodling aimlessly, your mind experiencing a drought of inspiration. Sometimes the hours are spent making “bad” work. Sometimes the hours are spent in tedium, drawing dot beside dot beside dot, or drawing and redrawing and redrawing the same darn green pepper. Put in the hours, even when you feel like there is no learning or no progress. It’s practice, it’s all an investment. Those hours clear the path for a mind-blowing moment later, that breakthrough you thought would never come.

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2. Walk away from your work and come back. Then step back. Look at it from a different part of the room.
If you’ve ever stared at a single word long enough for it to become the most absurb collection of letters you have ever seen, then you know what a difference it makes to spend some time looking away. Stand too close to your work for too long, slaving over whether you have drawn that crease in the paper just right, and you may later discover that you obsessed over something of little importance to the sum of all parts. Stand too close to your work for far too long and it may appear absurd, flawed and out of proportion. Walk away for a minute and come back. Walk away for a day and come back. The space between you and your work will give you a fresh perspective, a point from which you can see how to move forward.

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3. Don’t be too precious about your work.
There was a time when I was given this advice often. I valued each simple sketch and drawing too much, instead of dismissing them to practice and process. If you’ve been able to draw it once, you can draw it again, my friend told me. I wasn’t accidentally making bad or good drawings. A single well-proportioned drawing wasn’t the last. They told me to trust in my skill and ability. I soon began to enjoy the impermanence of my sketches. I would draw a figure on the canvas with charcoal, then spray it with water, so that the charcoal dancer would dissolve and drip away. Then I would do it again. I would draw, then spray, And again. It was a healthy practice. When I began to let go of my work, it opened up my learning ability. Instead of hanging on to small victories, I was practicing towards creating work more profound than any of the quick sketches I had drawn and let drip away before it.

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4. Let someone have a look and give a word – even when it is still in progress.
We learned, worked and progressed in public space. We failed, fussed and made ugly mistakes in that public space too. This was an important difference between the studio art department and other academic departments. There was less private time for you to get an acceptable draft before eyes landed on the budding fruit of your labor. You can’t hide your embarrassing scribble of a portrait when your professor tells the class to take a walk around the room to see everyone’s progress (or your lack thereof!). You just have to surrender to the rawness.

Art students worked in the studios – day, night or both. Someone could be looking over your shoulder at any point from first pencil sketch to final painting, a witness to every awkward, misplaced, discolored mark in between. Of course this wasn’t always the case, but it encouraged humility. It was never just your best foot forward. Your dirty laundry was often in plain sight too. I ended up loving this process and even relying on it. I sought out the feedback from others to better understand and approach my work. You need people to respond to what you do, whether or not you’ll take their advice in the end. The friends I invited back to see my work or my studio, were those who took the time to form an opinion about my work and give a critique, no matter how brief or informal. Those that only had praises, they weren’t half as interesting or valuable to have around.

calvin artt

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Friends visiting my studio late one night. We all needed a break, a walk, maybe some extra hours of sleep.

I may spend less time on my art these days, but these lessons enrich my work. It’s no matter that I work in an environment so removed from the me that drew on a canvas with a stick of charcoal in one hand and a spray bottle in the other.

Thank you, Grant Snider and Bill Patterson for the comic strips in this post. 

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