The Art of Mastery

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The Art of Mastery

If a man has the soul of an artist he needs a mastery of all the means of expression so that he may command them. ~ Robert Henri ~

Apprentice, journeyman, and master. An ancient system of learning that is almost universally understood. In the first two posts, Art of Flow and Art of Creativity, the subjects, though seductive, aren’t quite as tangible. We can not force flow, we can not make creativity reveal itself in our work. Mastery, on the other hand, is a well worn path. We can force it, we can make it happen. Through systematic hard work expertise can be ours. Interestingly enough, mastery plays a key role in the other two points on our little triad of human achievement, flow and creativity.

Pursuit of mastery, first off, puts your head in a growth mindset mentality. A fixed mindset is death to creativity and flow. Check out Carol Dwecks great book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”

Next consider what is the key difference between a deep experience and a shallow one.? Expertise (ref Malcom Gladwells Blink). Flow, this completely immersible focused energy will flow (figuratively) deepest and strongest down those canyons most strongly established and entrenched. We strengthen these canyons (neural pathways and habit loops) through mastery. In studies of athletic flow, over learning is a frequent contributor. Consider this some what older and more sage advice:

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make deep mental paths, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. ~Henry David Thoreau ~

Mastery helps us develop these paths, these neuropathways. Charles Limb MD notes “Creativity isn’t something that happens on the first try”. Numerous studies have linked higher creativity to higher productivity, another result of pursuit of mastery.

Mastery – What is it?

According to Robert Greene in his book Mastery: “Mastery is not a function of Genius or talent. It is a function of time and intense focus applied to a particular field of knowledge”

So we see, mastery is about determined desire, not innate talent.

Another definition I favor, as a visual creative: Technical virtuosity in service of a visual power.

Flow and creativity, their greatest beauty is also their greatest frustration. They are non-linear. You may sneak up on them from the side but you wont get there through some sequential 5 step process. Mastery though, is all about a linear step by step process. It can certainly be optimized, not every road to it is non-stop and a straight line and we’ll dig into that in later posts. But it is sequential with an easily understood process.


Some, on that path chasing more creativity and flow in there lives, may resent the inclusion of mastery in this process. There is a sad tendency in the visual arts of the past century that you don’t see in the other arts and music, to regress. I don’t mean simplify, which is hugely important and will definitely be discussed in later posts. I mean going backwards.

As example lets take naïve art. When a trained artist emulates the style of a child, pretends that they are with out skill. Many examples of this in 20th century art, much of its influence even outside whats commonly referred to as naive art. It probably is not completely with out merit, I think experimentation is fundamentally important in the visual arts ( and key to flow and creativity of course). But let me share my concern with this type of thinking.

There is a lot to be learned with fresh (naive) eyes. There are numerous examples of high level performers and high level thinkers after reaching some kind of peak, will make a lateral shift in sports or subject just to look at the world again through fresh eyes, the eyes of a beginner. Some things can only be seen through beginner eyes. This is huge. In cross disciplinary pursuits, and fresh eyes, we are more open to break throughs we might else wise miss. But to just pretend your a new, naive artist? Is this lack of sincerity to process productive? Perhaps it makes for some interesting thought experiments, maybe even a very creative problem solving technique. But is there enough value there to hijack mainstream art? Then considering the money involved, how many insincere artists are attracted to using this insincere process to sell paintings? Are we moving forward or regressing?

Culinary experts don’t get food all over their face, emulating child like wonder when enjoying fine food. Musicians don’t mindlessly slam a bunch of keys on a piano in pretend child like glee. To remove sincerity and quality from the visual arts is a mistake.

Mastery should be a goal of any visual creative. Since the renaissance Art has been raised above the status of mere labor. In later years what is art started distinguishing itself from craft. But the next step is not removing craftsmanship from what is art. Craftsmanship or artistic mastery really was the biggest unacknowledged victim of our 20th century society.

In all three of our lifestyle enhancing triumvirates of flow, creativity, and mastery, I believe the maxim holds true: internal is proactive, external is reactive. But one internal motivation that often bleeds into external dreams is to transcend technique in your work. But any who think they may transcend technique with out first starting with technique are fooling themselves.

But what ever your view and artistic proclivity the next step, looking forward, is really what Henri so eloquently spoke about to his students:

The object isn’t to make art, but be in that wonderful state that makes art inevitable. ~ Robert Henri ~

Bite down on the Deep Now. History will surely take care of itself.

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