Skip the Basics, Move Straight on to Mastery

Skip the Basics Move Straight on to Mastery Abstract


Forgive me, but if you read the above title with anything less than skepticism, you need to reevaluate your thinking.

We have become so addicted to the ‘buy it now’ button in life we are forgetting how to invest.

There is no ‘buy it now’ button on mastery. The best things in life require investment. One place that it might well be impossible to over invest in is the basics. Probably 99% of us assume we know the basics more profoundly than is true. It’s human nature to hurry to take the next step, to progress (seemingly). But it’s hard to overstate the value of distilling the relevant skill down to it’s most fundamental units. Simplifying the complex, burning in it, making it second nature. Then stitching it all back together for profound effect.

An expert is someone who has succeeded in making decisions and judgements simpler through knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore. ~ Edward de Bono

Imagine the challenges of building an upside down pyramid? Or how about starting from the middle and building down and up simultaneously. It’s challenging just to imagine let alone accomplish. As we try to master our craft, are we just adding pieces in the middle, or starting with a knowledge base? Is our skill acquisition haphazard or thoughtful?

Illustration aside, building our skills from the most fundamental, helps us in a couple ways. The more fundamental our skill set:

  • The more layers or depth we can eventually add to that particular skill.
  • The greater our ability to transfer key aspects of that skill to other area’s of our study.
  • Additionally, the more fundamental our study and understanding of a particular skill, the greater our ability to deconstruct problems and sticky points later on.

For example, as artists we tend to be captivated by the tools and techniques of the leading artists of our day. Always looking for one more technique or trick to add to our arsenal. But how often do we take the time to really peel back the layers? The flourishing brush stroke is quick to grab our attention, but that is the end of the matter. What is the beginning? Well lets unpack it.

The most fundamental aspect of painting is drawing. Can we draw with a brush? Probably not if we haven’t learned to draw with a pencil or a fixed point tool. The vagaries of the brush bristles will be endlessly frustrating if we haven’t mastered the fundamentals of drawing with a pencil. There is a reason classical art schools start with traditional drawing. But it doesn’t stop there. We can and should, keep peeling back layers. How can we distill the skill to an even more fundamental?

“The painter draws with his eyes, not with his hands. What ever he see’s, if he see’s it clearly he can put it down.” ~ The Painters Eye – Maurice Grosser

To draw well, we must first see well. To draw with our eyes, see relationships and proportions of form, line and space. Honestly this alone could be a lifetime of study, it is so powerful.

“Seeing is without limit. It is a great thing when one has a fair measure of seeing. Then to invent the means of expressing it. To be a master of technique rather to be the owner of a lot of it. Those who simply collect technique have at best only a second hand lot. A great artist is one who says as nearly what he means as his powers of invention allow.” ~ Robert Henri – The Art Spirit

Another advantage of this of course, is our second bullet point, tranferability. In cultivating first our ability to see, we will be better able to layer on the skills. For example, switching from drawing with a pencil to drawing with a brush is challenging, even an outright road block for some. How can we use our fundamental ability to see, to make this transition? A pencil is a tool of lines. It can be used to shade and produce values of course, but primarily drawing with a pencil, you’re seeing the world, translating the world, into a series of lines. You can use a brush to make lines too. Studying Sumi-e and exploring shifting line weights, the possibilities are endless. But the true strength of the brush is in producing shapes.

The greatest skill to cultivate moving from pencil art to brush art, is the ability to see the world as shapes instead of as lines.

Lastly, starting with fundamentals, building up from fundamentals, is immensely helpful when we have problems, when our painting fails.

“The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential. ” ~ David Bayles – Art & Fear

We all have failed paintings, and some of them break our heart. But what’s crucial is how we treat these failures. Will they be stepping stones or our own personal albatross? Hopefully we’re looking at them as stepping stones. Which is to say we are post mortem analyzing what worked and what didn’t work, what to repeat and what to avoid.

If we are building up or expertise based on fundamentals, this will be hugely productive. If we’ve ignored the fundamentals we’ll be tossed about like a ship with out an anchor. We’ll think we have a composition problem when really our values structure is off. We’ll think we have poor color harmony when really the problem is with our color temperatures. Worst of all, we may not even realize there are fundamental problems with our painting at all. We’ll end up investing countless hours of work essentially on a expertise plateau that we don’t even realize we’ve topped out on…But building with fundamentals, we’ll be better able to identify problems in our own work.

It’s certainly not glamorous, but investing in the fundamentals is investing in your long term self.

Enjoy the Deep Now

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