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

The Art of Mastery

Organic Abstract Art
© The Art of Mastery

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.