Improve Your Art Skills With Intense Focus

Deliberate Practice In Art

How To Improve Your Art Skills.

  • Identify specific skill to work on
  • Work on one thing at a time
  • Set clear, small goals
  • Give it your total focus
  • Let go of the outcome
  • Observe yourself
  • Slow down
  • Mindlessly dabbing
  • Make every action intentional
  • Take breaks - refocus
  • Say your name
  • Associative to Autonomous
  • Cognitive learning stage
  • Associative learning stage
  • Autonomous learning stage

How do I get better faster? As an artist, it feels like it takes forever to improve your drawing or painting skills.

Getting serious about making art again, I believed practicing was the only way to improve my art skills.

Of course, practice is necessary. After all, practicing carries us from the Cognitive learning stage through to the Autonomous learning stage.

One of my dear artist friends said it best, worrying that they may not live long enough to get better at this. There has to be a better way. I set out to answer the following question. How do I get better faster?

If You Want To Get Better Faster, I Believe You Need To Focus On This One Simple Thing.

Deliberate Practice:

What is deliberate practice? More important than how long you practice, how you practice. When most of us practice, it is easy to focus on things we already know how to do. When we practice deliberately, our efforts should be to do something we cannot yet do well. To read more about deliberate practice theory, consider reading more about Anders Ericsson deliberate practice.

Paul Fitts and Michael Posner presented their "three-stage learning model" in 1967. It is known as the "The Fitts and Posner" three-stage model of learning. You can find more about this learning model here:

Their learning stages represent the process we go through when going from an unskilled beginner to an expert for virtually any motor skill.

As fine motor skills, drawing and painting require eye-hand coordination. They also call for precise hand or finger movements. Fine motor skills involve greater control of small muscles.

The Fitts And Posner Learning Stages Are Cognitive, Associative, And Autonomous.

In the cognitive stage, we figure out what to do. If you want to learn a new art skill like drawing, painting, or printmaking, you might do some of the following. You could read books on the subject, study art techniques, research art materials or take art workshops. You might ask technical questions, seek out people who've mastered this skill. Learn how they do what they do. Watch artists as they perform the task.

Learning how to perform a skill and understanding the techniques and materials is sometimes referred to as the cognitive stage. Ideally, you want to be able to see yourself performing the task in your head. Visualize every step. Clearly understand the drawing or painting process.

When learning new art skills, you want the skills to become automatic. Automatic means you don't have to think about what you're doing. You no longer have to make decisions. Your mind and body have performed the task many times. They know what to do.

When you reach this stage when actions become automatic, it is known as the autonomous learning stage. Because the word "autonomous" sounds similar to automatic, it's easy to remember.

In between the beginner and expert stage is the practice stage. Sometimes referred to as the associative learning stage. If you sign up for music lessons, your teacher may recommend you practice for 30 minutes each day. This amount of time seems to be fairly standard.

When drawing from life, you need to practice often. The more often you practice, the better you should get. Right? Well, not necessarily.

Some artists practice the same way, day after day, year after year, making the same mistakes over and over again. Therefore, their work does not improve. They get stuck.

How Do You Get Unstuck? Identify Specific Skills To Build On.

If you want to get better faster, ask what do I want to get better at? Be very specific.

The point is to identify specific skills to develop. Reframe the following question: "why am I unhappy about my artwork?". Ask instead: "what is making me unhappy about my artwork?".

Fill in the blank, my artwork is ___________. Focus on the words you write in the blank.

What's the definition of the word? What are synonyms?

For example, I wanted to get better at life drawing. When I asked myself the above questions, I wrote in: "my artwork is wonky" "Wonky" is the first word that came to mind.

Analyze your word. One definition of the word wonky is: "out of alignment or crooked" For me, it meant that I needed to work on proportions. I wasn't drawing correct facial proportions. Therefore, everything seemed off, out of alignment, or crooked.

The definition fits what I was feeling. I had to interpret it and translate my feelings into action.

By analyzing my own words, I determined I needed to work on drawing proportions. I needed to make the skill of drawing correct proportions an automatic skill set.

There's a lot to think about when drawing a person from life.

To capture a person's likeness, you have to get the correct facial proportions. You have to think about values, the shape of the shadows, blending your mid-tones to turn the form, the placement of the highlights, the correct size, placement of each facial feature, and more.

To think about all of this stuff at the same time can be overwhelming. Art making is a complex skill. When practicing a complex skill, you're using quite a lot of your brain's resources. Drawing and painting require our attention, memory, and effort for different aspects of the task.

We can perform better if we work on one thing at a time.

I was spending half of each life drawing session struggling to get the correct proportions. I was wasting a lot of time. Time is valuable when you have a live model.

If I could get better at proportions, I wouldn't have to spend so much energy and effort on dimension. If I could make that one thing automatic, I could free up attention. I could spend more time on shading and values likely walk away with a better drawing.

If drawing is the motor skill you want to improve, break the skill of drawing into small chunks. Figure out which block or portion you need to build on. Practice one part at a time until you've improved.

Drawing Skill:

  1. Proportions
  2. Values
  3. Shadow Shapes
  4. Mid-Tones
  5. Highlight Shapes
  6. Blending
  7. Line Quality

It's one way to get better faster. It's not how long you practice but how you practice.

Now that you've decided one thing you need to work on, it's time for some deliberate practice. You must try to practice this skill precisely. Slow down and perform the task much slower than usual.

Set small clear goals.

Getting correct proportions became my goal. Set small clear goals. Devote all of your focus to performing the task as accurately as you can.

Give it your total focus.

For me, when working on proportions, I intentionally slowed down. Working at a slower pace intensifies your focus. Instead of quickly glancing back and forth from the model to my paper, I counted to 3 as I looked at the model. Only after 3 seconds would I move my gaze back to my drawing paper. I then counted to 3 again before making each mark.

Deliberate practice requires focused attention. Have the specific goal of improving performance.

Observe yourself.

Become very aware of yourself. One might think of this as mindful drawing.

Take breaks - refocus.

Should you catch yourself losing focus, daydreaming, allowing your mind to wander, stop drawing or painting. Immediately set down your charcoal, pencil, or brush and take a break. Don't allow yourself to work any longer until you have regained your focus.

When painting, I often catch myself mindlessly dabbing paint to the canvas. I've learned over time to be wary of this. I try to remain alert, to be aware when this happens. If mindlessly dabbing paint, you've likely lost focus. You may be feeling fatigued. It's better to be deliberate with every brushstroke. Take the extra time to be sure every bit of paint is mixed to the proper color or value before your brush touches your canvas. A few moments of mind wandering and mindless paint dabbing are enough to ruin your previous day's efforts. Do yourself a favor, set your brush down, take a break and refocus your mind.

Say your name.

The simple act of saying your name out loud may snap you back into focus. Use whatever tools or tricks you have at your disposal to hold your focus on the task at hand.

Let go of the outcome.

Be willing to make bad art while you practice skills. We don't enjoy creating poorly made artwork. Many of us may fear it. However, it may be necessary while developing skills, training your brain, hands, and eyes to perform at a higher level. The process might not be pretty.

I was willing to draw badly and focused only on drawing proportions to the very best of my ability. I set small clear goals and devoted time to practice as precisely as I could.

What and how you practice will become automatic. What you practice will become a habit. We all have habits, good and bad. You want to replace poor art habits with good art habits, therefore improving your art skills.


I had a problem. I wanted to improve my art skills faster. To do so, I had to identify what specific areas needed improvement. Once identified, I focused on that one skill. By breaking a sizable art skill down into small chunks, I could practice the appropriate portion. Only through learning to control and intensify my focus did I break my lousy art habits and improve my skills. In my experience, the importance of deliberate practice outweighs the amount of time you spend practicing. It's the quality of the practicing session that counts, not just the quantity.

Author: Sonia Reeder-Jones