Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits. That’s it in a nutshell.”
Sadly, the idea of ‘practise’ hasn’t been marketed very well. We tend to get hung up on the repetitive nature of practise, seeing it as a boring and tedious series of exercises, something we have to do in order to improve our skills. We overlook and undervalue the immense value of practise. If you change your thinking around the roll of practise in your life as an artist, everything will change.
In my opinion, practise needs a new PR agent, and it may have found it in Twyla Tharp, one of America’s greatest choreographers. She has written a fabulous book called The Creative Habit – Learn it and Use if for Life. Contrary to the notion that creativity is a gift bestowed by the gods, she believes that creativity is the product of preparation and effort. We share the belief that creativity is available to anyone who wants to achieve it, and that the key to manifesting it is to make creativity a habit, and habits require practise. In this post we will look at the importance of setting up a studio space, creating a practise schedule including what and how to practise, along with establishing mentors and a supportive peer group.
“The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightening bolt of inspiration, maybe more. And this routine is available to everyone.”
I am very fortunate to have spent many years teaching at an outstanding visual and performing arts school, The Langley Fine Arts School, located in Fort Langley, British Columbia, Canada. It is a unique school in many ways. First of all, the school teaches students from grades one through twelve. It offers the full academic spectrum of courses from physics, chemistry and biology, through languages, history, psychology and literature. In addition to the academic course offerings, each student at the senior level (grades 9—12) selects one art major to focus on including creative writing, dance, drama, music, photography, or visual art. Outside of their ‘major’, students can also take elective courses in the other arts areas. It is an incredibly supportive and inspiring place for students to learn, grow and share. In fact, the school motto is “Explore, Create, Inspire”.
My reason for sharing this is that I have learned a great deal through my proximity to the other arts areas. When I arrive at the school in the morning I walk past the music rooms which often have practises or rehearsals going on, and then carry on past the dance studios that are usually in full swing, before I enter our school gallery and into my art studio.
What strikes me about the performing arts areas is the culture of practise that somehow seems to have skipped over visual art. I will often hear the music students take a single line of music and repeat it dozens of times until it flows. They practise notes and scales and phrases that don’t remotely resemble music but are ultimately the path to it. They spend hours practicing the same piece of music to perfect their performance.
In the dance studios, the dancers do a thorough warm up and there again they start in on an intense practise routine and schedule. They will take one movement or motion and repeat it over and over again. I will often witness groups of them practicing together without music, correcting, refining and strengthening their moves. Through this process of breaking the dance down into its fundamentals and repeating them over and over again they enhance their ability to communicate effectively with their audience when the performance time comes.
In visual art things seem a little different. We create a piece and then move onto the next. We draw or paint a still life, landscape, or portrait and then we’re done. We might do several works, but each piece is its own product. What I’d like you to think about is how you can learn from the other arts areas? How can you break your artistic development and your artworks down into their fundamental components and then practise each of those areas.
Tharp says, “If art is the bridge between what you see in your mind and what the world sees, then skill is how you build that bridge.” If she’s right, and I believe she is, then one of the most important actions you should take is to assess your current skills, getting a read on both your well developed skills and those that need improving. The more well developed skills you have, the more freedom and range you will have as an artist. Not only will your works show technical mastery but you will be able to span the gulf that exists between your initial ideas and what you are capable of producing.
To get started in this process – I encourage you to make a list of all the skills that you can think of that you draw on to create your art. This might include an inventory of artistic skills like expressive drawing, rendering the human figure in proportion, effective use of colour, creating dramatic textures, specific sewing skills, the ability to chisel stone, and so on. It might also include character skills like your degree of curiosity and risk-taking, reactions to setbacks, degree of patience, and so forth. Finally, you might include some of the work habits that your creativity requires including time management, ability to meet deadlines, studio maintenance, etc. Hopefully this very brief list will give you the idea.
The first step in this Part I of Exploring the Role of Practise in Your Creative Development is simply that…create a list of the skills that you feel are essential to your art making or creative endeavour. Even becoming aware of the myriad of skills and abilities that you tap into to create your work is an amazing process. There is so much that is synthesized in the creative process.
In upcoming posts I’ll be looking at how to assess and address these skill sets, how to set up an effective practise schedule, strategies for meaningful art practice, along with how to accelerate your progress. In closing, I should mention that you might want to create different skill inventories for the varied ways in which you work. For example, there is some overlap of creative skills among all the artistic practices I enjoy, but building my photography skills in shooting black and white film are very different than the skills that I rely on with my encaustic painting. Have fun with this and get creative – these inventories might surprise you!