Thursday, October 30, 2014


I just came across Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “The Ten Thousand Hour Rule.” It appears in his book “Outliers- The Story of Success.” He quotes neurologist Daniel Levitan as saying that “ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything.” Gladwell goes on to state that this holds true even for people we think of as prodigies, like Mozart. It seems 10k hours is “the magic number of greatness,” no matter what your field.

I wonder now, despite my having been “an artist” for so many decades that I’ve probably gone way beyond ten thousand hours, in fact, I’m probably on my second or third ten. Genius, however, appears to have eluded me. Maybe Gladwell’s theory has a built-in timer that resets after a certain number of years.

What pleases me no end, however, is knowing that my work is getting better, although very slowly. It requires that I paint or draw every day (like practicing an instrument) otherwise my hand gets “stale,” refuses to perform the way I want it to, does not respond to my subconscious commands or read my mind.

I once taught a for-credit painting class at the University of Connecticut in Stamford, mostly highly motivated older students. As I always do when I teach, I try to break down complex ideas into easy-to-understand chunks of information. Painting (in oils) it turns out, is extremely easy to summarize. You go from dark to light, from thin to thick. That’s it! The rest is practice. Sure, I can explain how to glaze: you thin down a darker shade of paint with varnish and apply when the original is dry. Or how to “scumble:” brush a lighter color on with a dry brush and rub it in. There! You know the tricks of the trade! Now, all you have to do is practice it over and over, every day, for ten thousand hours and you too can be great.

As most of you know, I am very involved in community activities and because of that have spent endless evenings at endless meetings. I survive by sketching, usually on the ubiquitous paper plates that are always on hand. My models are generally unaware they are posing and tend to sit still for long periods of time, listening intently. When I first start to draw in this circular format (a tondo is its official name) the work is stiff and unacceptable. By the time I get to the fourth or fifth plate, I’m on a roll! (and, since paper plates are cheap, I can afford to throw the previous efforts in the garbage.) The lines I use become fewer, simpler and more direct. Less becomes More. Definitely.

Over the years, I have amassed a 6” stack of a couple of hundred paper plate drawings that are reasonably successful. If I want to exhibit them, there are all sorts of possibilities. I visualize entire walls of faces in twelve-inch box frames or maybe lined up behind a large sheet of glass.

I think I’m getting better and better; just another few thousand hours of practice and I’ll really be good! (Whether I’ll survive a few more thousand hours of local politics is another matter.)

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