Teaching an Old Artist New Tricks

Have you ever struggled to overcome a bad habit or to establish a new one? If you have, you’re not alone!

When I continue to study a subject over a long period of time, I have a tendency to rely on my older, erroneous habits. Even though I’ve learned that there are better ways. Sometimes this is due to laziness, and sometimes to simply wanting to stick with old, familiar methods. (Or maybe those two reasons are essentially the same thing.)

Although I may have recently learned a more effective approach, I have to consciously abstain from continuing old methods, which would only serve to reinforce the bad habits. It takes a long time and considerable effort to embrace new habits as trusted friends, even when I know, intellectually, that they are superior to the old ones. And that is one reason that learning, while exhilarating and stimulating, can also be so stressful.

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But sometimes, when it comes to relearning a skill (or applying a new approach) in art, I find that my hands don’t want to obey the theory that has entered my head. I know the evidence is apparent in the resulting work. But how can I overcome that tendency to fall back into old ways?

I’ve found that the key is in changing the theoretical knowledge into practical understanding. And sometimes that requires giving myself permission to do it the “wrong” way one more time.

Why? When a drawing or painting is finished, including all its imperfections, I find it helps me to set it up on an easel where I can study it from a distance and consider it as I go about my other business. That way, the shortcomings begin to jump out at me. I can see the faults, and my mind goes to work, both consciously and unconsciously, solving the problems that had gotten me to that result.

As I live with it for a while, the more I allow my mind to evaluate the shortcomings, the deeper my understanding grows and the better ingrained the solutions become. Not only have I acquired the theoretical knowledge of what I should have done, now I have gained a measure of intellectual understanding of why and have begun to develop a stratagem for how to approach the change.

The next step is to go back to the drawing board…quite literally. I draw or paint the same subject again, or a different one that poses similar problems, this time addressing the problems with my new understanding. Besides having merely learned (theoretically) that there is a difference in result between the two approaches, I have identified the differences the two approaches make, I have recognized the importance of achieving the improvement, and I have absorbed the understanding of how to achieve it. At this point, my hands are much more likely to cooperate with the new approach.

Even then, the change doesn’t occur instantaneously. Ingrained understanding helps make the transition easier. But regular and consistent practice over several weeks, or even months, is needed to completely instill a new habit to displace the old one.

If you’ve found a more effective approach to establishing new habits, I’d love to hear from you.

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