Art as Study

If you’re a runner, and you run every day, you’ll get fitter and probably faster. If you stop running for a while, you’ll get less fit and almost certainly slower. Everyone knows that, because physical exercise is something that we all have at least some degree of familiarity with. The thing is, art works the same way.

A skill isn’t a static thing, and you can’t plateau or stagnate. There are only two things that can happen: you can improve, or you can worsen. It’s also very easy to choose which of those possibilities will come to pass.

Painting a picture, composing a song, writing a book, or whatever other kind of art you do, all have basic elements in common. Stop practising your art, and you’ll worsen. Keep practising, and you’ll improve. You don’t need to put any conscious thought into either route. The word “practice” is one that we often shy away from, because for a great many of us it has negative connotations of the unpleasant monotony of preparing for childhood music lessons, but the word does fit the situation. Footballers practice, and so do dancers, and singers, and guitarists, and all the rest.

So do painters, and composers, and writers, though we often don’t think of it that way. I prefer the concept of study, and indeed it’s the verb we use more commonly for arts. We’re learning how our art is made, and how we can make art, by doing it over and over again. We begin by studying, and we make art by studying, and we evolve as artists by studying. It doesn’t mean sitting at a desk and reading a book about making art; it means actually doing it, again and again, and allowing ourselves to learn in the most natural way.

People who are bad writers are usually those who don’t write. People who can’t draw are those who don’t draw. It might not be possible to attain the same proficiency as your favourite existing artist, but it’s most certainly possible to hugely improve your own ability. What it takes is actually doing the studying, day in and day out. The rewards will absolutely follow.

I write books, usually in the 90,000–100,000-word range (though I’d love to write shorter books in future), and each one is a months- or even years-long study of how to write a book. I also write short stories every week, which I periodically collect into compendium volumes. They’re in all sorts of genres, each one just the bare essence — or a sketch — of a tale. I do it every week, and there are almost a hundred and fifty of them so far. They’re explorations of ideas, and challenges for myself, and studies of form. And they’re practice.

There’s no secret to art. You have some particular level of current ability, and some particular greater level of ultimate potential. The difference between the two is probably very large — and that’s a good thing. The path between those points is paved with the study of your art.

You only need to begin, and then to begin again the next day, and so on. In order to draw well, you first need to draw badly, and then keep drawing. In order to write well, you first need to write badly, and then keep writing.

One of the most freeing realisations in the development of a skill — and I’ve had this one personally for playing the piano, the double bass, and the guitar; writing fiction and non-fiction; learning to understand and speak additional languages; doing push-ups and pull-ups; improving my handwriting; and many other things too, like swimming or driving a car — is that you genuinely just have to show up regularly. You just need to devote your presence and effort to the same thing on a metronomic schedule, and improvement happens largely on its own.

It will become clearer. It will become more intuitive. It will become physically easier. You will find yourself able to apprehend and demonstrate the nuances of form, and the intentionality of application, which previously seemed so elusive as to be almost magical.

The ability to do anything, and most certainly to make art, is something that arrives by consequence of having already done it. The best advice I can give you is to release yourself from the expectation or the anticipation of any specific attainment, and instead take heart in the knowledge that it’s all in the doing of the thing.

The making of art, and the ability to do so, is a study — and the study never ends.