Why Artists Need To Slow The Hell Down

You’re A Better Artist Than You Think Lesson 2.1

Have you ever seen a ballet dancer’s feet?

One of my best friends in high school was a serious ballet dancer.

…serious about her craft and serious about her gnarly feet.

She wore those bruises and blisters like a badge of honor.

…and so did many in her dance class.

A detail of French Impressionist Edgar Degas oil painting “The Rehearsal” shows several ballerinas rehearsing for a recital, painted in warm reddish browns.
Edgar Degas

I was once present for a conversation in which they compared their various injuries in a collective attempt to gross each other out.

Another friend, a non-athletic like me, had to leave the room because the sympathy pain was making him queasy.

I tried to join the fun by showing off two of my left fingers.

I often practiced guitar with such intensity that my calluses split or broke off. That’s the only thing that could make me take a break.

…until I heard a story about guitar-hero Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Stevie Ray Vaughan playing guitar at a concert.
Stevie Ray Vaughan

The story goes that one night, during a typically aggressive performance, he lost a callus. On break, the club owner found “SRV” in the dressing room, super-gluing the flapping callus back onto his finger so he could finish the show.

I tried it.

It worked until the MacGyver’d callus on my pinky finger broke again a few days later. The dried super-glue prevented the worsened wound from closing so it took forever to heal.

…but for a few precious moments, dancers thought I was the cool one.

Then they laced-up their ballet shoes and took their starting positions for rehearsal.

The rowdy group grew still and silent.

The coach counted off.

The 1870 oil painting "The Dancing Class“ by French Impressionist Edgar Degas depicts a ballet class at the Paris Opera.
Edgar Degas

…and for a few measures, they filled the room with magic.

…until one dancer tripped, collided with another and everyone had to start over.

My point is that when people think of ballet dancers they think of the elegance, beauty and effortless impression seen on stage.

The audience sees the satin shoes.

…but not the swollen, purple feet inside.

One of the most important mindset shifts in the career of any professional artist is a shift in focus from performance to practice.

…from the stage to the studio.

The 1874 oil painting "The Dance Class“ by French Impressionist Edgar Degas depicts a ballet class supervised by famous ballet master Jules Perrot.
Edgar Degas

Our culture has a very bad habit of promoting performance while obfuscating the practice behind it.

This habit skews expectations, scatters attention and stifles patience.

…and it’s not just a social media problem.

Social media is, obviously, a big part of the problem now.

…but effective practice has always tested our patience.

…because almost nobody applauds the process.

…but without effective practice, there’s no performance.

…no stage without the studio.

A photo of the marble “Mattei Athena” statue at the Louvre.

So this is the first of a three-part lesson for artists who are ready to develop effective professional practices upon which they can depend for efficiency, consistency and quality in their work.

Today, we’ll begin by busting six common myths about practice.

…myths that, if left un-busted, can lead to physical injury, damage to our mental health, wasted time and energy, burnout or rage quitting.

Watch The Video (Or Read On For The Transcript):

Myth #1: Practice Should Always Be Painful:

My super-glued pinky finger bought a few more days of guitar practice but it cost me at least a month in the long term.

Although some artistic industries have become more health-conscious in general, the “No pain, no gain!” mindset persists.

A detail of Van Gogh’s oil painting “Old Man In Sorrow” depicts an old man dressed in all blue sitting bent over in his chair, burying his face in his hands.
Vincent Van Gogh (Detail)

Some artists seem to believe that if they aren’t bleeding, they’re weak or unworthy.

No wonder so many of us experience practice anxiety.

…or avoid practice altogether.

…but some of us get so obsessed with our own vision of success that we practice to the point of injury.

A close friend of mine was determined to get a job as a visual development artist in the animation industry. She practiced painting every waking hour, month after month.

A screenshot of Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear, lying in pieces on the ground.
Toy Story, Disney/ Pixar

One day, she woke up to discover a big cyst on her painting hand.

A doctor advised her to slow the hell down but, instead, she kept working.

Eventually, the pain and swelling became so severe that she had to convince a friend to smash it with a book.

The cyst subsided, but not entirely.

A few months later, she had to take a long break and rest for different reasons.

Everyone who hears that story has the exact same response.

When it comes to artistic practice, “harder” is rarely healthier.

They cringe and wonder why my friend didn’t take better care of herself.

…and yet many of us practice in dangerous ways.

One artist’s wrist cyst could be another artist’s recurring migraine, back pain or strained relationship.

When it comes to artistic practice, “harder” is rarely healthier.

If you practice in dangerous ways, slow the hell down and listen to your body.

…because practice shouldn’t be painful.

…not in the ways I’m talking about.

The cover of author/ illustrator Kriota Willberg's book titled 'Draw Stronger: Self-Care For Cartoonists & Visual Artists' features two cartoon artists seated back-to-back. One is hunching over, experiencing apparent back pain.

Some kinds of practice pain are inevitable. I assume you can’t become a better dancer without getting a few bruises and blisters.

Fundamental study can get tedious. Drawing and painting can be intensely frustrating. Some people might hate your work…

Certain kinds of pain are just a natural part of artistic development.

…but practice should never be unhealthy.

Myth #2: Art Is Magic:

Ed Harris plays the titular painter in the underrated biopic Pollock.

The ending is depressing, but I’ve never met an artist who doesn’t love the epic set piece in the middle…

A screen shot of the movie Pollock, showing Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock painting his Mural on a huge, wall-sized canvas.
Ed Harris as Pollock

Jackson Pollock gets his first big break – a mural commission for the famous art collector Peggy Guggenheim.

It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.

Peggy gives two stipulations: Make it portable and use Belgian linen for the canvas.

A photo of Jackson Pollock’s roughly 20-foot abstract painting titled “Mural,” showing broad swirls of color that defy an easy interpretation.
Mural (Detail), Jackson Pollock

…but Pollock can paint whatever he wants.

He stretches a canvas so wide (almost six-and-a-half-meters) he has to knock out a wall in his studio to accommodate it.

Then comes the art block.

Pollock just sits in the corner of his studio, smoking cigarettes, staring at the blank canvas, day after day.

…from November to January.

A screenshot of the movie Pollock, showing Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock casting. A stark shadow on a huge, wall-sized, and empty canvas.
Ed Harris as Pollock

Then, under pressure from Peggy and assisted by a beautiful musical score, Pollock stands up and paints the whole thing in a single day.

It’s incredibly inspiring.

…but it’s not true.

It is possible that the bottom layer – what is essentially the rough sketch – was painted in one go.

…but the rest was done, like most ambitious work, in phases.

“Mural” was a hit with Pollock’s audience and he went on to affect a new era in modern art.

…so the mythologizing makes sense.

…but myths can be just as harmful as they are helpful.

A photo of Jackson Pollock’s signature paint splatters.
No 15, Jackson Pollock

Stories like this one about Jackson Pollock can lead us to believe that professionals depend on non-diegetic music and the power of the movie montage to summon magical motivation whenever they need it.

…but art isn’t magic.

It’s a practice.

It can be a deeply fulfilling practice…

…and the final product or performance can make us feel things…

…but it’s not magic.

Art isn’t magic. It’s a practice.

During my early years mentoring pre-professional artists, one of my students was, as many of them are, an aspiring character designer.

Her character design skills were still at the beginner level and her drawing skills were just slightly beyond that.

…which was fine.

Everyone is a beginner in the beginning.

…but it was extremely challenging to help her improve because she never showed her process.

…only tight, clean line drawings of “finished” characters.

A character design of a boy with a goofy face and orange hair that explores different facial expressions by Chris Oatley for Disney’s “Firebuds.”
Chris Oatley

I tried several times to explain that most of the work professional character designers produce is process. Clean line art is just one skill within the much bigger skill set of a professional character designer.

…and professional character designers don’t usually do clean line art as often as they use other skills like gesture drawing, caricature, stylization and visual storytelling.

When I work as a professional character designer, my ratio of exploratory process sketches to clean line art drawings is maybe a hundred to one.

I showed countless examples of my own character design process to my student.

We also analyzed examples from some of the best designers in the animation industry (Shiyoon Kim, Jose Lopez, Stephanie Rizo etc.)

Several sketches of a blue alligator with yellow eyes that explore silly facial expressions, drawn by character designer Stephanie Rizo.
Stephanie Rizo

Her classmates also helped out, sharing their own favorite examples.

…but, week after week, she seemed to insist on submitting finished work for critique.

When I finally asked why she was so hesitant to show her process, she cited insecurity, but assured us she was working up the courage.

A few weeks later, she wrote me before class to say that she was finally ready to show her process work.

I got very excited because I knew that if she was willing to show her process, we could finally make some significant progress in her career.

…but when she finally revealed her process work, it was exactly like everything she showed before…

It was all clean, finished line art.

I asked when I could see her process work and she said that was her process work.

I asked why she drew every character as a finished design instead of what we discussed – exploring hundreds of variations on gesture, caricature, stylization, visual storytelling etc.

…and she said she wanted to be as good as Glen Keane.

Glen Keane’s sketch of the Beast from Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast.’
Glen Keane

I affirmed that Glen is a virtuoso.

…but his character design process is as loose and exploratory as anyone else in the industry.

She objected, insisting that in all of the behind-the-scenes documentaries and in every live presentation, Glen talks about one of his characters and then demonstrates by drawing it.

…and when Glen draws a character, it only takes a few minutes.

…and that’s when we finally discovered the problem.

She thought art was magic.

She thought that designing characters was like that scene in Pollock. You sit and stare, waiting for inspiration and then produce a finished character design in the same amount of time it takes Glen Keane to sketch The Beast.

…but character design and character drawing are dramatically different processes.

Character design and character drawing are dramatically different processes.

I explained that most behind-the-scenes documentaries (and probably most of Glen’s presentations) are recorded near the end of a production or even years later.

…before any given demo, Glen probably drew the character thousands (literally thousands) of times in hundreds of different poses and scenarios.

He has every imaginable gesture and angle memorized.

Of course he can draw a The Beast in ten minutes…

An exploratory sketch by Glen Keane for Disney’s "Beauty and the Beast," depicting the Beast tenderly holding Belle’s hand. In this early design, he looks like a mandrill.
Glen Keane

…but go find his earliest concept sketches and you’ll see that Glen explores a character design as thoroughly as anyone else. His early designs for The Beast are interesting, but it took a long time to find his elegant and appealing final solution.

When designing Tarzan, he studied (combining original research and observational drawing) skaters, statues, Michelangelo drawings and early computer animation.

Yes, as in every art form, some work comes together faster than others, but never without effort.

If you produce a lot of work but struggle to make significant improvements in quality, slow the hell down and focus on process.

Art isn’t magic.

It’s a practice.

…and yes, my student started bringing actual process work to class. Sure enough, her work finally began to improve.

Myth #3: Professional Artists “Graduate” From Practice:

Years ago, I received an email from an aspiring artist who said they looked forward to having “mastered the fundamentals” by the following year and they were looking forward to moving on to some higher plane of artistry.

A photo of Chris Oatley sitting in the park with his easel, measuring a distant tree with his pencil for a plein air sketch.

I Googled their work. It was what you’d expect to see from someone who thinks they can accurately estimate the amount of time until they have fully “mastered” (past tense) the fundamentals (all of them) of art.

My heart sank when I realized that if they believed they were close to total artistic mastery, then the work I saw was close to the best work they would ever create.

…unless they learned the difference between skill and school.

…that professionals never “graduate” from practice.

A black and white photo of Doug Oatley smiling at the camera, leaning on one trombone and holding another in his other hand.
Doug Oatley

I replied and told them that my Dad, who is in his seventies, is one of the best trombone players in the world.

…but he still picks up his horn and runs his scales for at least thirty minutes every single night.

…and then I quoted illustrator Jake Ekiss: “Mastery is the mountain with no summit.”

I explained that one of the most inspiring things about working in-house at Disney (I went freelance in 2012 in order to become location-independent) was sharing passion for the craft.

Most (maybe all) of my colleagues practiced all the time.

…and I’m not talking about mindless doodles during meetings.

The visual development artists and I often spent our lunch breaks painting together en plein air in Griffith Park or Burbank’s equestrian district.

Chris Oatley

We also did more ambitious plein air hiking trips on weekends – sometimes in groups and sometimes alone.

The story artists and animators constantly drew cartoons and caricatures of each other, of their friends and families, of interesting people they saw in cafes and restaurants or elsewhere. Some of my animator friends couldn’t even watch a movie, YouTube or the news without drawing the people on screen…

There were also gatherings at architecturally interesting locations for perspective practice and, of course, every kind of observational figure drawing (both on and offsite).

A screen shot from Robb Pratt’s Superman short film animation, showing the character as he flies straight at the camera ready to punch somebody, with the city’s streets below as a backdrop.
Superman Classic (Animation Still), Robb Pratt

…and that was all in addition to their personal projects: Art books, group shows, short films, comics, pitches, plushies, board games, movie monsters and more…

Do my Dad and Disney colleagues practice because they’re successful?

…or are they successful because of their relationship to practice?

Observe and draw inspiration from final products and performances, but take time to slow the hell down and learn everything you can about the aspects of practice behind them.

…because professionals never “graduate” from practice.

Myth #4: Fast Is All That Matters:

When it comes to projects, many aspiring artists fail to do their best work because they’re too impatient to properly prepare.

This VisDev painting by Jenn Ely for Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio depicts the titular character sitting on the metal bars of a transmission tower and staring longingly at a distant city, which is nothing more than a small orange spec underneath a vast starry sky.
Jenn Ely

For example, back when I started teaching, “speed painting” was popular.

Aspiring concept artists and illustrators got so obsessed with quantity-over-quality that they would try to paint a serviceable image and post it online as fast as possible.

They often scrawled a sort of “speed score” in the corner of the composition: “20 min,” “30 min” etc.

These paintings were usually a generic fantasy landscape or spacewreck.

…probably covered in scatter brush or photobashed texture (often both).

For professional artists, speed is efficiency, not energy.

Photoshop’s “hard light” effect was a quick way to add vague, ambient illumination instead of believable lighting.

There was usually one small, silhouetted human figure (usually holding a walking stick) for scale.

…maybe a small flock of birds.

…and never forget the lens flare.

The most these artists ever did to prepare was pull one (or maybe a few) reference images from Google.

“Speed painting” isn’t as popular as it used to be, but the mindset behind it persists.

Some artists claim there’s not enough time for thorough research, attentive studies or compositional exploration because speed is the most important aspect of professional art.

…and, I suppose, if you want a job in a toxic, “crunch culture” workplace, it is.

A detail of Chris Oatley’s early VisDev painting of Chloe from Disney’s ‘Pixie Hollow Games.’
Chris Oatley & Zar Galstyan

…but when you work somewhere with a more reasonable schedule, you‘ll quickly realize that there’s a lot more to making a movie, game etc. than twenty minute sketches.

One two-hour animated movie represents (estimating conservatively) over a million hours of combined, creative preparation.

…at Disney, one finished character visual development painting takes about forty hours (minus meetings).

The audience never sees most of the work involved.

…but it’s there.

Certainly, there are professional concept artists who can work relatively quickly when necessary.

…but believing that speed is the most important aspect of art making is like believing speed is the most important aspect of burger making.

There’s a point at which speed compromises quality.

…especially when practicing.

Just like a martial artist or a musician, most of your practice should be slow and focused.

A VisDev painting by Jenn Ely for Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio showing the titular character sitting curled in on himself in a dark closet, a glove hanging from his long, wooded nose.
Jenn Ely

For professional artists, speed is efficiency, not energy.

…so even if you’re currently stuck in a quantity-over-quality job, don’t let it affect your practice.

Instead, take the advice of my friend and former student Jenn Ely (color artist on Guillermo del Toro’s retelling of Pinocchio): “Strive for good and fast will happen.”

Myth #5: Spontaneity = Speed:

Unlike burgers, art that appears to have been created quickly is often the most appealing.

So some artists rush, not because of impatience, but because they’re trying to emulate techniques that appear spontaneous and energetic.

…but as we learned from the story about Jackson Pollock, the appearance of speed is often deceptive.

Richard Schmid’s alla prima painting “Apple Blossoms” shows a fragile apple tree in front of a massive barn and adjacent farmhouse.
Richard Schmid

The alla prima paintings of my recently-departed art hero Richard Schmid are a visual definition of spontaneity.

…but in one of his (expensive, but worth every penny) instructional DVDs, Richard explains that the brush strokes his audience perceives as spontaneous and energetic are actually careful and controlled.

He says: “Loose should be what the painting looks like. Not necessarily how it was done.”

Detail image of John Singer Sargent's portrait of a Capri Girl which shows loose, suggestive brush strokes minimally indicating a mass of dark hair pulled back in a headband. Big, shiny, hoop earrings are indicated only by their specularity.
John Singer Sargent (Detail)

That was true for Richard Schmid and it was also true for another painter famous for the illusion of spontaneity – John Singer Sargent.

Sargent frustrated his models with a habit of scraping away days or even weeks of painting just before a portrait was finished because he suddenly realized how the work could be improved.

Julie H. Heyneman, one of Sargent’s students observed that he “often repainted the head a dozen times.”

…she once saw him repaint a model’s head at least sixteen times.

She explained that Sargent’s willingness to start over was “one reason why his brush work looks so fluent and easy. He took more trouble to keep the unworried look of a fresh sketch than many a painter puts upon his whole canvas.”

Sargent practiced spontaneity.

…often twelve times in a row.

A concept art piece by Disney art director Ryan Carlson for the movie Planes, depicting two tiny planes sailing through billowing clouds painted in blues and oranges.
Ryan Carlson (Detail)

My friend and artistic mentor Ryan Carlson is one of the best painters in the animation industry.

Ryan, like John Singer Sargent and Richard Schmid before him, is known for the spontaneous energy in his brushwork.

One time, when we worked together at Disney, the studio administration displayed big prints of Ryan’s concept art for one of the upcoming movies. (Everyone at the studio was a fan of Ryan’s work.)

My fellow painters and I gathered around one of the prints to discuss and deconstruct Ryan’s technique.

We became so captivated with his epic clouds that we started speaking in reverent whispers.

Ryan snuck up on us and, pretending not to know the identity of the painter in question, interrupted with a sarcastic comment about how the studio must be desperate to hire such a hack.

I ignored the joke and pressed him with sincerity.

“Ryan, these paintings are amazing. How do you get your brushwork to look so spontaneous and energetic?”

He replied in typical, self-deprecating humility: “I just make a selection and scribble a bunch of shit inside it.”

Everyone laughed, dispersed and went back to work.

…but I was determined to get a better answer than that.

Ryan provided many better answers during our years working together. Sometimes he offered guidance verbally, but he also let me lurk in his office and watch him work.

What he said about selections and scribbling is true.

…but what’s interesting is how often he uses Ctrl+Z. (For artists who don’t paint digitally, that’s the “undo” key.)

The method I observed on several occasions was simple:

Select, stroke, undo.

Select, stroke, undo.

Select, stroke, undo.

…over and over and over.

Sometimes he would make maybe ten “spontaneous” strokes inside of the selection before deciding to keep one and move on.

Ryan practiced each “spontaneous” brush stroke.

…over and over and over.

This sketch by Claire Keane shows Rupunzel struggling to get all of her hair through the collar of her dress.
Claire Keane

Although Claire Keane is an uncannily versatile artist, her signature line art style is distinctive. It appears direct, elegant and, yes, spontaneous.

I once asked her about the technique she used to apply her signature style in a drawing of her daughter Matisse.

I referred to it as a “sketchbook drawing,” in reference to the apparent spontaneity, but that’s when Claire got confused…

As I described the drawing more specifically, she realized which drawing I was talking about and corrected me: “Oh, that wasn’t a sketchbook drawing.”

She explained that she drew it multiple times, working in layers, eventually creating one that conveyed the right kind of spontaneous energy.

Claire practiced the spontaneity of that single “sketchbook drawing” multiple times.

Don’t mistake spontaneity for speed.

If you want your work to look spontaneous and energetic, don’t rush or it will look rushed.

Slow the hell down and practice each aspect separately.

Myth #6: All Art Is Jazz:

Some artists cite jazz as proof that they never have to practice or prepare.

They think that because jazz is improvisational, it is, therefore, totally unplanned and unrehearsed.

…but improvisation isn’t random.

Wynton Marsalis playing the trumpet at the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center Seventh Annual Jazz Festival in 2009.
Wynton Marsalis

I know jazz sounds random to people who don’t like jazz, but jazz that sounds good to people who like jazz is the spontaneous assembly of intensely practiced aspects.

Wynton Marsalis, a living jazz legend unrivaled in his ability to intellectualize art and creative process, referred to jazz as “Freedom within forms.”

Yes, in most jazz compositions, there are improvisational sections.

…and, yes, the improvisation itself is spontaneous.

…but the forms (scales and chords) must be memorized, quickly recalled and applied in a way that is aesthetically compatible with the harmonic structure of any given composition.

…often a jazz “standard” that is also memorized or an original composition.

…in many cases, the performers practice improvisation within the structure of those specific compositions.

Some artists cite improv comedy as proof that professionals don’t practice or prepare.

It doesn’t come up as often as jazz, but all it takes to convince someone that improv comedy is not an exception to the rule is to have them sit through an evening of improv performed by amateur improvisers.

Even when a professional work of art is actually spontaneous, there are thousands of hours of practice behind it.

If you truly want to emulate jazz in your art, you’ll need to memorize every conceivable combination of forms.

…and to do that you’ll need to, yes, slow the hell down and practice.

Lesson 2.1 Homework:

Chris Oatley’s digital illustration of the Room 2 mascot: a white elephant holding up a pink quill in front of a flat yellow background.

How have external pressures like FOMO, “followers,” algorithms and assholes affected your dedication to practice?

What can you do to protect your practice from those external pressures?

How will your work improve as a result?

Which, if any, of the myths in this list tricked you into ineffective practice?

…or avoiding practice altogether?

What can you do to resist the power of these myths?

How will your work improve as a result?

If you’re still not convinced about the vitality of practice, try applying your belief in any of the aforementioned myths to different industries.

For example:

Would you feel safe entering a building where the architect bragged about “just winging it”?

Would you feel confident receiving surgery from a doctor who says she gets bored easily so she just likes to dabble with various areas of the human body?

…and so on.

Next, In Part Two:

We’ll rethink a classical practice for improving your art and, in part three, we’ll explore the relationship between practice and projects.


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Special thanks to Storybook Steve for providing the music in the video accompanying the lesson, to our Production Coordinator Mari Gonzalez Curia and to Content Producer Mona Lloyd for editorial contributions to this lesson.

Certain details in the stories featured in this article have been altered or remixed in order to anonymize the associated individuals.