Dance at the Edge of Incompetence

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    This post is by Clint Watson, former art gallery owner and founder of BoldBrush, known for FASO Artist Websites, the leading provider of professional artist websites, the $38,000+ BoldBrush Painting Competition and the free daily art marketing newsletter, FineArtViews. As a self-proclaimed "art fanatic", Clint delights that BoldBrush's downtown San Antonio, Texas office is full of original art, as is his home office which he shares with his two feline assistants Kiara and Lilly. You can connect with Clint on TwitterFacebook or his personal blog at clintavo.com

     

     

     

     

    Here's a story about racquetball which, if you'll bear with me, can help you become a better painter.

     

    When I was a teenager, my mom worked at a health club.  I spent most of my after school time there.  So, I used to play racquetball a lot.   

     

    At some point, I had practiced enough that playing against friends, while fun, was no longer challenging.  The health club had a posted ranking of the top players.  There were four categories: A,B,C and D.  Each category had 10 players.  So player "A1" was the top ranked player and player "D10" was the bottom ranked player (but still on the board!).  To move up the board, you had to challenge the player above you and win.  So I started challenging the "D10" players.  Sometimes I won and got my name posted on the board, and sometimes I lost and got kicked off the board. 

     

    But then I started doing something else.  Something that has implications for everyone who wants to improve any skill:

     

    I started unofficially challenging the A1 player.

     

    The A1 player was a guy who was probably in his 30s, and had at least two decades more playing experience than me.  His playing was sublime.  I never saw him lose to anyone, ever. 

     

    When he played, you mostly couldn't even see the ball.  When he played another top player, it was like a superhero movie where the fight becomes a dance that's too fast to understand, but somehow beautiful.  I don't recall his actual name, so let's call him Raquetman.

     

    Even though he was unbeatable,  I challenged Raquetman.   

     

    And for some reason, the guy liked me and agreed to play.  Most of the time, his serves were so fast I couldn't return them.  Occasionally, I would get lucky and weakly return a serve . . . and I considered that a win.  He would also sometimes give me a few pointers on how to improve my game.  When I served, he would usually execute a perfect, nonreturnable "kill shot."  Once, I accidentally stepped in front of his return shot and his return shot hit me in the back of the leg.  I went down with watering eyes and had a bruise on the back of my leg that took almost two weeks to heal.  

     

    But, when he would agree to it, I continued to play this Raquetman anyway.

     

    Then one day, the unthinkable happened:  I served the ball fast enough that, although he returned it, it wasn't a kill shot.  And I killed it.  I had scored a point on Raquetman.  I heard a gasp from the people watching.  I was amazed and delighted to see a confused look on Raquetman's face.  It was the greatest moment of my racquetball "career."

     

    Final score:  Raquetman:  21.  Clint: 1. 

     

    In my mind, I won that game.  I scored a point on the master.

     

     

    During this time, I had continued to challenge the "D10" players.  And slowly I had started to advance:  D9, D8, D7.  But after I scored the point against Raquetman though, I rapidly made it to the "C" level players.

     

     

    There is a key insight in this story.  My friends all played almost as much as I did.  But they just played each other over and over.  None of them could rank even at the "D10" level.  But they had played nearly as many total games as I had.  Weren't they just as experienced?

     

    The answer is no.  There is a huge difference between how many games you've played, and how much you've stretched yourself with each successive game.

     

     

    Are you painting the same painting over and over?  Or are you advancing with each piece?

     

    When I owned an art gallery we would often have artists come in, show us their portfolios, and ask if we would consider representing them.  One day, a very nice lady came in with her portfolio.  She walked past all the paintings as she approached my desk.  She passed paintings by Kevin Macpherson, David Leffel, Jeffrey Watts, CW Mundy, Brian Blood,  Calvin Liang, Laura Robb, and many other top artists of the time.    She walked up to my desk, looked around at the other works and said, "I've been painting for over 30 years and my work would fit well with the other works you're showing."  And she handed me her portfolio.

     

    Sadly, her work was, unfortunately, not very good.  It had composition problems.  It had color / value issues.  The subject matter choices weren't very interesting.  She wasn't horrible.  But her work was not sale-able and certainly not close to the professional level of the artists we represented.  And worse, she didn't even seem to realize there was a difference between her work and the works hanging on the gallery walls.  It was as-if, with my very amateur guitar playing skills, I had walked into a professional recording studio and asked to be put on an album with Eric Clapton, Santana, and Eddie Van Halen.   

     

    I don't recall exactly how I handled her, but I do recall that I didn't want to hurt her feelings.  And, I was younger, more afraid of confrontation, and I think I copped out and told her we weren't accepting new artists at the moment (the classic gallerist's excuse). 

     

    If I had been honest with her, I probably would have hurt her feelings in the short term, but helped her more in the long term.  So I'll try to have the guts to share here what I probably should have been brave enough to share with her.

     

    There is a huge difference between painting the same painting 100 times and painting 100 paintings where you challenge yourself just a bit more with each successive piece.  You can even remain "stuck" at the same skill level by painting the same level of paintings, over and over, for 30 years. 

     

    For example, I have 30 years "experience" playing guitar.  But my real skills probably haven't improved for a decade.  And my progress before than was extremely sporadic.  If I had focused on getting better with each practice from day one, I could have been as good as I am today when I was in my early 20's.

     

    Instead of simply painting what you're comfortable with, you have to push yourself to the edge, as I did with my racquetball playing, just a bit more with each successive piece. 

     

    If you want to become a better dancer, then you must dance just at the edge of your incompetence.  And once you become competent at that level, you push yourself to the edge of incompetence again.  

     

    And if you want to become a better painter, then you must paint just at the edge of your incompetence.  I encourage you to push yourself with your next painting.  And again with the one after that.

     

    So, until next time, please remember that Fortune Favors the Bold Brush.

     

    Sincerely,

     

    Clint Watson

    BoldBrush/FASO Founder & Art Fanatic

     

    PS - The idea in this article is very closely related to the ideas presented about deliberate practice by Dr. Anders Ericsson.


     

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