This is an in-depth review of the book Peak and the principals of Deliberate Practice from an artists perspective. I will outline how we as artists can put the principles of deliberate practice in place in our own training.
If you are an artist and you want a clear training manual for how to become an expert artist, with as great velocity as possible, then this book is for you. But, it’s not only for artists. The principles that Anders Ericsson outlines in deliberate practice can be applied to almost any field.
Secrets from the new science of expertise
By Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool
“Why are some people so amazingly good at what they do? Anywhere you look, from competitive sports and musical performance to science, medicine, and business, there always seem to be a few exceptional sorts who dazzle us with what they can do and how well they do it. And when we are confronted with such an exceptional person, we naturally tend to conclude that this person was born with something a little extra. ‘He is so gifted,’ we say, or, ‘She has a real gift.’
But is that really so? For more than thirty years I have studied these people, the special ones who stand out as experts in their fields—athletes, musicians, chess players, doctors, salespeople, teachers, and more. I have delved into the nuts of bolts of what they do and how they do it. I have observed, interviewed, and tested them. I have explored the psychology, the physiology, and the neuroanatomy of these extraordinary people. And over time I’ve come to understand that, yes, these people do have an extraordinary gift, which lies at the heart of their capabilities.
But it is not the gift that people usually assume it to be, and it is even more powerful than we imagine. Most importantly, it is a gift that every one of us is born with and can, with the right approach, take advantage of.”
For myself this book has changed the way I do art daily. In fact I will go as far to say that this book has changed my life.
Ericsson has studied the best performers around the world for decades and gives a clear outline of what it takes to become elite performers along with science that backs it up.
About Anders Ericsson
K. Anders Ericsson (born 1947) is a Swedish psychologist and Conradi Eminent Scholar and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University who is internationally recognized as a researcher in the psychological nature of expertise and human performance.
Currently, Ericsson studies expert performance in domains such as medicine, music, chess, and sports, focusing exclusively on extended deliberate practice (e.g., high concentration practice beyond one’s comfort zone) as a means of how expert performers acquire their superior performance. Critically, Ericsson’s program of research serves as a direct complement to other research that addresses cognitive ability, personality, interests, and other factors that help researchers understand and predict deliberate practice and expert performance.
Besides changing my life and the way I create art, Peak is packed with tons of practical information on how to maximize your practice time. Also this book is one of the most word dense books that I’ve read in a very long time, yet it’s all salient.
Every chapter has detailed insights into how we learn, examples of experts in their fields doing the same and compelling science on learning, improving and performing.
With this book we learn that all of us, no matter what age or background, can learn any complex task as long as we are willing to be diligent and persistent in our practice. Ericsson also gives us the tools to increase our progress with greater velocity through Deliberate Practice.
Which so happens to be the first, and arguable most important, topic from the book.
Let’s see how we, as artists, can put deliberate practice into action.
“As training techniques are improved and new heights of achievement are discovered, people in every area of human endeavor are constantly finding ways to get better, to raise the bar on what was thought to be possible, and there is no sign that this will stop. The horizons of human potential are expanding with each new generation.”
That quote was from a chapter called “The Gold Standard” in which Ericsson takes purposeful practice and levels it up to deliberate practice. By this point in the book he has described some incredible achievements by people that have used the principles of deliberate practice, whether they knew it or not, and the paragraph above succinctly captures the feeling that everything is achievable. We just need to put in the effort.
How do we do that as artists?
And specifically we use purposeful practice plus a couple more principles that level it up to deliberate practice to help us reach our goals with as much velocity as possible.
First, let’s start with purposeful practice. What is purposeful practice?
There are 4 main aspects that make up purposeful practice and if we start with improving just one of these we would be well on our way to becoming more prolific artists. Here are the aspects of purposeful practice.
1 – Purposeful practice has well-defined and specific goals.
It’s important that we have well-defined goals that are specific. If our aspirations are vague dreams of the future without being grounded in reality then they will always stay just that, dreams. Lets rub our dreams up against reality and set some specifics that we can eventually break down into smaller steps.
Let’s say you want to “Get better at drawing the figure”. This is not very specific. A more specific goal would be, “I want to improve my ability to accurately render proportion of the figure in charcoal while at life drawing”. Or, “I want to get better at judging distances when drawing”.
2 – Purposeful practice is focused.
This idea is echoed in Cal Newport’s book Deep work. We need to set aside planned deep work time (time blocks) without distractions so we can reach deep focus on a specific part of our wildly important goal.
This means setting aside time every day for work on your artistic goals. Even if it’s just 30 minutes a day block it off on your calendar as if it was a doctors appointment and don’t miss it.
3 – Purposeful practice involves immediate feedback
We improve faster by recognizing our weaknesses and not running from them. Confronting our weaknesses and meeting them head on while developing new techniques to improve also builds our agency and confidence in ourselves. Let’s create a constant feedback loop and constantly improve by learning from our mistakes.
Don’t avoid what you’re bad at. If you’re terrible at drawing hands and feet then focus on drawing hands and feet until you’re good at it. Don’t hide behind the “it’s my style” excuse. Recognize what needs work and celebrate that you have a clear idea of what to work on next to get better! Recognition is the beginning of life changing progress.
4 – Purposeful practice requires that you get out of your comfort zone
Our improvement relies heavily upon us getting out of our comfort zone and pushing ourselves just outside our comfort zone into our “results zone”. Let’s push outside of our comfort zone, face the challenges that are inevitable on the way to mastery and create multiple pathways to overcome.
As artists we can notice where we went wrong and either work harder, or try something different to surpass our previous level. If you’re struggling as an artist while trying to create then you’re exactly where you should be. This is an indicator that you’re working hard to stretch your abilities. Never get comfortable.
Never settle for “good enough”.
But, don’t push too far; you risk injury or burnout. Stay just outside of your comfort zone.
Don’t just keep beating your head against a problem. Sometimes working harder is not as good as working smarter. Ask a teacher, ask me, or look for a skilled individual that has progressed past where you are now.
Or use the millions of online resources to find a better way, I guarantee you that the issues you’re creating have been experienced by millions before you. When you fall short, remember, there is nothing wrong with you, you’re just human, this is common humanity.
How do we level up purposeful practice to Deliberate Practice?
Deliberate practice defined
Deliberate practice develops skills that others have already figured out how to do and has effective training techniques. The practice should also be overseen by a teacher or coach who is familiar with expert performance.
If you don’t have a teacher or can’t afford one don’t worry we can get as close to deliberate practice with techniques outlined in the book. Get the book at your local bookstore.
You must get out of your comfort zone and constantly try things that are just outside of your comfort zone which demands a great deal of effort which is not always fun.
This is the same as purposeful practice
It has well defined, specific goals and is aimed at improving an aspect of performance not vague overall improvement.
Again the same as purposeful practice.
It requires intense focus.
Intense focus is also part of purposeful practice.
It involves feedback and modifications to efforts in response to the feedback. At the beginning all of the feedback will come from a teacher or coach but over time the student must learn to monitor themselves, spot mistakes, and adjust accordingly.
Same as purposeful practice.
Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective mental representations. Mental representation improves as performance improves thus allowing for more complex mental representations and allowing the student to improve more. They also make it possible for a student to monitor how they are doing in both practice and performance.
Mental representations are super important, especially for artists, more on that in a bit.
It involves building or modifying current skills by focusing on particular aspects and improving them specifically. Then over time this step-by-step improvement will eventually lead to expert performance. It is important for teachers to provide the correct fundamental skills to minimize the chances that a student will need to re-lean those fundamentals when at an advanced level.
This again, is the same as purposeful practice. Here we have it, this is mostly a repeat of purposeful practice with the addition of a teach and the all important mental representations.
Repetition alone will NOT improve performance
“The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in a world of ‘good enough’.”
If it’s important to you then never settle for “good enough”!
I repeat Never settle for good enough!
Constantly drawing or painting the same over and over again doesn’t improve your skills in art. There needs to be certain practices employed so that you grow and take advantage of your brains adaptability. In fact Ericsson indicates that automated, day in, day out tasks can lead to gradually deterioration of that skill in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.
Think about it. We all are proficient at driving a car but very few of us will be able to handle a race car in the indianapolis 500. This is because we have reached a comfortable level of knowledge and expertise with our cars. Enough to get us around, but we haven’t stepped out of our comfort zone and pushed ourselves to learn more.
The same is true for artists. We will never improve if we are doing the same comfortable type of drawing or painting every day. We need to constantly challenge ourselves to improve. This doesn’t mean stepping so far outside our comfort zone that we crash. You wouldn’t step into a high performance racing machine tomorrow, no, you would work up to those abilities.
If you have trouble drawing the figure then you wouldn’t start a painting the size of a billboard full of gesticulating figures. Yikes! But you would make an effort to attend life drawing once or twice a week.
Training requires upkeep
“The cognitive and physical changes caused by training require upkeep. Stop training, and they start to go away. Astronauts who spend months in space without gravity to work against come back to Earth and find it difficult to walk. Athletes who have to stop training because of a broken bone or torn ligament lose much of their strength and endurance in the limbs they cannot exercise… Strength faces. Speed diminishes. Endurance wilts.”
It’s not like riding a bike!
I unfortunately realized the truth of this after not doing art for about 5 years. When I finally picked up a brush again I quickly realized that I wasn’t nearly as skilled as I used to be. After this disheartening realization I committed to art making every day for the rest of my life. Just simply setting a minimum of 30 minutes of art a day has produced dramatic changes in my skill level over the last 7+ years.
I was able to achieve these results with an an average art time of less than two hours a day.
I can’t stress this enough for artists. Many of us do art once, maybe twice, a week and expect to improve steadily. If we really want to see improvement then it is much more effective to plan a deeply focused art session at least 30 minutes a day every day.
Longevity is paramount here! Practicing consistently every day for years and years is how to become a master artist.
Anders Ericsson echos this wisdom when he cites a study of London cab drivers who have to remember an insane amount of locations and pass a test in order to become some of the most advanced taxi drivers in the world. In the study, when the cab drivers were training to remember the routes and locations the gray matter their brain actually increased in size. Wow!
But the opposite is also true. When a skill is not used, improvements diminish in the brain as well. A study of retired London taxi drivers found that they had less gray matter in their posterior hippocampi than did active taxi drivers, yet they did have more than than retired people that have never been taxi drivers.
So the good news here is that you don’t lose all of your skills in something. You do retain some knowledge. When I started as a committed artist again in 2013 I was starting at a child’s level but my reduction in abilities was definitely apparent.
It’s not always fun
“One of our most significant findings was that most factors the students had identified as being important to improvement were also seen as labor-intensive and not much fun; the only exceptions were listening to music and sleeping. Everyone from the very top students to the future music teacher agreed: improvement was hard, and they didn’t enjoy the work they did to improve. In short, there were no students who just loved to practice and thus needed less motivation than the others. These students were motivated to practice intensely and with full concentration because they saw such practices as essential to improving their performance.
The other crucial finding was that there was only one major difference among the three groups. This was the total number of hours that the students had devoted to solitary practice.”
This was the finding after a study of three groups of students studying to be exceptional violinists. The groups were called “good”, “better” and “best” as categorized by the teachers rankings for each student.
What led students to high ranking wasn’t their innate talent, but their ability to keep motivated and focus when the practice was boring or dull.
They knew that the practice was the gateway to help them improve so regardless of how boring it was they put in the work and inevitably accumulated more hours in practice than anyone else.
For artists the same is true. There are many hours of training exercises that aren’t very fun but they do result in significant improvements. For example doing monochrome starts over and over again doesn’t produce any paintings you can show or sale, but it does improve your drawing, shading and planning of a painting.
One of the major principles of deliberate practice is feedback. We must receive constant and almost immediate feedback on our work so that we can recognize our faults, change our training methods and eventually improve.
Ericsson describes a study done for radiologists in training. The radiologists need to look at xrays of patient tissues, particular breast tissue, and determine if these tissues were normal or abnormal. This training is super important as it could lead to more correct diagnosis and the prevention of the spread of cancer.
The training consisted of the radiologist examining an image of tissues. These images came from a large database of images that had been previously diagnosed and were further followed up with later studies of how the patient did.
The trainee would look at the image and make a determination if it was normal or abnormal. After the trainee’s conclusion an experienced radiologist would point out if the trainee was correct, incorrect and if they missed any additional details.
Why could this be very important to use as artists?
Because here is direct scientific evidence of deliberate practice in place and working that involved the study of imagery. We can see similar study in atelier’s around the world where art students are working from models or a bust, determining what they see and recording it in charcoal or painting. Then a teacher or mentor will observe the students work and point out what is correct, what needs work and what the student may have missed.
Even if we don’t have a teacher to point out your mistakes we can reference photos we are drawing from or comparative measurement with what we are drawing from life. Then build a list of mistakes that we normally make and systematically work on each of those common mistakes.
This is the important part, we can’t just go on making the same mistakes. We need to recognize our mistakes, name them, then challenge them head on with deliberate practice.
You can see an example of me comparing my beginning drawings and paintings against photos to check for accuracy. I still continue to do this when I draw from photos.
Objective Measure of performance in art?
“Some activities, such as playing music in pop music groups, solving crosswords puzzles, and folk dancing, have no standard training approaches. Whatever methods there are seem slapdash and produce unpredictable results. Other activities, like classical music performance, mathematics, and ballet, are blessed with highly developed, broadly accepted training methods, if one follows these methods carefully and diligently, one will almost surely become an expert. I’ve spent my career studying this second sort of field.”
One of the issues I was having with this book is that there were no examples of artists using deliberate practice and I questioned if it is was possible.
Can we really create any objective measures of performance in art?
By looking at the specific aspects that Ericsson outlines that a field of study must have in order to take full advantage of deliberate practice, I was seeing a lot of gray areas.
- Highly developed field
- Objective measure of performance
- Competitive enough for strong incentive to improve
- Well established field with skills being developed over decades / centuries
- Subset of teachers that have developed sophisticated training techniques for a steady increase in skill level
So we must ask the question. Does art making have an objective criteria for superior performance?
Answer, yes and no.
Depending on the type of art you’re making this answer may vary. If you are an abstract expressionist you will have a hard time defining objective levels of performance. Trying to apply objective measurements on something that is purely subjective and spontaneous is, in my opinion, impossible. It’s like judging the shape of a tree and saying it doesn’t meet the standards for trees of that type.
Representational art, on the other hand, can have objective levels of performance, to a degree. I don’t feel that critics can apply objective measures to an artist’s work in any case. But I do feel that an individual artist can objectively assess their own work.
With persistent and patient practice as artist’s we can begin to understand our own feelings for what we want to see in our work and provide feedback to ourselves on whether or not we reached that mark set by us.
As artists we must always objectively assess our performance. Treat is as data, don’t get all emotional about any shortcoming you may perceive. Don’t beat yourself up about what went wrong, just recognize what needs work and create a plan to address it. Define what needs improvement as a scientist would observe an experiment then develop a method to improve, or look at other more accomplished artists and use their methods.
It is most important to learn from predecessors. Use all the art knowledge that is out there. There is tons of it and even more accessible than ever.
If you can’t find objective and reproducible measures that distinguish the best in visual art then approximate as well as you can.
Visual art, like the performing arts, is more dependent on subjective judgements but still has accepted standards for performance and clear expectations for what expert performers do. At least for representational art.
“The main thing that sets experts apart from the rest of us is that their years of practice have changed the neural circuitry in their brains to produce highly specialized mental representations, which in turn make it possible the incredible memory, pattern recognition, problem solving, and other sorts of advanced abilities needed to excel in their particular specialties.”
“In pretty much every area, a hallmark of expert performance is the ability to see patterns in a collection of things that would seem random or confusing to people with less well developed mental representations. In other words, experts see the forest when everyone else sees the trees.”
In my opinion this is perhaps the most important part of the book for visual artists as mental representations aid memory and the ability to recognize and remember meaningful patterns.
The complexity of visual art is all about our visual memory and mental representations are the key to understanding how we go about remembering massive amounts of visual data and accessing all of it instantly while working.
Grand-master chess players, as explained in the book, and how they process and make sense of chess positions is a great visual example of mental representations. Their way of “seeing” the board is very different from how a novice would see the board.
This is exactly correlated with artists and how they learn to “see” more than just learning to draw or paint. When we learn to see we build up mental representations.
But what exactly is a mental representation?
Being able to recall a complex imagery in your mind from a single clue is a mental representation. If I mention the Mona Lisa I’m sure you can think of an approximation of what the painting looks like.
When we hear the word “Dog” you can quickly and easily recall a ton of information about dogs. Some of which you probably don’t realize you have. You know that a dog has four legs, maybe a tail, ears and barks. You also know that there are all kinds of different shapes, sizes and colors of dogs. When you hear the word you don’t have to search your memory to think about it, it’s immediately accessible. Dog is not only part of your vocabulary but also part of your mental representations.
Learning art is no different; you train and you build up all kinds of complex mental representations, ones that you can recall in an instant. We create a sort of a mental map in our head that is easily referenced through a word or other visual observations. The more mental representations you have the better you can draw, the better you can paint.
For example when you first look at a human form to draw it the information is overwhelming and most artists don’t know where to start or make sense of all the complexity. After we build our bank mental representations, eventually we are able to combine our mental records with tons of visual information and simplify into relevant shapes.
Just look at any of the amazing drawings done by Kim Jung Gi to see a mind more advanced than anyone’s in regards to mental representations and visual memory.
Also, when we train as artists we are creating clear mental pictures as well as clarity of the feeling when creating. Similar to how any athlete that needs to complete some complex motion with their body. The practice over and over again to install muscle memory that runs on auto-pilot.
Dexterity is part of drawing and painting so we are building up muscle memory as we train. We create mental representations of not only what a stroke should like but how it should feel when executing it. In fact without mental representations we couldn’t even walk or talk as there are too many muscle movements to coordinate.
In short, mental representations are, in my opinion, the key purpose for deliberate practice, as it pertains to artists.
Mental representations become even more important when the science shows that the more skilled we become the better our mental representations are, and the better those mental representations are, the more effective we are at practicing to hone our skills.
Mental representations count twice!
Knowledge VS Skills
“The bottom line is what you’re able to do, not what you know, although it is understood that you need to know certain things in order to be able to do your job.
This distinction between knowledge and skills lies at the heart of the difference between tradition paths toward expertise and the deliberate-practice approach.
Deliberate practice, by contrast, focuses solely on performance and how to improve it.”
The right question!
How do we improve the relevant skills? Not, how do we learn the relevant knowledge?
Training should focus on doing rather than knowing!
I love that quote from the book and it sums up the best part of the whole thing.
Anyone can be an expert!
No matter how old you are, how young you are or what field you want to improve in. With the principals of deliberate practice we can learn and excel at anything and that is a very encouraging, inspiring and motivating truth.