Category Archives: Book Review

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

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This is not specifically an art book, however I believe it is an essential read if you strive to improve your craft and want to become a better artist.

A few years ago I learned about the idea of “deliberate practice” by reading Cal Newport’s blog StudyHacks. I immediately began applying some of the ideas of deliberate practice to my daily studio habits and within months began to see the results in my paintings. When I found out that the father of deliberate practice, Anders Ericsson, was publishing a new book for a wider audience rather than his academic book on excellence, I preordered it and then devoured it.

Instead of waxing poetic about this book, I will share some my own notes from the book.

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Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

Learning is about developing one’s potential, not as a way to reach your innate potential. So by deliberate practice, one can learn how to expand and grow your expertise.

Gaining expertise is made up of:
1. Improving one’s mental processes (even the mind-body coordination)
2. Long-term dedication to the process, 10+ years of purposeful practice. (Purposeful practice is slightly different than deliberate practice, but you need to get comfortable with completing purposeful practice before you can tackle deliberate practice as it requires higher levels of concentration and effort.)
All effective deliberate practice techniques involve:
1. Asking what works and what doesn’t in driving changes in the body and brain.
2. And to keep working to shifting these practice sessions outside our comfort zone.

Q. What makes purposeful practice distinct?
A. 1. Purposeful practice has well-defined
.specific goals, this means breaking down the big audacious goal into small baby steps, that once all are accomplished and achieved the large goal is reached.
2. Purposeful practice is focused
. Attention is given throughout painting sessions.
. Full attention is focused on the exercise.
3. Purposeful practice involves feedback
. You must know where you are succeeding or where you are failing/falling short. Only with feedback can you adjust and make corrections to improve your skills.
4. Purposeful practice requires a lot of time at the edge or beyond your limits
. By moving beyond your comfort zone you will improve. This means doing things you have never done before and making the most of your skills.
. This does NOT mean try “harder” but instead to try “differently”

PURPOSEFUL PRACTICE:
(crib notes)
1. Get outside your comfort zone in a focused way
2. Have clear goals for each painting session
3. Have a plan of how to reach those goals
4. Monitor your progress
5. Maintain your motivation (this means taking little bets that help you see the completion of paintings that stretch your skill set)

DELIBERATE PRACTICE is something more than purposeful practice! Deliberate practice is about harnessing adaptability in yourself.
. Humans are adaptable, but the body craves homeostasis, so you have to challenge yourself
. By always striving for just outside your comfort zone you change the mind and build your own potential, just be careful about pushing too far – risk of injury occurs then.

Q. What is a mental representation in relation to deliberate practice?
A. a mental representation is the mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about. Much of deliberate practice involves developing ever more efficient mental representations that can help you in the activity you are practicing.

Characteristics of MENTAL REPRESENTATIONS include:
. Even when the practice is mainly physical, mental representations are required – its about developing the ideal image of how to move.
. Mental representations are skill specific, they do not cross over easily

Q. What makes mental representations so powerful?
A. Mental representations (MRs) enable one to hold and process large amounts of information quickly. MRs can be understood as a conceptual structure to sidestep short term memory and to have access to the wealth of memory focused in long-term memory. It is the quality and quantity of mental representations that set experts apart from others. These mental representations allow experts to make faster and more accurate decisions and to respond quickly to a situation. (Think about how quickly Rob Liberace can block in the human form including all the subtle shifts in anatomy and light and shade and how to handle the different edge qualities. He can do all this so quickly and apply the information to paper accurately because he has years of building his MRs and speeding up the process.)

***the symbiotic character of deliberate practice and mental representations***
The more effective the mental representations are, the better performance will be. Mental representations don’t just result in learning a new skill, they can also help us learn. Honing a skill improves our mental representations, and mental representations help hone the skill.

The main purpose of deliberate practice is to develop effective mental representations and as you progress MRs play a key role in deliberate practice, because as one does deliberate practice the mental representations become better, making for improved performance.

PRINCIPLES OF DELIBERATE PRACTICE (DP):
1. DP develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do. The practice regime is designed by a teacher and overseen by them.
2. DP takes you outside of your comfort zone, it is not enjoyable and asks for near-maximal effort.
3. DP involves well-defined, specific goals and often focused on a target performance.
4. DP requires a person’s full attention. Concentration and focus on the specific goal must be maintained throughout each session.
5. DP involves feedback and adjustments and efforts as a result of the feedback. This self-monitoring of actions requires effective mental representations.
6. DP both produces and depends on effective mental representations. MRs make it possible to monitor how one is doing, both in practice and in actual performances.
7. DP involves building and or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically.

…………………………………………

These notes are just the tip of the iceberg, the book is full of ways to apply deliberate practice methods into your life. If you are curious to learn more, I want to encourage you to purchase a copy of this book and to find ways on how you can improve your skills as an artist.

Since reading this book in April 2016, I have been inspired to up my game as an artist and to find ways to better understand what I do as an artist and how to better express my ideas.

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

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On the importance of finding time for study and reflection

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In this blog post I am going to cover a big subject about why I feel it is important to read, study, and reflect on a daily basis. Implementing this habit has taken me over a year to figure out.

If you are interested in some of the back-of-house practices I use to keep inspired, please read on.

A GIFT FROM A FRIEND

Last year (2014), my dear friend, Suzanne Lago Arthur, gave me three books that began to change my daily habits as a creative professional.

These books were:
.Manage Your Day-to-Day
.The Accidental Creative
.Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day

Each book motivated me to reconsider how I organized my days, weeks, and longer term goals.

Manage Your Day-to-Day, was helpful in realizing I needed to make a change. It is full of essays that motivated me to seek out solutions of productivity and organization.

Armed with the goal to seek some solutions, I was influenced by the thoughtful and habit-forming ideas of the The Accidental Creative and Die Empty that helped me really turn around my practices.

Initially, I focused on the exercises that helped me define a vision for my art career, and then I began to implement ways to accomplish it, which led me to establish my 2015 new year’s resolutions.

In the The Accidental Creative, the creative rhythm is broken down into discernible categories, and in going through the book and looking at my life in 2014, I realized I had focus (I am a floral still-life painter who paints from life in natural light) but I was seriously lacking in energy (I was sleep deprived and suffering from constant low-level asthma attacks) and stimuli (I had not read a serious art book since Naomi was born in 2011). So going into 2015, I resolved to re-structure my creative rhythm and feed it as well.

The main take away from the book Die Empty was that I needed to find a way to step out of my comfort zone and to daily take time to recharge and refocus my efforts.

IMPLEMENTING A MORNING RITUAL

Staring this year (2015) I have made an effort to develop a morning ritual, and in the last eight months I have tried different times and focus activities, which would typically falter after 3-6 weeks. Each time I included time for reading and note taking, but my note taking method kept failing to engage until I came across this blog post about creating a commonplace book system using index cards.

Previously my morning ritual would fail because I would get discouraged. My method of taking notes has always been to put them in a bound notebook, but this gets difficult because I like to jump around on the books I am reading and I like keeping my notes in one place. Using the index cards and dividing my notes into a series of topics and subcategories, I have been able to organize the ideas and thoughts I read every morning during my morning ritual.

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MY MORNING RITUAL

My ritual as of this moment in time is this: wake up, make a pot of tea, sit and reflect for the time that my tea steeps, pour a cup of tea and dive into my reading for the day. I spend about 30-60 minutes reading and taking notes before Naomi wakes up. And before I get out of bed, I also take 5-10 minutes to think about my day in chunks of time, mapping out what I can reasonably accomplish.

Currently I skip around on the books I am reading, I like to spend 2-3 days each week on my three areas of focus: Art Theory, Art Technique, and Self-improvement. The books I am currently reading are:

1. Harold Speed’s books, the Practice and Science of Drawing, and Oil Painting Techniques. This is the third time I am reading them and this time I feel like I am capturing the big ideas in a way that I can quickly review my thoughts and important points.
2. Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger. I want to get very grounded in the classical and humanist views of art, because I am a representational artist and I value the world view of classical and renaissance artists, I want to understand the philosophies that inspired them.
3. Writing To Learn by William Zinsser. I am fascinated with the idea of how writing can help you learn a subject in greater depth than just reading. My thought is that this book may improve my note taking skills some more.

Having a morning ritual has energized my attitude towards my painting; I am exploring new ideas and expanding my understanding about the how and why I create art.  This is why I believe it is important to find time for study and reflection in your daily life.

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Sorolla: The Masterworks by Blanca Pons-Sorolla

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Sorolla: The Masterworks by Blanca Pons-Sorolla

Sorolla is the artist I turn to when I want color and brushwork inspiration. And this book delivers.

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“The Return from Fishing” is one of my favorites because of its large abstract shapes of positive and negative spaces, this painting was exhibited in the Salon de Paris and is a shining example of his work.

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However, for me it is Sorolla’s ability to capture the daily and ordinary activities of life that makes his work so remarkable.  I am inspired by his ability to weave color and emotion into his paintings.

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And being such an avid gardener, I love how Sorolla painted garden spaces.  Such as a simple standard yellow rose or an architecturally significant space like the gardens in the Alcazar in Seville.  (I spent close to 6 weeks in Seville during my architecture days, and completed many a sketch in the Alcazar’s spacious gardens, and I love how he captured this quiet still pool and surrounding garden.)

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Sorolla: The Masterworks by Blanca Pons-Sorolla

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Botany for the Artist by Sarah Simblet

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Botany for the Artist
by Sarah Simblet

A few weeks ago I shared The Artist’s Sketchbook by Sarah Simblet, and now I want to share her tour de force on botanical art.

Personally, I love meticulous and detailed art, the more subtle nuance to zero in on and observe, the better!!! So when a friend introduced me to this book, I immediately asked to borrow her copy, and when I returned it to her, I bought my own.

I remember the first year I owned this book, it was always on my nightstand and I would often read through it during my morning cup of tea in bed… oh, those were the days when I could slowly wake up and contemplate art in a slow and relaxed manner. Now I have to schedule time to read, often when Naomi is in preschool, or in waiting rooms and such… I am forever toting an extra bag full of art books around for those stolen moments.

But never mind all that, this is a GREAT book, and now for the details that make it so wonderful!

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Sarah Simblet provides good advice on how to work with plants.  How to adapt to the shifting and growing of plants while you draw them.  I found this advice helpful for my floral still-life paintings as well, because when working  from life and not photographs, plants do not stay static but continue to chase the light and grow.  She also has advice on how to cope with the little critters that sometimes come along for the ride into your studio.  There is nothing more distracting than a bunch of ants skittering all over your subject and onto your working surface…

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This book is also really helpful in teaching the more scientific aspects of botany.  I admit, I skimmed these parts…  the drawings on these pages are still wonderful.

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Her is an example of one of the drawing lessons in the book.

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The break down of parts, identifying the anatomy of each plant is so full of detail and so beautifully illustrated.  Another aspect I love about this book is how beautifully each page is composed, the images and text are thoughtfully organized.

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And here is a close up of one of her drawings, you can click on each image to enlarge it to study it more.

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This book is very well organized and covers the gamut, I love how it breaks down the subject and also how each chapter has at least one lesson on how to draw such meticulous drawings.

Botany for the Artist: An Inspirational Guide to Drawing Plants

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Chardin by Pierre Rosenberg

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Chardin by Pierre Rosenberg

In the summer of 1998 I picked up an interesting book while traveling, “How Proust Can Change Your Life”. At the time, I was in the middle of getting a Master’s in Architecture degree and had no idea that in a little over ten years I would chuck that career away to focus solely on creating fine art.

However in all that time, I never forgot the chapter “How to Open Your Eyes” in this book about Proust. In this chapter Alain de Botton identifies an essay started by Proust where Proust uses the art of Chardin as a foil that shakes his protagonist out of despondency with his life by opening his eyes and encouraging him to take a second look, thus finding beauty and a level of happiness in his life.

At the time (1998) I had minimal understanding of the art of still life. Though since taking my first oil painting class in 2006, I have embraced the art of the still life and how it enhances my perception of the world.

So I think it is only natural to share this monograph of Chardin as a “favorite art book”. It really is a piece de resistance, when it comes to sharing all that is special and great about the simple middle-class scenes Chardin depicted in the 18th Century.

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There is an interesting essay at the beginning of the book that shows some photos of the still-life objects depicted in Chardin’s paintings.  I especially love seeing this because I am always interested in how other artists depict and maybe simplify decorative pieces.

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The color plates are good in size and clear.

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Most every painting has a nice long description.

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Really, this is a great book to keep in your library if you are interested in still life and the art of enhancing the beauty found in simple things.

Chardin

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