How Long to Master an Art Form?

How long did that take you?

American painter James Whistler, best known for the painting of his mother, set a very high price for one of his paintings. He was challenged by John Ruskin about why it was so expensive when it only took him two days. Whistler replied that it didn’t take him just two days, it took his entire lifetime. He meant, of course, that it took his entire lifetime to get to the point where he could paint it in two days.

There is a persistent lie that a few special souls are born artists and will be able to make beautiful art effortlessly. They may have been born with the urge to communicate visually, but to do it well requires many thousand of hours of practice. The rule of thumb is 10,000 hours to master any artisan craft, like playing the piano, violin, or making a fine painting. That would mean about three hours a day for ten years. It’s not just head knowledge; college can’t teach this. It’s personal studying, experimenting, training your hand and eye to work together. It takes time and practice.

When I was in art school, our instructor painted a large watercolor while we watched. He used a big house painting brush and it was stunning. A student said, “Wow. I want to paint like that.” He answered, “You need to paint at least five hundred before you begin to do it well-better get started.”

I suppose we are all a little lazy, we wish for an easy way, a magic brush perhaps. As Grandma used to say, “If wishes were fishes, we’d have a big fish fry.”

Why would anyone work this hard? Because we are rewarded by the fact that we are gradually getting better and better, just like the piano and violin players. Also it’s often fun and always therapeutic. There never comes a golden day we can mark on the calendar when we move from mediocre to outstanding. But every hour invested is building our skills toward excellence, here a little, there a little, until some aspiring young person says, “Wow. I wish I could paint like that.” Then we can tell them, “Courage. It’s going to take 10,000 hours. Better get started.”

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