The secret to becoming a better artist…? Surprisingly, although one would think you begin with talent and although talent will give you a big jump start, it is not the key ingredient. Talent may in fact even get in the way of progressing.
Having the humility and willingness to be taught is a key to an artist continued growth no matter at what level he or she is. Humility doesn’t mean that you take every bit of advice that is thrown your way but that at least you have an open ear to what’s being said. It maybe that what you discard at the moment you will recall later and find that the advice had more merit than you initially assigned to it. I have talked to someone who expressed how earnestly he wanted to improve his drawing. Upon looking at his work I suggested that he take life drawing classes or at least make it a point to continually draw from observation to improve his skills. He went on to explain how he took life drawing classes in college and that he was already sure of what he has to do right now to get better- this after he asked for the advice. I later discovered that he had expressed the same things to others (some who were notable artist and illustrators). They gave him the exact same advice I did and he ignored it of course. He has not been able to grow beyond what he already knows.
Perseverance is also a key to becoming better. Never give up on this life -long pursuit of excellence. Have set in your mind that it will take your entire life time to learn everything that you want to learn about painting and drawing. One of my favorite quotes, often repeated here, by the Japanese artist Hokusai,
“From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.”
Another quote from Hokusai made in his old age, (some have said that this was said by him on his deathbed),
“If heaven had granted me five more years, I could have become a real painter.”
Like Leonardo, art to Hokusai was a life- long pursuit of understanding and communicating in pictures the world he lived in.
Another key ingredient would be discipline. With discipline art becomes more than a hobby, it becomes a habit, an extension of one’s character. Habits are hard to break, shaking off the need to express yourself visually should be the same. I had a teacher in high school who read to his student a quote from Calvin Coolidge that I’ve often repeated. He swapped the word “persistence” for the word discipline and I will do so here,
“Nothing in the world can take the place of discipline. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Discipline and determination alone are omnipotent.”