Thursday, 17 April 2014

A common question or a common comment

Over the two days I spent at the RHS, and when I am working at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, I frequently hear comments such as 'gosh wasn't Marianne North talented?!' and 'where did you learn to paint like that?!' and 'I could never paint like that' etc.... etc.... At the RHS show my response was always, and rather boringly, the same - 'it's just through practice'. It's nice for people to say such things, but it also worries me.

I don't consider myself to be a very good artist at all really. Ask me to draw a dog, a house or a human and you would be sorely disappointed with the result. You'll be able to guess what it was that I was drawing, but you‘ll be asking for a refund! I consider the reason for this to be quite simple - I just haven't practiced drawing these other subjects, which consequently means that I am not really naturally gifted in the arts at all. In fact if anything, my talents really lie with inventing things, as that was what I was good at as a child before my parents or schooling could drive anything. 

The ever inventive James May and his brilliant brain. I wish I had the guts to have done this.
It has always been known that in order to become good at something you need to practice and yet so many people still think you need talent to begin with. This to me has always been a load of codswallop. What you need is curiosity and passion in a particular field.

In 2008 a book called Outliers made this fact official. Researched and written by Malcolm Gladwell, the book claims that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. I really do love facts like this... what a nice round number to come to?! So how did Gladwell arrive at this conclusion and, if the conclusion is true, how can we leverage this idea to achieve greatness in our profession? 

Well quite simply, Gladwell studied the lives of extremely successful people to find out how they achieved success. For example, in the early 1990s, a team of psychologists in Berlin,  studied violin students. Specifically, they studied their practice habits in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. All of the subjects were asked this question: “Over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?” All of the violinists had begun playing at roughly five years of age with similar practice times. However, at age eight, practice times began to diverge. By age twenty, the elite performers averaged more than 10,000 hours of practice each, while the less able performers had only 4,000 hours of practice.

Joanne Yeoh - Professional Violinist who also has a cool hair do.

One particularly fascinating point of this study was that no “naturally gifted” performers emerged. If natural talent had played a role, some of the “naturals” would have been part of elite regardless of having practiced less, but the data showed otherwise. The psychologists found a direct relationship between hours of practice and achievement. No shortcuts. No naturals. 

Even the Beatles liked flowers. Check out those Hollyhocks - nice.
In 1960, while they were still an unknown high school rock band, the Beatles went to Hamburg to play in the local clubs (wish I was around then). Apparently, to begin with the group was underpaid, the acoustics were terrible and the audiences were unappreciative. One would be forgiven for writing this off as a complete disaster, but the Beatles did get something quite special out of the experience - they got loads of time to practice which made them improve. As the Beatles grew in skill, their audiences demanded more performances and consequently more playing time. By 1962 they were playing eight hours per night, seven nights per week. By 1964, the year they burst on the international scene, the Beatles had played over 1,200 concerts together and by way of comparison, most bands today don’t play 1,200 times in their entire career. So there you have it.

On a last note, something else to bear in mind is that the ‘masters' don’t just practice more, they also fall in love with their practice whilst doing it. They love what they do to the point that it no longer feels like work, which is definitely an important part of the story and something I think we can all empathise with as illustrators.

So why am I saying this here? Well... I understand that us humans all want to be great at something, and on this blog we especially want to be good at botanical art... And I feel it is important to give everyone hope. It’s not a genetic thing – it’s practice that makes perfect. So why not start hacking into that 10,000 hour mark?! 

Practice plays a major role in success – so start now.



  1. I myself would say that even if there are natural talents, they'll still have to put the work in. So looking at the end result (i.e.successful people) will not show the starting distinction. You correctly say all of the 'masters' fall in love with their craft - I think the naturally talented love it from the start, and that's why they keep at it, the others learned to love it as they they became better and better. So, there is no difference if you were or weren't talented at the beginning. To love your craft, and practise, practise, practise is what matters :)

    1. Brilliantly said Alena! Let us all be Masters through the love of what we do.

  2. Well put, and I agree! I hear these comments a lot too. I think everyone has gifts (talents) but not everyone develops those gifts. I like the term gift because while it refers to something received, it also implies something to share or give. So I have the responsibility (and joy) of developing my gifts and I hope that somehow they will enrich other peoples lives as well. It's actually encouraging to know that it takes work to become good at something, because botanical art certainly doesn't come easy to me! But I do love it...