The Process of Progress

In the light of deciding to pursue art seriously and beginning my first ever web comic, I have been thinking a lot about the nature of progress. By this I mean the process through which we learn new skills. When asked how to improve at just about anything, I tend to subscribe to the received wisdom that practice makes perfect. However, there are some nuances to this which I have observed in my own experience of learning, and which I thought might prove interesting to share with you here.

What generally happens when I decide to learn a new skill is that I dive (or am thrown!) into the deep end, and then gradually work out how to cope. This is then called ‘improvement’, everyone cheers, and I move happily along to learn the next thing. The interesting part, is that very often my first couple of attempts at whatever it is that I am trying to do turn out brilliantly, the next one or two are a complete disappointment, and then from there I leap forwards to a consistently higher level of performance, which lasts until I am next required to learn something new. I have observed this in my university work: my first two essays about a new topic are good; my next couple are terrible; and I get consistently high grades from there onwards.

While it might be dismissed as beginner’s luck, I think this pattern has more to do with conservation of energy. At first, I am completely enthused about my new subject, and desperate to make it the best it possibly can be. Blind to any flaws in my method, I bend my entire concentration to the task, putting in as much energy or time as is needed to reach this standard. This lasts for the first couple of attempts, but is not sustainable over longer periods, and so the quality of my work inevitably dips. As I continue to produce work, however, I come to achieve the results that cost me so much energy at first, but with much less effort, and so I can produce them consistently and gradually improve upon them until the time comes to take another leap to the next level of competence. That standard becomes routine.

It reminds me of the progression of Lyra’s character in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. [SPOILERS!] To begin with, Lyra can read the aletheometer (truth-measure) due to her innate and unconscious grace. However, at the end of the series she loses this ability, and so must work to acquire a different sort of grace – that which is learned. This learned grace will eventually give her a much deeper understanding than her innate ability ever could, although it will take a lifetime of study to fully achieve it.

Am I the only one to go through this up-and-down learning process? Do you think I’m onto anything with my explanation for it? =)


In other news, I discovered a really fun site to play around with! Doodler was linked to in a journal by PuNK-A-Cat on dA. It’s an in-browser drawing app (with one of the most inaccurate/basic brush tools ever!) which provides you with a random photo to copy. However, this picture is only displayed for 2 minutes before it is replaced with another one. Really fun (and addictive!) way to practice getting the basics of a drawing down quickly, and a great way to build up a mental library of lots of different types of people, as the pictures are often portraits or holiday-shot-esque photos =D


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