When practice doesn’t make perfect (and what to do about it)

Practice makes Permanent - so practice right

We are all familiar with the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’.

But it turns out that’s not necessarily true. I’ve been learning that practice actually makes ‘permanent’.

Researchers Doug Lemov, Katie Yezzi, and Erica Woolway have been delving deep into practice in their book ‘Practice Perfect’ that I’ve been reading this week.

They are clear that just repeating the same way of doing something over and over won’t necessarily make you better.  Not even if you do the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell popularised is needed to make someone great at something.

Repetition WILL embed that technique in muscle memory or mental circuitry – making it a habit – but that will happen whether your technique is good or not.

What’s really interesting for those of you learning to paint, is the importance they therefore place on doing the RIGHT kind of practice.

Their focus is often on sports and also teaching, but here are some key take-aways I’ve gleaned from the book that are really applicable to learning to paint:

  • push yourself to practice something a bit more difficult than you feel comfortable (but not SO hard that you are likely to fail at it)
  • observe the skill being ‘modelled’ (or demonstrated) AND described thoroughly – then try to imitate it as best you can (‘copying’ can be hugely freeing in this context and a great way to learn skills)
  • assess each practice session by identifying both the things you did WELL as well as the things that could be improved – it’s just as important to keep practising the things you did well so you get EVEN better at doing them
  • strive to correct your errors, but see them as a TOTALLY normal part of learning and improving

So, in terms of learning to paint in a realistic way – I think it’s really important to practice painting subjects with very different challenges to them.

This could be either –

painting different visual textures (subjects that are shiny, rough, hairy, patterned etc) which requires that you practice new and different brush techniques in order to recreate those markings –

OR

painting different coloured subjects which has you practicing colour mixing

So if you’re serious about improving your skills, it’s really helpful to make a plan of the paintings, and sketchbook exercises you’ll do, making sure you get a good mix of different subjects and skills to try… and then assess them afterwards, looking for the areas to work on next.

It’s exactly what I do when I plan out the Step-by-Step tutorials and PracticePics in my online School – but there’s no reason why you can’t apply these principles to your own practice sessions too to maximise their value to you.

This way you can develop your skills and ultimately your enjoyment of the process.

And, in turn, as their little video states – mastering the skills will allow your creativity to increase too!

Please let me know in the comments if you have any top tips for practicing right, or if you’ve struggled in the past to make your painting practice count.

Happy practicing!

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19 Comments

  1. Faith P. Jones on November 13, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    1. Perfection is relevant.
    2. Practice is not just practice i.e. doing something over and over again.
    3. Progress also depends on talent, or lack of it.
    4. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time – fooling oneself (i.e. self-delusion) being probably the worst common problem.
    5. So what’s left? Certainly not choosing to do something that has absolutely no hope of improvement. Better find one’s personal talent(s) and nurture them.
    6. If you insist on doing something and progressing therein, there’s only one word for it and that is PERSERVERENCE, and that comes without a guarantee. On the other hand, to quote Winston Churchill:
    “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
    7. So where there’s life, there’s hope?

    • Anna Mason on November 13, 2014 at 1:12 pm

      Hi Faith,

      I think there does need to be a certain ‘spark’ from people to want to, in this instance, paint. But tt’s interesting to think about what talent actually is – as the latest research suggests it’s much more to do with practice coupled with, as you say perseverance! I think you may enjoy this post about that.

  2. Faith P. Jones on November 13, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    1. Perfection is relevant.
    2. Practice is not just practice i.e. doing something over and over again.
    3. Progress also depends on talent, or lack of it.
    4. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time – fooling oneself (i.e. self-delusion) being probably the worst common problem.
    5. So what’s left? Certainly not choosing to do something that has absolutely no hope of improvement. Better find one’s personal talent(s) and nurture them.
    6. If you insist on doing something and progressing therein, there’s only one word for it and that is PERSERVERENCE, and that comes without a guarantee. On the other hand, to quote Winston Churchill:
    “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
    7. So where there’s life, there’s hope?

  3. Sue Caton on November 13, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    Very interesting article Anna! As purely a leisure artist, I sometimes surprise myself by producing a watercolour that I am happy with but never seem to be able to reproduce it. Other times, I will try and try to get a painting I am happy with and still fail. I know my errors too and that’s what makes it so frustrating. I am practising painting in a loose style to stop myself being such a perfectionist. This is the reason I overwork everything, I always want to add a bit more colour to a petal or go darker in the negative spaces but it is always an unproductive exercise. My love of watercolour will always prevail though and I could never stop painting! Love your emails and always look forward to reading and learning from them!

  4. Sue Caton on November 13, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    Very interesting article Anna! As purely a leisure artist, I sometimes surprise myself by producing a watercolour that I am happy with but never seem to be able to reproduce it. Other times, I will try and try to get a painting I am happy with and still fail. I know my errors too and that’s what makes it so frustrating. I am practising painting in a loose style to stop myself being such a perfectionist. This is the reason I overwork everything, I always want to add a bit more colour to a petal or go darker in the negative spaces but it is always an unproductive exercise. My love of watercolour will always prevail though and I could never stop painting! Love your emails and always look forward to reading and learning from them!

  5. katherine rivera on November 13, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    thank you Anna,
    for the books and shorts ,very helpful
    Katherine

  6. katherine rivera on November 13, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    thank you Anna,
    for the books and shorts ,very helpful
    Katherine

  7. Sheliah Lonian on November 13, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    I have been watching, reading, and studying for quite awhile. I have finally pushed myself to put paintbrush to paper. I am painting with a friend on a weekly basis now. Making a commitment and sticking to it is helping both of us!

  8. Sheliah Lonian on November 13, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    I have been watching, reading, and studying for quite awhile. I have finally pushed myself to put paintbrush to paper. I am painting with a friend on a weekly basis now. Making a commitment and sticking to it is helping both of us!

  9. Mary McCauley on November 13, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    What they are talking about is Corrective Practice. That requires accurate feedback on your performance. For artists this can mean a great critique group. My group challenges me, tells me the truth, but also supports me to take risks. Key to feedback is showing others your work in all its stages. Don’t just show the finished work, but the sketches, work in progress and wild ideas. Then LISTEN to what your peers and teachers tell you, try not to be defensive. When you have this feedback, use it to reshape your practice. Besides, my critique group has cookies, and a little sweetness always helps!

  10. Mary McCauley on November 13, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    What they are talking about is Corrective Practice. That requires accurate feedback on your performance. For artists this can mean a great critique group. My group challenges me, tells me the truth, but also supports me to take risks. Key to feedback is showing others your work in all its stages. Don’t just show the finished work, but the sketches, work in progress and wild ideas. Then LISTEN to what your peers and teachers tell you, try not to be defensive. When you have this feedback, use it to reshape your practice. Besides, my critique group has cookies, and a little sweetness always helps!

  11. Janine Cobb on November 13, 2014 at 8:14 pm

    My grade five teacher used to say practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes you perfect. He was right.

  12. Janine Cobb on November 13, 2014 at 8:14 pm

    My grade five teacher used to say practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes you perfect. He was right.

  13. ReelFocus on December 1, 2014 at 9:40 am

    Right Janine,,, Perfect practice makes things perfect. Smart work always better then hard work.

  14. ReelFocus on December 1, 2014 at 9:40 am

    Right Janine,,, Perfect practice makes things perfect. Smart work always better then hard work.

  15. Elisabeth Andersen on December 19, 2018 at 7:27 am

    I have read a book by Daniel Coyle: The Talentcode – talent isn’t born it’s grown.
    I have been riding for 45 years. 9 years ago I came across Mary Wanless who have spend most of her life to figure out what the talented riders do that works. She has also been into how to teach. When she coaches she makes the student aware of what works and what dosn’t. That makes me able to do more of the rights things and less of the wrong things. She has totaly changed my riding, my Way of praticing AND my way of learning. I have applyed my new knowledge on painting and Annas tutorials is following the same principles at Mary use.
    So you wil be good to do the things you practice. Therefor it is importen to practice the right things. To do that feedback is crucial.

  16. Denise Tracey on September 7, 2020 at 7:51 am

    Just to say I appreciated the holistic approach that is being used for the mind the body and the soul.
    The intellectual, the feelings and the practical go hand in hand.
    Van Gogh copied so he could learn and Picasso also claimed that all that he painted he copied.
    I appreciate the effort in developing the individual skills we all are capable of
    thank you

  17. […] As the video explains, in order for effective practice to take place, you need to learn correctly. If you’re doing something in a way that’s not bringing improvement, no amount of practicing will ‘make perfect’.   […]

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