Learn It, Then Forget It

11 Nov 2012

A long time ago I read a quote from artist Nathan Goldstein and it has always stayed with me. He implied that artists are truly artists once they learn something and then forget it. I took that to mean I didn't have to study too hard in college since I was supposed to just let it eventually disappear from my memory (kidding!), but now I think I really understand what he meant: You can't micromanage your art.

Railroad Tracks by Bennett Vadnais, oil on canvas, 25 x 30, 2008.
Railroad Tracks by Bennett Vadnais, oil on canvas, 25 x 30, 2008.

Once you learn a technique and incorporate it into your process, you've got to be confident enough to just go with it and let muscle memory and all that prior practice carry you through. If you don't, the results are so tight—and it shows—or you feel like you are in a straitjacket the entire time you work, and what kind of joy is there in that?

At first I thought Goldstein was just talking about techniques like brushwork—things that don't really have steps and formulas—but now I realize that you have to learn and forget things like perspective drawing, too. There is a lot to remember with linear perspective. It can be as simple as creating a vanishing point, but can become way more complicated with two-point perspective and three-point perspective. The only way to follow Goldstein's advice is to really learn this stuff, and practice it so that perspective drawing becomes second nature. And that will happen. But I've got to commit myself to working through the steps so that my perspective drawing works every time, and eventually I'll be able to look at a scene and evaluate and execute it with my linear perspective techniques without thinking twice.

Roman Forum by Bennett Vadnais, graphite drawing on paper, 10 x 15.25, 2004.
Roman Forum by Bennett Vadnais, graphite drawing on paper, 10 x 15.25, 2004.

What keeps me on this path is knowing that there are ways to learn a skill and practice this way. And when it comes time to "let go," you can do so with confidence knowing you've got that technique down. That's how it is with perspective drawing. To really grasp the rudiments of linear perspective, you've got to learn the formulas and approaches. Fortunately, there are resources like The Artist's Guide to Perspective and Perspective Made Simple, DVDs that were tailor-made for you. They'll help you do the groundwork so that you can learn what you need to know so well and eventually you won't need to "know" it at all—your hand will remember it. Enjoy!


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on 12 Nov 2012 5:10 PM

I agree, I see the learning process of painting like music, first it is a must to learn the scales and perform some boring exercises, but once this has been practiced for long time this becomes automatic, our own process. We do not have anymore to think about it, we just do it.