My New Drawing Practice and What I’m Learning About Mastery

My New Drawing Practice and What I’m Learning About Mastery

Since 2013, I’ve been an active member in a coaching and personal development community in Singapore, and during their leadership program in 2015, my mentor advised me to master drawing all 17 species of penguins in an anatomically accurate way.

I took this assignment seriously and started drawing these penguins from photo references I found online, but after a few months, the initial momentum started to wear off because I got bored and didn’t understand what I was doing it for.

I didn’t (and still don’t) consider myself a “penguin artist”, and because the penguins in my work are more like characters in a whimsical scene, I justified that it didn’t make sense for me to learn how to draw real-life penguins realistically. I had thought that my mentor wanted me to do this so I could build a career as a penguin portrait artist, but because that’s not the kind of artist I wanted to be, I eventually gave up on this drawing assignment.

Fast forward to a few months ago this year (2021) when I was assisting for a program that my mentor was leading, and in front of the whole class, he suddenly asked me how the anatomically accurate penguin drawings were coming along.

I was a little surprised because we hadn’t talked about this for more than five years, but having already justified to myself years ago why I didn’t need to do this, I answered with certainty, “I did it for a few months, and then I stopped.”

He asked why I stopped, and I said, “I got bored.”

That’s when he segued into a conversation about mastery as a journey, and that many people quit halfway because they don’t understand what this journey is really all about.

One common misconception we have when it comes to the learning process is that we believe if we consistently practice a new skill, we should see immediate progress.

In other words, if we were to chart our progress over time as a graph, we’d expect to see a line going upwards, a linear representation that we’re improving and getting better as time goes by.

However, in reality, progress isn’t really a linear graph going upwards, and most people don’t understand this because they haven’t actually walked the path themselves.

My mentor explained that at first the graph does go upwards, because as a beginner it’s easy to see our progress as compared to having no skill or experience in that area when we started from zero.

Then at a certain point, the graph would start to plateau, which seems to indicate that we aren’t making much improvement or progress, even though we’re practicing consistently.

It starts to feel like we’ve stagnated, and this is where many people start to doubt if this is “right” for them, or they get restless and bored, lose focus, and question what they are doing this for.

At this point it’s really easy to get distracted by something else, justify that we’re making a wise decision, and so many will drop off and quit here.

But if you are one of the few who push through and ride out that plateau, you might even encounter a little dip, and after also getting through that dip, the trajectory of your progress will go up exponentially.

And then… there will be another plateau further down the road, where again we’ll have our doubts, get bored, lose focus… and again many will decide to quit… but if you stay on, there will be another dip, before your progress trajectory continues upwards.

This process may repeat several times until, like in Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”, it finally tips over and you reap the rewards of all your hard work as a master in that domain.

Because many people will quit at different stages along the way, there are really only a handful of Masters who have completed the journey.

And chances are we know more of the former than the latter, which is why many of us will walk this journey alone, and it is exceptionally difficult to stay on the course we’ve chosen.

Obviously I haven’t completed my journey towards mastery. I would say I’m currently in a plateau when it comes to my work as an artist, and in developing my skillset, I’m really only at the very beginning.

If (only) I had listened to my mentor (who is a Master of many domains) and stuck with drawing those anatomically-accurate penguins since 2015, I would be much closer to attaining mastery in drawing by now.

So I realised I had no other way around this, but to pick up where I had left off and continue the process. Better late than never.

(A little wiser than years ago, I decided to commit myself to drawing 2 penguins each day for five days a week, and to focus on just one species of penguins for a few months, rather than jump around between all 17 species randomly.)

Having kept this up for nearly four months now (since March 2021), I’ve started to understand that this wasn’t at all about becoming a “penguin artist” or a “penguin portrait artist”.

As an artist who never had a formal art education and who hadn’t drawn anything for 20 years before I organised my first solo exhibition in early 2013, my artworks so far has been limited to the level of my existing abilities.

I do have some natural aptitudes when it comes to art, such an intuitiveness about colour, thus where there are weaknesses in my art-making techniques, I’ve been using colour as a way to “make up for it”, and it looks palatable overall to the artistically-untrained eye.

“A Dreamer’s New Home” (2012)
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 12 x 12 in.,
“Flight of the Dreamers” (2013)
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 16 x 12 in.,
“Floating Island Home 2” (2017)
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 8 x 8 in.

But this could only take me so far, because when my foundation as an artist isn’t solid, my art style can’t improve or evolve much over time.

When you’re not technically proficient in what you do, even if you have some natural flair or aptitude, you will inevitably reach a certain point where your limitations will be apparent, and this is what differentiates an apprentice from a master.

In the realm of art, a master artist’s work has many layers, even if, at first glance, it “doesn’t look like much”.

For instance, Picasso’s paintings may seem like any 5-year-old could have drawn them, but if you were to really try and copy one of his paintings, they are not quite as simple as they appear to be. (I know, because I’ve used a couple of them as inspiration for one of my series.)

“PenguinGirl Before a Mirror” (2018)
Watercolor on watercolor paper, 5.8 x 8.3 in.
“Portrait of a PenguinGirl (by Pic…uh… Penguins!)” (2020)
Watercolor, ink and color pencil on watercolor paper
4.1 x 5.8 in.

In fact, Picasso was already a master artist by the time he was a teenager, and he could paint realistic scenes perfectly (well, he was kind of a prodigy, so he picked up his painting proficiencies pretty quickly). With his mastery in painting, he was then able to experiment, explore and create something new — which became a whole genre of art called cubism.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to attain mastery before you can start living your dream.

Whatever level you’re currently at in that domain, start taking action where you’re able to. Don’t wait until you’ve “trained up sufficiently” or until you’re “professionally qualified”, because sometimes we use that as an excuse to hold ourselves back.

Start making things happen for yourself and learn as you go along. Like how I organised my first solo exhibition over two months in 2013 — including making 30 new paintings — with no formal art training or experience in organising events.

But eventually, you will need to get in some training hours to develop your proficiencies, otherwise your lack of skillset may hamper your progress.

At this point now, four months into drawing 2 fairy penguins each day for five days a week, I don’t yet know how my art will evolve from this practice, but it’s definitely started to shift the way I look at other artists’ works, and trying to see what I can learn from them.

Fairy penguins I’ve drawn between end April to Jun 2021.

Whatever your voice is as an artist, musician, writer… whatever your dream is… you’ll develop your own flair and style. Masters are known for that certain one-of-a-kind flair that shows up in their masterpieces, a signature that can only come about because they’ve gone through that entire process of attaining mastery in their chosen domain.

And if you were to master two different areas, then you might combine elements from both disciplines and create something entirely new.

So whatever stage you’re at in your journey, get started anyway, and concurrently build your basic proficiencies in that domain.

At the end of the day, it’s your choice if you want to become a Master. After all, there are many examples of those who aren’t masters but are making a living and a life around what they love and what they are comfortable with.

But if you truly want to discover your unique voice and signature, and be known for a certain kind of flair that is yours and yours alone, then keep going in attaining the proficiencies and skillsets you need, until you complete those 10,000 hours to mastery.