Effective studying - thoughts

One of the things I intend to do more is post studies. These are usually about observation and translating those through art tools. I usually see artists post the result, often with the reference. I tend to just glance past them and at most notice something nice in the original. I think it might be helpful if they shared the process, the goals, an explanation, good habits, bad habits, lessons learned, failures, etc. so that's what I'll do. Basically, what I learned, which in turn may help others.

But first, some thoughts on studying in general, because I see quite a few people who know they need to do studies, but don't know how to. It's also a topic I care a lot about. Time is precious and once spent we can't get it back. I also want to keep improving for the rest of my life. The more effective the time spent, the greater the gain. Some techniques and thoughts I got from personal observation, but most from teachers, which I then adapted to what works for me. Everybody is different after all and what works for me may not work as well, or at all, for you.

Learning from posts and articles

The post is a bit longer, so I'm adding an overview. I tend to write notes after reading interesting articles that way, either to remind myself later or the most important parts, to assist in remembering and what to learn more about. I put them in various Google Docs, with a link to the article or post.

In this post I'm trying to stay a bit generic. If you really want to hone in , then you'll need to draw a distinction between studying the theoretical and knowledge side and the practical skill side, as well as the language / expression side, and probably others I'm forgetting about or am not aware of. Each would be its' own topic for articles, if not books worth of info. So I'm just scratching surfaces here, but they could be springboards to deeper study. I find study cyclical, where as I grow I gain a deeper understanding and learn what I thought I understood pretty well turns out I only knew the tip of the iceberg.  Looks like they were right when they said "you'll understand when you're older" ...


- how learning from others outside the traditional school system doesn't mean you're self-taught
- making a distinction between opinion and fact
- the "10,000 hour rule"myth debunked
- effectiveness of practice and study
- rules vs guidelines
- ever moving standards and democratization of publishing
- ideas and execution and that they multiply each others' value
- about comfort, discomfort of exploring and procrastination
- how others perceive your level and how that impacts your study needs
- the need to reevaluate constantly because your proficiency levels keep changing
- generalist vs expert and impact on what to study
- the importance of the foundations

Teachers, instructors and claiming to be self-taught

I consider anyone a teacher in some way if they have information and share it, including those labeled as such, but also writers of tutorials, producers of video tutorials, writers of instructional books, etc. I don't consider anyone self taught if they learned from tutorials and / or feedback. Whoever made the tutorials and or gave the feedback were their teachers then. Only those who learned everything through pure experimentation , observation and original thought can claim themselves self-taught, which nowadays is pretty much nobody. Learning from teachers is the smarter approach anyway as it will make your learning faster and more effective by eliminating what has already been tried and proven ineffective. A more experienced person can often point out what works, what doesn't and why. Labeling yourself as self-taught when you learned from others is useless vanity or a weak attempt at gaining attention for the wrong reasons and shows a lack of understanding of how information is transferred.

Opinion vs fact

We often express opinions and they are not to be confused with facts. Personally, I feel only those that are scientifically proven ought to be considered fact. And only as long as science still supports it. I subscribe to whatever science has proven can be considered truth until disproved, but whatever science can't proof does not necessarily have to be impossible. I think the value of an opinion is directly related to how much of an expert we consider that person. I'm not an expert or master of anything, but a life-long student and I write from that perspective.

The 10,000 hour rule myth

Many have probably heard the 10,000 hour 'rule', particularly thanks to Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. The "rule" states that it takes 10,000 hours to get great at something. However, the original study by Anders Ericsson, that Gladwell quotes, didn't really state that. In the study the practice habits of violinists were observed, particularly those who made first violinist and those who didn't. Jumping to conclusions, you'd think the ones who became first violinist simply trained more, but the opposite was found to be true. Thanks to a different approach to studying, the first violinists actually spent a bit less time training. Instead of just randomly training, they'd focus their training efforts to target weak areas, improving more effectively with less effort. Shortly after Outliers came out and the "10,000 hour rule" spread like wildfire. The "rule" is appealing and easy to remember. Soon after many critics, including Ericsson himself, started debunking it. But it's still being used as though it were fact. I guess it's just too appealing. We want to believe we know what it takes to become great at something and that all it takes is effort and time.

The only rule: there are no rules

Paradox aside, new studies have shown how much practice contribute to success and it's vastly different per field. The necessity to practice and train primarily holds true for fields that don't change much. When a field is changed significantly, by a 'game-changer' for instance, not all of the previous skills still hold up and many 'rules' just go out the window. That's one of the many reasons why people say that there aren't any rules in art, just guidelines. Fortunately for visual artists, the foundations of art has been around for thousands of years. Some had to change a bit due to software taking over manual parts, new views and other advances, but the underlying reasoning of what made something a foundation rule in the first place still rings true. As long as we remember that:
  1. following the foundations and guidelines prevents work from being bad, but doesn't necessarily make it good
  2. following the foundations and guidelines to the letter makes the work at best, mediocre

Good just isn't good enough

Why is that? Personally, I think part of that is caused by the democratization of art, production, publishing, learning, etc. It is leading to both an increase of the standards as well as a diluting of what the standards are. We push each other forwards, but also in more diverse directions. Nowadays being good isn't remarkable anymore. Now, being good is mediocre and only exceptional is remarkable: worth remarking on. Your work is technically great? So what? We open up our social media feeds and we see hundreds if not thousands of work either just as good or better. That piece you spent 2 months on? Most people look at it for a few seconds, click a 'like' or similar. Maybe a comment is left. Then we move on. There's so much content being created now. If your work is to stand out, it'll need something extra: a hook, something remarkable.

Those violinists mentioned earlier and other successful classical musicians? They rack up those 10,000 hours by the time they're in their early 20's, or earlier even. By the time they get to be a professional they've racked up more like 25,000 hours and they still need to continue to practice and learn. Same for athletes, same for artists of all kinds. Visual artists, musicians, dancers, etc. I don't mean to say that anyone who creates anything is automatically an artist, I'm just saying a person can be an artist regardless of the medium they express in.

Why bother then?

Since being technically skilled doesn't set you apart, why study and practice at all then ? Because having great ideas alone isn't enough either. Almost everybody has great ideas. They're pointless without execution and just execution alone isn't enough either. You need good ideas and be execute them well. They are multipliers of each other, which Derek Sivers explains really well over here. It's 'common knowledge' in game development for instance: great art won't fix a bad game, and although a great game with bad art is still an enjoyable and great game, it just won't sell. Great art grabs people's attention. And people need to know your game exist first before they're willing to try it, let alone buy it. And the same applies for art itself that is to be used for anything aside from 'personal reasons'.

I remember when I first started getting serious about digital art. It was very hard to get a portfolio review and I wondered why professional artists didn't offer it as a paid service. Obviously there was a lot of demand for it. I never did anything with that idea, but if I had, worked hard, made the right connections and so on, I might have earned quite a bit. You probably had many of those too, ideas you never acted on and then someone else did and now they had a great success and you're just thinking: "I thought of that way earlier". Sure. But you didn't do anything with it and neither did I.

Now, with online courses, but particularly thanks to Patreon, Gumroad and other services making it easier to sell, many artists offer it as a paid service now. Even Craig Mullins is going to do paid portfolio reviews with personal critiques and lesson material (near the end of the interview). I don't know about you, but whatever he's going to charge, I'm going to save up for it!

Comfort and procrastination

So, I'm going to keep studying and practicing and continue to incrementally increase a bit daily. Not just art, but everything important. Going back to effective studying: training things you are already good at is just spinning your wheels and you don't learn. Some say it's a form of laziness and can be considered procrastination. Because if you do that, you're just staying in your safe area, your comfort zone. Going outside of it is uncomfortable. There's risks. You may spend time and not enjoy it. You may learn something out of context and it becomes a bad habit or crutch. You may fail. All true. You probably will. I know I do. But the thing is, everything you want is outside the comfort zone. You can't explore within your safe area. You already know it all. Everything you want now is out there. By going outside your comfort zone you push your boundaries and bit by bit you expand your comfort zone, only to seek out now skills and knowledge, for which you will have to venture forth again. More on procrastination later.

Side note: 4X and procedural games

This is probably why I like 4X games and games with procedural level generation, because pushing your boundaries, exploring and its' risk-reward system is like that. For those who never tried them: I recommend the Civilization series, the first 2 Master of Orion games, Master of Magic, X-Com (UFO and Terror from the Deep, the first 2. Haven't tried the Firaxis one yet), Azure Dreams, FTL and the Age of Wonders series. Careful though, they're highly addictive and you may find yourself thinking "one more turn" a lot.

You are your worst piece

If you read interviews or AMAs with art directors, you'll find they often estimate an artists abilities by looking at their worst piece. Your level is what you demonstrate there. This is a good rule of thumb because they know that with the right guidance you can make something that is at least at that level. If it's better than what they need, you passed their bar. To effectively improve then, if you're not at that level yet where you pass the bar, is to tackle your worst areas, instead of just practicing what you're already good at.

This needs a bit of nuance however, as the opposite is often said as well. Instead of being equally good at everything, it's better to be a specialist and excel at something so much, you will be seen as an expert. I think it's often taken out of context. This generalist vs. specialist only applies after you've mastered the basics. It's like earning a black belt in martial arts. You didn't became a master, you merely mastered the basics. The next journey starts there. At least, experts I respect all seem to say the same thing: learn the basics, try out many different things and throughout time you start to find your own way, your own preferred methods and techniques, your own style or voice and your own areas of expertise.

If you want to be a generalist, you should improve your overall level by targeting your weak areas. If you want to be a specialist, eliminate the areas you don't need, then target the weaknesses within your area of expertise to pin point the areas you need to work on now. Constant reevaluation is needed too, because the thing you need to work the most on will change as your skill set does.

Should you focus on the foundations and addressing your weaknesses then?

That depends on your level and your goals. If you have obvious lacking foundation skills and you need them for your goal (not all goals require you to be technically good after all), then yes, spend more time on getting good at the foundations. If you have different levels of proficiency, spend more time on your weakest areas.

There's a lot more when it comes to studying and there are many techniques that scientists have found to contribute to effective studying, as well as a series of myths they debunked. For instance, good habits include spaced repetition, mixing up subjects / techniques / topics, resting, exercise, and so on. Debunked myths include cramming (only works for the short term), highlighting (should only be used to mark important areas. It doesn't commit whatever you highlighted to memory better) or rereading (has limited effect as a form of spaced repetition only). And there's differences in the kind of studying and practicing too.


I wish there was a clear cut answer to the questions people ask, but as usual they aren't clear cut and tend to depend a lot on the personal situation. Study and practice is part of becoming better. How much it will contribute to your success and how much of it you'll need will depend on your goals, your field, your study methods and more. Maybe that's why having a mentor and teachers is so helpful, as they have the skills and knowledge to judge our level better than we ourselves can. Anyone's who ever taught me something: thank you!

If you have any thoughts, comments or a blog post or article on this subject, I'd love to read them. Please post or link to them in the comments.

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