Learning to Learn: The Thought Process behind Art Improvement

Cian McLoughlin

The hardest part about art is just learning how to approach it. While everyone has their own methods on how they learn, I want to give a perspective on what worked for me. As a lifelong martial artist, I incorporate very key theories which, with a bit of a twist, can be applied to learning art as well. I will try to articulate the points as concisely as possible.

Pascal Campion


1.       Work with purpose.
This is the number one most important aspect when it comes to art. For me, every painting and drawing (barring financial reasons) should have a purpose. Your time matters.

In learning martial arts, this is doubly important. Bodies can only do so much before they age or get damaged beyond repair. It’s why bad training methods are absolutely shunned upon. You don’t want to get into the ring already damaged, so every session matters.

Luckily for artists, we’re not risking our bodies every time we pick up our pencils. However, cherish your time anyways and understand the purpose behind every exercise or artwork you plan on doing. There is merit to simply taking a day off to read theory instead of drawing. I would argue it’s a lot better than drawing without direction. Just like with our bodies, we do need breaks every so often to avoid repeating mistakes.

Katsuya Terada

2.       Focus on getting it right
This is something I see a lot of artists starting out fail to do. As artists, there is an insane amount of elements we could potentially make mistakes on. With our brain capacity being limited, most of what we do have to be subconscious.

This leads to the main point. Your goal is to always train yourself with good habits so that, in the future, your brain would automatically repeat those good habits without even thinking about it.

It sounds obvious but let’s think of it from the opposite point of view. If you get used to bad habits for one aspect of art and you willingly accept it, then what happens when we multiply that over many other bad habits? Bad habit links into bad habit links into bad habit results in a less than par painting!

To avoid that situation, it’s best to just condition yourself out of the habits. I like to see every artwork as a stop to at least one bad mistake I make. If you see a problem, spend the extra time to fix it and do not simply accept it (barring client deadlines). Repeat this over hundreds of artwork and eventually the big mistakes stop being an issue.

Ashley Wood



3.       Raise your standards but have an Open Mind
This is going to sound pompous. I very rarely look at art that isn’t made by the top of the line professionals. This is because I do not want to get my mind used to art that isn’t the absolute highest of quality.

As with the previous points, art is very subconscious. I firmly believe our brains are malleable to a fault. We can condition ourselves for greatness, or we can condition ourselves for the complete opposite.

By looking at great art, your mind will now have a grasp of what it should strive for. Accept nothing less.

That’s not to say you should aggressively decline to look at work from those who wish to seek your judgment. As with life, try to be nice. However, keep an objective view of what’s simply something to strive for and work that doesn’t hit that standard.

This, of course, is purely based on your preferences so don’t feel threatened if others might not like what you like. However, do keep an open mind on what works for you in order to expand your library and tastes!

Jessica Rimondi

4.       Experiment and Ask Questions
It’s easy to get complacent. You have that winning strategy that seemingly always works. People are loving your handiwork and you seem to be doing just fine.

Then suddenly, it grows stale.

Of course, in martial arts, there are dire consequences when people start knowing your habits. This is why it’s very important to be unpredictable in that realm.

Art is a bit different but with very important similarities. You might have a very distinct way of drawing the same subject matter every single time. While people might call that “style”, it’s important to note that the top professionals CHOOSE to limit themselves rather than be forcibly limited in their approach.

If you find yourself having trouble when you are forced out of your comfort zone, perhaps it’s time to expand your territory. Experiment with different ideas and always ask questions on what you could do differently.

Clients are most likely going to ask you to draw something that might not be what you’re used to doing. Always have tools in your kit to solve any potential briefings you may get, which starts by being used to experimentation.

If you are lucky enough to be in the presence of someone with considerable knowledge, this is doubly important. Ask questions!! 
Eric Fortune

5.       Confidence is everything
To end it off, we have to discuss something that encompasses all the other points. You can train perfectly but if you aren’t confident in your training when the lights are on you, then the performance will be subpar. It’s also known as “thinking too much”.

To reiterate my initial point, the true goal of improving art is to condition your subconscious. Your subconscious will guide you throughout the process of creating your artwork. If you are confident in yourself, your natural abilities will come to fruition.

I notice a lot of artists second guess their process. While there is a time for hard self-awareness, a lot of artwork becomes stiff if you “try too hard”. I firmly believe the flow is the most important thing to create an appealing artwork. It’s what people might call the “intangibles” that make something work.

As the name implies, it’s impossible to describe why an artwork gets pushed from being good to amazing. Technical artwork, in its own right, might be impressive but the greatest painters in history all seemingly have that little something special. It’s not just a technical painting of reality; it feels like it is its own reality.

Let your “intangible” factor come out. Be confident that your trained mind will figure a solution to the immeasurable puzzle that is art. Your own individual judgments are what makes your work unique; YOUR solutions to the problems in an artwork.

This is not to say be stubborn in your approach as it might limit your growth. Know when to solve technical issues and know when to be a loose spirit moving around the canvas.



Hopefully that was helpful. As a final note, these are all my philosophies for myself and what has worked for me. Everyone is different so adapt your own strategies in what works for you. The most important part is simply to know yourself, and that is the secret to learning how to learn.

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