Remake the Same Thing Every Day
Updated: Dec 12, 2022
I watched a video recently by a YouTuber called struthless about a bit of advice he received from an artist mentor. The advice was to draw the same thing every day.
Struthless took this advice and drew a different kiwi every day, and it gave him a solid drawing habit.
I want to come back to that idea, but first, this reminded me of a short piece by author and Twitter developer Robin Sloan. In it, he summarizes a chapter in David McCullough's book Brave Companions, about natural historian and Harvard professor, Louis Aggasiv, who had a strange routine with his new students.
Aggasiv would put them in an empty room, place before them a dead fish in a metal tray, and say, simply, "Look." Then Aggasiv would leave.
After a while, Aggasiv returned and asked the new student what he saw. The student would share a few details about the fish: eyes, fins, scales. Aggasiv would say, "Look again."
This repeated for several days. The students spent hours looking more deeply at the fish, observing, noticing, pondering, discovering—learning.
It occurs to me that this is how I learned to play the drums in middle school and high school. Yes, I had lessons. But the real learning happened when I went deep into a riff, trying it over and over, and, as my brain integrated the moves and wanted something new, adding variations.
What resulted was the ability to pull that riff out in a moment of improvisation, to use like a vocabulary word. It is the acquisition—the development—of hundreds of such vocabulary words that allows you to play the drums eloquently and effortlessly. Effortlessly because the brain has fully integrated each of them into mental and physical muscle memory.
Drawing every day. Staring at a fish. Practicing a drum riff. The result of deep observation and frequent practice is a satisfying and applicable level of mastery.
So here's an exercise.
Draw the same thing every day for thirty days.
Not the same subject, like kiwis or landscapes or dinosaurs. Pick an object—your stuffed animal, a tree outside your window, your shoe—or a photograph, and redraw it anew every day.
The brain will get used to its form and shapes. It will integrate and consolidate them into knowledge, allowing it to handle new information and causing it to become bored. This is good. Your brain will start to notice deeper detail: light reflections, subtleties of shading, of fabric folds, of foliage, nuances of color, the micro details of the object or image.
By diving deep into this one thing, you will experience every dimension of drawing: form and proportion, shape, color, light and shadow, texture, gesture, perspective, composition. All in one deep dive.
There is a benefit to doing many drawings of varied subjects, particularly if you focus on one aspect of drawing, such as shading or perspective. This is an additional exercise.
The intricate, deep knowledge, understanding, and skill developed and discovered from doing this deep dive will translate, will carry over, to the drawing of other objects. You will be able to draw something completely different in much more vivid detail, more accurate color, more proportional form, more confident and well-chosen lines, more nuanced and realistic lighting and shading because your muscle of observation is much stronger, your eye is keener, your discernment is more accurate, your judgment is wiser.
Inevitably, you will try different approaches to drawing. You will try to start by drawing perspective lines and vanishing points. If you have been sketching the basic forms first, you will try drawing freehand. You will try different media; water color, charcoal, and so on. You will go searching for solutions to aspects that are difficult to you and will incorporate the lessons into that day's drawing.
And then, after the thirty days have passed, choose a completely different object or photograph and do it over again. If your first one was a landscape photo, choose a still life. If you did something organic, like a plant or a human form, choose something man-made, like a building or a car.
I've used drawing as the main example, but of course this exercise applies to anything where a copy of something is made, where observation translates into re-creation.
Performing a song or dance routine. Reverse-engineering a film sequence into script form or a film score into MIDI. A sculpture. An app interface.
The exercise can also be extended into original creation as well.
Thirty blog posts on a single idea. Thirty versions of a short story or chapter in a novel. A speech. Chocolate-chip cookies.
There are two important constraints.
Each day you have to start from scratch. Don't work on the same piece for multiple days. If you find you can't finish one version in a day, choose something smaller and simpler.
Don't look at previous days' work during that day's attempt. Draw only from observing the object or photograph. Outside the attempt, you may want to study past attempts, noting patterns and deciding where you want to focus your efforts to improve in a certain area during future attempts. But put them away while you're making a new one.
Repetition and iteration are how I learned to play the drums and teach people. But there are skills I have now that are shaky; I'm not confident in my abilities, and outcomes are inconsistent. I haven't done deliberate practice to hone these latter skills, and it shows.
I want to try this exercise and observe myself steadily but solidly improve.
Thanks for reading.