On practice: My personal learning curve

This is part 1 of a three-part mini series on practice.
Read part 2: "Making practice playful"
Read part 3: "A basic structure for practice"

Over the last few years, I have been teaching dozens of sketching and sketchnoting workshops

The buzz and excitement of a workshop is great. People are fired up to learn something new, to tap into the knowledge and experience of a seasoned practitioner. That’s great. But sometimes there is an expectation to learn ‘the secret’ and then everything will be fine. 

Well… the ‘secret’ is, there sure are a lot of useful points that can be taught to give people a kick-start, but – as one of my improvisation teacher once put it: “You don’t become an improviser by doing workshops”. A workshop can get you started or give you new ideas, but the only thing that will make you good at whatever you want to learn is…(drumroll)… practice

Practice is the unseen, unglamorous part behind the beautiful work that finally sees the light of day.

Many hours spent practicing your craft, on your own, away from the spotlight. Pages of sketches that never get seen by anyone else but us.

In my workshops, I put a lot of emphasis on the importance of practice. Instead of giving people readymade ‘solutions’ for how to sketch certain objects or concepts, I give them pointers to how they can try out different things for themselves, how they can play with various possibilities and how they can build their own practice to develop their own style.

Let’s take a look why practice is important, which obstacles you might face when building a practice, how you can overcome them and how you can make your practice valuable and fun. 

Practice, and all is coming

As with all things that require skill, practice is the most important thing when you want to improve your sketching. Practice means spending time doing, not thinking about doing. Practice is a way to try things out, to make mistakes, take detours, explore unknown territory in your time, on your own terms. Practice is also regular. Practice builds over time.

Practice also means that you have to show up and just get going. On a regular basis. Ideally every day. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend a huge amount of time every day, but it means that you need to develop the discipline to sit down and sketch, even if you might sometimes not feel like it. I often don’t feel like sketching, but I know that as soon as I take the pen in my hand and I sketch for a few minutes, I will get into the flow and enjoy it.

You have to trust the process.

Another thing about practice is that you have to trust the process. You will get better over time. And there will be many times where it will not feel that way. These are the moments that separate the people who get good at what they are doing and people who don’t. You need to push through these moments. You need to trust that when you practice, something is happening, even if you can’t see or feel it.

My personal learning curve

Over the years, I hit this frustrating point many times, in many domains. I love learning new things and I started learning new things many times in my life: sketching, theatre improvisation, calligraphy, yoga, running, new languages, you name it. In the process (besides learning the things I tried to learn), I learned something about learning new things in general. This is what my own personal learning curve looks like:


1. The honeymoon phase

I usually get very excited about learning a new thing. I’m inspired by the beautiful work that other people are doing in this field. I imagine how cool it will be to do similar things. I’m signing up for a workshop. It’s going to be awesome!

2. Reality kicks in

What looks so easy and elegant when the teacher is doing it, feels absolutely awkward and painful when I try to do it. What I produce is ugly and embarrassing. This is hard!

3. Rock bottom

I suck at this! I’ll never be able to do this! I’ll never get better at it. No way!

I have these feelings every time I try to learn something new. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.  They don’t stop coming up, no matter how often I went through the process of starting something from scratch. And every time, these thoughts feel absolutely real. 

4. Just getting on with it

What I learned over time though is that I know they’ll come up. I expect them. They don’t catch me off guard. These thoughts are like an annoying old friend, the one I never wish to bump into again, but who shows up at every party.

“Oh hi… it’s you again! I’m sucking at this? Yep. I certainly do! Thanks for letting me know… Now I’ll just get on with stuff.”

I acknowledge that these thoughts are there, that the feelings are real, but I don’t let them stop me from just getting on with it. Yes, I’m bad at this right now. But at some point, I will be a little bit better. There’s no way around it. The only way is through.

5. Seeing the light

And guess what. At some point, it does get better. Gradually. Sometimes when I least expect it. And even when it gets better, it’s still not a linear ascent. There are dips and bumps, days when it feels like I am starting from scratch. Sometimes progress is invisible to the naked eye.
But when I look back over time and compare work from a few years ago with what I am doing today, I can actually see a difference.

This is part 1 of a three-part mini series on practice.
Read part 2: "Making practice playful"
Read part 3: "A basic structure for practice"