10,000 hours of painting sounds exhausting. Yet, according to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers this is the amount of time it takes to make your first real masterpiece. While I was pondering this theory of Gladwell’s, another artist coincidentally emailed me with the following request:
“Can you can tell me how you got to where you are with your work. I mean, my art is all over the place. I don’t know where to begin or when to finish. There’s no commonality in anything I am making. How do I make paintings like the ones that you do?”
In Outliers, Gladwell looks at famous people from many sectors, such as athletes, musicians, physicists, financiers, etc. The common factor for each success story was putting in 10,000 hours which pans out to about 10 years working in a specific field. Many of the successful people he investigated and interviewed had been educated early on, and were skilled and passionate in their area of expertise. Yet it was right at that 10,000 hour mark where they “hit it big” or created something unique, something never seen or created before.
My email response for this artist was to just keep creating, and eventually consistent personal work will emerge. If you could see my work from 20 years ago you would not believe it. I started out as a realist, first mimicking artists and styles I admired. This was different than just copying, even though my work then did reflect the qualities of these artists and styles. Through this period I changed styles, images, mediums, sizes, brushwork, you name it, quicker than you can imagine and I built up quite an array of techniques and tools. At some point after many years of this, I found myself going deeper into my own ideas without looking at other work for inspiration. One thing led to another, and then I realized my work felt different – like work I had never seen. It really felt good to be creating work that held more closely to my own personal ideas and desires. After that point painting took on a whole new quality for me. It became a vehicle for my own transformation (some call it self-therapy – but I like to see it more magical than mere analysis – because for me it is more).
A friend who runs marathons recently told me there was a 20 mile mark where all runners hit a wall, no matter what. He noted that it’s those who continue past that wall that succeed. Perhaps Gladwell is right, that there is a specific hallmark point in time allotted to something that creates a shift.
To create personal work, something unique, an artist embarks on a journey, which according to Gladwell is a lot of hours. This should not discourage us. We all want to get to our final destination, but the real meat of the journey is to enjoy each step – not to find a quick trick to get to the finish. It’s the enjoyment of each phase of the journey that creates the final result. By the way, Gladwell’s other two books, Blink and The Tipping Point are both favorites of mine. And another “by the way” – I just finished writing my new book Acrylic Innovation: Techniques & Styles Featuring 64 Visionary Artists. Another coincidence, perhaps, but in this book I interview artists whose work I find exceptional, offering processes and tips on how they got there. The book is due for release August 2010. Now on retrospect, perhaps I should have just counted up their hours.