Improvement Gaps and Plateaus
why does everything looks so bad???

I am at a point in my art where my progression has plateaued. Well, this has happened more than once, so I shouldn't be surprised, but I still find it discouraging nonetheless.

I found that growth spurts occur after a couple of months of drawing with seemingly no progress. It's like 6+ months of what seems like no progress then out of nowhere I start cranking out pieces like it's nobody's business. I'm not stuck in a plateau forever, but it does take quite a while to "see" progress. I suppose seeing our own progress as an artist is quite difficult, but other people may see it. I'm not entirely sure about that, though.

The "Gap"

I figure these sudden periods of growth are a result of the progression of two different factors: our eyes and our hands. Typically, the eyes progress much faster than the hands, being able to pick up more nuances and details at a greater pace. Meanwhile, the hands take quite a while before they are able to properly execute what the eyes see. So, for a while after my artistic eye improved, I perceived anything that I've drawn onwards to look terrible. But while the eyes and the hands were at the same "level" it felt like a sudden rush of improvement, because in my head my paintings actually looked decent.



Since there is always this "skill gap" between my eyes and my hands it is not long after that I see my paintings as decent that I start to think that they look terrible. So it is not like I'm never satisfied with what I create. But there are times when I look at what I've drawn and think "man, that looks like trash." And more often than not those thoughts happen when I plateau in skill. They also happen when I'm not in a plateau, which is not surprising, but they happen less often I find.

Standing the Test of Time

But interestingly enough, there are some paintings which I've painted a long time ago that are still my favourites, despite my eyes having improved significantly. Though I can still see places where I could have improved, they still look good in my eyes. I'm not entirely sure why this occurs. What I think is that the painting was composed in a way such that in an artistic perspective I could not improve upon it. I can always improve on the mechanics, but when I cannot improve on it in an artistic sense then it holds its weight as a "good" painting.

As an example, here is one of my favourite paintings from 2018:



For a long time I didn't know why I liked this painting for as long as I did. 2 years later and it's still one of my favourites. Then I thought about it for a little bit.

From a mechanical perspective I can improve a lot of things. My colouring could have been more consistent in places, and some places could use a bit of fixing. But there were some things which if I did a repaint I would not change. Namely, the composition and the colour palette. And then I made the realization that in an artistic sense there would be no changes had I decided to do a repaint. Basically, if I did a repaint of this particular piece it would look practically the same, albeit with some minor fixes.

This is rather out of the ordinary as most of the time when I do a repaint or redraw I change everything. The composition, colour palette, etc. Practically everything would be different, with some minor exceptions. But there are a select few which if I had done a repaint I would change very little. A good example of this is abstract painting. Since abstract painting is primarily composed of composition and colour choice it would be very hard to improve on an abstract painting in a mechanical sense. That is possibly why I still like a lot of the abstract paintings that I've made in the past: I wouldn't change anything about them composition or colour wise.

This is completely the opposite when I do any mechanics-based work. Portraits, figure drawings, and still-lifes I am rarely, if ever, satisfied with. I may be satisfied when my eyes are at the same level as my hands when I first create them, but after a while I can see all of the mistakes and things which need fixing. Since these types of work are entirely founded on mechanics, they are the ones which are most likely to be the source of dissatisfaction.

And there’s a reason that people say to do these mechanics-focused work: it helps a lot with improvement in all sorts of areas. This is especially the case since all of the mistakes are so easily perceived, and steps can be taken to improve upon it immediately. But 90% of the time it is a soul-crushing experience and you just feel inadequate about yourself most of the time as a result.

Back to the Drawing Board

A plateau gives me an obvious signal: time to start working on mechanics. It has been going in a cycle for like 3 years now: I do a bunch of mechanical work, then I start doing 10-20+ paintings in a very short period of time (a month or so), and then a small to medium length hiatus, and then it goes back to the beginning and starts all over.

I bought a thousand sheets of printer paper a year ago which I was going to use purely for getting my drawing mileage in and doing a ton of mechanical work, but clearly I've been putting it off. I guess it's time to pick it back up.

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