Heading in the Right Direction, Part 10: Evaluation and Feedback

“Practicing without feedback is like bowling through a curtain that hangs down to knee level. You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.”   Steve Kerr

There are 4 major components to a Deliberate Practice Program:

  1. Know precisely where you want to go
  2. Make a list of small and specific actions for getting there
  3. Work one step at a time 
  4. Feedback and evaluation

In this installment of my series on mapping a personal art journey, I’m going to talk about the fourth component of deliberate practice: feedback and evaluation. There are two kinds of feedback: self-evaluation and feedback from teachers and mentors. 

First of all, we need to become experts at self-evaluation. A few years ago in one of my workshops, I was walking around the classroom visiting each student as they worked on their painting and I came upon a gal who was very upset. She said, “I just don’t like it.” I asked her what it was that she didn’t like, and her reply was, “I don’t know – you’re the teacher, you tell me.”  The thing is – only we can know what we like, what it is we’re trying to do, and whether the results satisfy us or not. And without knowing that, it’s next to impossible to know how to make any adjustments in our work. 

In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin has this to say about self-evaluation, “Excellent performers judge themselves differently from the way other people do. They’re more specific, just as they are when they set goals and strategies. Average performers are content to tell themselves that they did great or poorly or okay. The best performers judge themselves against a standard that’s relevant for what they’re trying to achieve. Sometimes they compare their performance with their own personal best; sometimes they compare with the performance of competitors they’re facing or expect to face; sometimes they compare with the best known performance by anyone in their field. Any of those can make sense; the key, as in all deliberate practice, is to choose a comparison that stretches you just beyond your current limits. Research confirms what common sense tells us, that too high a standard is discouraging and not very instructive, while too low a standard produces no advancement.”   

But sometimes we feel like we’re just drifting, or like we’re in a fog. We know where we want to go but we have a hard time identifying the actions and immediate steps for getting there. It’s hard to know what you don’t know! In this case, it’s helpful to find a teacher or mentor – an experienced pro who can advise us on the knowledge, skills, and abilities we need to acquire, and who can give us feedback on how we’re doing.  I have many figurative, if not literal mentors – artists I’ve never met or talked to. In my journal, I maintain a list of artists, past and present, whose work I love and want to learn from. I consider these artists to be my “virtual” mentors. I analyze their work and make notes of what I love about it and how I can get the qualities that I love about their work into my own work.   

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.”

Setting up a Personal Deliberate Practice Program is taking responsibility for your own journey as an artist. It’s about mapping your process, taking actions one step at a time, staying focused, monitoring your progress, making adjustments, identifying and correcting errors, changing things and trying things. And if it doesn’t work – trying again. And again. Do it until……

Happy Painting!