The Discipline of Art and the Art of Discipline

I teach a drawing class for non-majors at Snow College. On the whole, these students have done well – so far. But today I introduced them to point-to-point contour drawing. I lost count of the number of times I said, “Slow down. Pause with your pencil on the paper while you consider where the contour is going, what happens along the way, and where you want to emphasize it. SPEED KILLS. Don’t rush this.” Yet despite constant exhortations to slow down and consider the line, all but two treated the exercise like a timed test. The results were dismal. The lines lacked confidence and quality, and the students were frustrated. They couldn’t slow down.

We are living in a culture today which prizes speed and instant gratification. We can accomplish so many tasks in less time today because of the outpouring of technological innovations, and so we believe that speed is the measure of success.Those tasks which we cannot wrest from the jaws of time we label “talent”.  I would be a wealthy artist if I had ten dollars for every time I have been asked, “How long did it take you to paint that?” And I know that what they want to hear is, “Oh, I spent a couple of months on it!” That would explain why I could do it and they couldn’t. They fail to consider that the time spent honing the skills is part of the equation. The discipline of countless hours spent carefully drawing are not considered. They want to believe that each piece is a separate accomplishment requiring many hours or days or even months.

We praise the “gifted” pianist without considering the four to five hours of dedicated practice time each day before a performance. I heard an interview with an olympic gymnast who was asked what he felt made the difference between him making it on the olympic team and many other gymnasts who were not selected. His answer was, “Twenty minutes.” He went on to explain that he  had worked on his program another twenty minutes each day after everyone else had gone to the showers. That young man knew that discipline was the key, not talent.

We even call these various areas of achievement “disciplines”, yet fail to acknowledge the discipline involved. Isn’t that ironic. As I watched my students I could see on their faces the battle going on inside their brains. All of their societal training was saying, “Hurry, you have to get this done before time runs out!”  And I was saying “Slow down, this is not about finishing the drawing, it is about experiencing the contours.” Fast and furious was fighting with slow and deliberate.  Fast and furious won out.

I love watercolor because its fast drying quality forces me to be focused and disciplined to achieve something that looks spontaneous and fresh. Only the discipline of hundreds of paintings and thousands of hours drawing allows me to do this. People seldom see the drawings, but they are the most important component in this wonderful experience of art.

powdered graphite and pencil.

powdered graphite and pencil.


Drawing is the discipline  of seeing. It is for me like the scales and arpeggios for the pianist or batting practice for the baseball player.

Every drawing teaches me something, but most importantly, every drawing is part of the constant discipline of art.

ball point pen drawing in a sketchbook. Notice the lines indicating the format.

ball point pen drawing in a sketchbook. Notice the lines indicating the format.

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