I’m not talking about a place in China. “Chunking” is a word psychologists use for a kind of learning and understanding. It means to group elements that might work in unison toward a goal. A good way to understand chunking is to look at a word. “Horse,” will do. One doesn’t need to separate the individual five letters to grasp the idea of a four-legged animal people can ride on. One quickly visualizes the animal by the letter order — a distinct pattern that implies meaning. The word “hesor,” doesn’t serve so well, even though all the horse letters are there.
Understanding and learning worthwhile new skills often require chunking. The great Russian tennis academy at Spartak, near Moscow, teaches stance, reach, turn, connection and follow-through before students are given a ball. Students move slowly in balletic dances that lock in a variety of effective procedures. The system produces more tennis greats than any other school.
Now let’s talk about painting. Some folks think talent is a mysterious wind that somehow just blows the door open. It can be a long wait. Often as not, these folks need to try some chunking.
For example, think impasto, two or more high-key colours on the same brush-load, and a curved stroke. Or — think transparency, gradation from warm to cool, and a soft edge. It’s these sorts of multi-faceted exercises that hone skills, make things interesting and take work beyond mediocrity. If you catch my drift, you might think of chunks you can apply to your own work.
Recently I wrote to you about giving your personal wiring the brilliance of broadband. Practice in bite-sized chunks works to this end and builds what is called “cognitive reserve.” By putting complex skills into your pocket, you can take them out at will. The result is better product — whether we’re talking tennis, bass fiddle or paint pushing. It’s all good for the brain too. Like the oft-touted crossword habit, chunking helps thinking, doing, and hanging in there.
Chunking requires focus, repetition, a willingness to apply self-determined rules, and the postponement of gratification. Those who read my stuff will know I’m keen on fast and intense work habits. But there’s also a time to go slow. Slow chunking burns in desirable habits. Give yourself permission to speed up later.
Now I’m going to jump on my hesor and ride off in all directions.
PS: “There is no substitute for attentive repetition.” (Daniel Coyle)
Esoterica: One summer I borrowed a Cariboo cabin and chunked for a solid week. Apart from almost going nuts, I slept, fed myself and painted like a zombie. I had a thousand panels in my car and I covered hundreds of them. I made tight little renderings of flowers and mushrooms, some oily landscapes and a few abstracts. During the event I became so punchy I sketched my left hand at least a dozen times. Looking back at the yellowed notes from my twenties, I see “Ex (for exercise) of two secondaries with neutral grays.” “Ex of equal-intensity lay-bys.” “Ex of complex patterns and juiciness.”
How instinctive is painting?
by Dennis Alter, Philadelphia, PA, USA
There is a theory in tennis (and other sports) that when you’re in “the zone” you are not conscious of individual body parts moving, strategy, technique and all that you have practiced for hours on end. Rather you are flowing and as such are outside yourself just “being” on the court. I have experienced this precious few times, but nonetheless can attest to its appeal. Is there something similar in painting? Is this a state to be sought or avoided? Must we maintain our training and technique and all that we have practiced in order to perform well? Or can we do something else, something more free and instinctive on the canvas?
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Advice from teachers
by Patricia Duthie, Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada
The Moscow tennis learning technique could be applied to many areas of learning, not just to sports. Even just imagining oneself doing something correctly must have an effect on the brain. Wasn’t there a basketball coach at SFU who taught this? Yesterday I met artist Carey Anderson who said that when he was teaching self-defense he would emphasize moving slowly in order to learn to kick correctly. Really focusing on correct, fluid movements at first, without having to deal with equipment at the same time, could help non-athletes and nervous artists like myself. Mr. Niven, our high school band teacher used to say, “Perfect practice makes perfect!” I agree that remembering to breathe and working slowly could help a person to develop efficient habits. I think the same could be applied to drawing and painting, especially when beginners lack confidence. Imagine sketching without pencil and paper, perhaps copying the movements of the instructor at work.
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Learning to chunk
by Norman Goldstein, UK
The trouble is that most artists get used to a reliable system that tends to give a predictable result. Even those artists who “swing out wildly,” when you really look at their work, they are often working in a fairly narrow range without much sophistication. This is often the case with abstract painters who develop a stroke and keep repeating what has worked in the past. When skills are bunched, or “chunked” as you suggest, there is a greater likelihood that moves so learned will become more habitual. One part of the chunk can be a familiar and safe ploy, but another part of the ploy can be something new. In this way increased complexity and interest can be added to work over a period of time. I am not a painter, but a critic and I see this weakness all the time.
The peril of restricting habits
by Jean Fournier, San Francisco, CA, USA
I encourage my students to experiment with whatever medium they’re working with. Unfortunately, so many artists develop habits around formulas and end up doing the same kind of painting over and over again. A lot of this is due to the market place and how quickly they can put together a show. If you look at a lot of web sites you will discover this for yourselves. This kind of art is more about money and has very little to do with true creativity. It is the death of an artist whether they are musicians or writers, etc. I believe a real artist is willing to explore the vast galaxy of light, color and form rather than lapsing into repetitive painting. I think too much specialization is killing the magic of new possibilities. We have become too specialized as a society as well. Learning is how we continue to grow.
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Use of repetition in learning to fish
by Doug Pollard, Victoria, BC, Canada
Last year I added to my fly-fishing techniques by learning how to spey-cast. I needed to handle the Skeena River and its challenges on an upcoming trip. The instructor, Ian, was very skillful himself, and taught me, chunk by chunk, over a dozen or so lessons, until we put it all together in time for my trip — just like the Spartak tennis academy. Repetition was the key — in fact Ian told me that 1500 perfect repetitions would be needed to get it locked away. Gotta get back to my brush.
Not strong on exercises
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
This might be the main culprit that holds me down. I was never strong on exercising, nor was that ever encouraged in my family or even at school. Maybe I was just talented to the worst possible amount — enough to fly through the school with good grades without any effort and without building good working habits. It’s a setback having to rebuild yourself as an adult, but many people have to do it in much worse conditions than mine. I am forever on my journey from a winger to a pro and that’s the fight I will never quit. I still at times just do my best whack at something — kind of bulk rather than chunk.
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Sparks of Genius
by Patricia Rucker, Golden, CO, USA
I recommend these letters to my Creative Concepts class at Foothills Art Center in Golden, Colorado. For this last session, I found and used the book Sparks of Genius – The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein. Written in 1999, the information is fascinating with great examples of creative people and their tools.
The Brain That Changes Itself
by Jeff Miller, Orillia, ON, Canada
Thanks for chunking and myelin. Suggestion: run don’t walk to bookstore for The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, MD. This change has happened to my 45 year old autistic son and his abstract painting.
Valuable chunking in art school
by Patricia Peterson, New York, NY, USA
I studied painting for 3 semesters at Emily Carr College of Art and Design. During that time, I used what you call chunking after deciding that printmaking (namely lithography), which I was studying up until that time due to my love of drawing, was a graduate study because I did not know the basics of 2D compositing and other necessary aspects of well constructed 2D artwork. Each of my paintings at that time embodied a ratio of scale with custom made stretchers (scales of 2×4, 5×7, etc.), color use such as two color complementary, tertiary, monochromatic, or underpainting and so forth. I also did gray studies of master paintings to see the composition of complex works. Each painting also incorporated one of glazing, scumbling, etc. In other words, each painting had delineated problems to work through compositionally, using a ratio, brushwork, brush size, color, contrast, pattern, perspective et al. I settled on custom-made stretchers that embodied the golden section. One of my teachers, Ken Wallace, told me I learned in 3 semesters what many take 10 years to learn. I did not have a body of work that could be exhibited as a show when I graduated but I had an appetite for paint. Then I moved to New York and was overwhelmed by the methods at graduate schools which I faithfully tried to incorporate into my work. Eventually although I understood I could teach myself “life got in my way.” I have never forgotten those early days and the pleasure I had in reviewing masterworks and tackling their methods. Chunking throws one into an area of study, grabbing the brain’s attention like none other.
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Dianne Middleton of Calgary, AB, Canada, who wrote, “Practicing a chunk or two helps to get the ‘big picture,’ as opposed to getting bogged down with nitty details!”
And also Kurt Moller of Berlin, Germany, who wrote, “Grouping or clustering of ideas together with complex technik directly put produces superiority.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Painting and chunking…