Why do some achieve mastery and others not? How is it that some “get good” and others never seem to? For many of us who teach or practice art — this is a question that we ask every day — about others and about ourselves. With all the interest in formal art education, workshops, self-promotion, sales, and other secondary art activities, there is after all, no greater value than simply becoming a “master.” How does this happen? In my experience it largely occurs when the artist is alone. It’s a function of individual character. Leonardo da Vinci said, “One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.” As well, mastery has an attitude. Robert Henri suggested, “Masters are people who haven’t learned everything — and they know it.”
In George Leonard’s remarkable little book Mastery he draws on Zen philosophy and the martial art of aikido. He shows that the mastering of any non-trivial activity can be plotted on a graph where relatively small gains are made at intervals — followed by slight declines — and then by prolonged plateaus where nothing much seems to be happening. Those who become masters, he says, are the ones who learn to live with and accept these plateaus. Leonard also names three character types who seldom achieve mastery. They are the Dabbler, the Obsessive and the Hacker.
The Dabbler, while initially enthusiastic, soon finds the plateaus unacceptable and is generally distracted to another sport. “The dabbler specializes in honeymoons,” says Leonard. The Obsessive, on the other hand, is a bottom-line kind of person. He is tenacious, inward looking and much in need of fast results, but he too cannot handle the plateaus. The Obsessive stops short when his needs are not being met. The Hacker has a different attitude. He or she is willing to stay on a plateau indefinitely. He fails to continue to grow because he doesn’t want to. He’s just fine and comfortable, thank you.
True mastery involves a kind of driven skill-building. It may take an extraordinary life experience to make it happen. Maybe not. After stewing about it for a lifetime — I’m stewing about it right now — I know that mastery is a form of love transported to a surface. “When love and skill work together — expect a masterpiece.” (John Ruskin)
PS: “The discipline endured is the mastery achieved.” (Edgar A. Whitney)
Esoterica: In our current climate of instant gratification, simple involvement in a long-term graph is one way of understanding and building mastery. We all know of the joy that new peaks give — and the kind of silver star that we can give ourselves at those peaks. But there’s a kind of philosophic approach needed for the plateaus. Patience, work, care, process, love, and the confident knowledge that in due course the graph will once again wiggle upwards.
by Ardath Davis, Victoria, BC, Canada
I once heard that new students at an art school were required everyday to draw boxes that were re-arranged daily. Soon students weeded themselves out of the class. Those who were left went on to become full time art students. Tenacity has a great deal to do with Mastery. The word brings up images of perfection. How many of us can feel worthy of that description? I have tried my best with what skills I have, to evoke in others the emotions that compelled me to record a particular place or mood. When my paintings do that, I have succeeded. For me, none of this would have been possible without discipline, perseverance, honesty, and a consuming passion for nature.
by Ann Walton
In George Leonard’s Mastery, I relate to the ‘dabbler’ as in ‘enthusiastic,’ the ‘obsessive’ as in ‘fast results’ and I hate to think that I might be related to the ‘hacker’ in ‘just being comfortable.’ I’m not a competitive sort, but I’m always in need of assurance.
(RG note) More than a dozen artists wrote to say that they had read or were reading Mastery by George Leonard. This book gives an intelligent approach by an author whose black-belt discipline (aikido) is admired by many artists. It’s good for mastering golf, tennis and relationships as well.
Creativity blossoms on plateaus
by Gail Griffiths, Monmouth, NS, USA
Plateaus are those wondrous times when you think nothing is happening. One leaves a task for various reasons. A level of discomfort with any situation — art endeavor, new physical challenge (like a pogo stick,) it is set aside on the plateau. I’m amazed that when I return to the task, I pick it up with a refreshed, enlightened knowledge of how to do what caused me to set aside in the first place. There’s an innate ability for creative minds to continue to process their interests. I welcome the plateau as a resting place from which my creativity may blossom.
Part of the creative cycle
by Cathy Fink, Victoria, BC, Canada
I call my plateaus ‘canyons.’ They always seem to have high walls, not a lot of light, and I can’t see ahead farther than the next mark on the paper. What I have discovered is that these canyons are a normal part of my creative cycle, and that these are the times my heart is working out something important to the content of my artwork. I have learned to have patience and trust in this part of my creative process. I continue going into my studio and working every day. Invariably, my work takes a creative leap once I am out past the canyon walls and in the light again.
Study time is alone
by Linda K Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I’ve yet to complete a masterpiece but there is always hope. I paint with other painters all the time but my real study time is alone. I think it is necessary for a painter to be out in the elements alone to concentrate and think. Painting is a lot about thinking.
Dabbler moves on
by Barbara Solar
Today’s letter was the shot in the arm that I needed. Not that I was exactly elated to learn that I am a Dabbler — after more than twelve years of writing, which I still love to do, my soul has been captured by mosaic art and for a year now, my muse has turned me from words to colors and shapes. But what did Leonardo mean by “mastery of self?”
(RG note) In Leonardo da Vinci‘s mind “mastery of self” meant control and suppression of the baser instincts, management of time, and the idea of raising human aspirations toward learning, inventing, creating, constructing and demonstrating. His was the true breath of the Renaissance.
by C D MacKenzie
As a former professional trumpet player turned visual artist, my belief has been that to achieve mastery — there is/must be an immense love for what one does. Such that, the master dives deeply into his/her emerald pool of consciousness and gets lost in the act of creation (of every note played or brushstroke applied). Trancelike, the master creates to the exclusion of applause or critique because he/she must do so. He/she becomes an open vessel to the creative fervor of the universe.
Toward the new masterful you
by Carolyn Smith
Regarding mastery, I myself want to be a “good painter” while trying and growing as I go. What you described is in all of us. It’s how much we want it and how we accept the process. Depression, alcoholism, food addictions, physical and other problems can all relate to each of the Dabbler, Obsessive and the Hacker. The Dabbler wants to get better (healthier) but doesn’t like the idea of getting their toes wet as its just too cold. The Obsessive is trying to will themselves better… damn it! And the Hacker isn’t as bad (addicted) anymore so, its good enough. The Master knows it is a life long process of patience, having a good attitude when the chips are down, relaxing and enjoying the view when you are in that plateau, knowing how far you have come, trying new skills or a different medium to keep learning. Old and bad habits die hard, for a new, happy, masterful you.
Technical and artistic mastery
by oliver, Austin, TX, USA
There are levels of mastery. One can be a technical master — full of craftsmanship, but not in most senses an artistic master. While technique is a prerequisite, there must be something to express and an ability to figure out how to express it using the mastered techniques.
Some of course never really master the techniques and tools. Fewer really master the ability to communicate. Some of this is in the soul, some is learned, some is induced by outside influences — sickness, tragedy, joy, just maturing. When I was young, a gallery owner told me, “You will be a much better artist when you are older.” I resented it — but you know something — he was right.
Alone and lonely
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
An artist becomes an artist. He/she must travel the journey of life, learn by doing, and have staying power. A “Master” may not realize when the time has come. It creeps up on an artist that is simply doing what he feels needs to be done.
I’ve found that I create better when I’m alone. Not just alone — as no one around — but lonely. I am a loner, with a family, but I’m withdrawn in expressing my feelings. I don’t have friends that I hang out with, and seldom do I go out to enjoy life. My soul is in my art and only there will you see it.
by Sharona Fischrup
Your mastery letter comes at a time in my life where mastery is being spoken of around me. I am in a small group of woman quilters, and I know some lines from your letter would make a difference to them right now. May I forward them to seven others?
(RG note) Please do, Sharona, and thanks for asking. Recently I received an email that included an unattributed quote (by me) from one of my letters and the suggestion that this quote might be good for one of my letters.
Unusual request for a reproduction
by Susan Easton Burns, Douglasville, GA, USA
I have just received an odd request. An interior designer has asked me to reproduce a painting, larger than the original, and asked for permission to copy it one time, and display the copy. I’ve attached the request below. I am willing to reproduce the painting. It would be easy and fun, I think, but I have never heard of someone asking for permission to reproduce a painting. They have offered to pay the price I’m asking for a painting of that size, but offer nothing for the commission aspect, or for the copy.
Andrea L. Jones
(RG note) Thanks, Susan. This is something we are now seeing more often. The main reasons are as stated — tendency to be damaged and also high insurance costs now current. It’s the designer’s choice too — she likes the image. Designers are inclined to look at walls and say, “That place needs that image, this size.” Some are requesting the original to “put in their vault.” Others don’t even want the original. Recently near here a large hotel had all their valuable original art turned into one-off giclees.
In your case and depending on a clarification of the customer’s interests, there may be no need to paint another in the size required. Your existing work can be digitally photographed and reproduced by giclee to their requirements. The original painting can then be sold through the regular channels. On the back of the painting you need to write: “To whom it may concern: A one-off, one-use only, reproduction of this work exists in the hands of…”
French Trapper: Along the Missouri – 1805
original oil painting
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, 2004.
That includes Steve Hovland who wrote, “In interior photography, mastery means “looks like Architectural Digest.”
And also Katie Hurley of Miami, FL, USA who wrote, “My God this is so timely!”
And also Paul Kane who wrote, “One does not know what one’s mastery will look or feel like until one gets there!”
And also Troy Treleaven who wrote, “Something I like from the martial arts is, ‘A Master has a Beginner’s Mind.'”
And also Sharon Voyles who wrote, “Master artists work twice as hard as others to perfect their skills and they never give up.”
And Sandy Sandy who wrote, “The key to mastery is through repetition.”
And also Russell W. McCrackin of Corvallis, Oregon who wrote, “What I have on my easel is not going easily, but I’m sure it will be the best I’ve ever done. It always is. Until I look back at it.”
And also Bill Bishop who wrote, “Q: What is brown and sticky? A: A stick.”