Be­come a pro in 10,000 hours

Go pro What does it take to level up your art if you’re com­ing from a dif­fer­ent field? Ju­lia Sa­gar finds out

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This sum­mer, con­cept and sto­ry­board artist Tom Fox started free­lanc­ing with world-fa­mous stu­dio Aard­man An­i­ma­tions. Noth­ing un­usual in that, you might think. Ex­cept that five years ago Tom was a zo­ol­o­gist, with only a life­draw­ing class in his artis­tic arse­nal.

Un­sat­is­fied with his zool­ogy de­gree, Tom em­barked on a chal­lenge that com­pletely changed his life. “I’d re­cently read a book called Out­liers by Malcolm Glad­well,” he says. “It sug­gested that to be ex­traor­di­nar­ily suc­cess­ful you need a com­bi­na­tion of a skill – de­rived from a min­i­mum of 10,000 hours of study – and for­tu­nate cir­cum­stances. I knew I couldn’t con­trol the cir­cum­stance, but I did have the dis­ci­pline to study some­thing.”

On 28 March 2010, Tom started study­ing for a min­i­mum of five hours ev­ery day. Af­ter two years (3,500 hours) he re­ceived a schol­ar­ship to at­tend on­line school The Art Depart­ment. Two-and-a-half years (some

7,000 hours) later, he was of­fered a first job in the UK film industry, as a ju­nior con­cept artist for Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios. In Au­gust this year, still 2,000 hours short of his tar­get, he took the next step in his new ca­reer and started pro­duc­ing il­lus­tra­tions, con­cept art and sto­ry­boards at Aard­man An­i­ma­tions.

It’s a re­mark­able story. But is it re­ally pos­si­ble to reach an ex­pert level of pro­fi­ciency with a new skill in 10,000 hours? Can any­one do it? And what’s the cost – both phys­i­cally and men­tally?

No pain, no gain

“It was much harder than I imag­ined,” says Tom. “At one point I was work­ing 30-35 hours a week in a cof­fee shop and study­ing 40-plus hours on top of that. It takes its toll on your so­cial life, re­la­tion­ships and your body.”

Award-win­ning free­lance il­lus­tra­tor and con­cept artist Daniel Tyka agrees that it’s tough. He quit his bank job af­ter de­cid­ing he wasn’t de­vel­op­ing fast enough as an artist, and ded­i­cated 16 hours per day to learn­ing new tech­niques. But sit­ting alone week af­ter week in his “dark cave” came at a men­tal cost. “I had to sac­ri­fice most of my so­cial life,” he says. “It meant no more free evenings dur­ing the week.”

Daniel’s work falls on the darker side of the sci-fi and fan­tasy spec­trum. Book jack­ets are his spe­cial­ity, but he’s

It was much harder than I imag­ined. It takes its toll on your so­cial life, re­la­tion­ships and your body

It’s not enough to grind away for 10,000 hours if you’re not ac­tively look­ing for what needs im­prov­ing

re­cently been work­ing as a video game con­cept artist and is con­tin­u­ing to de­velop new illustration tech­niques dur­ing his spare time. He thinks it’s pos­si­ble to master a new skill by ap­ply­ing the 10,000-hour the­ory, but points out that it’s im­por­tant to take a struc­tured ap­proach. “It’s all about or­gan­is­ing your time well,” says Daniel. “Learn the ba­sics be­fore you move into more com­pli­cated as­pects, or you could be­come over­whelmed and dis­heart­ened.”

Mod­est ex­pec­ta­tions

“Don’t ex­pect progress to hap­pen in­stantly,” says Jose Alves da Silva, a 3D char­ac­ter artist. The free­lancer has built up an im­pres­sive port­fo­lio of pro­fes­sional 3D illustration work, but re­cently chal­lenged him­self to im­prove his 2D sketch­ing skills. “With prac­tice you learn some­thing small ev­ery­day, such as how to draw that curve on the in­ner side of the hu­man foot, and th­ese things are added to your men­tal art li­brary,” he says. “The more you draw, the more you’re able to do so cor­rectly.”

The key, says Pro­fes­sor K An­ders Ericsson, a spe­cial­ist on ex­per­tise, lies in the type of prac­tice: it has to be fo­cused time spent push­ing the bound­aries of your abil­ity. Pro­fes­sor Ericsson’s 1993 re­search paved the way for Malcolm’s in­spi­ra­tional book, and while he dis­agrees with the author’s 10,000 hour rule – ar­gu­ing that it isn’t a magic num­ber – he be­lieves “de­lib­er­ate prac­tice” is an es­sen­tial com­po­nent in achiev­ing ex­pert pro­fi­ciency.

“In­di­vid­ual dif­fer­ences, even among elite per­form­ers, are closely re­lated to as­sessed amounts of de­lib­er­ate prac­tice,” says the pro­fes­sor. “Many char­ac­ter­is­tics once be­lieved to re­flect in­nate tal­ent are ac­tu­ally the re­sult of in­tense prac­tice ex­tended for a min­i­mum of 10 years.”

It de­pends what you’re learn­ing, too. Fine artist Re­becca Guay is the founder of pro­fes­sional men­tor­ship pro­gramme Illustration Master Class and its on­line sis­ter pro­gramme SmArt School. In her ex­pe­ri­ence, it’s faster to take tra­di­tional skills into a dig­i­tal en­vi­ron­ment than the other way around. “Dig­i­tal tools are of­ten eas­ier to start mak­ing images with, but stu­dents find it very hard to then switch to tra­di­tional me­dia if they don’t know it,” she says.

Re­becca agrees that the qual­ity of prac­tice is cru­cial. “It’s not enough to grind away at 10,000 hours of fig­ure draw­ing, for ex­am­ple, if you’re not try­ing to see what needs im­prov­ing, and evolv­ing your skill in each mo­ment. You need to be fully present

and fo­cused, not just mind­lessly draw­ing away in your sketch­book.”

“I see a lot of peo­ple who are miss­ing out by hang­ing out at the tip of the ice­berg,” says French con­cept artist Ef­flam Mercier. “Want to learn 3D? Then don’t just click around and be guided by lim­ited in­for­ma­tion. You be­come so much more flu­ent in a medium by learn­ing the tech­nol­ogy, the his­tory and the logic prin­ci­ples that the tools are built on.”

“Break down your sub­ject into man­age­able and dis­crete cat­e­gories,” ad­vises Tom. “I study anatomy, light and form, lin­ear per­spec­tive, com­po­si­tion and colour the­ory as my main cat­e­gories.”

don’t for­get down-time

If you’re com­mit­ting to 10,000 hours, it’s also cru­cial to in­vest in down-time to keep your pace of learn­ing sus­tain­able. De­lib­er­ate prac­tice is fa­tigu­ing and, like your body, your brain needs time to re­cover. “You have to process the in­for­ma­tion that you’re learn­ing,” points out Philadel­phia-based artist Wi­nona Nel­son, “and then let it bake in”. Of course, it’s not just about rolling up your sleeves and putting in the time and ef­fort. Sci­en­tists be­lieve there are sig­nif­i­cant ge­netic and en­vi­ron­ment fac­tors in the mix that can af­fect the time pe­riod over which an in­di­vid­ual reaches their peak of pro­fi­ciency, and those fac­tors in­clude per­son­al­ity, cog­ni­tive abil­ity and age. Nev­er­the­less, taken as short­hand for ‘a sig­nif­i­cant amount of in­tense prac­tice’, 10,000 hours be­comes a use­ful bench­mark for any artist hop­ing to master a new skill.

How do you find that sort of time? Tom ad­vises get­ting up early and learn­ing while you’re fresh. “I’ve had pe­ri­ods where I’ve got up at 4:30am to draw. That’s what sep­a­rates you from the com­pe­ti­tion: you dragged your­self out of bed and squeezed an­other 500 hours out of that year.”

“Start­ing a new habit al­ways takes mo­ti­va­tion,” agrees Jose. “But af­ter you’ve done it for a while it’s like do­ing phys­i­cal ex­er­cise: if you don’t do it then your body starts ask­ing for it.”

For Tom, it’s no longer about hit­ting 10,000 hours. “The 10,000 fig­ure is great for en­ter­ing the industry,” he re­flects. “But if you want to be the best you can be, set your sights higher. Now I know I’m com­mit­ted to a life­time’s study – and I love it.”

Since ded­i­cat­ing his time to mas­ter­ing illustration, Tom Fox has seen his skills – and ca­reer – blos­som. Daniel Tyka learns new tech­niques through self-ini­ti­ated projects, like this piece, Smashed.

Daniel cre­ated Day of the Dead for a Brain­storm Chal­lenge.

Jose Alves da Silva’s por­trait of art con­nois­seur Le Rab­bit is one of his most fa­mous 3D pieces.

A scan from Jose’s sketch­book, where he prac­tises his 2D draw­ing.

Tom is al­most at the 8,000 hour mark and says he’s pro­gress­ing faster than ever. Elves, by con­cept artist Ef­flam Mercier, who’s “get­ting back into tra­di­tional draw­ing”.

A tra­di­tional oil on can­vas piece, Lit­tle Fish, painted by Re­becca Guay. Ef­flam says learn­ing

core art skills is as im­por­tant as know­ing

the soft­ware. Open Your Eyes, by Wi­nona Nel­son. It took her five years of work­ing 40 hours a week to be­come a pro­fes­sional artist.

Porce­lain Skin by Daniel, who used to work in a bank.

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