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
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.”
“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.