Mastering art and craft


I had never really been one for museums. I’ve visited a few, but have always gotten bored after ~20 minutes.

Last weekend, I took a trip up to the de Young Museum in San Francisco to see the David Hockney exhibit and something great happened. I had an awesome time!

What made the difference?

Museums usually cover vast areas of art, time, styles, etc. As I walk through, I appreciate that the art is good, but you get a few pieces per artist and then you move on to the next artist. And then the next time period. Something about this approach to art just doesn’t excite me.

This exhibit was different. We spent all of the time on a single artist in one single, large, multi-room exhibit. It wasn’t just a few rooms; it was many. The exhibition was called ‘David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition‘, and damn did it live up to its name (as far as I can tell, but I’m no museum buff).

The exhibit showed David Hockney’s work throughout a good chunk of his career, and it was mesmerizing. It showed many of his sketches. It showed his oil paintings he is well known for. It showed the work from his two years experimenting with watercolor painting. It showed is large works of art, using several canvases to create a single piece (such as the image at the beginning of this article). It showed art that he created on the iPhone and the iPad. It covered everything, and it was amazing.

Most importantly, you could feel David Hockney’s passion. You would see an oil painting of a random person sitting in a chair. And then another with a different random person. And another with someone else. You see a painting of a landscape. And then the same landscape in a different season. Or under different lighting. Or in an abstract art style. Towards the end of the exhibit, I noticed the exact dates on his iPhone and iPad drawings. David Hockney is 76 years old now, and is drawing every day!

I realized that museums don’t excite me. But, artists do.

This was a story of a man who loves his craft. It wasn’t about a few pieces. It was about creating.. every.. single.. day. It was about repeating scenes, and making sure to appreciate the difference in lighting or seasons. It was about exploring a single medium (oil painting), and then another (watercolor), and even the more modern mediums (iPhone).

I left the de Young museum incredibly inspired.

David Hockney has painted for 50+ years. Over the years, he has created an amazing amount of great art. And he is still at it.

It has made me think a whole lot about how I approach work and career. If I chose something I was passionate about, and then worked at it everyday for 50+ years, what could I learn? What could I accomplish?

Maybe that is the trick to mastering a craft. It isn’t complicated. It just requires passion, and continued effort over time.

(For those in SF Bay Area, this weekend turns out to be the last weekend of this exhibit. If you have the chance to see it, I would highly recommend it.)

Quality versus quantity, when mastering a craft

Suppose you want to want to master a particular craft: your coding skills, your social skills, your basketball shot, your writing skills, whatever.

Which approach wins: quality or quantity?

And the answer is… wait for it… here: this is a ridiculous question.

Why? Let us start with two facts:

  1. You start as a beginner. That means you aren’t a master at your craft.
  2. Mastery implies quality. You need to get there somehow.

Now, let’s examine this 2×2 matrix of possibilities between quality and quantity.


We’ll start with the two left-most boxes in red, where there is no quality in the outcome.

If you have much produced much quantity, and have started as a beginner, it is very likely that there won’t be any quality.

If you happened to have produced large numbers in quantity, it is still possible that there is no quality. It could be because you have not practiced enough, or because you haven’t really been learning as you have practiced.

Either way, both of the red boxes are uninteresting. They do not include mastery as an outcome, since mastery implies that you have produced something of quality.

So let’s move to the more interesting green boxes, where quality is produced.

We will start at the bottom right. It is surely possible that if you produce a lot, some of it will include quality. What separates this box from the one to it’s left? Deliberate practice. By challenging yourself, and learning with each product produced, you learn to create quality.

Is possible that you produce a few things of quality? Yes. Either you got lucky (which is unlikely), or you have spent countless hours iterating and fine-tuning your craft on the few things you produced.

Here is the twist: iteration implies quantity.

What is iteration? It is repeatedly going over a product until it is honed to perfection. And what is each iteration? Another product. Only it is an intermediate product. Anyone who has iterated a product to perfection has produced quantity, but in intermediate products. An similar to the previous case, this iteration was an exercise in deliberate practice.

The conclusion.

When discussing mastery, the quality versus quantity debate is ridiculous.

Mastery is gained by learning to produce quality.

Quality is achieved through some form of quantity with deliberate practice.

Quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive. Mastery requires both.

Q.E.D. 🙂

P.S. This is post number #9 in a 100 day blogging challenge. See you tomorrow!

Follow me on Twitter @alexshye.

Check out my current project, Soulmix, your daily mix of food for the soul. Request an invite now for free access to the private beta!