What were the very first things you ever learned? Unless you are Mozart, they were probably things like walking, talking, using a spoon and a sippy cup. You learned these skills from someone who knew how to do them well, like your mum or your older brother. And you learned them by watching, watching intently. Check out how a baby or a toddler watches — it’s like a lion on the veld or my dachshunds as we unpack groceries. Unblinking, rigid with attention.
Oh, and speaking of Mozart, how do you think he became a prodigy at three? He watched his older sister take harpsichord lessons and he watched his father play the violin. It’s no coincidence that so many prodigies, from Michael Jackson to Wayne Gretzky, were the youngest kids in large families. Lots of people to stare at and learn from.
When you learn this way, you create a vision of yourself performing the skill, a mental video you play over and over. As the scene loops, it is burned into your brain, creating new neural pathways and locking in the nuances of the skill. You notice not only the steps the experts take but the intensity and rhythms with which they perform the action, the way that all the component parts of actions come together into one cohesive and coordinated whole. In time, these observations lead to fluid and confident motions.
Learning a physical skill is a very complex process, most of it nonverbal. You are programming your head and body to dance together in a thousand little ways. You must keep refining those dance steps, polishing them until there are no hitches or hesitations, until they run like greased, teflon-dipped clockwork. That’s how you learn to walk, to dribble a soccer ball, to drive a car, to play the guitar, and to draw. You program neurons.
If you want to improve your golf swing, watch Ben Hogan on YouTube. If you want to improve your jump shot, watch LeBron during this week’s NBA finals. If you want to improve your drawing, watch any of my Sketchbook Films or the demo videos on Sketchbook Skool. Watch them again and again. And don’t watch passively, like you were dozing off in front of a Seinfeld rerun. Sit forward, engage, focus, mimic, stare. Let your body respond as you watch. Feel your muscles tense, your fingers twitch. Throw yourself into it and absorb the rhythms, the linkages, the unspoken logic behind the scenes.
Your meat computer takes longer to train than silicon chips, but it lasts longer too. Once you have forged these connections, they will last a lifetime. Neglected, they may get rusty and overgrown, but, with a little practice, you can prune them and get them up and running again, like a long forgotten stretch of railroad track. You never fully forget how to ride a bike. And the same holds true for the network you’ve built between your brain, eyes, and hands so your pen will make lovely marks in your sketchbook.
Stare, engage, mimic. And repeat.