The Art of Learning

One of the most common questions asked by any young artist is... 

“How long does it take to learn Art?”

As you may or may not be aware, this is a question that has no real answer.

“What!?”, you say.  “I thought you had the answers, Wayne.  That is why I started reading your stupid article!”

Now don’t worry, I have a few wisdom bombs that will help you out.  But rather than talking about “The Learning of Art” I’d like to flip it and talk about “The Art of Learning”. Yes, this is what you really  should be focused on.


There are different things you can learn.  Learning a fact can be easy and can be almost instantaneous.


Kent: The World is a sphere.

Wayne: What!? No way, it looks flat. 

Kent: No really it is.  Here’s a bunch of proof.  

Wayne:  OK wow. That’s pretty amazing.

Learning done!!


Learning a skill, however, is much harder and time-consuming.  For example, it took me a whole year of trying before I could walk. But those first few times I did it, I wasn’t very good at all. It took me another couple of years before I mastered it. I don’t even have to think about walking anymore, it just happens automatically when it needs to happen.


Now I’m being a little silly in that example but exactly the same learning process occurs in the brain, whether you are physically learning to walk for the first time or learning to animate your first walk cycle.

What is Learning?

It is important to note that there is no ‘one way’ to learn.  The best way for me to learn a certain thing, might not be the best way for you to learn that same thing.That’s why teaching and learning can be tricky.


But let’s have a look at the old way of thinking first: Image result for the bloom taxonomyOld School Thinking [Image source: https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/]

This was a cognitive model from the 1950s showing that to create (the thing at the top) you have to start at the bottom and work your way up.

It had one entry point (remembering).  But this model is obviously flawed: for instance, it doesn't cover all those talented musicians that compose songs but can’t even read a note of music? 

The model has evolved many times since then.  Here’s one of the latest cognitive models on learning.

[Image source:  www.pz.harvard.edu/]

Notice the drastic change in shape of the and language that it uses. Yep, it doesn’t really matter where you start in this model and each element is equally important.

You don’t have to ‘remember’ facts about a walk cycle to ‘wonder’ how to create one.

So how do you successfully learn?

Tolerance for Ambiguity

One of the crucial factors for success in learning is the learner’s “tolerance for ambiguity”. This means suspending your need for immediate answers and gratification.

A learner who has a low tolerance to ambiguity believes that the experience of learning should be easy. Then, as soon as learning becomes unclear or challenging, they give up. 

On the other hand, learners with a high tolerance for ambiguity remain undeterred. They don’t assume learning should always be easy and engage in radical persistence. They understand that when learning is truly complex, it is not 'fixed'. To understand something complex, the learner has to constantly grapple with varying possibilities, connections, and influences. Rather than settle for the first and easiest answer, these learners are ready to recognize that a clear answer may not even exist.

Chunk your subject into smaller bits

A great way to fully understand what you are learning is to break it down into its constituent parts, practice those parts and then put it back together.

Let’s take our an example: the Animating a Walk Cycle exercise is the end goal of the animation Bootcamp on CG Cookie.  If you are new to animating, you’re probably thinking, “I’ve been walking since I was 10 months old (*you show off!) so I can easily animate that”.

But as a new learner, there are quite a few skills and concepts you need to know before achieving this task.

You have to understand the software to know which buttons to push, learn what a rig is, know how to pose the character, set a keyframe, how to control the spacing of all the parts of the rig between the keyframes - and that’s not even including all the animation concepts you need to understand.

So instead of teaching someone to animate a walk cycle by starting at a walk cycle, I started by giving you a quick and easy exercise by animating the ball in a circle.  This introduced the graph editor in one bite-sized chunk of information.  And from that exercise, I continue to introduce and make you practice one new concept at a time until you have enough of the building blocks to be able to animate that deceptively tricky walk cycle.

Now, why did it start so easy?  Well, animation is hard, and by giving you a quick and easy win at the beginning gives you a nice confidence boost and raises your ‘tolerance for ambiguity’ for later on when things get a lot more difficult than you expected. 

Anyone who has already made their way through the animation Bootcamp will know, that even breaking it down and ‘chunking it’ like this proves to be a sequence of quite challenging tasks on their own.  But by breaking it into smaller tasks to learn along the way will keep your ‘tolerance for ambiguity’ high while still giving you the feeling of progress towards your learning goal.

So how do you learn better?

‘Learning’ is actually a skill

The more practice you have at learning, the better the brain gets at learning.

That is why things seemed easier to learn when you were younger.  It wasn’t your age, it was the fact that you spend 5 days a week for 13 years learning in school.  Everything was easier to learn because your brain was a super practiced learning machine.

Repetition and sleep

Yes sleep.  The more we practice and repeat something, the more the neural pathways are strengthened.  During sleep, the brain cleans itself, including some of these new connections.  But with repetition, the brain starts to see that it actually needs all these new connections it has been making and then start to keep them all nice and tidy during sleep rather than obliterating them.  That is why practice is important, if you don’t practice what you have learned, it can be trimmed away.

What is the purpose of your learning?

The question for you is to decide why you are actually learning something. Are you learning for fun or learning for your future or current career?

Learning for fun

If you are learning for fun, why are you even worried about how long it is going to take?

If you are having fun, then you are doing it correctly.

Time does not matter, your enjoyment does. 

So stop stressing and start enjoying!

Learning for mastery

If you’re learning to upskill or to gain mastery of something, the important thing to remember is that you are in control of your learning. You can’t just buy a book or subscribe to a website and then expect to get better.  You actually have to put in the work and practice regularly.

Try setting yourself a goal of what you want to learn, and the break it into the smaller parts that you need to learn and practice, and then move forward.

And don’t just do something once.   Practice, practice, practice.  And show your work!

 It's not about making something perfect or being better than anybody else,  the only competition you have is with the artist you were yesterday.

Read "Improve Your Art by Forming New Habits"

Me as a Learner

I learn as a hobby.  I love it!

I’m always actively practicing and learning some new skill.  But there are some learning that I do that serves multiple purposes.  I practice some things everyday, in what I call 'trickle learning', where I'm doing a little bit everyday (that's the key).

This fills my addiction for learning and forms a good daily habit.  By practicing this ‘learning’ everyday it keeps my brain acting like a super slick learning machine. 

Now I’m not suggesting that you should do the same as me but here are the things I do everyday...

Drawing:

I practice at least 10 gestures from www.quickposes.com before I start work.  My aim is not to be a 2d artist, but improve over time, which is happening.  If I wanted to improve faster, I should practice more, I know this but I’m having fun so I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. 

I also happen to think there is something special happening in the brains of people that can draw. In the 2017 Netflix doco “Abstract: That Art of Design”, every one of the experts did some type of drawing in their creative process, no matter what their area of expertise was.   All of them could draw.

Here's some embarrassing drawings that show my daily improvement.

6 days6 weeks6 months

Read "5 Tips to Help you Draw More"

Maths:

I practice maths on Khan Academy everyday (10-15 mins).

My goal is to eventually understand all the mathematics that goes on behind the scenes in any 3d applications.  I’m getting there but I’m in no rush.

Creature of habit

Second Language:

I practice Italian for about 10-15 mins.  This is slow but fun and when I actually speak to my friend’s Nonna every couple of weeks or so, I can actually tell that I am getting better.  She can too, although I get corrected a lot!

575 days and counting

What don’t I do any more…

Brain Games

The research on this type of learning suggests that it doesn’t really make you better/faster/stronger at all the things they say they claim to make you better at.  The research is suggesting that it only makes your brain faster/better/stronger at playing those games.  I discovered this for myself around the same time that the research started to suggest this so I switched to more practical art and science-based things.  ie - The daily drawing, maths as these things are great for the creative mind and also have added benefits for my work in computer animation.

Read: "I Don't Have Time to Learn!"

Accelerated learning

What are some things you can do to speed up your learning?

Meditation

Maybe this should go in the ‘things I do every day’ section, but spending 10 mins a day to make all areas of your life more productive is a no brainer (pardon the pun).  A more focused mind is happier, smarter, faster and calmer mind - and is also better at learning.  There is a lot of scientific evidence to support this, it is not just woo-woo.  My meditation weapon of choice is Headspace.com.

Just in time learning

Don’t get distracted and try to learn everything at once.  Just learn what you need to learn at the time you need to learn it.  That sounds simple but I’ll say it again because it’s important. 

Just learn what you need to learn at the time you need to learn it.  

This will save you a bunch of wasted effort and make your learning more effective because you won’t need to go back and learn that thing a second time because 6 years had passed since ‘learning it’ and needing to ‘use it’.

Watch things in fast forward

I listen/watch all the things I can at double speed or faster.  You can do the same.  Start at 1.5x speed and work up, your brain will learn to process the sound faster with, you guessed it…practice.

But be careful with this, it can easily become detrimental to your learning. You will have to use your judgment - but if you can take in all the information at a faster speed, then go faster. If you are pausing and rewinding stuff, slow it down.

Fun fact, I saw a science program where a person with blindness had an app that would read anything to him at 12x speed and he had perfect comprehension.  The trained human brain is an amazing thing.

But just so you know, not all things can or should be listened to in fast forward.  For example - I  listen to the podcast 'Song Exploder', a podcast where musicians take apart their songs and tell the story of how they were made.  But I always listen at normal speed as listening faster actually distorts the 'art' portion of what I’m learning about.

Things that slow learning down

Learning too much at once

Are you constantly getting sidetracked by learning things that take you away from the goal you set out to achieve? It’s ok to change your mind or even change the approach you have to learn a skill, as there is no one correct way to learn.  But ask yourself if you really want/need to learn that thing right now, or should future you take care of it.  Future you is amazing by the way.

As a side note to this point though, there has been some research done on what’s called “interleaving”.  That is where the learner will learn multiple related concepts at once.  The findings are that while the initial learning is more difficult and takes much longer, the understanding of the concepts ends up much deeper.  If you’re after speed though, stick to one thing at a time.

Failing to practice

Use it or lose it, people.

You’ve done it once.  Good work.  But do it again, and again.

Make a better version and don’t just copy what you saw in that tutorial, adapt it and apply what you’ve learned into your own project.


Pactice maeks prefect.

Practice maeks prefect.

Practice makes prefect.

Practice makes you awesome.

What next?

I hope this has inspired you to actually start thinking about the way you learn things.  But if there is one thing I want to leave you with is this...

You are in control of your learning.

It’s time to take charge.

Further reading:

The Art of Learning - Josh Waitzkin (2008)

Creating Cultures of Thinking - Ron Ritchhart (2015)

Make It Stick -  Peter C. Brown (2014)

Transforming Schools - Miranda Jefferson & Michael Anderson (2017)

The Brain That Changes Itself - Norman Doidge (2008)

  • Omar Domenech

    Great article.

    Will people in the future actually be like Neo in The Matrix in learning Kung Fu and they'll be WTF'ed that people in our times actually had to forcefully cram info into our heads instead of uploading it...

    I mean the brain can surely be hacked, perhaps that's what learning is.

  • Eyad Lotfy

    Do you think practicing something like (animating or hard surface modeling or whatever) instead of watching tutorials and following them could be harmful? Like for instance doing a mistake, but never knowing how to get around it, so u tell yourself that maybe in the future you will improve?

  • crew
    Kent Trammell

    dostovel You know I love a good Matrix reference 😍

  • Grant

    Good stuff, really resonating with me right now. I might actually try out the animation course as well.

    Recently, I've found that tutoring others can help improve your own skills. It forces you to actively explain your decisions, and justify your own methods. It forces you to make difficult decisions about what patterns you think are valuable, and which are cumbersome, and how to effectively pass those on to your student. It's hard to explain to someone how something is done, while also ignoring your personal blindspots in that subject. You end up reflecting on your own skills, and that helps feed back in to your own learning cycle.

    Of course, that opens the door to the topic of, "How much knowledge is enough to teach?", and passing on bad habits. I'd rather not touch that subject with a ten foot pole.

  • Grant

    yyoddathehunter, speaking from personal experience, I don't think there is really a definitive answer to that. The best you can do is to leave yourself open for improvement. Evaluate places in your routine that you avoid, skip, or are annoyed by. Those, at least for me, tend to be areas I'm weak in due to little practice or knowledge.

    As far as watching random tutorials online, take them with a grain of salt. Get in, evaluate what they are giving you, take it for a spin for a bit, and then decide if it's what you need. In the context of free online tutorials, and I hate to say this, sometimes you need to evaluate your teacher as much as the tutorial itself.

    Ultimately, I think learning is not about finding the right answer, it's about weeding out all the wrong ones. Work towards getting to a place where you can accomplish what you want to do, while also being comfortable with doing it. If you aren't, try finding a new or better method.

  • crew
    Wayne Dixon

    dostovel - interesting thought with the Matrix. I'm certain that will eventually happen. But the danger would be that by instantly uploading knowledge would make everyone 'think' exactly the same way. I'm sure certain world leaders would LOVE that haha.
    But thinking differently about stuff, and learning from the mistakes we make on the journey to mastery is what makes every artist unique. And not just artists either.
    What if Einstein didn't question Newton's theory on gravity?
    I can't remember his name, but before the 1950s or so, everyone used to jump over the high jump bar forwards, until 1 dude asked himself, "What if there was a different way?". He jumped over it backwards, everyone laughed at him. He broke the record, they stopped laughing and now that is the way everyone does it.
    Uploading to the brain would be perfect for some tasks, but it could destroy a lot of the beautiful minds that are yet to come in this world.

  • crew
    Wayne Dixon

    yyoddathehunter - excellent question Eyad!
    You certainly should follow along with tutorials, especially if this is what gives you enjoyment. But if you want to fully understand something and master it, you need to delve deeper into the content and start making your own connections to the concepts.
    By that I mean, adapt what you are learning into your own project after following along. Practice that thing more than once. Can you do it better the next time? Ask yourself, if there is another way of achieving the same thing? Experiment and try things out. Make mistakes. Mistakes are great, they teach you what doesn't work and why (as long as you learn from your mistakes that is).

    And like astute mentioned, make sure you evaluate the information in the tutorials and the teacher as well. Some things are facts (which button to push) and some things are skills (the way of doing something to achieve a result). There is often more than one correct way. You could also be learning someonelse's bad habits, so don't take everything you see as gospel.

    If you are having trouble understanding something, or making the same mistake over and over, I can make a few suggestions. It does depend of what it is, of course, but see if you can simplify the problem and then solve it, or research the issue and do some targeted practice on the subject.

    Example 1 - if you're trying to create a rigging solution for a large and complex character. Try solving the problem on a simplified version of the rig. Just the parts you need. Then once you've figured it out, you can apply it to the actual project. Don't try solving it on the version that has 3000 bones.

    Example2 - When I practice my drawing, I am not worried about how crap it looks today. I know that with time and repetition, future me will improve over time. That is, I will get better automatically without really doing anything special other than just drawing.
    However, if I wanted to get better at drawing hands for example, I would go out of my way to practice and research this. I wouldn't just let it happen automatically. I would watch a bunch of tutorials on how to draw hands, read some books, study different artists and try to figure out their process. Then I would draw a lot of hands for days and weeks. (you can't just do it in the one day because you need your brain to make the neural connections)

    But yes, I also let future me solve some problems too. Coming back to things when you are smarter, more experienced and the software has evolved is a great way to keep yourself moving forward.

  • Miranda van Elst

    Great article Wayne! I recently was a "Learning too much at once" offender, actually resulted in being extremely overwhelmed and getting nothing done for a long time... Back on track now though, focusing on one thing at the time, and that resulted in getting Stomp to finally walk, and that made me very happy :)
    I'll be taking your tips from this article with me in my further learning process. Thank you for sharing this!

  • amyeha

    Omg that Khan Academy is AWESOME! I didn't know something like this existed!

  • splat21

    Wayne, I enjoyed your article very much. Not only did you lay out a path for learning, but you also shared your regular regiment to learn new things. Very inspirational. A phrase that sometimes describes the value of learning through experience is: "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” Confucius is often cited as the source of this nugget of wisdom. Cheers.

  • Matt Dickun

    Great advice.

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