Magic Paintbrush Syndrome.

A big part of learning to draw has nothing to do with any specific technical ability or conceptual knowledge but instead revolves around self awareness. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Dr Walter Mischel conducted a series of studies on delayed gratification that has become known as the ‘Stanford Marshmallow Experiment’. In the experiment a child aged 7-9 was given a marshmallow or cookie and told that they could eat it immediately but if they waited for the experimenter to return they could have two. Videos of children struggling not to eat the cookie can be found online and are adorable. The children often employ a range of strategies to avoid giving in to the temptation of the instant reward. The real genius of the experiment however was that Mischel followed up with the subjects years later and found that those who were able to hold out for the bigger reward tended to have better life outcomes such as higher SAT scores, healthier body weight, and other measurable outcomes.

While some of us are better than others at dealing with the temptation to seize the immediate reward, we all have the impulse. This is no less true when drawing. To some degree or another we all suffer from ‘Magic Paintbrush Syndrome’. This is the delusion that an artist waves their magic paintbrush over the canvas and a perfectly formed picture appears. Nothing could be further from the truth. Drawings and paintings are developed. They don’t appear from nothing. We must set up the picture before we rush to the surface finishes. Beautiful hair on a misshapen head will never save a drawing. In a timed drawing situation this is of paramount importance. So often we rush to the face before we set up the gesture or, more generally, the details of the picture before the structure of a picture. Sufferers of Magic Paintbrush Syndrome are consumed with the picture being ‘good’ before they have done what is necessary in order to make the picture ‘good’. As technicians we need to be aware of our tendencies and manage our bad impulses when we work. If we can focus on the important issues first, the reward is twice as satisfying.

Practical addendum: To clarify it should be noted that there are two kinds of details. The first, which we can refer to as ‘specificity’, is the nuanced and subtle quality of edges and moments that describe form. This type of detail is the information that should be used to build the image. They are not afterthoughts. Avoid “laying out” a drawing with simple shapes or generic lines. Notice and commit to the specificity of every moment. The second is surface detail and ‘finish’. This type of information while valuable and important is not essential to the structure or idea of a scene. If the first is applied properly the second can always be added. When attention is given to ‘finish’ too soon it can create several problems and makes it far more difficult to be successful.
Practical addendum 2: I have developed a philosophy of how to approach a picture that I believe offers a pragmatic and efficient way to work. The mantra of this approach is ‘always be able to walk away’. Strive for your picture to always be resolved. I use the world resolved, as opposed to the word finished, because finished can mean many things and often there is always more you could do to a picture (even if it may not be the best course of action to do so). A resolved picture is one that has a logic and structure that makes sense and feels right. A resolved picture would never be described as unfinished even if it is minimally developed or sparse in its creation. A resolved picture is a complete thought. You should strive to work in a way so that your picture is always resolved. This requires you address all aspects of the image from the start. Begin by indicating all aspects of the scene and address every part of the picture plane. In the first sitting you should be able to understand what is important about the work. On the second pass, develop the idea you have laid out. Reinforce what is already there. This will be straightforward if you have laid down the essential elements in your first pass. Repeatedly work your way over the picture plane slowly developing the picture as a whole. In each successive lap you will be thinking more and working less. Subsequent decisions will be well informed because you have provided information to respond to. This allows you the opportunity to develop and refine certain areas while leaving other areas spontaneous and simple. Each time you revisit areas or begin to develop the picture to the next level you should take the state of mind that you are just beginning the picture. Always be beginning the picture. Never be finishing the picture. The possibilities of a picture open up when you are beginning, only problems open up when you are finishing a picture.
Happy working!