239: The Improvement Cycle

A common obstacle for new painters is to get blocked in the improvement cycle. This means we have trouble closing the gap between the frustrating phase of being a beginner–knowing little about painting–and the stage where we begin to enjoy painting. This is equally true for experienced painters who add new skills to their repertoire.

The goal is to get to where you enjoy the process as soon as possible. It is no fun painting one bad painting after another (although I did that for a year. See video about it here).

Once you get to the point where you enjoy the act of painting the improvement cycle becomes self perpetuating. We love to do what we do well. Many artists struggle with eliminating the obstacles to enjoyable competence. An understanding of the phases leading to competence can be helpful.

The first step toward competent painting is unconscious incompetence, a stage where you are blissfully unaware of what you don’t know. This phase is relatively painless. The next phase is conscious incompetence. You know your paintings aren’t working but don’t know why. This phase is painful and most painters, being highly sensitive, need to get through this phase as fast as possible or they will give up. The next phase is unconscious competence. This phase starts to get rewarding–you are painting a good painting once in a while–but you may not understand why the painting is good. Finally you reach conscious competence where you understand why your painting is working and can replicate your success. This is the phase that is most enjoyable. 

These phases are like seasons and conscious competence will arrive just as spring follows winter–if you persist. To get to that level faster you can rely on the critique of fellow painters, learn as much as you can about basic principles, as well as brainstorming for possible flaws in your work, and analyzing what you want to say with your particular style.

Like the seasons you will cycle through this process many times as you continuously evolve your work. I have made this blog with the hope it will be a resource for painters who want to be actively engaged in the improvement cycle.

Brad Teare–June 2015

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Updated: 7th February 2023
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