How to Become a Master of Your Art

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become deeds. Watch your deeds; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become your character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Author unknown, although this quote has been ascribed to: Gautama Buddha, Lau Tzu, Ralph Aldo Emerson, Frank Outlaw and Margeret Thatcher.

If you decide to become a master of your art you will need to devote a lot of time and energy to the cause. So it is important to know what you want to be a master of.

In this module you will learn what it means to be a master and how to become the best in the world at your art. We show how you can speed up your transition to mastery if you:

  1. Find masters who you can emulate
  2. Branch out on your own and develop your own style
  3. Discover your special areas of expertise
  4. Stake your claim in your artistic domain
  5. Use skill stacking to become the best in the world at your art
The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

What is a master?

A master is a skilled practitioner of a particular art or activity. The word “master” brings to mind people like Leondardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, Ludwig van Beethoven, Kiri Te Kanawa, Albert Namatjira, Homer, Ernest Hemingway, Maggie Smith, Elena Kats-Chernin, Sun Tzu. 

Behind each of these names—and for all the names of the people you admire in your artistic domain—there is a lineage of talent. A history of achievement that has been passed down through the generations; from one artist to the next. And now it is your turn.

One excellent first step to becoming a master is to find masters who you can emulate.

It saves a lot of time to learn by observing and then imitating others. For artists in the past this meant going to a school or a studio for classes. This was expensive, time consuming and there was a limit to the number of masters you could access in this way. Now the internet lets you learn from many masters at once. Which significantly speeds up the transition towards mastery.

For example, if you choose to study Leonardo Da Vinci on the internet you will find: examples of his work; expert commentary on how and why he made such pieces; analysis of the value of his work; an historical documentary on his life; and thousands of other resources. 

Leonardo became known as The Renaissance Man. A polymath—(in greek polymathḗs: having learned much). Someone whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. He studied under and with many masters (Andrea del Verrocchio, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Botticelli, and Lorenzo di Credi.) An artist, scientist and thinker, Leonardo could do anything. He designed airplanes and helicopters, catapults, machine guns, diving suites, dissected human bodies, and understood the way humans grow in the womb. In painting, he invented sfumato (where tones of different things are blended together to lose hard line outlines) and he invented aerial perspective.

Masters do not have to be old or famous. They just have to be better than you in the given area of expertise. In the continuum of potential expertise (shown below) your best teacher is often someone who is only a little way ahead of you. This is because they have more recently passed through the same learning curve and will remember what it is like to acquire that knowledge and experience. They are more likely to understand where you are coming from and speak your language.

For example, as a painter I have learned a lot from the following artists: Brandon Schaeffer, Tom Hughes, Ric Nagualero, Andrew Tischler, Jose Salvaggio. Each of these artists has a different set of skills and strengths. I watch these guys (and others) because I want to become great at a combination of these skills and then build my own special style. Plus they inspire me. I particularly like how they come from very different parts of the world (Calafornia, United Kingdom, Sweden, New Zealand, France) and have very different styles and attitudes.

What is mastery?

Emulation is useful, but the next most important step in becoming a master is to branch out on your own and develop your own style

Experiment with techniques, mediums, formats and content till you find something that suits your personality. 

Then stake your claim. Inevitably this will require the courage to show your work. And to receive feedback. You must be able to say “this is my contribution”, in order to take your place in the pantheon of your particular lineage of talent and artistic domain.

In that moment—when you find the courage to take the plunge and have this sort of faith in yourself—that is when you become a master. Of your own destiny and consequently of your art.

Ultimately a master is not someone who knows everything (a common misconception) but someone who is committed to continual improvement in their areas of expertise. Mastery is a state of mind, not an outcome.

What art would I like to be a master of?

It may not yet be obvious to you which artistic domain you are most suited to.

As a starting point we suggest you answer a few questions starting with: What are your areas of expertise? What set of skills and strengths are you striving to develop? What projects are you working on and why? 

Practice makes perfect; but what do you want to be perfect at?

Vincent van Gogh did not think he could draw well. He couldn’t get the perspective right, his lines were wonky, the details of his drawings were not accurate. He tended to rush everything. Observers described paint and pencil going everywhere as he “dashed off” his images. He admired the easy proficiency of the great dutch masters (Rembrandt, Frans Hals) who could “catch an impression” with minimal effort and great economy of stroke. He tried to emulate their technique but he lacked the patience to develop the technical proficiency. He fell out with his teachers in drawing classes at art school because he refused to perform the tedious repetitive tasks they assigned to help develop his skill.

Vincent became quite despondent and was so obsessed with his failure at drawing that it almost derailed his whole career as an artist.

I see drawings and pictures in the poorest of huts and the dirtiest of corners. In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.

Vincent van Gogh

Then he had a breakthrough. (Actually it was a breakdown.) Vincent found himself in Arles, recovering from mental and respiratory illness, when he finally gave up on drawing, as such. He found instead a new passion—plein air landscape painting in oil—where his tendency to work quickly became a strength that allowed him to rapidly create an impression of a scene by focusing more on light and colour. As a consequence, he stopped being distracted by his drawing skill and started to focus on expressing what he felt. From this point forward he produced the huge body of work for which he is famous. This work is greatly admired and transformed the way many of us actually see the world. Wonky lines and all.

The Siesta (after Millet) by Vincent van Gogh, Musee D’Orsay (Source: Wikimedia]

In Vincent’s case he seemed to want mastery over a skill at the expense of his art. He was also very concerned with other peoples’ opinions and struggled to maintain his self confidence in the face of critical feedback. Every time he got a negative review he either abandoned a venture; or persevered, without gain, out of willful defiance.

It is really important to know why you are working on your current projects and how they might help you to develop your expertise.

What are my areas of expertise?

Expertise means you have skill, knowledge, ability, deftness and merits in something. Expertise underpins mastery.

In the creatementality course, as a whole, you are being encouraged to develop expertise in artistic, economic and strategic areas. We see all three areas coming together to give you mastery over your sense of creative freedom. In this particular module, however, we encourage you to examine the assortment of skills, knowledge, abilities, deftness and merits you may call on to advance your artistic practice.

EXERCISE: Expertise audit, part 1
Complete the following sentence “I want to be a master of. . .”
Make a quick list of the skills, knowledge, abilities, deftness and merits that will help you to become such a master.

If you are like most people you probably focused exclusively on a single artistic domain. For example: plein air oil painting; or satirical fiction writing; or folk song writing; or minimalist photography; or documentary filmmaking.

Then went about producing a list of expertise related exclusively to that core artistic area. Such as: (for plein air oil painting) sketching, composition, colour theory, limited paint palette, blocking in, atmospheric perspective, stroke making, tonality, framing, and so on.

What does it take to be the best in the world?

Obviously each artist will have their own idea of the path to mastery and what it means to them. But if you are only focusing on one core artistic area (which most people tend to do) and you would like to be the best in the world; then you have a hell of a battle ahead of you. 

Consider the following example.

Rafael Nadal wanted to be a soccer player when he was little. He loved FC Barcelona striker Ronaldo and his uncle Migual played for the Spanish national soccer team. But his uncle Toni, who was a tennis coach, recognised a natural talent and introduced him to tennis at the age of three years old. By the time he was 8 Nadal was winning regional tournaments. So he had to give up soccer. 

Nadal turned professional at 15 years old and has carved out an 18 year career; winning 19 grand slam single titles and holding the World number 1 title for 209 weeks. To become the best in the world at tennis Nadal has had to fight it out with the best for 18 years. And come up with his own personal backhand return (not to mention learn to be a left-handed player when he was born right handed). It’s obviously taken a toll on his body (long term back and knee injuries) and I’m guessing that was not a very fun childhood. 

I don’t think Nadal himself would be able to tell you how many hours he has spent on the tennis court (probably most of them). Or how many matches he’s had to compete in. Sure, he made $120 Million in prize money and he will go down in tennis history—but in any given year there are 1,814 pro tennis players ranked in the ATP tour. And only the top 5 make this sort of money or have any prospect of becoming legends. Everyone else has to do the same amount of work as Nadal, without the glory.

For example: in 2013 Michael Russell, ranked 92 “won a tennis tournament in Manta, Ecuador, logging 8,628 miles just to get there and back. It was one of his best performances all year and the victory netted him $5,000.” [Source Forbes magazine].

[Source: Tomas Pueyo, Forge: How to Become the Best in the World at Something.]

So let’s be realistic. Trying to be the best at one thing isn’t the smartest path to success.

Most people (in the blue zone, above) have very little of a specific skill. A bit of work can quickly get you to the top 10% (the green zone). But as you join the elite, it becomes harder and harder to move up, because you are facing competitors who are deeply committed to that skill. So if you focus on only one skill; there will always be someone working harder, with greater genetic gifts, or more lucky—or all three. It is just too risky.

[The above graphic and the ideas in the following section are based on an article written by Tomas Pueyo in Forge.]

Skill stacking

Creative people have one great advantage over most: they can think of creative ways of solving their problems. So, if you feel competitive but don’t want to work as hard as Nadal to become the best in your field consider the following creative solution called skill stacking.

“It’s easier and more effective to be in the top 10% in several different skills — your “stack” — than it is to be in the top 1% in any one skill.”

Quote by Tomas Pueyo

In other words, create your own artistic field. Then you will be the best no matter what the competition is doing. Sure, someone else can come along and copy you (as a generation of top spin backhanders have been doing since Nadal hit the tennis circuit) but you will have the first mover advantage; which will give you time to cultivate new skills to add to your unique mix.

[Source: Tomas Pueyo, Forge: How to Become the Best in the World at Something.]

How does this work? Each peak in the above graph represents a skill. Getting to the top 10% (the green zone) of two skills requires much less work than becoming the best at a single one. And these two curves don’t overlap much, meaning most people who are good at one skill are not good at the other.

“If your city has a million people, for example, and you belong to the top 10% of six skills, that’s 1,000,000 x 10% x 10% x 10% x 10% x 10% x 10% = 1. You’re the number one person in your city with those six skills. Bump that number up to 10 skills? Boom, you’re the best in the world at that combination of 10 skills.”

Quote by Tomas Pueyo

Ideally, the skills combination would be unique and also complementary. Imagine someone is reasonably good at talking to a camera; remembering script lines; getting into character; photogenic; charismatic. Who is this person? A movie star. Most successful actors don’t seem to be off the charts amazing at individual skills, but check off the right boxes and they flourish.

This principle applies across all fields. A painter can be just about the best technician in super realistic portraiture; but probably won’t find the same success as the person who is a reasonable portraitist, calm under pressure, a pretty fast sketcher, a beautiful colour stylist and has the interpersonal skills to enter competitions. See Christabel Blackburn winner: Sky Portrait Artist of the Year 2020.

What is your unique skill stack?

Tomas Pueyo, the author of this approach, explains that “the best skills to choose are those that don’t tend to often go together, but complement each other well.” For example, artists are not known to be great teachers or demonstrators, so those who are have a huge professional advantage. (See Brandon Schaeffer who has 440K Youtube followers).

For example, say you would place yourself in the top 10% in plein air oil painting in your town. And also in the top 10% as an art teacher. These two things are complementary but they are also quite common in most towns. You need something else to differentiate you, that is also complimentary. For example, you might also be an experienced designer and have an interest in anthropology and social history, making you good at storytelling. And also an experienced multimedia designer. Plus you enjoy bringing people together and running events. This was the case with me when I set up my PaintStory program, so my skill stack looks like this.

Notice how we have deviated from the core skill set into complementary skill sets? This is the critical idea in skill staking to make sure you are unique.

EXERCISE: Draw your own skill stack
Identify a range of areas in which you have a reasonable level of competency. They do not have to be directly related to your art, but could be made to complement it.

Finally, what type of project might you kick off, using all the skills in your skill stack? Upon reflection, considering this new skill stack, how would you now complete your skills audit?

EXERCISE: Expertise audit, part 2
Complete the following sentence “I want to be a master of . . .”
Make a quick list of all the skills, knowledge, abilities, deftness and merits that will help you to become such a master.

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