Friday, November 12, 2010

Why Painting is Like Golf...Part 1

My husband plays golf, and in his library of golf instruction manuals is a little gem that I have read from cover to cover... more than once.

The book is about playing golf well and the author David Graham, has an impressive golf record with many wins, including: an Australian Open , a PGA title, a US Open title and career earning of over 4 million dollars. (I have never heard of him). It is called: Mental Toughness Training for Golf.

I have no intention of taking up golf -  I did try to play on one occasion many many years ago - but frankly, I can't see the appeal. I am certainly not short of reading material, I very seldom read a book a second time, so what is it that appeals to me about this innocuous little book.

Let me take you through it:

Chapter 1: Learning from My Personal Struggle 

 Skip that for now - move on. 

Chapter 2: Why is Golf So Hard?

Bear with me you non-golfers - this will all make sense in a bit... 

Graham says
"What makes golf so challenging, so maddeningly difficult? How can the game turn you inside out emotionally, make you feel euphoric one minute and completely frustrated the next? Why is it so easy on some days and impossible on others?"
Sound familiar?

You're getting this now, aren't you?....For 'Golf' substitute 'Painting' ...

Why is Painting so hard, so challenging, so maddeningly difficult? How can you feel euphoric one minute and completely frustrated the next...
"The answer, I feel, lies in the nature of the game. It is impossible to master...As I see it, amateurs would benefit by understanding how difficult the game is. It is hard for them to accept bad shots, tough luck, slumps and the slowness with which they improve. They get discouraged. They scold themselves. They take it out on family and friends. Sometimes they quit playing altogether." 

Can you see why I was hooked?

Graham says that it is important to

  • recognise the inherent difficulty of golf (in our case, painting) and to learn how to respond with enthusiasm and determination. 
  • When you can identify the different ways that golf (painting) works on you emotionally and psychologically, then you can move on to the more advanced techniques for acquiring mental toughness that he discusses in the book.

So, difficulty number one:

Golf is time consuming - uh, I mean - Painting is time consuming

And because it takes so much time, there is plenty of time to think, and not all of that thinking is productive or helpful. So here are 4 strategies to manage that time - straight from the golf pro:

1. Keep your emotions in check

The first pitfall related to time, is the tendency to experience extreme highs and lows. Ideally you should remain on an even keel regardless of how the painting session is going. Don't get despondent if the brush strokes won't fall in the right place, or the colours are getting muddy - chin up! Keep going. Sometimes you need to work through a difficult patch to get to a better place.

2. Maintain your inner rhythm

Golfers (and other professional athletes ) have pre-shot routines, deliberate repetitive actions that they perform each time they are about to make a shot. The pre-shot routine sharpens focus, enhances rhythm and loosens tension in the body. 

Now it may seem silly to suggest that an artist should adopt a pre-shot routine, but chances are that you already have one without realising it. I find that setting my paints out not only prepares my equipment for painting, but it prepares my mind for the task at hand too. It is one of the small repetitive actions that I take to help me get my creative juices flowing.

In her excellent book The Creative Habit, acclaimed choreographer, Twyla Tharp talks about the importance of establishing 'rituals of preparation':
"It's vital to establish some rituals - automatic, but decisive patterns of behaviour - at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way."
A pre-shot routine - a creative ritual, removes the question - Why am I doing this? It reminds me that I am doing the right thing - I know what I am doing, I have done this before - and it helps to establish the inner rhythm essential to start creating.

3. Don't try to concentrate for the entire round

When we take up painting, we imagine that we will spend many hours in front of the easel knocking out our masterpieces. In reality, it is difficult to sit and paint for long periods of time and not feel fidgety, irritable and bored.  There must be artists with excellent powers of concentration who can paint for hours, but the rest of us need to take breaks (and eat snacks).

Break your paintings sessions up into manageable amounts of time, and take a break, a coffee or a walk between these. Start with short bursts of painting and work up to longer sessions when you have built up your painting stamina. If the task seems manageable, it will feel less like a chore and be much more enjoyable.

4. Expel negative thoughts
    Because painting is time consuming, and as novice painters, we tend to paint as many bad paintings as we do good ones, there is a lot of free time for negative thoughts to creep in. Managing this is difficult, and even experienced painters struggle to be positive about their work all of the time. You can't prevent negative thoughts but you need to have an overall positive attitude that will help to expel those negative thoughts when they pop up.

    Setting a positive mood might require a little self trickery, but it might be a good idea to repeating positive statements in your 'pre-shot routine'. "Gosh I feel good today."..."I love these new brushes."... "That is a fabulous still life that I have set up." Positive statements, even if you don't mean them, have a way of making you feel upbeat and confident.

    David Graham says
    "In all the years I have played with Jack Nicklaus, the cruellest thing I ever heard him say to himself was, "Oh, Jack!" He knew he could do better and he resolved to give himself a chance to do better. He didn't resign himself to feeling badly about himself or his game."

    And so, to summarise:

    • Painting is difficult.
    • Novice or beginner painters would be better off knowing that painting is a difficult skill to master.
    • One difficulty is that painting is time consuming allowing too much time to think.
    • Combat this with 4 strategies:
    1. Keep your emotions in check
    2. Maintain an inner rhythm with a creative 'pre-shot routine'
    3. Don't try to concentrate for the whole session
    4. Expel negative thoughts

    Who would have thought that painters could learn so much from GOLF!

    Watch out for Why Painting is Like Golf...Part 2 where we will be looking at: The Elements of Mental Toughness.


    1. A very inspiring post - I don't know why I want to create art, but I do, however when the masterpieces don't materialize it's easy to feel like giving up and I do less when in fact I should be doing more ! I like your blog and am looking forward to reading part 2.

    2. So true, Sandie, it is easy to feel like giving up. Thanks for reading, for becoming a follower, and for taking the time to leave a comment. I look forward to more feedback from you on future posts.

    3. Wow Kerry, that's a great piece! I take inspiration from your blog and try to apply some of it to my own approach to life. Have a Merry Christmas and a fruitful year of painting ahead in 2011.

    4. Thank you Slinkyspiral - nice to hear that! All of the best for 2011 to you too!