A Composition on Composition

A Composition is a thing composed of various elements.

This post is a thing composed of definition and memory and an attempt to find balance.

First – definition:

See first sentence.

Second – memory:

Seventh grade english class: I am wearing my glasses because they are new. Before the week is out, I will lose them through a combination of negligence and embarrassment. ‘Four-Eyes’ is a commonly used phrase. Nerds are not cool yet.

While I can still see the board, I absorb the teacher’s lessons like a sponge. She is and always will be my favorite teacher. The repetitive boredom of summer sluffs off my sun-soaked brain and I leap into learning grammar and poetry and composition with the thrill of a diver on the high board.

The first composition assignment is written in purple ink at the top of my brand new homework notebook. The title of the composition is written in blue ink on the top of the first page of my brand new composition book. Over the weekend, the book bag containing both items sits ignored in the back-hall, while September skies pull me, briefly, back into summer.

Sunday night, at the dining room table, its varnished surface covered in the pressed pen-marks of two generations of homework-doers, my siblings and I struggle to finish what should have been done by now. The composition fails to live up to anyone’s expectations, including my own. On Monday the first C  is given and received, establishing the pattern of the year to follow.

Third – balance:

The word ‘composition’ always felt the way sour milk smells. Bad – off – wrong.  Back when writing was a chore, back when I didn’t know how to move thoughts from mind to paper. So hard back then, not so hard now. I’ve had a lot of practice since then.

The word ‘composition’ always related to words, a softer sort of essay, an alternative for the old-fashioned theme. But now it is reorienting itself in my brain. Expanding into new territory the way an amoeba moves a pseudopod to the next place it wants to go.

The word ‘composition’ now relates to art, my newest skill. Composition is what makes art interesting. A drawn banana is just as boring to look at on paper as it is to look at in real life. No matter how perfect the execution, a banana is a banana is a banana.

There are, as I am currently learning, eight elements of composition in art. One of which is balance. I learn that the balance of the elements of a piece can affect the mood. As in real life, when things are balanced, I am calm; when things are out of whack, I am a stressed out wacko.

Last – the composition:

At this moment, I am wearing my glasses. Perhaps the twentieth or so pair of my life. I can’t think of the last time I heard the phrase ‘four-eyes’ and nerds are cool now. Composition doesn’t turn my stomach any more. Composition takes the pieces of my abilities, my old skills and new skills, and sparks potential creative recombinations. The trick is finding the balance, holding on to the things that let me see what’s on the board, and not getting sucked into dull boredom of repetitivity.

Practice makes Perfect (or, How to Draw a Horse)

I love to read, but I’m not a naturally good reader. Physically, I have a hard time keeping my eyes where they are supposed to be, they jump and skip all over the page. I have a hard time concentrating when there is too much description and not enough action and dialogue. But I read fast, and as a kid, my reading comprehension scores were off the charts. Why? Practice. If you do something often enough you will get good at it no matter your level of ‘natural’ talent.

That is why the 10,000 hour rule makes sense to me.  It is really just another way of saying ‘practice makes perfect,’ albeit it in slightly more scientific terminology. However, I’m not one to trust a theory without testing it out for myself.

Now back in my programming days, when you had to test a bit of code that took inputs from a user, you knew you couldn’t test every single possible entry, so you’d use a smaller range – just enough to test the code without taking too much time. Usually three samples would do the trick – one at each extreme and something in the middle.

So, to test the 10,000 hour rule, I figured I’d spend 3 hours doing something new, and see if there was any noticeable improvement.  Since I’ve always sucked at drawing, and since my niece asked me to draw a horse recently, (and then had the audacity to laugh at the result) I decided I would spend 3 hours trying to learn how to draw a horse.

First: I started out with what I basically drew for my niece (1.5 minutes)
Second – I looked at a picture of a horse on Wikipedia and tried to draw what I saw there. (2:00 min)
Third – I printed out that picture and traced it. This is not cheating – since there are no rules in this experiment. I’m just trying to learn and I say tracing is learning. And look at how much better this one is. It helps that it finally occurred to me that maybe it would look better if I colored it in. (8:00 min)


Ok – I’m not going to torture you with all twenty drawings (averaging 10 minutes on each drawing, plus the time looking up tutorials online – about 180 minutes total) – but here is a gif of the progression: (Click on it if it doesn’t play automatically)

some of these seem much better than others – I got really good at copying from photos and drawings – the ‘no reference’ ones are much worse.

So here is the proof that this works. Here is my final drawing next to the original:

the difference three hours of practice can make.

I admit – I didn’t really have any doubt that it would work, but I also have to admit I was surprised at how fast it worked!  I didn’t do the whole three hours at once, just an hour a day over three days. I think of myself as a person with no artistic talent what-so-ever, but this experiment has taught me that what I really lack is practice. Can you imagine how good I’d be at drawing a bird, or a tree or anything if I spent just thirty hours just drawing the same thing over and over again?

And this isn’t just me, of course.  Anyone could do this. With anything.

Next time you find yourself thinking, I suck at “fill-in-the-blank,” just think of my test.  Maybe all you need is a little practice.