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Art Practice: Hard Skills vs Soft Skills

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I’ve been reading a book called The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle. The selling point is “52 tips for improving your skills”, as compiled by a guy who’s been all of the world examining “talent hotbeds” — areas that put out a disproportionate number of very successful people in sports, music, etc.

It’s been a fascinating read so far, but I was particularly struck by the tips about figuring out whether the skill you want to learn is hard or soft, and how to develop it given that info.

  • Hard skills are mechanical, repeatable, and must be performed perfectly each time, like golf swings, the drawing of a bow across the violin string, or the stroke of a brush.
  • Soft skills are things like creativity, spotting an opportunity in a busy playing field, threading together a gripping novel plot, or improvising at just the right moment in a comedy show.

People value soft skills a lot in the arena of art, but I don’t think the same is quite as true of hard skills. In fact, it’s quite easy to get bored of drawing exercises: straights, curves, cubes, and spheres.

I think this is the wrong way to look at things. Even something as simple as drawing a line isn’t actually simple at all:

  • You must draw with your whole arm
  • You must draw with a confident stroke
  • You must get the pressure right
  • The beginning and ending of the line have to be in right places

And on and on. Beginners get really frustrated with not being able to draw consistently because they don’t have a good handle on the hard skills. If you can’t pull a pen across the paper without wobbling, how could you hope to reliably draw something as complicated as the human body?! While people easily see the importance of getting the “right tools” (the best paper, the best paint, the best pen), for some reason we don’t put the same respect on developing our own hands and brains.

I’m definitely guilty of this. I would always avoid or try to skim over the “boring” practice that would have improved my art, and end up shooting myself in the foot. The funny thing is that I’d actually heard this advice several times before, but never fully connected the dots.

Maybe there are simply some things you can’t believe or understand until you experience it firsthand. Or maybe it’s like how you can hear the same message multiple times, but one teacher will finally word it in a way that makes sense.

Either way, I’ll be continuing with this read. I’d definitely recommend it so far.

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