One of the best things I ever learned was that if you want to know how to do something, ask if you can watch and learn from somebody that already knows how to do it. There is a lot to be said for the apprenticeship and mentor approach. Sometimes, simply being able to observe what the master pays attention to and seeing how a work comes together, in stages, can give you vital information for your own work, which is hard to get in any other way. It falls into the category of “never push a door marked ‘Pull’”. Sometimes, the path of least resistance, when learning something new, is simply to watch and learn.
I have the good fortune to be able to jam, on guitar, with a fine man, who encouraged me and taught me how to paint and draw. We jam in his art studio. The fantastic thing about that is that I frequently see portrait commissions, on his easel, over a period of weeks. Each successive week, I can see what has been added, modified or changed, in the painting. The interesting thing, to me, is that where I would declare the painting “done”, he instead carries on for a week or more, refining and adding details. His portraits are always a superb representation of the subject. They are representational and photo-realistic, but still painterly, in that some details are painted impressionistically, there is a lot of artistic license with the colours and shows, and the portraits are almost always flattering and sympathetic, painted with a genuine empathy for the person in the portrait.
For my part, I like to bring new ideas and approaches to the jam session, on my guitar. I am certain that over the three years that we have been jamming together, we’ve both learnt from each other. I know that his raw, rhythmic approach has inspired me to concentrate on that aspect of my playing and that, by the same token, some of my more fluid lines and flights of melodic fancy are appearing in his playing style. It’s a great interchange of ideas.
When I learnt to construct guitars, my mentor was a guitar builder and repairer of many years experience, who had been the go-to guy for guitar repairs in my home town. He worked for the major music retail stores and had worked on many interesting and challenging projects. He was not only generous with his time and knowledge, but infinitely patient with my many questions, with critiquing my earliest attempts and happy to put me back on the right road, when I had strayed.
I also have a father that made high quality furniture, in his younger days and he had a friend, now sadly departed, who made high quality, bespoke furniture, commercially. Being allowed to walk around the workshops of my father and his dear friend, observing their tools, how they were used and how they were sharpened and adjusted, looking at partly finished pieces and seeing how they were taken from raw materials and turned into finished items, are memories that I treasure. I can still close my eyes and imagine the smells and sensations of walking ankle deep in wood shavings from the hand jack planes, used to true up edges. I recall vividly the smells of Douglas fir, Teak, Pine and many other timbers.
When I worked for a major synthesiser manufacturer, there were always world-famous musicians coming through the factory, visiting the demo studio and noodling about. You can learn quite a lot just by watching how they address their music-making tools, their instinctual way of writing a line and how they shape their sounds to suit their ears. Their unique attitude to music making is also often immediately noticeable. These memories stay with you for a very long time.
I think one of the most efficient and effective of the myriad modes of learning is to be able to take notes from a master, watching what they do and noticing where they apply their focus and attention. If you ever have the opportunity of spending quality time with somebody that is skilled and proficient in their art, grasp it with both hands. Even if you have no intention of applying what you learn to the same field of artistic endeavour, the approach crosses over into other forms of art making. You would be surprised what observing a good portrait photographer can tell you about composing and lighting a good oil painting, for example.
We are so lucky to live in the YouTube age, where people generously show how they do what they do, on home-made videos, which you can watch and replay at your leisure, from the comparative remoteness of your browser. There is so much really important information for artists in these user-generated videos, that it defies the imagination. Unfortunately, it is relatively poorly archived and catalogued, because the meta-data that might make these techniques easier to find and access is simply never tagged to the videos, when they are posted. Nobody invented the equivalent of a Dewey Decimal System for the visual content of the videos that are posted. Finding a video that explains a specific, useful technique to you, that you want to learn, is still a matter of serendipitous discovery.
There is amazing information to be gleaned all around you. People are unexpected experts at something, usually. It’s an honour and a privilege to be able to watch and learn from them. I hope you get the chance to do so. I also hope that you are generous with your skills, time and knowledge when passing it on. It’s how our culture propagates.