Deep Work and Painting

Concentrating on something is difficult. And it’s a practice which is only becoming more difficult as we are now expected to answer emails around the clock, and juggle a million open tabs. All of these distractions create an environment which is corrosive to creative pursuits. The concept of “Deep Work”, a term coined by Cal Newport , states that “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It's a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.” . Now, it’s no wonder that the book became a success with tech bros around the world. It focuses on things corporations love like “efficiency” and constant improvement. Cal is a computer scientist, and assistant professor at Georgetown University, so one may wonder what a computer scientist could teach a painter about learning how to paint? However, one can apply the concept of Deep Work to a variety of occupations and practices.

Before we get any further check out this video which summarizes some of his key points.

Here are some of the key points from the video

Creating value as it pertains to making art is simple. Paintings are something that become valuable because of who created them. They are one of a kind items that are difficult to replicate in a mass produced world. The value of your paintings is dependent on your notability as an artist, your professionalism as it pertains to your presentation, and your skill.

Your skills as a painter are often of the highest concern. Often one forgets that there is a skill in the simple technical aspects of painting. Such as how the paint is applied to the canvas, how good (or bad) the drawing is, how the colors work in a piece, etc. Through working deeply, and focusing intensely on painting you will learn all of these techniques through sheer exploration and time spent painting.

This is hard to replicate using any other forms of learning. It seems cliche, but learning is best done by doing. We can read and learn how to work smarter, but nothing replaces a hands on approach where one must confront materials, and colors.

What makes a painting valuable? It’s easy to get cynical and think that the art world is all about who you know, and money, and to some extent there are serious concerns . But what makes some painters rise to the top? Is it because they went to Yale? Maybe, that surely helps with their exposure, but outside of looking at an academic pedigree, how do we determine that a work of art is something “good” ? Generally this can be assessed by looking at an artist’s skill, and skills are generally achieved by engaging in some sort of hard work. With painting, a simple place to start can often be drawing, which is frustrating to students because they want to paint before they can draw. This is basically like trying to run before you can walk. In the Vermeer detail below we can see that tremendous care was taken when painting the hand. It was something that is the result of years of focused study, and it’s easy to see the value of this hand just by looking at it.


Lets contrast this against this painting by Philip Guston. Here the paint is applied crudely, and the palette is only a few colors. Reds, pinks, and blacks. Yet the painting is still very strong compositionally, as well as conceptually. Without getting too much into the techniques of Philip Guston, or whether or not you think this is “good” is irrelevant. What’s important is that you begin to see that by working continuously and purposefully there will be results which resonate with others who will begin to see value in your work.


So how do we learn to master hard things quickly, and produce at the elite level needed to get attention and exposure in the highly competitive art market? You do so my turning your routines into habits. The simplest way to do this is to schedule your time, and make sure that you will be distraction free for a few hours a day. Start slowly, for many they have no idea just how difficult it is for them to exist distraction free. It’s a bit of a jolt to come out the digital daze of social media which is designed to keep us glued to our phones. They are fighting for your attention, and often, they are winning. Treat social media, and the internet as something to use as a tool, and for leisure. Don’t make it something which controls your life. Even turning off the sound on your phone for a few hours a day, and unplugging to focus on the task of painting or drawing will yield strong results in a short amount of time. Another simple hack to get better at painting fast, is to make sure that your painting area is always set up and ready to go. Don’t allow for yourself to procrastinate by fussing around with setting up the easel and your paints, you’ll be annoyed before you even begin. Have surfaces ready to paint on at the ready, and all your materials need to be easily accessible.

Once you are done with your designated deep work time, don’t be afraid to relax and do something completely unrelated. It’s important to create some sort of shutdown ritual for when you finish to help your mind transition back to the other world. With painting this can be something as simple as taking a Work In Progress shot of your painting, and cleaning your brushes. Then get back home and relax! Watch a stupid romcom or take a long bubble bath.

In addition to taking some time off to let your brain recharge, also be aware of how much time is dedicated to background noise. If you are working out, or commuting to work, or just walking around the block, these can all be great ways to get your brain into a state where you can work out real problems you are dealing with in your work. Take advantage of these and keep a sketchbook, or mini notebook handy to write down ideas that come to you during these moments without background noise.

It’s interesting that in 2019, people are still quite concerned with getting better at painting. It’s a practice which many still want to master. I would like to argue that many associate painting with a type of Zen practice where their mind is allowed to wander. But really, painting is all about focusing on something very intensely for a short period of time. We like to think of the Renaissance painters as gods, but they also simply got tired, and there’s little doubt that they all needed to put in thousands of hours of drawing and painting before they could climb up the scaffolding and paint a ceiling of a church.