Brian Lee


Lessons from Art

In my childhood in Korea, art wasn’t encouraged as a career. It was always seen as a hobby, not a serious pursuit. When I was about five years old, I found a place in the neighborhood with a sign that read “art lessons” on the window. Curious about its meaning, I asked my mother and then requested to take art lessons. This continued on and off for some time until I eventually left for Canada to study at the age of thirteen.

I enjoyed drawing and amused my parents with my sketches, but I never thought I could become an artist. I didn’t even know that being an artist was a profession. One day, while going through the bookshelf at the art school, I found a book with example drawings. A page filled with horse drawings caught my eye. I was amazed that someone could draw a horse so vividly. This sparked my curiosity, but as I grew older, I took up academics seriously and forgot the whole event.

Years later, in my 30s, my mother mentioned that my childhood art teachers had recommended I study art. At that time, I had a software engineering job, but I was very dissatisfied despite enjoying problem-solving. It was a shock to hear my teachers’ recommendations, and it made me realize that perhaps my lifelong pursuit was art. This realization led me to start learning art seriously.

My love for art grew intensely while taking drawing lessons from a local artist, Alan Daniel. Through his mentorship and encouragement, I decided to become a fine art painter. Thankfully, Amazon offered me a job that allowed me to move to Seattle, Washington, USA, in 2016. Early in 2017, I started taking evening classes at the Gage Academy of Art.

Over the last eight years of studying art, I’ve experienced successes, failures, and doubts just like anyone else. There’s constant pressure to meet the high standards I’ve set for myself, which can be quite frustrating. However, I’ve learned important lessons through these trials and challenges. These lessons have been vital in improving my perspective on everything.

Lesson 1: Find a system that suits you.

This applies to everything, could be referenced in other sections. Maybe refactor later?

As the old saying goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Many would agree that art is subjective, and how we create art often causes heated debate as well. There are many different schools of thought and methods. Some artists swear by the “traditional methods,” while others prefer to experiment, even if the resulting artwork may not endure.

In drawing, there are two common methods. The first is to draw what you see. In this method, you carefully measure what you observe and attempt to transcribe the world in front of you as accurately as possible. The second method is constructive drawing. In this approach, you interpret and reproduce the world using geometric shapes and previous training. For example, some artists study human anatomy, learn basic geometric forms, and then construct a human figure using a mannequin.

Both methods can produce excellent results, and artists tend to prefer one method over the other. I personally favor constructive drawing; however, it took me a long time to come to this realization. When I attended an art school that emphasized the first method, I was very unhappy. After a few months of deep reflection, I concluded that I strongly dislike the method used in the school and eventually left the school. Since then, I’ve pursued the constructive drawing method with great results. This journey helped crystallize an intuition I’ve had all along: to be successful in my endeavors, I must first find a system that makes me effective and enjoy the process. Once a system clicks, it’s almost as if I accelerate into high gear and start cruising.

Spend Creative Minutes

While listening to “Slow Productivity” by Cal Newport, I learned about an executive who kept track of how many minutes he spent on creative thinking, which he calls “creative minutes.” The idea is sound. We are often preoccupied with tasks that require our immediate attention, so much so that we are constantly putting out fires and don’t take the time to look forward, design new solutions, or improve existing ones.

I thought making sure that I spend some creative minutes each day would be great, whether it’s five minutes or an hour, because I enjoy brainstorming ideas. Since learning about creative minutes, I make sure to explore new ideas daily, and it has improved my productivity. Not all the ideas I generate are great, but some improve my day in unexpected ways, and I hope to compound the benefits.

For example, I spent a small amount of time designing a habit tracker to suit my needs over a few weeks. It has greatly improved my progress on projects like this book, allowing me to work on it piecemeal without getting overwhelmed. I’ll talk about the habit-tracking system in the next section.

Habit Tracker

I designed a habit tracker based on the popular bullet journaling system to improve my productivity and monitor my progress in skill development. It helps me keep track of as many projects as possible. The system is simple yet different from traditional bullet journaling in its organization.

The bullet journaling method organizes all tasks on a page or “spread” for a day or week. There is one item per line along with one column per day. This gives a great overview of the days but is inflexible and does not make it easy to sort tasks by changing priorities daily.

In my system, there is one card per task printed on 3x5 index cards. I can re-order index cards as needed, given daily priorities. I keep the index cards in an index card container. Every morning, I take all the cards from the container to my desk as a stack. As I complete tasks, I mark their completion and put the cards back into the index card container. This sorts tasks organically by priorities for the next day.

I create a table with 8 columns: the first column is for the date, and the next seven columns are for each day of the week, starting on Sunday. For example:

Date S M T W T F S

I make good use of the spaces around the table. I add the project name and the year before the table. Any leftover spaces are used for notes. I printed the template on 3x5 index cards using a printing service I found online.

Every time I complete a task, I fill in the square for the day. I prefer to use a brush pen to fill the whole square so it looks like a progress bar. Others might prefer just putting in a dot.

Here are some example cards I use:

I have been using this system for a few months. I find that I am more consistent with tasks and projects that matter to me. When I take a break, I am more deliberate about using my time well because the breaks are visually clear. Overall, I find the system very helpful in keeping me motivated to continue whatever journey I choose.

Lesson 2: Channel Frustrations to Fuel Inspirations

We are born with an innate sense of beauty that grows as we get older. In contrast, our motor skills take time to catch up to our imagination and idea of beauty. This dissonance often creates frustration when learning and performing art. I frequently feel frustrated in my creative journey, but I remind myself to redirect negative energy into creative energy. With time and practice, I manage to do so.

In the book “Flow,” Csikszentmihalyi discusses the state of “flow experience,” where “attention can be freely invested to achieve a person’s goals.” In this state, we control how we use our energy. The book mentions Pam, who becomes so immersed in her job that she believes she can overcome any obstacles eventually. I resonate with this feeling, especially when I find a good rhythm in drawing classes while listening to music with just the right beat. By letting go of my emotions and embracing the moment, I finish each class smiling, even though I occasionally don’t succeed to do so.

As Csikszentmihalyi says:

The “battle” is not really against the self, but against the entropy that brings disorder to consciousness. It is really a battle for the self; it is a struggle for establishing control over attention.

I wholeheartedly agree with Csikszentmihalyi. An equal degree of disciplined concentration is required to experience the deep enjoyment provided by the flow state.

My process involves two steps. I find it helpful to slow down or pause from the task at hand. This usually takes me 10 to 15 minutes.

  1. Let the frustrations sink in, acknowledge them, and explore the feelings.
  2. Detach from the emotions and ask, “Why do I feel this way?”

When I find a clear answer in the second step, I often regain control over my energy and focus quickly. With repeated practice of reflecting and overcoming my frustrations, I become mentally stronger in similar situations. This process has helped me tremendously over the years.

Lesson 3: Listen to experts.

This may be more suitable for lessons from engineering. Think about it move it.

Lesson 4: Learn from as many references as possible.

some of this is similar to lesson 1, combine the section or rewrite both

There is no doubt that art is subjective. There are many different schools of thought on what art is and how it should be created. In this rich landscape, an artist is faced with numerous methods and techniques, and must make conscious decisions on how to create art. Faced with this challenge, I decided to build a good reference library to explore what works for me. It took a few years of continuous effort to learn from as many books as possible until I started to internalize what’s available, what works for me, and what suits my taste.

For example, I have 20 to 30 books on drawing techniques. While the books may overlap in foundational information, they vary widely in advanced topics such as the use of lines, forms, and even how a pencil should be sharpened. Studying different opinions gave me great clarity in what I prefer and helped me focus my efforts effectively to improve my work.

Copyright 2024, Brian Lee