In college I used to take breaks from art and juggle. It's great stress relief- I think because it occupies your mind just enough that it breaks the loops your brain is in, but is largely physical so it takes you out of your head and into the moment. I owe a lot of things to juggling- it really taught me how I learn and I've translated the process I use to learn a juggling trick to help me learn a number of other skills. The biggest lesson I've learned from juggling is that I tend to learn things in one of two ways- either I immediately grasp it and can do it once I've seen it, or the other- more common- where I just cannot seem to wrap my head around it or get my hands to do it right for a very long time, until suddenly it clicks. Once it clicks, I can do it in my sleep- but it's often a long wait until then. There's very little steady progress for me, and with other skills that I'm more emotionally invested in it can be very frustrating. But I've learned enough things to know that all I need is persistence and awareness.
After college I stopped juggling on breaks because NYC is very un-conducive to juggling- outdoor spaces are limited, crowded, and unavailable for half the year, and indoor spaces rarely have high enough ceilings or thick enough floors. Fortunately, my studio has high enough ceilings- although it's quite crowded with my studiomate's equipment and sculptures. So I've begun juggling quite carefully in certain corners of the studio where it's unlikely I'll destroy anything.
Last night I was working on a drawing of a cellist from a photo I took years ago at college. It's one of the photos I've taken that I like the most, and have always wanted to translate it to a painting. Unfortunately, due to the lighting and the angle of the shot it's not quite a good photo to just directly copy into paint. It's also not a great composition for a painting. So, in the drawing the angle is slightly changed and this means (fortunately or unfortunately) that I can't be lazy and just copy the figure directly from the photo.
I've worked out the perspective for the cellist's chair and the background (and sufficiently cluttered the space, which is a current obsession of mine), and last night I started work on really nailing down the pose. It get a little frustrating, but it was compounded by the external stress that I brought to the studio and the pesky fears that I will be (or already am) a failure as an artist- especially if I can't figure out the construction for this hand right now!
Well, this all built up until I felt like calling it quits for the night. Having been at this point before, I decided that I'd take advantage of the new studio and see how that affected the situation. After some laying on the ground and staring at the ceiling, and some frustrated stretching (quite sore from riding the new bike) it dawned on me to go back to my roots and see if juggling could shed any light on the situation. Here's what I found:
- Most of juggling is dropping. You get used to it and it becomes just part of the process. Most people think they can't juggle because they're not coordinate enough, but mostly it's because the multiple failures inevitable to learning something as complicated as juggling demands are too frustrating to them.
- For a long time a trick makes little sense intellectually and is physically a total question mark. If you're able to even pull off the trick, it feels awkward and strange, and you're not quite sure how you even did it. The hands haven't grasped the mechanics, and everything is happening too fast for the brain to make heads or tails of what's happening. With persistence and attention, you slowly find when I let go with this kind of hand position or this flick of the wrist at this time things will sometimes work, and you slowly begin to understand why that is.
- Doing the trick once doesn't mean you've got it. You need to be able to confidently repeat it.
- If a trick is giving you trouble, it's usually more effective to break the trick down. Just do the first toss. Maybe don't even do the first catch- just the first toss. Do that 1,000 times with attention, and slowly that part begins to make sense. Now, the catch there is that often you can't really do the first toss correctly until you've mastered the whole pattern- but you have to start somewhere, and often the whole pattern is far too complicated to just try all at once. The key is to find something simple enough that your brain and hands can hold on to long enough for you to concentrate on it. Once you've got a decent hold on it, add the next part and repeat until that begins to become less opaque as well. For a complicated trick (which is really just one your brain/body can't grasp), you may need to break it down in many different ways- not necessarily just sequentially.