Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Gold medal art - lessons from the Olympics for Artists

The Olympics Medal Table snapped in Trafalgar Square 19.08.08.

I've been avoiding too many references to the Olympics but it suddenly struck me that just like with Lessons from American Idol about creating and marketing art there were a few things that the Olympics have to teach us all as artists about success.

Now that the GB team have arrived back with "The Great Haul of China" (that's 47 medals including 19 golds and 4th place overall) - their best performance for a century - I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what can be learned from their efforts.

After all, in some art competitions you get a medal for your efforts if you win!

How do you achieve gold medal performance?

You may just want to do the best you can. However you may want to win prizes. I'd suggest the pathway to achieving either of these is essentially the same.

Here's my observations of what it takes to achieve gold medal quality in your artwork - expressed as..........

Seven pointers for achieving your personal best
  • Invest in your own success
  • Differentiate and focus your effort
  • Persistence pays off
  • Don't just think - do!
  • Plan to improve on your Personal Best
  • Make sure you finish
  • Reflect on mistakes and identify what works
Invest in your own success

It's quite clear that monetary investment played its part in the Team GB doing well at the Olympics.

The message is: The first step to success is recognising that you need to invest in yourself and your materials

To invest in yourself and your artwork means:

  • be a continual student - learn about great art / read about great art / look at great art
  • find a good coach
    • take workshops with artists who can teach
    • take classes with those who you can learn from
  • use the best materials you can afford
Differentiate and focus your effort

Differentiation was one of the really big keys to the GB success. They didn't invest heavily in all events. They looked at the sports that they were already good at and where the competition wasn't so stiff and invested in those - which is why we got so many medals in the cycling, sailing, rowing and the pool.

The message is: work out what you're good at and why you're different - and then do it!

Look at
  • identifying where you are competing with a lot of other artists who are all doing similar stuff.
  • whether and how your work is different - for example, is your work of a generic style or does it have individuality and speak of you? Can people pick it out as being yours in an exhibition / art gallery? If they can, do they walk over to it straight away?
  • do you only show your best art?
Persistence pays off

It's a long walk to the rostrum to collect a prize and it starts when you
understand something about what it takes to become auccessful and make a positive decision to produce top quality art.

But do you understand what it takes? Lots of Olympians - and artists - tell stories about what they went through before they became successful - and a lot of it is about dedication and persistence as an attitude of mind.
Stamina is also about being able to get out of bed each morning to do your stuff!

The message is:
Never ever give up if you want to get what you want.

This is about the mental stamina in the equation. You understand that practice makes perfect and are prepared to put in the effort. I've written previously about persistence in this post The Stickability Factor.

Don't just think - do!

Artists like athletes often build success in small steps. To be able to continue to continue to train you need to build a good mental attitude towards training and then you need to get on and do it.

Stamina is also about being able to put in the miles. Listen to the stories of successful Olympians and you'll hear about the grind and the need for grit.

The messages is:
Success rarely arrives overnight - it comes from practice, practice and yet more practice.

For artists, stamina and getting on and doing means
  • getting your art materials out and producing art!!!
  • producing the invaluable aids eg the value bars and the colour charts
  • producing artwork on a regular basis. (how many daily painters really paint every day?)
Plan to improve on your Personal Best

If you're an athlete, developing your personal best involves

  • practising on a regular basis to build your stamina for training
  • then using that stamina to train on a very regular basis
  • training so that your can deliver your best effort - inch by inch and second by second
As an artist, developing your personal best may involve
  • having a target or an aim in mind
  • false starts
  • lots of practice and preparation - nobody gets it right first time
  • reviewing subject matter and motifs and
  • repeating your work to try and do it better
  • practice, practice, and yet more practice
An interesting example are all the daily painters who have found that the repeated process of producing a work each day has honed their skills in composition, developed their skills in producing artwork which will sell and helped to identify which subjects sell well. In doing so their larger works all benefit as well.

Make sure you finish!

To win a gold medal you have to come first. But first you need to make sure you finish. This comes from the person who has struggled with the 'completer finisher' dimension of my activities all my life.

Making sure you finish means making sure that all art which leaves your studio is presented well and has been given the best chance to present well at its destination. In other words, speaking with the voice of experience......

  • do NOT leave the mats and frames until the last minute!
  • do NOT leave finding forms and completing them until the last minute!
  • do NOT forget to work out how long it's going to take to deliver your art!
  • do NOT forget to check which is the right day to take your pieces to the gallery!
Making sure you finish also means making sure you get to the start line in good time with all your kit!

Reflect on mistakes and identify what works

Understanding what went wrong and how you can do it better next time is valuable. However, identifying when your investment is not going to be rewarded and knowing when to walk away and is a really wise move.

Team GB did not do well in everything - and now need to understand why. Some of the reasons will be to do with the fact that the environment has changed. Other people are now doing much better than they've ever done before and the competition is stiffer.

The message is: Invest in effectiveness as well as efficiency - find out what works and what doesn't in the market; find out what works for you and what doesn't
  • If you don't get into an art competition you'd do well to take a close look at those who did.
  • Get honest feedback from people about your own artwork.
  • Mull over whether you can develop and/or refine your subject matter
Let me know about anything which occurred to you which is a lesson which transfers from the Olympics to the Studio - and leave a comment so we can all share.


  1. excellent points :>)

    but that not leaving framing to the last minute ???? oh dear! that one needs working on for me!

    at least with canvasses I don't have that problem :>)

    forever learning .... absolutely - favourite artist like David Prentice and Kurt Jackson continually learn and experiment and it keeps their work fresh, vibrant and improving. No ever repeated formulas there

  2. Excellent post Katherine! I'm always struggling with the issue of disipline and these athletes have a lot to teach us! I can say that I used to draw (train) for hours and hours every day in my teens and twenties so I'm shocked at artists who think an hour or a couple of hours is too long to spend on one piece. Yes, forever learning, every day we can learn something new. I just wish I had the discipline to get out of bed at the crack of dawn like those guys do!

  3. This is a great post! One thing I'd add. Humility - those athletes train hard, make sacrifices for *years*. No one has heard of them before the Olympics and we quickly forget them. They do what they do because they love it. They only get a stage once every four years and if they have an injury, they may have to wait for another 4. They put their training high on the list and keep it there for a long time - because they love what they do and I suspect would do it even if they never got to the medal stand.

    I really think you have to love making art to put in the time and effort that is required to excel at it! You can't just love the fame - there are plenty of artists who only made it to the medal stand posthumously.

  4. I think examining the hours that other people put in to become masterful at whatever they do is a really educational for all of us.

    I despair of the people who want the art version of "get rich quick"!

  5. Rose - really good points

    I think if I changed "Don't just think - do" to "Love what you do - and do it" it might capture your sentiment better.

  6. I agree with your post completely Katherine.

    And especially agree with the fact that art skills and success, like anything else in the world, comes only with a lot of hard work.

    And like the athletes, you can't stop training once you've received a medal.

  7. I always love these sort of blog topics, thanks a million Katherine!

  8. Katherine, thanks for the great post. These are all good points for me to consider as I work out my schedule for the fall. (The kids going back to school is a bit like New Year's in terms of planning and goal setting. :) )

    I also wanted to say that I took a photo of almost the exact view of Trafalager Square that you sketched below. I figured having the photo of the Olympics playing on the giant screen would help me always remember exactly when we were there!


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