If you’re anything like most artists, and you probably are, you have a desire to become a great artist—a master. I have found very little information on how one goes about doing that. Most people talk like you either have genius in you or you do not. Though there may be some truth in this idea, mostly in terms of God’s discretionary privilege to grant gifts as he wills, this article will lay out the three stages of learning that every virtuoso without exception has had to attain. What God has given each of us in terms of raw talent is his business. But your self-awareness, discipline, and commitment to growth is your business. Let’s get to it.
Imitation is the beginning of any learning process. The first step in becoming a master is imitating the masters. If you are a painter, that means trying to mimic the methods, subjects, and styles of famous paintings. You find out what you can about how the masters used light, color, brush types and strokes, formats, and media. And you copy them.
Note that you need not understand what you are doing. This is the ape stage. Think about the child that repeats words and phrases at his parents’ behest. The child is “learning” even though he doesn’t yet understand. I remember hearing my daughters recite some very sophisticated lines of dialogue when they were young. They seemed very smart. But they had no idea what they were saying. That’s okay. They were in the first stage of learning: imitation.
Imitation is one of the most undervalued stages of learning. Nobody wants to play covers or make copies. Most artists want to work on their own material as soon as possible and never look back. Many artists think that going to school (which relies almost entirely on imitation as a learning mechanism) will “cramp their style” or “box them in.” In a letter recommending George Gershwin as a student to then famous composition teacher Nila Boulanger, composer Maurice Ravel had the following to say:
He [Gershwin] knows that he lacks the technical means to achieve his goal. In teaching him those means, one might ruin his talent. Would you have the courage, which I wouldn’t dare, to undertake this awesome responsibility?
This is a common complaint about education, and it is one of the reasons for the worldwide transition away from rote learning, drills, repetition, and memorization. I disagree with this transition. The first stage of learning is imitation, and you can’t move to the second stage without traveling through the first.
The first stage of learning is imitation, and you can’t move to the second stage without traveling through the first.
And, truth be told, no one actually outgrows imitation entirely. Because of the multi-faceted nature of education, even the same student might be in different stages of learning for different disciplines. If Rembrandt were alive today, his only hope of learning to use Photoshop (should he desire to) would be to begin imitating masters.
At the same time, most artists have not moved beyond imitation. Which is perhaps why it has such a bad reputation. This prompts the question, “How do you move beyond imitation to the second stage of learning?”
After spending some years in various processes of imitation, many students will talk about the day things “clicked.” They are talking about the second stage of learning: integration. Integration happens when the various and separate pieces of imitation that you have been studying integrate themselves into a cohesive and coherent view of your subject.
Again, the second stage of learning also applies in any process of learning, but in terms of the arts, it is when you know why and not just how a master chose to do what he did.
Integration happens when the various and separate pieces of imitation that you have been studying integrate themselves into a cohesive and coherent view of your subject.
How do you move from imitation to integration? By wide, eager, disciplined experience. Paradoxically, the only way to go beyond imitation is to keep imitating. You keep drilling and repeating and practicing and experimenting, and you keep asking yourself the question, “Why?” How do all the things you’re learning fit together? What do they mean? When you can answer those questions satisfactorily, you have attained integration.
Most artists don’t achieve an integrated view of the arts (or of anything for that matter). Their various tastes and choices remain disconnected factoids and randomized mimicry. It is my belief that achieving integration is the minimum stage necessary to justify the label “professional.” In other words, in order to be a craftsman of the arts, one must have achieved at least an integration level learning in the arts. If you are not familiar with my demarcation of craft and vision, you can read about it here. Craft crystallizes at the integration stage, but vision requires a movement to the third stage of learning: innovation.
Finally, after imitation has integrated into a cohesive worldview, innovation becomes possible. Innovation learning evidences itself in the development of novel applications for novel circumstances. In other words, innovation results in the creation of new schools of thought or the revolutionizing of an existing school of thought.
How do you achieve this third stage of learning, what some have called genius? Part of the answer to that question requires a retooling of the genius concept.
Genius is both innate and learned. If Mozart had not been a “performing monkey” in his very early toddler years, he would not have had the skills necessary to execute his genius. It is hard to say whether his genius already existed in his younger years, simply because at that time it evidenced itself as a proclivity, not an already-established body of new ideas.
In some ways a genius is nothing more than a person who is unwilling to quit when he is discouraged by frequent failures and unwilling to settle when he is universally affirmed.
I think that is the major danger in the modern (and ancient) idea of genius. Do you know why most people don’t achieve greatness? Simply because they give up. They are redirected into other pursuits (or into complacency) by their failures. Most people are unlikely to continue trying in some endeavor unless they enjoy success early and often. In some ways a genius is nothing more than a person who is unwilling to quit when he is discouraged by frequent failures and unwilling to settle when he is universally affirmed.
That being said, to move from integration to innovation, an artist needs insight into novel circumstances or applications. He understands his tools and methods so well, he is actually able to come up with new tools and methods for applications or problems he has never before encountered.
Don’t misunderstand though. The spirit of innovation doesn’t always evidence itself in something novel if something novel isn’t required. The spirit of innovation is insight into what your particular audience needs to see or hear in order to be edified, encouraged, or inspired. This isn’t always and ever “something new.”
To summarize, the spirit of imitation pursues how. The spirit of integration pursues why. The spirit of innovation pursues what, when, and where.
Three Stages of Learning and the Wisdom of Solomon
I didn’t come up with the idea for three stages of learning on my own. It sprang from my attempt to understand the language of Proverbs. Solomon uses three words to describe mental content: knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. As you can see, these correlate exactly to the three stages of learning: knowledge comes through imitation, understanding comes through integration, then wisdom evidences itself in innovation.
For a Christian artist, it is crucial to understand the nature of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom in order to grow in all three. If all you ever have is knowledge, your Christian walk and artistic endeavors will be shallow and incoherent.
There have been many professed Christians who never had anything beyond an imitative knowledge of God and Christianity. They can recite Scripture and say words like grace, love, faith, hope, belief, and all the rest, but they don’t actually understand what those words mean. They have knowledge without understanding. They have imitation without integration.
Knowledge comes through imitation, understanding comes through integration, then wisdom evidences itself in innovation.
It’s vital that the Christian fight for understanding. But at the same time, the Christian should never give up on continuing to grow his base of knowledge. Just because you understand something, that doesn’t mean you should stop imitating and practicing. For the Christian, the call to imitation never expires. A man who understands, yet still submits himself to imitate those he considers his superiors, is well on his way to wisdom.
The greatest masters never stop learning and growing. Many of them continue to revisit famous forms or rubrics to sharpen their techniques. It is amazing how much value simple exercises can take on when they are enlivened by insight and long experience.
Mastery comes through a full exercise of the three stages of learning. Imitation requires repetition to amass knowledge. Integration requires experience to coalesce into understanding. Innovation requires humility to develop into wisdom.
Of course, wisdom is the principle thing for which we should be striving. And God has made it very clear. If you want it, ask for it (James 1:5). But be aware that wisdom comes in many forms and for many purposes. Some men that have artistic wisdom have wisdom in no other place. You might ask for artistic wisdom, and God might think it more important for you to gain financial wisdom for the benefit of your wife and family (true story).
There is not just one kind of genius or intelligence. The church is made up of all different kinds of geniuses. Each person is particularly fitted with spiritual gifts God wants him to use for the benefit of the church.
The most important wisdom any man can have concerns God and His Word. I’m sure many of you read the headline to this article and thought, “Yes, I would love to be a master. I want to be one of the greats!” I don’t think it’s wrong to have that aspiration. I really don’t. It all depends on your motivations, which only God can properly judge.
But I would caution you. If you could choose between being the greatest artist of all time and knowing God more fully, which would you choose? Solomon was given that choice as a youth. He wanted wisdom more than he wanted fame, power, fortune, or anything else (2 Chron. 1:8ff). So God added those other things to Him. My advice to you: seek God first, and he will give you whatever is good for you (Matt 6:33).