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#2 Artistic Design vs Rhythmical Groove
On the importance of patience
For the first time in the past three years since I started my art journey I attended an in-person art workshop over the weekend in Stroud, UK. It was an anatomy workshop taught by the incomparable Scott Eaton. He's one of the finest living artistic anatomy teachers in the world today, so I was prepared to leave with anatomical knowledge leaking out of my ears afterwards - and he certainly didn't disappoint. (Did you know that humans, dolphins and giraffes all share the same number of vertebrae in their necks?)
Other than that, though - I met a lot of excellent, wonderful and kind artists. The pleasure of meeting other people in-person on a similar journey as yourself makes it inherently worth it to pursue this craft.
During breaks, I’d look at other artists' sketchbooks and notes - and it seemed like they had this quality that was missing in mine. Let's be honest, most of their drawings simply looked better than mine.
What was I missing? What was this thing that I'm lacking? This question plagued me for a couple of days - what fundamental skill have I been skipping out on?
I came to the conclusion that what I was missing was this complicated, ethereal and ambiguous thing called ‘design’. Their drawings were simply better designed! This was apparent in their line quality, the shapes they chose, where they placed their weight and emphasis, and a million other tiny decisions that they made intuitively (this artistic intuition is something that is so fascinating to me, and something I’ll write about more at length some other time) as they drew each stroke.
This reminded me of when I was earlier in my journey as a drummer. I had spent maybe 2-3 years practising diligently, but I'd still meet other drummers (again, in-person) - drummers who were further along in their journey, drummers who were much more experienced - and they just had this quality that I was missing.
It was only after I had gone much further down that journey that I was able to look back and put my finger on what it was - it's this thing we call ‘groove’.
Groove! What is great groove? god - what is great design?
Two very complicated, similar and infinite questions - often answered with the perennially annoying but true advice: “You just know it when you hear/see it”. This was endlessly frustrating to hear as a younger musician, and it still feels the same as a younger artist.
Design and groove - they’re related in their etherealness. You look at or hear something amazing, you meet someone that is so far ahead of you and think - "How on earth did you get there? How do you even operate at that level?" There’s just something there that you can’t quite put your finger on, but you can tell it’s objectively just better than what you do.
The ethereal nature of these two things is dangerous because it's simply so common and easy to say "It's talent. You either have it or you don't." and then give up. This is so demotivating, demoralizing and simply untrue. No one came into the planet being able to immediately draw like Peter Han or swing like Art Blakey. There needs to be more conversation around demystifying these qualities.
How many people have given up on their artistic dreams because they've either been convinced or have convinced themselves they're missing this 'thing', and they'll never get it?
Groove and design is a large combination of a lot of different smaller things; it’s in all the subtle articulations that manifest as a whole, the articulations that are a result of someone spending thousands of hours on their instrument. The ghost notes, the tempo of drawing, the physicality of movement, the intuition - when it's no longer about pure technique and efficiency, but the sum of everything together.
All of this manifests in a confidence that exudes out of you when you perform your craft. This confidence is appealing and ambiguous - and that's what makes it ethereal. Most people simply call it ‘talent’.
I'm still some ways away from getting to this point with my art, but I went further along this journey with the drums. I doubt there's an end level to this - I'm sure it's an infinite journey.
To get there, I'll do it by copying other people with good groove and design. From experience, I know the way to get there is not to chase after some technique I’m lacking or some tool that I’m missing - but instead to study those far ahead of me. I believe you should copy them as closely as possible - look at how their honed artistic design intuition told them to solve the problems they’ve come up against.
You need to be patient and do this over and over again, for many years, for many different artists, and this ethereal ‘design’ or ‘groove’ will start to imprint itself into your brain. More appealing and musical decisions will start to become increasingly intuitive until it seems effortless - until it seems inherent to those who are at an earlier point in their artistic journey.
Remember to be patient. Put in the hours, day in and day out. These ethereal qualities will manifest.
PS: Check out this video of Brian Blade playing the drums with his Fellowship Band. When I was writing this up and thinking of musicians who had transcended beyond technique and efficiency, he was the first artist that popped into my mind. He’s certainly not efficient here - but what power, what flow, what groove!
PPS: Benny Greb had an instructional DVD called “The Art and Science of Groove” where he strove to demystify the subject of groove. This was a bit of instruction I was very grateful for as a younger musician.
A Brief History of John Baldessari - A video that is just as phenomenal as the artist it explores. A beautiful blend of storytelling, humour and video.
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