I am reading a fascinating book on the history of the color palette and one of the chapters I was just reading addresses the historical shift of the perception of painting as a “craft profession to an art one.” This shift was accelerated in the mid-seventeenth century with the nascent field of ‘colormen,’ professionals who mixed raw materials into paints, something artists had mostly done themselves until that point.
“For “craftspeople” the ability to manage one’s material was all important; for “artists” the dirty jobs of mixing and grinding were simply time consuming obstacles to the main business of creation.”
[ . . . ]
“What was the good of painting a masterpiece if its constituent elements would spend the next few years fighting together chemically on the canvas, and ultimately turn black? The early seventeenth-centuy painter Anthony Van Dyck knew how to employ varnish so that colors that would otherwise react with each other would be safe from ruin; Victorian artists, however, did not, and this was, Holman Hunt predicted, to be their downfall. Part of the issue was that he–and his teachers, and his teachers’ teachers–had rarely had to mix paint from basic materials. He had never had to grind a rock, or powder a root, or burn a twig, or crush a dried insect. Nor, more importantly, had he observed the chemical reactions involved in paint-making and seen how colors changed over the years.”
Source: Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay
This reminded me of advice I read from Cal Newport about shifting from a ‘passion’ mindset, which has been a dominant cultural trope these past few decades–“what do I love to do and how do I do only that?”–to a “crafstman’s” mindset, a relentless focus on activating one’s unique potential by continually pushing to develop one’s skills and acquire new ones.
My advice is to abandon the passion mindset which asks “What does this job offer me? Am I happy with this job? Is it giving me everything I want?” Shift from that mindset to Steve Martin’s mindset, which is “What am I offering the world? How valuable am I? Am I really not that valuable? If I’m not that valuable, then I shouldn’t expect things in my working life. How can I get better?“ Like a craftsman, you find satisfaction in the development of your skill and then you leverage that skill once you have it to take control of your working life and build something that’s more long-term and meaningful… When I talk about the habits of the craftsman mindset, it’s really the habits of deliberate practice. So someone who has the craftsman mindset is trying to systematically build up valuable skills because that’s going to be their leverage, their capital for taking control of their career and they share the same habits you would see with violin players or athletes or chess players.
The craftsmen out there are not the guys checking their social media feeds every five minutes. They’re not looking for the easy win or the flow-state. They’re the guys that are out there three hours, pushing the skill. “This is hard but I’m going to master this new piece of software. I’m going to master this new mathematical framework.” That’s the mindset, the habit of the craftsman.
I think there is something about the craftsman’s mindset that is particularly important in our age of instant gratification and seemingly constant technological innovation. The abundant research on flow states is just one potent reminder of the joys and rewards to be found in taking the long road when creating something, whether it is a painting, a life or a career. Working through challenges is not a guarantee for reaching a flow state, but without an appropriate degree of difficulty relative to one’s skill level, without stretching past what we know, flow is impossible.
We need a collective rethink in how we define passion. Passion is not easy nor instantaneously gratifying and it is certainly not always joyful. When we ignore the painful aspects of passion, we lose out on the chance to ferociously pursue the possibility of living meaningful and fulfilling lives where we have the potential to contribute to something bigger than ourselves.
“Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.” – Mark Danielewski, House of Leaves
learn, practice, create & rethink …*