Before last month, I had not done much plastering, barely any really, but it's a skill set related to other skill sets I have. It turned into a big part of the scenic job that I was working on and there was nothing else for it but to get good at it. Fast.
The main difference was that it requires specific tools new to me, and that the consistency and behavior of the material is different from stuff I've worked with before.
The first job is to be able to apply the material to vertical surfaces, smoothly and in even thickness, leaving no thin spots. You try to have as few build ups, blobs, or hard lines (where the blade edge moves across the wall) as possible. At this point the plaster is the consistency of yoghurt, slowly becoming like thick custard as the minutes pass. You have to get it all on the wall in one go so it will all harden at the same time. It's a fast paced job that can't be stopped once started, and at first the biggest skill for me to learn was how not to get half of it in my shoes.
The hardening happens as a chemical reaction, not through water evaporating off. This hardening time is known as the 'workable' time, it is variable and dependent on temperature, humidity, and the original composition of the mix. Something else to learn.
Once it is 'just so', you have to work it again, after its just dry enough that it doesn't pull right off the wall when you touch it, but not hard enough that it's set solid. Then, you have to 'press it' with a different tool, pulling up the remaining moisture into a slurry and moving the surface around to bring out the beautiful, alabaster like, quality of the plaster. The skill here is to keep the surface smooth, and use the movement of your tool to make random and dynamic sweeps to create a homogeneous whole with no repeating patterns.
I know, fascinating eh? And what on earth has this to do with martial arts?
Well, the way you learn how to do this can only be done ... by doing it.
My learning curve was basically - Here's the tool. Watch me. Make it look like this. Go.
Skill comes from understanding the material, from the kinesthetic feedback you get about the material through the tool and learning how to play with it. How heavy is it? When is it too wet? How does it move? What do problems look like? What is fixable? When is it perfect? When is it 'done'?
And the tool itself has a personality. It can be used in different ways, with the flat, with the edge, hard, light, with water, without, tapping it gently to add material, scraping off, scraping on, using different grips, easing off, easing on ...
But none of this means anything in the written word, or in verbal instruction alone. It's a completely touch sensitive art. Words only come into their own when you are in process - "Feel this? This is how it should be".
They say a potter needs to throw 100 pots on the wheel before trying to make a finished product. Throw, and throw it away. Over and over. Losing the sense of having to succeed. Just do. Fail. Fail again. Try new things. Do it again. Try. Fail. Do.
If you take this practice to heart and really do it, the material will start to 'speak' to you. IT will teach YOU ... you will learn how to ask it questions and then learn how to listen for answers.
Not so different really from swordplay or martial arts.