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The Talent Myth

I wanted to take a moment and talk about the talent myth. I'm not talking about Malcolm Gladwell's 2002 article in The New Yorker. I'm talking about when you see incredible work from an artist you often hear yourself or others saying "wow you are so talented!". Don't get me wrong, I know where this is coming from, and to a point it is a very nice complement. But here's the thing, while people are born with natural abilities in a variety of subjects, whether it be math, science, language or art, these natural inclinations only get a person so far. In most cases what you are seeing is years of grit and hard work, seeking out mentorships, self critique and not to mention money spent on training, supplies etc. I really believe it takes doing about 500 paintings before you start to do good paintings. There is no way around it, you have to put in the time and the dedication to pull off "looking talented". I think this talent compliment does two negative things.

  1. To the aspiring artist it makes that level of "talent" or "success" seem out of reach. As though the person is naturally able to do great artwork It is just not true. As mentioned, some people will be able to absorb and use what they learn more quickly or naturally, but there is still a huge learning and practice effort no matter the starting ability. In reality if an artist puts in the same amount of time, work, grit, tears and effort they will likely be able to achieve similar levels of talent and success, despite their natural inclinations. I've seen this time and time again while teaching 3D graphics/art for videogames. The level of portfolio's upon entry is across the board. We would often assume that the most "talented" coming into the school would leave the most talented. This just continually turned out to be not true, it was ALWAYS the student that worked the hardest that had the biggest and fastest gains that graduated further ahead in terms of artistic capabilities.

  2. It undermines the work that the artist put in to get where they are. When you think of other professions, for example a "talented doctor" we assume of course they have a natural inclination to be a good doctor possibly in terms of instinct or a humanistic and empathic quality, but we also assume they did a hell of a lot of schooling to get there. With the arts, for some reason it's perceived differently. Either you've got it, or you don't have it, regardless of work. You are born talented and it's easy, or you are not and you are doomed. This is unfair to artists as professionals. It undermines their work, it undermines them as professionals.

This is by no means a complaint, and I definitely will take the compliment any day. I just felt it necessary to point out this observations I've been having while spending time on various art forums and hearing this a lot.

Being a great artist is about hard work and time spent. It's about studying art history and understanding the art lessons of the past and present. It's about studying color, perspective, drawing, values, lines, edges, turning of form, composition, materials, theory and concepts. It's about practice, and putting all of the above into muscle memory. It's about analyzing your work and asking yourself "what's working, what isn't and what if" (thanks Andrew Tischler) and then finding ways to put those observations into practice. It's also about enjoying that journey, and bringing your passion into it daily. It's also really about not comparing your work to the work of others, and being authentic to yourself and your own voice.

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