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February Blog: What is it, that thing called “talent”?

Updated: Mar 1, 2020


Karin Phifer

Every artist has heard this one: “You’re so talented.” It’s a compliment we are happy to hear, and we take it as it is intended: an expression of admiration for our work.

There is, though, a tiny undercurrent. You know what I mean. That implication that somehow what we do just comes naturally to us, no effort, learning process or real achievement involved. An assumption that a person just has, or doesn’t have, that elusive thing: talent.

Here’s what the dictionary says: tal·ent /ˈtalənt/ noun, natural aptitude or skill.

Hmmm. Natural aptitude, sure. There are those of us who have an easier time learning how to draw/paint/sculpt or play music or act than others. But what do we see right behind that word aptitude? Skill. Yes, the artists among us say. There’s a lot of skill involved in making art.

This is the part that the admiring public just doesn’t seem to be able to hear. I’ve explained many times that about 7 years ago, I really wasn’t very good at drawing. It turns out that I do have a natural aptitude, a good eye for the relationship of sizes and shapes and lines to each other and a feel for color. But it was only AFTER many, many, many hours of practice that I was able to fully develop the skills necessary for what I can do now.

Teaching drawing, I’ve encountered students who declare upon entering the room: “I can barely draw stick figures.” That’s me, folks, just seven years ago; barely able to draw stick figures, before I worked on acquiring a skill that was intimidating, and took instruction, time and practice (oh, I’ve mentioned that already?) to learn.

The good news in all of this confusion, about whether art is just a lucky natural aptitude or an acquired skill, is that it’s both. My teacher Paul Moore used to say that if he had to choose between someone with a fire in their belly, or someone who just had lots of aptitude, he’d choose the fire in the belly every time. Because, as he also used to say: “He/she who puts the most miles on their pencil wins.” Which means that if you are highly motivated and you REALLY want to learn how to create something in art, you can get there. It’s a skill, too, remember? It merely may take some of us a bit longer.

So, whatever your aptitude level, just go for it. Put those miles on your pencil and see what happens on the piece of paper in front of you. Whatever you come up with is going to get you closer to what you want to see, every time you practice. And when one day someone says to you: “You’re so talented.” Just smile graciously, nod and enjoy the compliment.

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