What is talent?

In Control (Grace and her Unicorn), oil on canvas 24X30, $3,478 includes shipping in continental US.

In response to Monday’s blog post about drawing, Byron Carr mused, “talent is when desire and determination collide.” I liked that comment and reposted it on my Facebook wall. That drew out the predictable argument that talent is innate. This was my second tangle with the idea and it was only Tuesday.

Byron Carr should know something about talent, as he has it in spades. I think I can legitimately claim to know something about teaching art. In fact, I seldom hear professional artists banging on about talent. We talk mostly about hard work.

There is a strong streak in the human psyche that likes to believe that your destiny is written before your birth. The Greeks had the Moirai, spinning their fates; the Romans had the Parcae; the Norse had the Norns. In Christianity, that comes down to us as predestination. That’s a riff on the philosophical idea of determinism, where everything that happens has already been ordained by prior events.

Scratch away our religious underpinnings, as we’re doing today, and suddenly everything is genetic: you’re a foul-mouthed, lazy b@#$d because it’s in your genes.

Best Buds, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed includes shipping in continental US.

It’s all so tiresome. Even if you don’t believe in free will (as I emphatically do), determinism doesn’t leave room for the impoverished, uneducated child to grow up to be Charles Dickens, or the abused, neglected child to grow up to be Eminem.

Why do people say this stuff?

The ‘innate talent’ argument has three endpoints, none of which are particularly nice. The first is exclusionary. You can’t be an artist because your stars didn’t align right. The second is a justification for not doing something in the first place: “I’d love to, but I’m not talented.” The third denigrates the value of the work, because it denies the effort and time that went into it.

“It’s astonishing how someone who knows another person well, and believes that person is ‘talented,’ must have been asleep while that person was putting in their 10,000 hours toward mastery,” Bobbi Heath mused.

“Ravening Wolves,” oil on canvas, 24X30, $3,478.00 framed, includes shipping in continental US.

In my own case, those 10,000 hours go back to my childhood. I was a terrible student. My sister and brother died in two separate, horrific accidents when I was 9 and 14. John’s was not just a family trauma but a public one; his driver ed car was hit by a drunk driver and two of his classmates and another young person also died with him. I was traumatized by these events, but nobody talked about grief counseling or post-traumatic stress back then.

I couldn’t focus, couldn’t sit still. I could, however, be calmed with a pencil in my hand, so my teachers generally turned a blind eye to my doodling, as long as I was quiet. I drew through all my classes, drew at home. It wasn’t a response to innate talent; it was a coping mechanism. But before long, I was drawing better than my peers. From that time forward, I was called ‘talented.’

My younger brothers, equally stressed and with the same innate intellect, chose different ways to cope. My brother Robert, for example, obsessively took things apart and put them back together again. Today he can build or rebuild anything.

Conversely, I was told as a youth that I had ‘no talent’ for mathematics. When I finally rejected that, I went on to take math up to multivariable calculus.

Tilt-A-Whirl, oil on canvasboard, 9X12, $869 framed and shipped.

You don’t have to be the best at something to derive great satisfaction from doing it. Are there innate differences between ‘talented’ athlete Josh Allen and me? Of course, starting with age and sex. That doesn’t, however, stop me from pursuing my own athletic pursuits, which have managed to keep this 64-year-old body in good running order.

“Our lives are the sum of all the choices we make, the bridges we cross, and the ones we burn… Fate, luck, and providence are the consequence of our freedom of choice, not the determinants,” wrote Judith Land, and I couldn’t agree more.

My 2024 workshops:

How to practice drawing (when you don’t feel talented)

Early Spring on Beech Hill, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed

You’d have to be living under a rock to miss #joshallenjumpingoverthings, which is, oddly enough, about quarterback Josh Allen jumping over things. The term arm talent is often used about him. It means he has the strength and accuracy to drill the football exactly where he wants it to go.

Allen went to college in Wyoming and now plays for Buffalo. Both are known for miserable winters, so I’m sure there’ve been days when he’s been tempted to skip practice. I think of him and his fellow Buffalo Bills as I grouse about the cold this week. It magnifies aches and pains and makes it difficult to get moving.

Nobody would call me a talented athlete, but even on days when I’m feeling especially arthritic, I still get up and climb Beech Hill. I’m feeling another long ramble coming on and I know that goals are met in small, regular increments.

Walnut Tree, Stone Wall, oil on archival canvasboard, 8x16, $903.

It takes time

What the world calls talent in athletes is really a combination of good genes, perseverance and hard work. It’s no different in art.

Yes, there are people for whom drawing comes more easily, just as there are people who learn to read without a lot of fuss, or people who can do sums in their heads. None of that makes a brilliant career in art, language, or mathematics; they’re just a nice leg up. More important is the hard slog of learning and practicing.

I have no idea how many paintings and drawings I’ve done, but they number in the thousands. I can’t imagine how many times Josh Allen has thrown a football.

Mastery can’t be rushed. That’s true overall and it’s true piece-by-piece. Perhaps one of the least-helpful ideas the plein air movement has spawned is the notion that you can create a great painting in three hours. Occasionally that happens, but most painting is a tough slog over multiple iterations.

Stone Wall, Salt Marshes, 14x18, $1594 framed.

Practical ways to practice drawing

Drawing is not a magic trick—it’s a series of steps like long division or attaching a sleeve to a dress. It’s a great disservice for society to pretend it requires some mystical, unfathomable talent. I’ve written innumerable blog posts about basic drawing. (Someday I’ll index them all for you.) And I’ve frequently recommended this book for people wanting the basics.

But reading about drawing isn’t enough. You must practice. The good thing is, drawing is easy and cheap. I like Strathmore’s Visual Journal and a #2 mechanical pencil. If you want more refinement, my readers and I recommended fancier products here.

Beauchamp Point, Autumn Leaves, 12X16, oil on archival canvasboard, $1449.

Stick two pencils in the ring binder of your sketchbook and toss it in your backpack or purse. Pull it out whenever you have fifteen minutes to sit down. That can be on the train, in a meeting, at church, while cooling your heels waiting for your doctor—anywhere.

What should you draw? Whatever strikes your fancy. A plastic Ficus. A Christmas ornament. A toy. Mittens. Or, pull out your phone and search for something offbeat. Scissors. Donkeys. Sports cars. Grain silos.

Drawing from life is better than drawing from photos (because it’s more difficult) but any drawing is good practice. Just a few minutes a day is all you need.