What is talent?

“Bras,” oil on canvas, Kamillah Ramos, 2012. This was painted after five months of study.

Every year I seem to get one kid who draws wonderfully. Sometimes, this kid has managed to decode the rules of drawing on his own. More typically, he has studied outside of school. But however he does it, to the casual observer, he appears to have “spontaneously” learned to draw.

In turn, his teachers identify him as talented, and he is a star of his public school art program. Meanwhile, the majority of kids are vaguely encouraged toward self-expression but never challenged to learn the craft of making art. Nobody considers them particularly talented.

A drawing by this year’s star pupil, Sam Horowitz. Of course he can draw this vacuum cleanerhe’s studied not only with me but with the wonderful Sari Gaby.

As an educational model, that’s bizarre. If we taught math like that, we’d have only one kid a year who mastered calculus. If we taught English like that, we’d be a nation of illiterates.

There is no more a “genius” for art than there is one for math, and it’s a terrible disservice to both students and society to not teach the craft of drawing to all young people.

When I was in school, art instruction was undergoing a sea change. There were some teachers who still taught the technical skill of drawing, but they were being replaced by a generation who emphasized emotional intensity and ideas rather than the nuts and bolts of observation and description. I was fortunate in having superlative draftsmen as teachers, but I’m among the last generation for whom that was a given.

Almost no kids come to my private studio with any experience in observational drawing. They don’t even know there’s a difference between observational drawing and copying photographs. They have never learned the systems of perspective, measurement, and proportion that were drilled into us in an earlier time.

The painting at the top of this page was done by a high school senior. She started studying with me in August, 2011, having had no prior instruction. She is not someone who could teach herself to draw, and hence she wasn’t identified as “talented.” However, she is extremely bright and hardworking. Moreover, she has a story she’s anxious to tell. In five months time, she has gone from not being able to draw at all to being able to paint at this level: not by concentrating on self-expression but by practicing the core disciplines of drawing and painting.

I’m not worried about her future, but she isn’t going to art school because she didn’t have time to develop the chops needed to put together a mature portfolio. But what if she had been taught to draw in elementary school, as I was? How might her life be different?

And what about all the people who never have the chance to learn the skill of drawing? How many potential Manets or Velázquezes have we squandered?

“Annabel,” graphite on paper, Gwendolyn Linn

This drawing was done by an adult student. She has been hampered by her lack of drawing chops, so I taught her to measure and check angles. This is her first drawing with that skill set, and shows just how quickly one can progress with a little practical instruction.