Talent is one of the most fascinating topics I've come across as a public school teacher. I've discussed it with parents, students, colleagues, other artists, administrators, and family members. I've researched it across the expanse of the Internet. After all of that, I am still unsure where I stand on it -- my thoughts on it sometimes change...

If you're interested, I've collected some thoughts below. They are from:

-John Calvin

-Greg Manchess

-Armand Cabrera

-Marshall Vandruff

-Linda Carson

-Tom Richmond

-Robert Fawcett

-Matthew Innis / Malcolm Gladwell

-Charley Parker

-David Bayles / Ted Orland

-Richard Schmid

-Lloyd Alexander

-Ron Lemen

-Daniel Parkhurst

-Leon Parson

-Brandon Dorman

-Zach Poulter

-Serge Birault

-David Kassan

John Calvin on Talent

Talent. What a can of worms. What if a student is not talented at drawing or art? Now what? First, do I believe in talent? Not really. Artist Daniel Parkhurst once said, "Talent is just another name for the love of a thing." I subscribe to that line of thinking, and believe many human beings use the idea of “lack of talent,” to simply excuse, or explain away a poor performance at any sport, hobby, activity, or skill.

The first question I would ask of a parent who states that their student is not talented at art would be, "How much time does he spend at drawing or art on his own?" Usually the answer is, "None," or, "Not very much," or "Just when it is required for the class." So, really "talented" is the wrong word for this discussion. The correct word is "interested." So, surely if a student is not interested in a subject or activity, it is quite likely that they will perform at it in an average fashion, but usually not in a "superior" fashion, compared to their peers.

I like to then ask about other activities that the student might be involved in. Piano? Ballet? Soccer? Basketball? Gymnastics? Video Games? Are students born with innate video game talent and skill? How? Through genetics? Impossible. Video games have been around for less than thirty years, not enough time for that skill to have somehow become part of their parents' or ancestors' DNA, and then to be passed on to the student. Their first attempts at video games were probably a bit "rough around the edges," but have vastly improved since. Why?

What has happened is that a young person has developed an interest in playing video games, and has spent countless hours "perfecting his craft." The investment of time and interest has now produced a video game player of prodigious skill; skill which now might be erroneously referred to as "talent." It is the same with any other human endeavor. An investment of time and interest will lead to skill and improvement. Might they become the best in the world? Possibly, but doubtful. Will they become above average at that particular skill? Very likely.

How can a student have spent five hours at art, and have spent five years playing video games, and then expect their skill levels at each to be similar? So, once a student has spent an equal amount of time at drawing and art over the years, as he has at his favorite sport, hobby, or activity, but still does not perform well, we may then need to visit about a concern.

An example:

I believe I was born with "average" interest in Mathematics (quite possibly below). Through my educational career I was evaluated by many different Math teachers. Although I believe I tried somewhat, my achievement was in the average range. I received "B's" and "C's" in Math. No allowance was made for my lack of interest, nor should it have been made. An "A" was not given for my effort, I did not deserve any higher grades than those I earned by my achievement. I simply did not have the desire or interest to spend the amount of time that would have been required in order to achieve "Superior" (A) grades.

Another example:

One of my sons was born with little or no interest in music, and received no musical encouragement from me. I detested the piano lessons forced upon me by my mother, and had no desire to inflict the same pain upon my son. He disliked singing and was unable to carry a tune or locate the right pitch.

However, in the fourth grade, his teacher required a unit on the recorder (a small woodwind musical instrument). He was required to practice both at home and at school, and developed some proficiency with it. Afterwards, he thought he might try piano lessons and had them from three different teachers.

During these late elementary school years he attended a Cub Scout Pack Meeting in which junior high students performed for the attendees with their musical instruments, including the saxophone. At that moment, he set a goal to learn to play the saxophone. However, upon joining the band at junior high school, he was informed that prospective saxophone players were first required to learn the clarinet, and that a tryout would be given mid-way through the year in order to determine who would be allowed to play the saxophone. During the first half of the school year he attended class and practiced with his group. At home his teacher required thirty minutes of practice per day, and a weekly “practice card” to be signed by his parent.

Mid-way through the year the clarinet group was assigned a very difficult piece of music, which was to be used to determine who would be allowed to play the saxophone. The music was to be tested within forty hours. The difficulty of the music immediately weeded out those with marginal desire and interest to play the saxophone -- they settled for continuation with the clarinet.

My son practiced the test music on his clarinet for nine of the next forty hours, and then took the test. He passed the test and received a position in the Band as a saxophonist.

At the end of his junior high career he had taken band for three years, played the saxophone for two and half of them, practiced thirty minutes outside of class for every school day, and received twelve “A’s” from his teacher. His desire, interest, and investment of time developed a skill in him, recognized by his teacher as “Superior” during twelve different grading periods.

I doubt he will become a world-class saxophonist, but he now has skills with the saxophone that are far beyond the average person’s. He continued with the saxophone in his high school years playing in the Marching Band as well as in the Jazz Band. Interest and desire, not talent, are what contributed to his saxophone success.


One last example:

As a student, my secondary art career started with Mr. Steven Roundy at Kaysville Junior High School. I very much enjoyed being in his class and he had high expectations for his students. On his assignments I received some C's, some B's, and some A's, based on how well I met his grading criteria. Contrary to popular belief, I was not a straight "A" art student in junior high school. I have saved most of my artwork from that time period and feel he was accurate, even at times generous, with his scores, based on the quality of my work. It makes me feel good to know that Mr. Roundy was honest with his evaluation of my work, instead of misleading me with high scores that did not truly reflect my achievement.

During the Spring of my seventh-grade year he announced that for the next year a special "full-year" art class (instead of the standard half-year) would be offered. He then posted a list with the names of students invited to be in the class. My name was not on the list.

For those of us not on the list, a tryout was held after school in which we were assigned to draw from a still-life arrangement. It was possible that based on the tryout a student could be accepted into the class who was not originally on his list. I came after school, completed the tryout, and when the new list was posted, my name was, once again, not on the list. Indeed, I was disappointed.

Nevertheless, I took his half-year class during my eighth-grade year and watched with envy and admiration as he displayed the work done by the full-year art students.

I moved on to Farmington Junior High School with Mr. Ralph Gibbons for my ninth-grade year, and then on to Davis High School with Mr. Vaughn Perkins. At the end of my senior year, Mr. Perkins did not choose me as the "Sterling Scholar" (the most outstanding artist of the school -- that was Jon Guest), but as the "Most Improved Artist." This meant that he had seen more progress from me, than from any other of his art students during those three years.

In addition, I received a small art scholarship from Ricks College, and there I went to further my art education. This tells me that my success as an artist then, and now, is due to an interest in the subject, work, persistence, and determination. I am a person who can empathize with the artist who does not receive "A's" for his junior high school artwork, because I was that artist myself.

So once the excuse of “lack of talent” has been eliminated from the discussion, the focus can remain where it should: on results, standards, and criteria. I will grade the student and compare his work to those of the same age. I will set the grading criteria for an assignment, and then the grading standard will be set by the top students. This means that the best work done in the class will be the standard by which the other students will be measured. The best work, according to the grading criteria, will receive an "A" (Superior). If a student does not meet the grading criteria in the same fashion as the best students in the class, it would be illogical to assign that student's work an "A." It is something less. It could be a "B" (Good), a "C" (Average), a "D" (Poor), or an "F" (Failure), compared to the standard set by the top students. Problems arise when a student (or parent) wants an "A" for student work that is complete, but yet does not meet the grading criteria as well as another. Remember, the word “completion” and the word “superior” are not synonyms.

Grade Codes used by the Davis County School District:

A: Superior

B: Good

C: Average

D: Poor

F: Failure

Is it possible that a student might actually fail an Art class because their skill level is so far below those of the top students? No. Each assignment that is given to students, whether it be a short exercise or a long project, is assigned a “minimum effort.” The amount of time for each assignment has been refined over the years and is based on the experiences of thousands of students. The “minimum effort” represents the minimal amount of time that should be spent by an average student on any particular assignment.

In my experience, the amount of time spent on an assignment has a direct relationship to its final quality. Because “Students Will Produce Quality Work” is part of the Mission Statement of SJHS, those who cannot meet the “minimum effort” requirement will be penalized. Those who do not meet the “minimum effort” will receive an automatic half-credit score on their assignment. Their work will not receive the privilege of being evaluated based on a grading rubric or grading criteria.

This harsh penalty has the purpose of motivating students to try, to work hard, and to “Produce Quality Work.”

Those students who meet the “minimum effort” requirement, who have completed all aspects of an assignment, and who turn their work in on time, will receive a passing grade, regardless of their ability to meet individual aspects of a grading rubric or grading criteria.

For parents who feel uncomfortable with this, I suggest they contact me and request Pass / Fail grading for their student at the end of the term. For this request to be accepted, the student must have no "Missing" (M), and no "No Makeup" (N) assignments at the end of the term. A "P" as a term grade does not affect a student's GPA in either a positive or in a negative way.

Conclusion: I believe that the proof of an effective system must be in the achievement of its participants. I would invite any who question my philosophy to look at the link below for student artwork. Under this system, students were able to produce the excellent artwork seen in those sections. I believe their results are the best measurement of the effectiveness of my system.

John Calvin, The Case Against American Communists 

A brief rant against students and parents who want an “A” for effort, regardless of quality.

I'm an American, and proud of it. I'm also a firm believer in the superiority of capitalism over communism. The superior heights reached by the United States, compared to those reached by the Soviet Union and its satellites, are irrefutable. So, why did communism fail? A complex question, indeed, but one that can answered in a simple way with the following explanation: excellence at work was not rewarded. When the superior worker realized that those who produced shoddy work were compensated at the same rate as himself, the incentive to produce superior work disappeared.

Contrast that with capitalism, where those who produce a superior product are rewarded with more sales or higher salaries. One can look at professional sports, where those who perform better are compensated at a higher rate than those that do not. Or, at automobile sales where higher prices are charged for superior vehicles. Any product, shown to be superior to its competition, will be valued at a higher rate. Either more will be paid for it, or more will be sold. Sometimes both are true.

Unfortunately, many American parents are communists! They want their children to be rewarded with high grades for their effort, regardless of the quality of the actual work. They want the shoddy work of their student to be valued and rewarded the same as the superior work of another student. It's difficult to find a line of thinking more misguided. Imagine, the superior student looking at his work, and knowing that he achieved the grading criteria in a superior fashion. Then having him look at the shoddy work produced by his classmate, which clearly did not meet the set forth grading criteria, and seeing that the same number of points were awarded! How deflating and discouraging.

What incentive does the superior student have for producing superior work the next time? None. And why should he? If he can see that the quality of the work is irrelevant, why should he slave, sweat, and bleed for a score that will be the same as his neighbor who produces a shoddy and haphazard product in a fraction of the time?

In my art class the superior students will be protected; they will be rewarded; they will know that their work is valued at a higher rate than that of their shoddy neighbors; their grades will be higher. Grades are the currency of the public education system, and those who produce superior work will be paid more. Their incentive to produce superior work the next time will be strong and intact. They will know that I value their achievement more than that of their neighbor, who does not meet the criteria in the same superior fashion. The shoddy work will be accepted, but will be devalued. The shoddy student must be encouraged to reach the same heights as the superior student. Only when the quality of each work is equal, can the number of points awarded be the same. A student may expect an "A" when his work is of a superior quality, but not before. A student may expect lower grades than an “A” when others produce work superior to his.

Below, in the upper left corner, is a standard “observational” drawing assignment given to Art 1 students, and to the right and below are student results. Notice the variety of the results, and the differences in quality, even to the untrained eye. Should they all receive the same grade? Of course not. If they all received the same grade, quality of work is made to be irrelevant in the grading process, and in the awarding of a score. Once again, if they all received the same score, the high achiever has no incentive to produce his best work, and the low achiever has no incentive to improve his work.


Greg Manchess on Talent, "10 Things...About Talent" by Greg Manchess, taken from his post on October 17, 2012, on the blog, Muddy Colors

My first attempt at oil painting was a complete failure. I tried to paint a sunset and had no idea how to mix paint. I thought it would just become what I was thinking. I threw my head in a pillow and screamed, then cried for two minutes. I sat up and realized that all the drawing I had done as a kid would not miraculously give me the skill to paint. I was going to have to learn it.

This really ticked me off. I didn’t want to have to go through the learning process again. I knew from teaching myself how to drum that it would not be easy or fun. But I really wanted to paint pictures. I wanted to know how to paint figures. Good figure paintings were the most interesting to me. If I could get good at the figure, I could paint anything from there.

I understood from that moment that I had no talent and I was going to have to manufacture it in order to learn to paint. This began my studies of neuroscience and the brain. I had to learn how to learn.

Talent is a myth.
There’s no evidence that talent actually exists. Nothing in the DNA studies points to some mysterious gene that can be identified as a talent for art, photography, painting, basketball, pinball, running, medicine, etc. Talent is built, not possessed. If it’s in the epigenetic material, it would’ve been there since the dawn of man. Clearly, Cro-Magnon man did not have a gene for ping pong.

You can’t feel it.
You only see the results. Your brain cannot retain the nerve memory of what it couldn’t do. Once you begin learning something, it feels like it’s always been there, even though, intellectually, we remember the practice. That’s why it feels like you just “always knew how to do it.” It’s also why people point to that feeling as if it were a gift.

Training over talent.
You don't have to trust what I say here. Do your own research. Or trust what pilots follow: Never trade luck for skill. You can wait for your muse to show up, or you can manhandle that muse to submit to your will. Never believe your talent will show up someday. It’s very likely it won’t. But if you train, if you go through the hard work of understanding and observing and practice, you won’t need it.

My muse is fickle. Most times when it shows up it’s an energy-sucking vampire slut. I carry a stake made from training.

Recognize skill for what it is.
Learn the difference between skill and fake knowledge. Yes, fake-it-till-you-make-it helps you learn, but for the love of Pete, know when you are faking and when you are actually learning. Practice is more than just going through the motions. It’s how we learn. At some point, having gone through the motions long enough, we start to get better, and then we innovate those motions.

Look talented.
Practice is the only way we actually build muscle memory. It’s built through the nerves, because memory is not stored in muscles. The brain drives muscles through nerve signals. That’s why brain injuries can cause us to forget how to walk. We have to retrain the brain. (If the muscles remembered, it would be a piece of cake for recovery.)

Let people think you have talent.
It’s great for getting work. Just don’t get pissed off like I do when people call me talented. It negates all the crazy long work I’ve done. Let the other guy need talent. Some people learn faster than others. They concentrate and train themselves to see trouble before it starts, but only because they’ve been through that trouble before, however small, and they record it. They remember what happened when mistakes were made and they correct for them. They make the very conscious effort to fail, correct, and move on.

If the other guy needs to believe that talent will rescue him from agony, let him. It only slows them down. You can eclipse that attitude with skill.

Great artists deny it.
Loads of creative people believe they have a gift for what they do. Frankly, they just have a poor memory for remembering that when they were young, they were training themselves to learn. I’ve followed quite a number of great creative people who will simply tell you they have no talent, never did, and had to work their arses off to get to where they are. Trust those guys.

Study neuroscience.
I’ve never thought talent existed and now science backs that up. There are great strides being made every day in learning how the brain works, and how it learns. And you can read everything about it. The field of neuroscience is at its sharpest cutting edge and we are going to benefit so much from it, we’ll likely forget where we learned it. About 40 or 50 thousand years of it.

Trouble is, we’ll just think we were ‘talented’ as a species anyway. Sigh.

Greg Manchess on Talent, an excerpt from blog post by Greg Manchess on Muddy Colors

[Art Skill] It does come from experience and focused practice...all of your life. It is not some kind of gift, and it is not some kind of magical gene responding to stimuli, or some DNA coding.

Whatever little 'talent' spark we believe is inherent in certain children is basically drained of energy by the time we reach adolescence. Whatever happens to continue that 'gift' is entirely up to that person. This is based on some very hard evidence which is coming into the light of day (thankfully) by study after study by neurologists.

There is no guarantee that the talented child will continue to innovate creatively into adulthood. In fact, most children stall out and put their 'gifts' to rest.

There is much to be said for the determined mind that is attracted to skill and training. I continue my training every dang day. Every time my pencil hits the paper, or my brush hits the canvas.

There is a ton of research out there on this very stuff. We all want to believe in the magic. I do not. And neither does a whole slew of scientists working on this. Magic comes from practicing so much you are just. that. good.

I may write a post on this subject sometime soon. A LOT of artists are counting on the idea that they are gifted, touched, enlightened. When in fact they are just trained, and would rather have you believe they are something so very special. There's a lot of ego involved.

Don't fall for it.

Greg Manchess on Talent, a comment made by Greg Manchess on Muddy Colors

We are still suffering from lofty ideas of talent being some kind of elixir we're born with. I've helped many students by telling them to emulate those artists that appeal to them, because they have a vague feeling that they can't identify as to why they like a particular type of work. Once the stigma is taken away, they advance. The Japanese have a great saying: "Copy, copy, copy, create."

Armand Cabrera on Talent, from his blog “Art and Influence.”

I don’t believe in talent. I believe in tenacity. I believe what people often cite as “talent” is actually desire and perseverance. I know plenty of people with talent…and they do little or nothing with it. Tenacity is never giving up until you’ve attained your goal. The level you attain is limited only by your work ethic.

While I was working as a production artist, I took a workshop from Thomas Blackshear at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. I was in awe of his ability. He is still, in my opinion, one of the best illustrators in the country.

Blackshear asked everyone in class what we wanted to learn that week. Most people wanted to learn how to copy someone else’s technique like Bernie Fuchs, Mark English, David Grove, or Drew Struzan. I asked him to show us his process for one of his illustrations.

Blackshear had just finished a painting of a pirate with a cutlass over his shoulder. He said he would bring in his preparatory work. I thought --- cool! I’ll see his preliminary drawings and a color comp, too.

The next day we walked into the class and the entire wall of the room was covered with his preliminaries, thumbnail compositions, value patterns, color comps, photo reference, rough sketches, and the finished painting. There were probably 20 or 30 unique images for every stage of his painting. Good enough wasn’t good enough for Blackshear. He was at the top of his field and in all probability could have coasted --- but he didn’t. It was a great lesson in perseverance and how much hard work separates the best from the mediocre.

In his book, “My Adventures as an Illustrator,” Norman Rockwell talks about classmates at the Art Students League chiding him for being focused and working so hard. They would say things to him like, If I worked as hard as you, I would be as great as Velasquez. His response was, Why don’t you? --- but they never did. In the end, he became one of the greatest illustrators in America.

People say they want something and they declare they are willing to work hard for it. But really, they want something the way a two year old wants it --- they want someone to give it to them. People decide they have worked hard enough and then they quit. They are not willing to sacrifice their comfort, a family life or money to achieve the goal ahead of them. They unwittingly (or knowingly) take on too many interests and other commitments that render them incapable of continuing to pursue their dream.

Marshall Vandruff on Talent, an excerpt from an interview of Marshall Vandruff by Fatemeh Burnes

I’ve been teaching in college for longer than most of my students have been alive, and they’ve proven to me that talent is real. Some students can barely “get it” no matter how hard they try, and others run with it quickly. There's an advantage to not believing in talent — it can prompt us to work hard for our mastery rather than relying on a gift, but I’ve seen such varying ability to draw and paint that all doubt about the existence of talent is erased forever in my mind.

I’ll give an example from my own experience. I found I had a talent for making gradations with graphite. I was eighteen years old when my teacher Don Hendricks showed me how he used graphite pencil to make these beautiful smooth gradations — I had never seen anything like them — they looked like airbrush — and within a few months of practice, my graphite pencil technique came up to a level of mastery that never needed to improve. But I’ve seen students who just can't make smooth gradations. At the same time I have struggled with color, even though I've done a lot of color work for thirty years. I even teach color. But some students to whom I’ve taught color theory have surpassed me quickly because they are talented colorists with a knack for making good choices. As much as I believe in putting ten thousand hours into developing raw material, some raw material is better than others.

But what is the point of trying to discern what part is talent, what part is training, what part is luck, and what part is discipline and determination? We can’t know our talent until we work hard to bring it out.

How Do You Grade Art? A blog post by Linda Carson

Secretly, many people believe it's impossible to grade art assignments. I see it in students' faces and I hear it in party conversations. "Isn't it all just subjective?" someone asks. You've probably had the same thought, even if you hold art teachers in the highest regard. You may like us, but in your heart of hearts, many of you either suspect we're just making this stuff up, or  you don't know how to defend us to cynics and critics.

Can I help?

Grading art isn't subjective, it's qualitative. Instead of tallying the number of answers you get right, an art teacher assesses the qualities of the work, such as your choice of subject, handling of media, and control of the composition. That means, incidentally, that it's harder to grade art than a spelling test, an arithmetic quiz, or a multiple choice history exam. In general, it's hard to grade any assignment where the answers don't fit neatly on a computer card.

Grading art is a way to give students constructive feedback on their learning and practice, and to be reasonably consistent about the standards we ask each student to meet.

This sort of grading relies on specialist knowledge, which is the major reason it looks so mysterious to a novice or outsider. Think about a dog show. Anyone with a weigh scale could judge a World's Heaviest Dog contest. It takes a veteran to assess how well a Jack Russell terrier conforms to the subtle specifications of the standards for the breed. I've seen two Jack Russells, in person, in my life. I can distinguish them from dachshunds and St. Bernards, but not from each other or from beagles. How many Jack Russells does a judge see before she can reliably recognize the ideal proportions, coat and character at a glance?

We could have this same conversation about playing Pachelbel's Canon, editing a short film, or dancing the Argentine Tango. However, I teach visual art, so let's narrow it down to drawings. How many drawings does a civilian see in everyday life? Dozens, perhaps? No wonder they think it's hard to evaluate drawings. They don't have much basis for comparison. In contrast, I have seen thousands and thousands of drawings, and I'm not that hard-core. In one gallery exhibition I might see a hundred drawings in an afternoon. In one course this semester I'll see twenty five students submit ten assignments each and draw in-class at least ten times--that's five hundred drawings.

I need a broad, deep basis for comparison when I'm evaluating drawings. It also helps that, on most assignments, I have a classroom full of examples illustrating how other students have interpreted the exercise and what other students are capable of delivering with the same instructions, materials and time.

Noteworthy: A sticky-note exercise I sometimes use in class.

First, I pin all the assigned drawings up on the wall and hand out sticky notes to all the students. Then I ask them to look over the drawings and follow these instructions:

1. Find a couple of drawings where you think the student did a great job of solving the challenges of the assignment, handling the materials, demonstrating technique, controlling the composition, and making work that holds its own as art without reference to the assignment. Put a yellow sticky note beside those drawings.

2. Do you see a couple of drawings you think almost hit that standard, but stumbled on one or two points? Put a pink sticky note beside those drawings.

3. Are there some drawings that you think managed to fulfill the requirements of the assignment but there's nothing especially eye-catching, interesting, or unexpected about them to hold your attention? Put a green sticky note beside those drawings.

4. Your tags will have no impact on my grading of the assignment, and I am not asking you to identify any of your classmates' work as poor.

5. Can you imagine that: twenty or thirty drawings on the wall, all based on the same instructions? The students look them over and assign sticky notes to a handful each of them considers outstanding. What happens? I'll tell you what doesn't happen. The sticky notes are not scattered evenly across all the drawings. They cluster clearly around certain drawings, and they cluster roughly by colour. The students agree pretty well on which drawings are "note-worthy".

Are you surprised by that? Perhaps not. It turns out that we expect some drawings to be better than others and we can generally agree on which those drawings are. My job when grading art assignments is to be a little more nuanced than yellow/pink/green, and to use a consistent standard across the class, calibrated to the norms of the department. That's how you grade art assignments.

I know most readers aren't expecting to grade art assignments this weekend but thinking about how to grade art assignments can improve your own work. Artists evaluate art all the time. The most important thing they do is assess their own art, especially while they're making it.

The moral of the story: The first way to improve your art is to evaluate it. Think carefully about its strengths and weaknesses. What draws you in? Where do you look first, and next? What does it remind you of? What are you hoping nobody else notices?

A corollary: The second way to improve your art is to look at a lot of art.

A caveat: Criticism and creativity each need their own space. Don't fall into the trap of assessing your work too harshly or too often. You need creative time and critique time, and it's usually a bad idea to mix the two. Being self-conscious is as destructive as being uncritical. Like so many things, it's a question of balance.

Another caveat: Wing nuts teach, too. I'm sure there's an art teacher out there who really does mark capriciously, an acting teacher who plays favorites in casting, a dance teacher who gives everyone "A for effort." Learn what you can from them in other capacities. Most of us work hard to assign meaningful grades you can use to improve your own work and creative practice.

Tom Richmond, Talent vs. Training, from his blog post, on August 2, 2016

A few peers of mine on FaceBook recently had a discussion regarding the age old query: is being an artist based on God given talent or training and practice? I think most people would agree it’s a combination of both, but how much of what an artist can do is a result of the talent, and how much the hard work? That’s where the debate and difference of opinion lies.

I’ve had many people tell me they “wish they had the talent to draw” and make other comments that demonstrate they obviously believe that artistic ability is magically bestowed by the gods or the universe or some extra chemical that stimulated that part of the brain, or whatever. I’ve heard some artists get really angry with that kind of attitude, like it dismisses the years of work and practice that they feel got their skills to where they are now. Like really angry. It’s equally ridiculous to think art skills are 100% talent based as it is to think they are 100% the result of hard work and practice.

Let’s take the idea that it’s all talent first. Why do those with little or no art skills seem to think it’s all something you are either born with or not? Most people to do not think that way about other highly skilled abilities. Playing an instrument, for example. While most people would agree a true “musician” has talent, the ability to play their instrument well is recognized as the result of hard work and practice. The same with athletes. Most people acknowledge that, while elite physical skills depend partially on genetics, the ability to play their sport well is achieved by countless hours of dedication and practice. So why is drawing often not considered a skill requiring countless hours of practice, but rather something you can either do or not do? I think it’s because the physical act of drawing is something anyone can do. There is nothing hard or challenging about moving a pencil or pen across a piece of paper, not like playing a guitar or throwing a curveball. Anyone can do it, and so therefore whatever causes someone to do it better than others is in their head and not their hand. Therefore, it’s something you either have or have not. No one seems to consider training your brain is as hard and time consuming as training your body.

Well, it is.

No one, no matter how “talented” they are, just picks up a pencil and draws like Michelangelo. Even Michelangelo didn’t draw like Michelangelo when he got started. He trained and studied and practiced to advance and hone his skills and craft, until he eventually became “Michelangelo.” It is a disservice to artists who have worked their whole lives (in many cases) to get to the point where their art wows people to say it’s a “gift” that they were just born with.

On the other side of the fence, I would never say that some kind of talent isn’t part of the equation. Anyone who thinks their art skills are nothing but a testament to their hard work is doing a disservice to people who genuinely have no eye for visual communication and never will, but wish they did. Talent does play a part, but how much of a part is different for every artist.

Anyone who thinks talent is never anything more than a minor “spark” in the making of an artist’s skill set has never met an artist with an incredible amount of natural talent. Back when I was in art school, there was one student whose ability to draw was head and shoulders above the rest of us. We were all the same age (young), and most of us would say we’d been drawing since we were little kids and focused on being artists since we could remember, yet this guy could draw far better than we could. Worse, he didn’t seem to even really care about it. He was going to art school because his parents wanted him to go to college, otherwise he’d have preferred to stand around smoking pot and playing hackeysack. He did every assignment at the last minute, did the minimum amount of work to get by and only got interested in drawing once and a while in a sketchbook, usually some weird creature. This guy had never worked hard at drawing yet his work was the best I’d ever seen. How do you explain that if it’s not pure talent? Since I graduated I’ve never seen or heard of him again, and I am guessing he works at some print shop somewhere doing the bare minimum… had he applied himself he would have probably been the next Andrew Wyeth or Maxfield Parish.

On the flip side of that I’ve known a few artists that have been working their asses off for 20 years or more doing live caricatures and wanting to break into illustration or animation or comics whose work has not improved one single bit despite constant drawing and working at their skills. They have apparently reached the apogee of their abilities, and no amount of practice or training will advance their skills. How do you explain that if hard work and practice is all it takes to become an elite artist? Come to that, why isn’t the world filled with Michangelos if every hour of practice increases your skills a little more? Eventually the kind of metal the knife is made of will limit how sharp it can get, no matter how many hours you spend honing it.

Going back to the guitar analogy, there is a difference between someone who practices playing the guitar long and hard enough to to play it very, very well, and Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton or those considered the greatest of guitarists. Yes, these players put in the same countless hours and dedication to their instrument, but they have something else as well. Something that made them among the greatest of all time. The athletic analogy also fits… a person can practice dribbling and shooting and learn the strategies of the game of basketball until they are the star of their high school team or gym’s pick up squad, or even play professionally, but that does not make them Dr. J, Michael Jordan, or Stephen Curry. Those athletes have something else. Physical abilities thanks to genetics, yes, but lots of people are very tall and strong and are not NBA Hall of Famers. Extreme levels of natural talent AND the will to put in the hard work to make the most of it, is what separates the exceptional from the merely good.

I prescribe to the old adage that most art is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, but for some people that 10% is a lot more potent than for others, and that only makes their 100% that much greater. I’m very far from the most naturally gifted artist. I’ve got what I would consider marginal talent at best, but it was enough for me to stay interested in art and to choose it as my career, and then to realize I didn’t have enough of that natural talent to skate along on it like that college classmate of mine. I knew I had to work hard at my skills if I was going to have a chance to do something with my art. I know I’ll probably never be as good as some of my heroes like Mort Drucker, Jack Davis or Wally Wood. Those guys worked as hard on their art as I have, but they have (or had in both Jack and Wally’s case) something I don’t—truly exceptional talent. But that’s why they ended up becoming Mort Drucker and Jack Davis and Wally Wood. Everyone has a ceiling and those that reach the heights those guys and a few others have reached did it through a combination of incredible natural talent and unbelievable hard work and dedication. They are the Micheal Jordans and Jimmy Pages of my cartooning.

I cannot teach myself to have more natural talent, but I can keep practicing and studying and reaching for the next rung. My ladder will only go so high, but I am determined to get to the top of it. I don’t get angry at people who think what I can do was bestowed upon me in my crib because they don’t understand the dynamics involved. I also don’t get angry at myself when I fall short of the what artists like Mort and Jack and Wally could do. I just keep trying to be the best I can be, and that’s all anyone can do.

Robert Fawcett on Talent

An excerpt from an interview of Robert Fawcett by “Famous Artist Magazine” in 1960

Q: Must an artist have talent?

A: I do not think that artists are naturally born...Sweat and application will develop the artist. An artist who wants badly enough to do it will do it anyway. It will be impossible to dissuade him. If students want to be spoon fed, this is not likely to be a real desire on their part to be artists, but merely a whim.

Q: Do you believe artists should be trained?

A: They must pursue constant and relentless drawing. Being able to draw only comes about by drawing. Of course training will give the artist hints. But in the last analysis, the artist develops himself.

Matthew Innis / Malcolm Gladwell on Talent

Perhaps a  better way to view talent is put forth by Malcolm Gladwell, a writer for The New Yorker and author of the book Outliers:  The Story of Success.  Gladwell, who has devoted many hours of research to examining how one's culture affects their approach to achieving success, believes that talent is nothing more than a willingness to work hard.  He subscribes to the "10,000 hour rule," which argues that a person cannot be truly good at any cognitively complex field without first putting in 10,000 hours of practice, or roughly, four hours of practice per day for ten years. "Practice," says Gladwell, "isn't the thing you do once you're good.  It's the thing you do that makes you good."

Charley Parker on Talent

Like the 1930′s Hollywood cliché of the civilized explorers wowing the backward and worshipful natives with the “magic” of a cigarette lighter held aloft at a dramatic moment, there has long been an assignment of magic to the ability to draw and paint realistically in our culture.

This comes from the notion that the ability to draw, and the other artistic skills that are built on that foundation, is reserved for those who have somehow been endowed at birth with “talent”, a magical cigarette lighter if ever there was one.

While not wanting to take away the special reverence that those who can draw or paint sometimes receive from the majority who “can’t draw a straight line” (since I’ve found that personally enjoyable at various points in my life, particularly as a teenager), I’m a firm believer that “talent” is a tarnished concept, and drawing is a skill, like playing a musical instrument, skiing, archery, flying a plane or performing surgery, that is acquired through hard work and diligent practice.

In fact, talent, that knack that makes acquiring a particular skill appear to come more easily, can be a hinderance as much as a help. After the initial boost, it can convince those that have it to be complacent and lazy, leaving them in a turtle and hare situation in which their hardworking counterparts quickly surpass them.

David Bayles and Ted Orland on Talent from their book, "Art & Fear

Yet even the notion that you have a say in the process conflicts with the prevailing view of artmaking today--namely, that art rests fundamentally upon talent, and that talent is a gift randomly built into some people and not into others. This view is inherently fatalistic--even if it's true, it's fatalistic--and offers no encouragement to those who would make art. Personally, we'll side with Conrad's view of fatalism: namely that it is a species of fear--the fear that your fate is in your own hands, but that your hands are weak.

Artmaking involves skills that can be learned. The conventional wisdom here is that while "craft" can be taught, "art" remains a magical gift bestowed only by the gods. Not so.

Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work.

There is probably no clearer waste of psychic energy than worrying about how much talent you have--and probably no worry more common.

Even at best, talent remains a constant, and those who rely upon that gift alone, without developing further, peak quickly and soon fade to obscurity.

Talent is a snare and delusion. In the end, the practical questions about talent come down to these: Who cares? Who would know? and What difference would it make? And the practical answers are: Nobody, Nobody, and None.

Richard Schmid on Talent from his  book, "Alla Prima, Everything I Know About Painting"

Don't bother about whether or not you have it. Just assume that you do, and then forget about it. Talent is a word we use "after" someone has become accomplished. There is no way to detect it before the fact, or when someone is still grappling with the learning process. It is impossible to predict when or if mastery will click into place. Besides, the thing we label as talent is not a single ability. It is a complex mixture of motive, curiosity, receptivity, intelligence, sensitivity, good teaching, perseverance, timing, sheer luck, and countless other things. If any part of it is genetic, God-given, the result of astrological fiddle-faddle, fate, or destiny, that part is not the sole determining factor. All the other ingredients must be present in the right combination-- and no one knows the exact recipe. Therefore Dear Reader, don't waste time worrying if you are talented--and don't blame any failures on the lack of it--that is "really" a cop-out.

Lloyd Alexander on Talent from his book, "Taran, Wanderer"

During the summer of 2016 I re-read a childhood series that I enjoyed, “The Chronicles of Prydain,” by Lloyd Alexander. I found an interesting passage in the fourth book, "Taran Wanderer," wherein the hero, Taran, fails to master the art of ceramics. He is adequate, even “good,” but is not excellent and is very discouraged. He has the following exchange with his mentor, Annlaw Clay-Shaper, where the idea of talent is addressed:

“Is the gift forbidden me? Why? Why is this so?”

“It is a heavy question. Indeed, no man can answer it. There are those who have labored all their lives to gain the gift, striving until the end only to find themselves mistaken; and those who had it born in them yet never knew; those who lost heart too soon; and those who never should have begun at all.”

“Count yourself lucky that you have understood this now and not spent your years in vain hope. This much you have learned, and no learning is wasted.”

Ron Lemen on Talent

Talent Will Get You the Answers You Need – I can hear one somehow well-respected teacher in my head who puts it in others that “you are either talented or you are not, and those who are not will not get too far with art so hopefully you like doing other things, too.” Teachers say this to students, our family and friends innocently feed us with lines like, “you are so talented,” oh, you have “the Gift”…etc., alluding to some divine intervention of sorts. Talent is a word that gets misused. It means natural aptitude or skill, but…really, Talent is someone well versed in what they do and is extremely efficient in their delivery. This means that to have “talent” you’ve worked for it, but maybe not as hard as others, and the field is easy to read or well defined so the path to completion is less of a strain. You cannot just paint something correctly every time right off of the brush to canvas for a job well done; all great ideas go through a rigorous planning process before they are executed.

More Quotes About Talent

"Talent is just another name for the love of a thing." --Daniel Parkhurst

“Talent really is just the ability to persist until you get it right.” -- Leon Parson

“People say, ‘I wish I could draw.’ And I say, “You can—you just have to put in as many hours as I have.” -- Brandon Dorman

“Talent is what people say you have, after you’ve put in a ton of work.” -- Zach Poulter

"Does 'talent' exist? I don't think so. Only training. Some people just learn faster than others." -- Serge Birault

"Talent is Love... If you have a love for something, you are going to want to do it more than anything else in life and just by doing something so much, you will get better at it and in return you will be called talented at doing the thing that you love.” — David Kassan