Thursday, April 24, 2014

The eternal question: Talent? or self-honed Skill?

Note: I edited this post a few days after publication. Seemed like an awful lot of text. So I added more. Ha! and I added some indents and pictures.

On the RhyPiBoMo blog, an interesting question came up.
 I am posting it with my answer, here, with a couple words and line breaks added for clarity.


 Kristi said: I have a question for today’s guest, Ruth Barshaw. Is sketching something that one is just naturally good at, or can it be learned? 

I answered:

 Hi, Kristi! I’ve read varying opinions on this, and have talked to some famous illustrators about it too. Though some will argue against it, I’m not alone in my firm belief:
Anyone can learn to draw well. It just takes time and lots and lots of concentrated effort.

Some people say that it also requires talent. I say no.
Some people claim I started higher on the “talented” level — that people who draw well are somehow born with a special knowledge, or even just a predisposition that sets their work apart.
I am not sure if that’s true or not.
I’m not an expert on brain studies, but I am a researcher and have dug deep into this subject a few times.

I don’t have any of my early childhood art.
I do not remember being told by anyone that I had special talent for art until I was in third grade.
By then I loved to draw, maybe as much as some other kids loved to run, or loved to play baseball — things I liked, didn’t practice much, didn’t *understand* how to do better, and so wasn’t much good at — and so didn’t excel at.

Lucky for me, my art ability was recognized by a couple of teachers who asked me to draw things for their bulletin boards.
I’d drawn one giant cartoon of Dennis the Menace for a group project and one of the other kids begged to take it home.
Third grade is the first I can recall of anyone wanting my art.
I remember working really hard in second grade to develop my art (and also to grow my hair long).
The working hard on art part, I’ve done ever since. (Growing my hair long is still an issue)

I see amazing art done by very young children.
Maybe they really are specially talented.
Or maybe they just have smart people in their lives who value art and tell the kids why what they did is special.

I believe it’s learning WHY that makes one a better artist. And, of course, repeated concerted effort.

If you want to read more about how to become a better artist, check out Betty Edward’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
You’ll be astounded at her students’ growth in mere days.
But it shouldn’t be surprising: They have someone telling them how to see things differently, WHY certain things work and others don’t.

You can teach yourself how to draw.
You’ll learn faster with smart help.

(That's the end of my answer on the RhyPiBoMo blog, but I'm afraid I have more to say on the subject.)

          Many years ago a friend told me she had decided artists and people with special arts talent (musicians, poets, even people who deliver great lectures) have that information/talent/predisposition whispered to them by the dead masters.

 My kids are good at music despite me,
not because of me.

          I was a little offended: does this diminish my own hard work at developing my skill?

          Does this mean the first human was untalented?

          How do we explain the talented artist who doesn't use their art at all, who wastes what appears to be a gift from above? Will there be divine punishment? Or will Abraham Lincoln whisper brilliance to a number of potential thinkers, knowing some will ignore it?

          What about the kid who produces amazing art at a crazy-young age? Is someone whispering to him? What's a prodigy?

          Do we all have potential for percussion, but only some of us have parents who buy us drum sets when we're little, and even fewer encourage us?
(We won't get into elephants and monkeys painting, and what Art is. That's for another post.)

My 2 year old granddaughter's decorated cookie. 
Maybe she's not a prodigy. Or -- wait -- maybe she is!

          My friend's idea has spread widely. I've heard it many places. I still don't buy it.

          I still don't like the suggestion that I was born with something that others weren't, that what I have developed was whispered to me, that I am lucky instead of hard working. (I realize her suggestion doesn't automatically equate to all of these; I am extrapolating. Probably proponents of the idea would say I am both lucky and hardworking.)

          Brain science says once you think something, it's easier to think that thing later. Confidence or the lack of confidence can build from your thoughts.

          This is why people (like me) post affirmations on their mirrors and computer workstations: to repeat good thoughts, so they grow.

          If you are rewarded for something -- if a teacher nods in approval, says something nice, tapes your paper to the wall for others to see, shares it with the class -- you learn to repeat.

          If you're rewarded for innovation, you will innovate more.

          If you're rewarded for being quiet, for not coloring outside the lines, for drawing exactly the way you're told to draw, you might still grow up to be an artist but it'll take extra effort to push yourself to greatness.

          If you're punished for doodling on your page margins, for designing varied but barely legible handwriting fonts on your school papers, for creatively mixing things a teacher thinks shouldn't go together, for ::sigh:: depicting things someone thinks you shouldn't (yeah, all that happened to me), it might stifle your art instinct. Or it might merely send it underground, where you work on it quietly but only share it when you think it's really ready. That's what I did.

My sister and I were born one year and one day apart.
Mom made fanciful, beautiful cakes for our birthday every year.
Maybe my art ability *is* inherited.

          I believe time (and science) will show that we are all born with an infinite palette of possibilities. We paint our own futures. The colors are dulled or brightened by other people's intrusive praise and criticism, but we can undo their efforts, remix and repaint.

          WE decide if we'll be good at sports or art or science. Or all three.

          Case in point: My youngest kid. She's an accomplished athlete. And a very skilled artist. She has won a scholarship for engineering, which means she's really good at math and science. (All A's)

          Of course she was born brilliant. But she also had people in her life who helped guide and encourage her. And she worked very hard to develop her little proclivities into admirable skills.

          Everyone is born brilliant. Not every person has the cadre of encouraging family and friends. We ALL encounter disappointments and red herrings and false starts and obstacles, rising tension, conflict, villains.

          We ALL have the ability to work hard.

          We are the writers of our life stories.

          We choose the happy ending.

          We choose whether to succeed.


In any case, whether we inherit our talent,
or develop it because of good nurturing,
or develop it in spite of our home life,
we probably owe our parents thanks.


Ann Finkelstein said...

Wise words, Ruth. A modicum of encouragement can go such a long way. Do we develop interests in areas in which we are naturally talented or do we develop talents in areas in which we have interests? That is an interesting question.

Anonymous said...

I feel the same and am often defending that sameargument. When someone says, I ccan't draw, I'll admit, I cringe. You can't do anything if you don't want to! So fun to read your experiences as a kid, like reading my own story. Thanks, Ruth.

Hanna McCown said...

This was really important for me to read. I have always wanted to write and illustrate but did so secretly for the most part. I see now that having grown up with a mother who saw everything which was not 'useful' as in helping with chores or 'spiritual' as in going to church meetings as being (in her opinion) ungodly. This is why I haven't been able to really get going. It's a guilt thing I think and I didn't realize it until I read this article. Thank you so much for sharing. I'm in my 50's now and I'm not too late. :)