Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tuesday Tips & Tricks: Thoughts on Talent

Many times, as I am sitting sketching in a park or a cafe, someone would stop by, look over my shoulder, and then say with a wistful air "I wish I had your talent… I'd like to draw too…"

I usually hesitate to tell them, but I will tell you: I have no talent.

What I have is an incessant desire to make images. I have persistence and tenacity. I gave up on instant gratification and the need to look good right away. I bought in on an idea of 10,000 hours. But talent… no, definitely not. But let's examine the situation with more attention.

For decades I did not draw or paint or make art, because I was convinced that I had no "talent". Fairly late in life I came up with a rebellious idea that I don't actually need this thing "talent" to draw or paint. Ha! What a liberation it was! I took a pencil and did an exercise from a drawing book, the year was 2009:



I did more exercises from books, and interestingly enough my drawings got better.



Then I came across a book by Malcolm Gladwell "Outliers: The Story of Success" and read about 10,000 hours concept. The idea is that you need about 10,000 hours of practice to get good at whatever you want to get good at. I did the math: working 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, gives 2,000 hours of practice in one year. In 2010 I've barely scratched the surface… I realized that I needed 5 years of dedicated practice. I also realized that I don't need "talent", I need skill. That was doable, and I got to work.

2010


2011


2012


2013


2014

These are some examples. I did a lot more stuff than that. I painted and studied, and later on taught as well. 

Today, in 2014, I have done my 5 years - 10,000 hours. I have moved from being afraid of putting a pencil to paper to being a professional artist and a painting instructor. 

Here's one more thing to keep in mind. In the beginning of your 10,000 hours quantity is more important than quality. There once was an experiment in a pottery class of an art school. For one semester a class was divided in 2 halves. Students in the first group were asked to make one single pot each during the time of that semester, but it should be the best pot they ever made. The grade would be given based on the quality of that single pot. The second group was asked to make as many pots as they possibly can, quality and beauty not important. These students would get their grades based on the number of pots they made, the more the better. As you probably guessed, by the end of the semester pots produced by the "quantity" group  were better and more beautiful than single pots made by the "quality" group. 

This example comes from a book "Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking" by David Bayles and Ted Orland. You can get this book from Amazon for under $4.00 used. It is a little book - 120 pages, small format - with a lot of wisdom. This will be the best art book you ever bought.

A practical and observable shift in quality of work occurs through practice and work. "Talent" is not even a part of this equation.

During my years of practice and self-study I arrived to several conclusions that I want to share with you:
  1. If you can write a grocery list - you can draw too. You have all visual and motor skills that you need.
  2. There is no such thing as talent. Talent is a man-made construct that is not really helpful.
  3. Drawing can be taught. Why do you think there are so many art schools and art teachers. Find the right one. Teaching yourself works too.
  4. Practice and time on task is all there is. Don't just trust me, try for yourself. Then come back in 6 months and thank me :).

24 comments:

  1. "Talent" is such a subjective term and perception changes from person to person. I much better like your framing of skill as dependent on practice and persistence. In fact making mistakes and learning from them are a huge part of the learning process that cannot be discounted. One of the reasons we doodle and sketch is to practice and work things out on paper and in our head. Very useful and thoughtful article Alex.

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    1. Thank you, Wes! Mistakes are great, I couldn't agree more. We often shy away from trying things in order to avoid them, and at the same time avoid a learning experience. A very good point!

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  2. Bravo!! My thoughts exactly, and I'm so glad to hear you say them! I still have most of those 10 thousand to go, but who's counting -- I'm having so much fun! :-)

    - Tina

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    1. The idea of this article was to encourage people to make art, a lot of it. I am so glad it resonated with you, Tina!

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  3. Thanks for posting, Alex. I totally agree. One of my instructors said to finish 500 paintings then come back to talk with him about my work! That seems about right!

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    1. Glad these thoughts worked for you! Keep on painting :)!

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    2. Hi Alex,
      great post and it resonates with me very much so - my journey started in 2011 when i took a "Drawing on the right side of the brain" workshop: it's been a rocky road i must admit, frustration in the lack of progress but also a lot of fum so indeed perseverance matters.
      Re talent - your post reminded me a column "Ask the Professor" in the Huffington Post i read recently:
      "Is drawing considered an innate talent or a craft, which can be learned by anyone?"
      http://claralieu.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/ask-the-art-professor-is-drawing-considered-an-innate-talent-or-a-craft-which-can-be-learned-by-anyone/ - i tend to agree with her (btw it's a great column, worth reading)

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    3. Good blog, Helena! Thanks for linking it! Keep up drawing, it gets better!

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  4. Hi Alex, we met with Nina in Stockholm 3 years ago. Great to see how your confidence in sketching has grown, alongside your beautiful studio works. I love this post. I'd say that alongside the hours of practise you also need to be critically reflective, maintaining a level of challenge that ensures progress and not just repetition. I think the internet, sketching forums, urban sketching groups can provide this extra element of challenge.
    I strongly recommend the book 'Bounce' by Matthew Syed which looks at the 'myth of innate talent' from a different perspective, coming to similar conclusions. I heard him talk recently and sketched him mid lecture… typical sketcher! http://mostlydrawing.com/2014/06/13/how-do-you-get-to-carnegie-hall/ Best wishes, Ed Mostly, Bath, UK

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    1. Ed! So good to hear from you! Of course I remember! That was the best day of my whole Stockholm visit! Thanks for sharing your blog, you did not have one then, is that correct? Now I have a better way to connect and also see your sketches! Great points on self critic and maintaining a level of challenge. I think these become very important later in the game. When just starting, quantity and hours on task are the main thing!

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  5. Brilliant. I agree 100%. The gift isn't talent, the gift is desire

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    1. Thank you, Mark! Yes indeed! This post probably does not reveal anything new for a person with some experience. I wrote it for an audience of people who are like me 5 yeas ago, hoping for some existential gift and not drawing because they are afraid of failure. If one or two of them would take a pencil and start making marks, I will be so happy!

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  6. Great article Alex. So many people are interested when they see us sketching, and are obviously attracted, but seem to think "it's not possible for me." I will point them to this article as a persuasive explanation of why they should just get started!

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  7. Great post, Alex. You are quite good but I'm curious. Did you really work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for five years? I sketch almost every day but I'm accumulating my 10k hours at a much slower pace than you describe - more like 600-700 hours per year - and people think I'm a fanatic (grin).

    Cheers --- Larry

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    1. Excellent question, Larry! Are you an engineer by any chance :) ? The answer is - probably… approximately… quite likely :)! I work every day, no weekends. My thought is that I don't have enough time for that. I don't like reciting quotes, and only have one that I repeat for myself: "Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up in the morning and get to work." - Chuck Close. That's what i do.
      That said, I don't draw or paint 8 hours a day, more like 4 and sometimes 6 when I am in a good form. Then I read about painting or painters, study, teach, critique or mentor. I also write for a couple of art blogs, do marketing, and admin for USk Chicago. In my view all of that counts. Ok, maybe not FB time . My current painting or drawing is being worked on even when I am not at my easel, brush in hand. The process does not stop, I am sure you know.
      Check your hours again, you may find you are doing more than you initially thought.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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  8. What size did you draw the portraits from 2011? Bigger is supposedly easier so tiny is beyond impressive.

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    1. Joel, the 2011 portraits are drawn in a 5.5x8" sketchbook across the gutter. This makes the image itself about 7x7", perhaps a little smaller. I keep hearing that "bigger is easier", but disagree - bigger is not easier for me, never was. I feel intimidated in front of 20x30 sheet. A sketchbook size is perfect for me. For a beginner I would suggest finding a comfortable size and sticking to it for a while. Once some confidence is gained, it is time to move to other sizes (up or down) to stretch the skills and learn new things.

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  9. Very inspiring post. Yours is a view that I too fully subscribe to.

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  10. Thank you for sharing thoughts! The article is very helpful and inspiring. I'm on the very begining of my artist way but I paint almost every day. After having read your article Im sure that talent comes after a regular practice :)))

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