Is Artistic Ability a Skill or a Talent?

Is Artistic Ability a Skill or a Talent?

Recently I met up with an old friend, Mel Woodend.  Since we last met she has developed her writing career. And completed a term as Staffordshire Poet Laureate. She is now working on her phD in Aston University, Birmingham. Her most recent book ‘Little Brown Mouse and the Silent World’ is about her own journey with hearing loss. I also got to meet her wonderful hearing assistance dog ‘Kirrie’. She is a miniature poodle and a sheer pleasure.  No-one would say she hasn't worked hard at her skill - she is an author and a poet, she is a creative!

Mel and I met when we both started Open University together. We stay in touch via Christmas cards, the occasional meet up and socials. It is amazing to see how far we've come in parallel but not the same creative careers.  

This brings me to talent. Why is it that people think that if you can't instantly draw or you don't produce a masterpiece at the first attempt it must mean you have no talent? And shouldn't pursue your dream of being able to paint…

What is that all about - it makes no sense?

Mel couldn't write a children's book or poetry anthology. I couldn't paint abstract landscapes from nature or match a colour with paint.

Think about it… you decide you'd like to run marathons. You go out for your first run, you don't expect to be able to run 4 minute miles, have stamina,, run 26 miles on your first day.  You know it will take time and training and frankly hard work.

Or you decide to play the piano, a dream of yours. You find a teacher or some beginner books, you practice scales, learn to read music. It takes time and you progress a little bit at a time.

But… you try to paint for the first time, you've never done it before and there are some really good things about your art. The teacher even says so. You have fun but the result is not as you imagine it… often the conclusion, ‘I’m no good at this - I have no talent!' and what I see most is those who don't try because they assume they have no talent. Lets explore this in more detail...

What is Talent?

I decided to google it and according to the Cambridge Dictionary 


natural skill or ability to be good at something, especially without being taught:

Natural abilities apply to all walks of life. There are genetic and environmental factors within a person and in their upbringing.  We are all better at some things than others, at school I preferred Maths to English. I took Science 'A' levels NOT Art but my family were artistic and though I did not know there may be some genetic element at play.  But there appears to be a myth around that you are either an artist or not. That artists are born not made.  A misconception that talent is the sole determinant of artistic success. 

This is despite the fact that many renowned artists found their passion later in life and were self-taught.  You might not believe it, but some of the most famous artists in history were self-taught. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Rembrandt are just a few examples. Here is an excerpt taken from an article about Leonardo da Vinci...

'What have Leonardo and Shakespeare got that other Renaissance artists and writers have not? Why don’t we get similarly excited about Raphael or Edmund Spenser? The answer is that they are artists of the people. Neither went to university; both were in many ways self-taught, their capacious minds not limited by the elitist culture of Renaissance humanism. They embraced popular culture, popular ways of thought, and that speaks to our democratic age.'

(Accessed; 21 March 2024 on Why is Leonardo da Vinci such a Genius?)

The Role of Practice and Persistence

So there is another factor at play here... when I first met Mel at University she may have wanted to be a writer but she wasn't there yet. She was a teaching assistant at a local primary school and has worked very hard to learn how to write books, poetry and learn how to publish. On top of that to become a Poet Laureate you need to not only write but advocate the arts.  This takes hard work and dedication.

Ruth Egon (my co-podcaster to be) decided to study art but took textile design, she went along a 'sensible' route and ended up out of the creative industry completely she worked in IT and has painted and developed her art alongside a full-time job... she is working very hard! You can hear her story on our first Podcast coming out April 2024. She says when people say 'You are so talented' it takes away all the hard work she has put in to get where she is today.

I never saw myself as an artist but following ill health I worked hard to find something creative. This has not only developed into my own art business but has also helped my health. I was never good at art at school, my background is academic but here I am and loving it! People still tell me that I must have an innate talent. Or is it the house full of failed paintings and tons of hard work, research and fun I have had along the way?

Breaking Barriers and Overcoming Limiting Beliefs

So how do aspiring artists address the impact of the 'talent myth'?

In my opinion perseverance is key but you won't persevere with something unless you enjoy it. So my big tip is find your passion for painting. You need to enjoy what you do, regular groups whether a class or an art group can provide the like-mindedness that helps it to become a regular activity. If you paint over and over again you will improve but you that's not why you should paint. 

It's not about outcome it's about enjoying the process, it's all about experimenting, finding what you like and doing it for the enjoyment. Don't get me wrong there will be frustrations. I had an email from Rose, a member of my class that says I still find painting difficult at times but it is so rewarding. 

And I can guarantee that if you paint and paint and paint you will get better. It's obvious that will happen and I have seen it so many times. You build confidence, learn materials and find your own interests.  If you pay attention to your surroundings and paint you will start to find what you like to paint. If you observe other artists and compare them to your own art, then observe what you like about both...  then paint what you like you will find your voice. Don't overthink it just paint and see what happens - it's the magic of creativity!

Cultivating Creativity and Individual Voice

It is experimentation and exploration which helps you develop your individual voice. I am being specific here as people often look for their 'style' but you can paint in many styles. One singer can sing both Jazz or Opera but there is a recognisable quality to their voice.  An artistic voice arises from the choices we make. One artist might usually paint in certain colours another will use familiar marks.  Sometimes the same marks that at first they perceived as mistakes, it is the signs of who they are.

Think of Lowry, Picasso or Monet. You can look at their paintings and know that looks like a Monet or those figures are like a Lowry, we all know Picasso's work.  

Talent vs. Creativity

Finally I want to quickly talk about talent and creativity as related but distinct concepts. Talent often refers to a natural ability or aptitude for a particular skill or activity. It can be thought of as a predisposition that may make learning and excelling in a certain area easier for an individual.

On the other hand, creativity is the ability to generate new ideas, concepts, or connections. Often in a way that is original or unconventional.

Some individuals have a natural talent for artistic expression, such as drawing or painting. Whereas creativity involves the generation of unique, innovative, and imaginative ideas. Creativity can be nurtured and developed through practice, exposure to diverse experiences, and the willingness to explore new ways of thinking and expressing oneself.

Therefore, while talent and creativity can complement each other, they are not entirely reliant on one another. It is possible for individuals with varying levels of talent to cultivate and enhance their creativity through dedicated practice and a willingness to experiment and explore new approaches to their art. 

So is Artistic Ability a Skill or a Talent?

I would say both. But I think you can learn to access your creativity which we all have and thus learn artistic ability through developing our art skills without any talent.  Am I saying there is no such thing as innate talent?  No, I'm sure people are predisposed to have a flare in one thing or another, a genetic factor and exposure during childhood, however…

I'll let you into a secret... an artists voice is about creativity and creativity is inbuilt in us all, you can be creative in the same way as you can walk and talk.  Do you know why I know? It is because creativity is the way we learn, it is the way we build our skills through play. As children we played, made up things, drew, painted and didn't worry about whether it was ‘good’ it was just learning.

And my next secret is this… I don't teach people to paint! I teach people to be more creative, because it's fun! Oh yes there is technique thrown in, that's a skill and can be taught but learning what you like to paint is the greatest joy so that is thrown into the mix too, and you do that yourself.

What I am saying is that artists can be made. I believe it is a myth that artists are talented (or not) from birth. In fact it is really obvious that we all have to develop skills, we all know that! To think you can paint a unique and mature piece of art with a complete understanding of who you are as an artist from birth is a strange concept... if you stop and think about it. It's why artists don't believe it! What we can all do from birth is create - all of us! We know this as it is how all our brains work, they create from young, they learn to analyse as they get older. And that's why very young children can paint, some will have an innate talent for a particular aspect of art as in all of life but they all can paint and so can we.

So next time you create a piece of art that is not great then remember its all part of the process, learning means failing and an artist is only someone who has failed more times than you have painted.  A great artist embraces failure, starts to welcome the times it goes wrong because there is the greatest learning and the accidents are the discoveries that make unique art. So if you want to paint do it, it's fun, frustrating at times but always rewarding if you give it time and let it unfold. Can't wait to see your art!

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