Thursday, December 8, 2011

Talent... or Skill?

When someone tells me that I’m “talented,” I know it’s a term of admiration… though unknowingly misguided. Don’t admire my talent, for it is such a small part of what I do. Admire my dedication, skill, and sacrifice. Those are the qualities of which I’m most proud.


It starts out innocent enough. Someone at a show or exhibit will be gushing over my work, tossing complements about like rice at a wedding (no one throws rice anymore, do they?) and all but making me squirm with at having to say “thank you” so many times. Then the words come out that make my blood boil. “I wish I had your talent. This must come naturally to you.” Really? Like I eat a couple of tubes of paint for breakfast every morning and crap out finished 12x16 canvas later the same night (never mind how painful that might be. Or the fact that if it were physically possible to “shit out a painting”, the “important” galleries in London, LA, and New York would be fighting over my so-called “art.” But I digress). And I know they mean nothing hurtful by these words, so I just smile and nod hoping they don’t notice my white knuckles as I grind a fist into my leg. If they only knew the mind-boggling stack of past failures it took to get here and the paralyzing knowledge that there are many more failures to come... the years of study and frustration to achieve a level of competence where I wouldn’t throw up at the thought of showing my work in public... the amount of research and planning it takes before I ever dip a brush in paint.


I love what I do, but there is no “magic” in the process. It’s simply work. Not the kind of work you do with a wrench or shovel. I’ve done plenty of that in my time. And not unpleasant work, but a continual task of study, experimentation, evaluation, and then application of a learned knowledge. It’s a skill… not a talent. The magic happens when someone stands in front of a painting and says something like, “I’ve been there” or “I can almost smell that water.” Now that’s magic!


I don’t deny that it’s possible (maybe even necessary) talent may play a part in the stages of artistic development. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an obsession with drawing. Still, I didn’t understand much about it until I started studying the work and teachings of others who were highly skilled at the craft. To dismiss what any skilled craftsman or woman does as some whimsical gift by a higher power is an insult (though it’s almost never intended that way).


There will always be folks that disagree with me on this subject (though very few of them are professional artists), and that’s okay. I’m not really hoping to change anyone’s mind. These merely the ramblings of my own tormented mind (discussed in an earlier post). It’s fine that there is some mystery to art. It adds an element of romantic notion to what I do. But I’d much rather that romance be directed toward the finished piece than any mistaken enchantment in its creation.

7 comments:

Frances said...

You've seen the new formula for success, right?
Focused Practice x 10,000 Hours = World-Class Skill

There's always a lot of hard work associated with that "skill"!

Jim Bortz said...

Sounds about right :)

Robert L Caldwell, Artist said...

I completely agree with you on all points Jim. They have NO idea how much work goes into a piece especially before the brush hits the paint!

Cathy Sheeter said...

Great posting Jim. I myself have started several blog posts on this very topic, but never was able to word it in a way that didn't sound insulting to those that admire my 'talent'. Can I cross post to my blog (with credit to you and a link to your blog)?

Cathy Sheeter

Jim Bortz said...

Thanks Cathy :)
I've been kicking this subject around for years, not really knowing whether or not to express myself publicly. I'd be honored if you referred to my post.

Carmelina said...

LOL! Alrighty then! I think the "wish I had your talent" comments refer to people acknowledging they are not artistically inclined (speaking from someone who has zero "talent" or "skill" in anything artistic). When it comes to anything artistic, people either have it or they don't. Yes it must be developed, nurtured, and experimented... coupled with being tortured and frustrated in order to get to a point where you can play with the big dogs. The difference between artists and...well... the rest of us, is that very obsession you speak of.
So stop white knuckling and let us be in awe of your work, regardless of the verbage we use. ;-) Keep em coming, Big Dog. :-)

shari erickson said...

That gift bestowed upon you by a "higher power' is anything but whimsical. It is a gift intended to be used wisely. Be grateful for it, and for the physical ability to work hard at it. If you weren't good at art naturally, you wouldn't be trying so hard to be the best you can be at it!