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The Myth of Talent

Tue Jun 24, 2014, 6:00 AM

The Myth of Talent

If there's one comment that is made more often than any other on any decent piece of artwork it's "you're so talented."

It's also the one [positively intended] comment I've seen the most artists bristle at, sometimes even retort. For some of us, it's a pet hate. Why?

We know it's meant as a compliment, so we smile and say thank you and try to resist the urge to insist that 'talent' is the biggest myth there is. Not only is it a myth, at its worst the use of the word is potentially destructive to the artistic community. 


What's so wrong with the word 'talent'?

You might not realise it, but calling someone talented can often feel like a backhanded compliment. No skilled artist woke up one day just being able to do what they can do. We were all born completely unable to do just about anything useful. But through daily practise we learned how to use our limbs for motility, our voices for words, and our hands for creativity.

When you praise an artists talent, you are ignoring all of that. You make out like their work is some innate gift that got magicked out of thin air. You boil down all their artistic achievements into a matter of being a lucky recipient. The artists ceases to be the agent of their own creation. 

The artist knows how much hard work they have put into a piece, how many years of practise and experience got them to the point of where they are. All the mistakes and feeling like you weren't getting anywhere, the lessons learned and the eventual breakthrough. All if that is discounted the moment we pretend artistic ability is a gift.

What's destructive about calling someone talented?

We have a really terrible habit for praising people for 'natural' abilities. This is something that extends beyond just art and into everything thing there is. You're good at something? Wow! You're so gifted! You're so smart, so athletic, so talented

Study after study after study has shown that praising someone's apparent innate ability to achieve something can be destructive to their development. Kids in particular, but it is true of any person in any stage of learning. 

People praised for being innately talented come to depend on this ability being innate. When they hit a hurdle, they are more likely to give up. They take it personally, they see it as being a failure of self: "I'm not smart/talented/good enough for this." Let's face it, it's an easy way out. Once you decide you're just naturally not meant to do a thing it's easy to stop trying.

Conversely, people praised for being hard workers understand that hitting a hurdle means jumping higher next time. They know they have to work harder, work longer, and that their next attempt will end in a different result. And as a result, they are able to reach greater heights because they push themselves to them

Countless scientific and social studies have demonstrated this effect. There are even more countless anecdotes of these experiences. Perhaps you have one of your own? Talk to anyone who, as a child, was constantly told they were gifted at something, only to give up on that thing when they could no longer sustain being accidentally gifted in adolescence. It's an enormous problem in school classrooms and is one of the many failures of our reward-based learning methodology. But it's also just as important in any learning environment, personal artistic learning included.

Why are the words I use on deviantART important?

We are a community that prides itself on fostering artistic growth. The best thing about dA is how readily we can help and be helped, teach as we are being taught, inspire as we are being inspired. To grow together as a community, we ought to provide the best learning environment possible. The language we use is a powerful tool that shapes not only our psyche, but how we learn as well. 

The next time you promote an artist in a feature, try substituting the word 'talented' with 'skilled'. When you fall in love with an art piece, praise the artist's hard work. Talk about their eye for detail, their choice of colour, their neat stitches, the perfect choice of shutter speed, their wonderful concept or their incredible realism. Try talking about all the extrinsic things about the piece, all the things they did to make that piece happen.

Not only will you probably make the artist feel better, but when you realise that the level of artistic brilliance you dream to achieve happens through something we can all control, you'll feel better about your own artistic journey too. 


Still don't believe talent has nothing to do with it? Check out these improvement memes. Now, to my knowledge none of the following artists received a visit from a fairy godmother who bestowed upon them to gift to art. They worked hard and nurtured their skill. The results speak for themselves. 

Improvement Meme by Ryo-Thae Craft this Again: Pizza by Bon-AppetEats
Doll Meme - Bjd Photography by lajvio Draw this again 3 by E-tane
Plush this again Meme by Bubble-Rhapsody Sparrow old and new by popChar
Before-After meme by K-wuet Majora's Mask redo by Halcreix Aries baby by RogerStork
Draw this owl again by EvelineVdp BJD Photography Meme by Aoi-kajin
elephant2 by BBarends Draw It Again by Artgerm

Always remember; practise makes progress!

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Retromissile Featured By Owner Sep 24, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I think Talent is only the ability to LEARN a particular thing faster than usual. Brains are constructed differently. Like someone has a Talent for math and learns it faster than someone who has no talent for it.
This doesn't mean talented People don't have a whole lot work to do.
Also it doesn't mean non talented artists can never learn to be good.

Your points are totally right.
Sapphire-Stitch Featured By Owner Aug 27, 2014  Hobbyist Artisan Crafter
I do think of talent when I see art that I admire. I then think to myself "They have worked with their talent to improve their art."

I have been told I'm talented in certain things on a number of occasions, and actually this has made me anxious -- anxious that I will do something that goes against this talent, for example, if I create a bad plush, which has happened in the last few days. I actually cried when my plush turned out poorly. I thought that I didn't have a talent and that I had nothing. But hell! I made another one and I love it. "Talent" does not mean you evade mistakes.

I think there has to be an element of talent in drawing and crafting -- but maybe I'm mistaking talent for deep interest. I mean, I am the only one in my family interested in writing and art, and thus the only one who produces work like that. My other family members are not able to produce plushies or anything much more than little simple sketches, but of course, I have had more practice because I am interested...

People have a natural interest, but natural talent -- I'm not sure.  I think people do need to have so e sort of innate ability in order to become good, but nobody (normal) starts off being "good".
KrisCynical Featured By Owner Sep 25, 2014  Professional Digital Artist
Hello! You don't know me, but I like to chit chat with people about stuff like this. Sorry in advance for verbose...ness.

I'm an illustrator for a living and went to art school for it. Like you, I'm the only one in my immediate family who does what I do at the skill level with which I do it. Other family members have an interest/appreciation or it, but they can barely draw a stick person (or "can't draw a straight line with a ruler" as my mom says!). Likewise, my niece is a really talented writer and photographer who is currently majoring in photography and minoring in photo journalism. I can write academically until the cows come home, but I cannot for the life of me write fiction. I love plotting fiction, but writing it down? Nope.

I think there's a common thread to "talent" and "deep interest," but they aren't one in the same. Some things CAN be learned to the point of mastery (like being a doctor, lawyer, accountant, scientist, etc.), but I whole heartedly believe that some things simply cannot be learned in the same way, like creative fields (drawing, painting, sculpting, writing, design, photography, sewing, singing, acting, playing/composing music, etc.).

Yes, you can learn the technical aspects of creative fields like plushie making (or drawing in my case), but learning the technical stuff will only take you so far. If you want to go beyond a certain level, I firmly believe you need an innate natural talent in that area. My mom often says she could take drawing lessons until the end of time but she'd never be able to draw like I do because she simply doesn't have the talent for it. Similarly, I could take lessons in plushie making to my heart's content, but I don't think I'd ever be able to produce plushies on the same level as someone who is talented in plushie making.

In the same way, my mother could take drawing lessons and I could take plushie making lessons out of deep interest in the subject, but we would never surpass a certain level of skill because we don't have a talent for those things. I can draw anything under the sun given the proper reference, but I can't sculpt to save my life and it drives me insane. I'm deeply interested in making things out of sculpy (and wish I could even more deeply!), and I even had to take 3D classes in art school to get my illustration degree, but I just. Can't. Sculpt. I stink at it. No amount of training (or practice born of "interest") will fix that, and that's because I just don't have talent in that area.

My talent is in 2D drawing, particularly human anatomy and facial/bodily expression of emotion. My friends in art school were also talented in 2D drawing, but their talent was more in drawing animals. I CAN draw animals, but they never look as good as animals drawn by my friends. Again, talent.

To me, "natural talent" and "innate ability" is the same thing, so you basically DO agree that "natural talent" exists. I believe the existence of "talent" is one of the things that makes humans unique in comparison to other animals, and I think it's a sign of our advanced intelligence and capabilities of our brain. I also agree with you that while people can start out with an innate ability/talent/natural inclination toward some things, indeed noboy starts off being "good". That takes time, practice, and work (and frankly there are a lot of kids out there who don't want to devote the time and effort it takes to be "good" at some things, but that's a whole other subject!).

Ringling (the art school I attended) put it nicely, IMO: "All of you have a natural talent for art. What we are going to do is help you hone that talent into a skill."
Sapphire-Stitch Featured By Owner Sep 25, 2014  Hobbyist Artisan Crafter
Hey, thanks for that~

I agree that people have a natural talent for something -- as you say, it's what makes us human. Of course, talent does not instantly mean "good". I guess this seems weird, but talent, to me, is more about potential to be good. Talent is something to be honed, I guess. 

With that in mind, sometimes I worry that plush making is an interest, rather than a talent of mine. I do, of course, see improvement in my more recent work, but sometimes I feel frustrated because I can't get something to work no matter what I do. But then I tell myself that everyone has times like this -- even professionals.

Yes, I believe talent is the foundation of skill. 
KrisCynical Featured By Owner Edited Sep 25, 2014  Professional Digital Artist
"...talent, to me, is more about potential to be good. Talent is something to be honed, I guess."

It doesn't seem weird to me at all, of course, since I said that myself!

Talent is absolutely the potential to be really good at something the way a duck takes to water: it's their natural environment that they're born being adaptable to. I already said I'm an illustrator, yes, but more specifically I'm a digital illustrator, and that's because my talent media-wise is for digital.

I had the same professor for the required traditional illustration media and digital illstration media classes at Ringing, and halfway through the digital class (which came the year after traditional) he told me, "You know, when I had you for traditional media you were... ehh... middle of the road. Not terrible, not the best. But now that I have you in THIS class, I see why: you're supposed to be a DIGITAL artist! You've taken to all of this like a duck to water."

Digital media does come to me much easier than traditional media or as that prof said, "like a duck to water." It doesn't mean I haven't had to bust my ass and keep my nose to the grindstone to develop my skills, it just means that it came a little more naturally to me than some of my classmates who were more talented in traditional media. As I said, the administration at Ringling told us that they were there to help us hone our natural talents into a skill, and that's absolutely what talent is a foundation for: skill. It isn' a golden ticket to skill, but it's a good "point A" to start at.

As a professional I can assure you beyond a shadow of a doubt: that DOES happen. I still have to abandon illustrations in rough sketch phase because I just CANNOT get it to work right no matter how hard I try or how many times I re-draw it. Usually it's because I'm just not ready for it yet. Sometimes I can be going through my sketch pile (even though I'm a digital artist I still do my ideation, thumbnailing, and rough sketching with pencil and paper) a year later, come across a concept I had to abandon, try it again, and BOOM -- it works. It goes down smooth as glass with absolutely no problems to the point that I think "Why in the hell did this not work before?!" Only God knows why it happens that way!

In the same vein, there are still certain areas that I know are problem areas for me that need improvement. When I was in high school and just starting out in college, I had to drill on hands and feet because they were really weak in my work. It took two years for me to get them down. Right now I'm just now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for female anatomy, particularly pelvic, which I have been working on for almost three years. I've also been working on weird facial angles for just as long, but I haven't progressed quite as far there as have on females.

So yeah, if something just isn't working for some reason, just set it aside. Shelve it for a few months. If it still interests you by then, pick it up and try it again. Maybe it will work! If not, oh well. It happens. Just beacuse you struggle with some ideas/concepts or can't get something to work, it doesn't mean you don't have talent for it.

Thomas Edison failed over 5,000 times before getting the electric light bulb to work, but nobody thinks he wasn't talented as all hell. He knew he was talented (or gifted, whatever you want to call it), too, because he didn't count those failures as failures. He simply said he found five thousand ways NOT to make an electric light bulb before he found the way to make it work. I'm sure Einstein didn't nail the Theory of Relativity the first try, either. :shrug:
Harrisons-Forge Featured By Owner Jul 14, 2014  Professional General Artist
I think the basic problem with any language is the fact that it needs to be used with absolute clarity and precision so as not to be misunderstood.......unfortunately this makes it very formal and stuffy and makes you sound like you digested a couple of lawyers for breakfast :D Language is also evolving constantly, words meanings change in subtle increments over time until they bear little resemblance to the original meaning.

Talent has always been seen as an innate ability, but as my Grandfather often stressed when I was growing up, 'If you don't use it, you lose it.' Raw talent often starts us off on our journey in life but cannot carry us all the way. Being told you are talented is a double edged sword and very much depends on your character as to whether you sit on your laurels or work that bit harder, so I don't think that either side of this argument is intrinsically is just that neither is 100% right ;)

Nurturing someones skills and talents is never an easy task...I have five children, all of whom need a different approach....and choice of language is very important. I know my children well and can vary my approach, but I don't always get it how can we expect to be understood with accuracy over the internet, where we know very little about the person at the other end, viewing our work and commenting on it. Common courtesy tends to pare things down to acceptable and non-acceptable phraseology and it often ends up sounding blase and insincere.....which is hardly ever the intention....normal rules of engagement are skewed by the internet and we often forget this.

Good draughtsmanship can be learned by almost anyone if they apply themselves thoroughly...but this is not necessarily good art. There is a beauty to an architectural blueprint which can be appreciated... but it wouldn't fetch millions at Sotheby's  in an art sale (unless it was really special).... I can paint a door perfectly in gloss paint...that doesn't make me Da Vinci....

The difference that talent makes is the ability to see and express things in a way which resonates which the people viewing the work...the ability to connect emotionally with another human being through the medium of your choice...and the ability to see things from a different perspective. As every human is unique and slightly different, so there is room for artists to be unique and different and for their talents, abilities, mental focus and opportunities to shape their work :)

I think it also very much depends on how well we take a complement....if you have had nasty life experiences, or lack confidence, your first thought may be, "OK. what are you trying to get out of me?", whereas a well balanced person who has had good fortune may think, "Wow. That was really nice of them to comment" Our reactions mirror our nature in many ways....

A thought provoking article. Thank you :)
Wishsayer Featured By Owner Jul 8, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you person for pointing this out! I need to show this to one of my friends in the non internet world, she's always bugging me about how I have so much talent and she has none.
thebluekraken Featured By Owner Jul 8, 2014  Professional Artisan Crafter
i had a very skilled artist critique my work once when i was still doing doodles. he told me i clearly had a technical skill that was well honed but over all no real artistic talent.  that might seem like something harsh and mean but it made me rethink a lot of the things i had been doing and probably the only helpful compliment i ever got insted of being pat on the head the usual way. I stopped a lot of the things i had been doing and picked up some things i clearly didnt have 'talent' for. What's the harm in trying something new then? Maybe I will be better at that?

my next pet peve when people compliment me is along the same line as this whole post. "oh look at that i could never do that!" when they see my metal work. the hell you can't lady. That just an excuse and you putting yourself down. I say thanks anyways and smile even when i get self depriciating compliments or destructive ones cause its polite. i started out doing crappy brick stich bracelets and scanning images of my work on a flat bed scanner. awful. i did not take classes ive had no help. i dont have a big studio. only a 4 by 6 space and a ton of on line turotials.ive taught myself how to do everything from my own mistakes. i still dont have a magical talent. I am not imbued with anything special. What i did was learn and i still am every day and its not pulled from thin air.... I dont tell myself i cant do something these days. The only thing that holds me back these days is tools, space, and infinate resources. Not tallent 
KrisCynical Featured By Owner Sep 25, 2014  Professional Digital Artist
"...he told me i clearly had a technical skill that was well honed but over all no real artistic talent. "

I'm all for honest critique instead of sugar-coating things, but it sounds like that guy was just being a self-important douchebag. I've critiqued kids here on deviantART before who I thought had some wonderfully promising natural talent for art and I told them so along with pointers for improvement, but I've also critiqued some I thought didn't have any natural talent for art, but there's no need to tell a kid that if they're doing art for fun. In that case you just give them pointers of how to improve their trouble areas! That guy did absolutely no good in telling you that. If you enjoy it, that's all that matters. Period. :unimpressed:

"..."oh look at that i could never do that!" when they see my metal work. the hell you can't lady. That just an excuse and you putting yourself down."

Some people say those things in order to put themselves down, yes, but not always. I would probably look at your metal work and say that same thing, but not as a means of putting myself down. In that case, I would just be stating a simple fact because my talent lies in 2D drawing/illustration, particularly human anatomy and the facial/bodily portrayal of emotion. NOT metal work.

Although I think metal work, sculpy, and other types of 3D art are beautiful, I know that I myself cannot do it really well even though I've tried multiple times, even by taking a required 3D class when I was in college for my illustration degree. I WISH I was good at 3D, specifically sculpy, but I'm just... not. Now, I'm not saying I can't do it AT ALL, because I CAN. I can do 3D art better than "non-artistic" people can. I'm just not GREAT at it, and no amount of work, lessons, tutorials, or practice will make me "GREAT". That's not what my talent is in, and I really see nothing wrong in saying that. I simply know my limitations.

I whole heartedly believe talent exists. It's a natural inclination to something, and that natural inclination makes one more readily able to do that certain thing VERY well given the time, practice, work, and devotion. Talent doesn't automatically make them GOOD, but it gives them the ability to BE good with practice. I CAN do metal work, but it's nothing to write home about because it's not where my talent is. My talent is in illustrating human emotion, I'm damn good at it (but not beyond improvement of course!), and that's because I've devoted nearly 20 years to honing that talent into a skill through hard work, practice, and study.

I'm not trying to argue or anything, mind you. I just really enjoy talking to people here on dA about stuff like this, especially when the person has different viewpoints/opinions than I do. It makes for interesting conversation, IMO. :)
blueartis Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2014  Professional Photographer
This is awesome. It's right on point and just opened my eyes to why I've struggled so much and gotten so frustrated with myself. Given up on things I loved and even miscomunicated my frustrations with others or even reciprocated the same destructive praise! 
 I read a lot of articles and tutorials, but I rarely have moments of deep self awareness, opening me up and leaving me standing on the edge of knowledge I know will change not only the way I treat, encourage and appreciate myself in my own endeavours but also those who inspire me as well as those I might inspire.

 Thank you. From the bottom of my heart thank you. <3
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