Is Art a Talent or a Skill

You’ve probably heard some variation of the question “is art a talent or a skill? or “is an artist born or made?” It seems there are two camps: those who believe that an artist has an innate gift and those who defend that with good training you can reach the same goal.

Ability or talent?

Firstly, to talk about an artist having more skill or talent than another is fraught with problems. Art, as I discussed in a separate article, is for the most part a very subjective discipline. What constitutes a masterpiece for some can be trash to others. I have certainly met artists who I consider more talented than others, but that is only my subjective opinion. Please, read on with that in mind.

What is “talent” or “ability” in the first place? Working with young people I have seen what might be considered a “natural talent” go to waste through laziness. I have seen others who displayed no such innate gift work at their craft until they were able to produce work of real quality. I in NO WAY consider those children who started a little further back than their classmates, and who eventually caught up, less talented or able.

I’ve seen natural ability with my own eyes. After all, Beethoven composed his first symphony at 12 years old. But, I DO believe outliers like that are far rarer than we might want to believe, and that hard work will beat natural talent 99% of the time.

I believe that it is far easier to oxidize a natural talent than it is to develop it, and a facility in learning artistic skills ultimately means, in a lifetime, little more than a small head start.

The answer to the question, “is art a talent or a skill?” is both, but there is a disproportionate weight put on a natural ability. Let’s explore some reasons why that might be.

People don’t like to feel lazy or like quitters.

Art being a genetic gift is the perfect excuse not to continue or even try at it all. I’ve seen countless people frustrated with their artistic learning experiences whether it be music, painting, writing, etc.

“I’ve been learning guitar for two years and I STILL don’t wail like Hendrix!”

What they forget is that their two-hour guitar lesson once a week doesn’t come close to Hendrix’s regime. Hendrix started playing at 15 and didn’t become famous until ten years later. He played constantly. In the army he was said to sleep with his guitar, he would play as he walked around his apartment, go to late-night jam sessions and play until morning. For Jimmy Hendrix, time with the guitar wasn’t practice, it was his way of life. Give me an ounce of obsession or passion over natural talent any day.

The world moves quickly nowadays. We are used to instant gratification. Sadly learning any artistic ability doesn’t work that way, it takes years. You need to appreciate the journey rather than the results. To hear that your hard work and effort in honing your craft is passed off as a genetic gift can be somewhat insulting. This, to my experience, is somewhat of a consensus among the artists I talk to.

Creativity is not a genetic gift.

Another common comment I hear is “I’m not creative, therefore…” I can’t begin to tell you how silly that sounds. Creativity isn’t something you either do or do not have. Creativity isn’t a divine gift, it’s an innate human trait that we all have. Children will scribble on paper before they can even speak, creativity and art help children develop the building blocks required in learning.

If you’ve ever said, “I’m not creative,” the good news is, you are.

Without creativity, you wouldn’t be able to make decisions. You wouldn’t be able to conceive the probable outcome between two actions and make a decision based on the most favorable imagined result. That’s at the core of decision-making.

Without creativity, you wouldn’t be empathetic. You wouldn’t be able to put yourself in the life or situation of another individual and imagine what it is like to live in their shoes. The heart of empathy.

…do you want me to continue? Ok, a rather silly but no less true example.

Ever use an adverb? “The car stopped suddenly.” “The dress fit her beautifully.” No, the car stopped and the dress fit, everything else is you expressing yourself creatively. Face it, my friend, YOU are a creative machine. We all are.

How you choose to express that creativity is a different matter, perhaps it’s the way you dress, the way you speak, the way you organize your Spotify playlists. The fact of the matter is, you can learn to express it artistically. You learned how to crawl, and at some point, you expanded that skill to walking, running, and jumping. It’s all a matter of time and patience.

My experience.

I was what you might call a “troubled child”. The inner-city school I went to couldn’t control my behavior leading to a downward spiral for me which lasted into my twenties.

The only class in which I felt comfortable was in Art and Design. I wasn’t particularly good at it, I wasn’t especially gifted in any academic way. Thanks to an amiable teacher who didn’t treat me like a “problem” and the opportunity to express myself in less destructive ways, I started to work at it.

Through my troubled childhood and adolescence, I drew and painted. Without formal training but grinding until I achieved some level of competence. Through the periods in my life where I concentrated on other artistic disciplines (I’ve worked professionally as an actor, writer, and musician) I never lost passion for the visual arts. I would paint and draw in my spare time.

Now that I enjoy a certain amount of recognition for my painting and illustration I often hear, “I wish I was able to do that, but (art/painting/drawing) isn’t my thing.” My common reply is, “if you decided to make it ‘your thing‘ it would be.” That in essence is my position on the subject. Its root is in my personal experience of going from “talentless” to somewhat competent in various artistic disciplines.

Is an artist born or made? – or – is art a talent or a skill?

Where is the definitive answer I promised in the title of this article? Don’t worry, I wasn’t click-baiting. As close as we can get to an answer is to ask you, the people who follow my artistic journey. While writing this article I launched a poll on Instagram. It represents a good cross-section of people, I am approaching 5k followers and a disproportionate number of you are artists.

So, of the 503 people who saw the post up to now, 127 interacted. The clear results are that 60% of those asked thought that an artist is made and not born (although I did get a ton of people complaining that “both” wasn’t an option, an intentional choice on my part). But diving a little deeper, I went through the profiles of all 127 participants. 82% of the people who believe that art is an acquired skill were other artists, compared to 40% of the people who believe it is a natural gift. Those of us that are artists know it’s about working at it.

Now, does my experience mean that I don’t believe that some people are born with the ability to develop artistic skills quicker than others? No, of course, I believe it. The answer, in my mind, to the question, “is art a talent or a skill?” is both, but again, over a lifetime of creating art, talent represents nothing but it’s nothing more than a little head start.