Friday, December 29, 2006

Age Old Question

I’ve been taking a watercolor painting class, and although I make industrious, concentrated efforts, my paintings all look like crap.

The teacher is an interesting woman, seemingly undeterred by her students’ uneven results. You know the kind of teacher I mean. One who, when presented with an unrecoverable steaming pile, will at least manage a compliment on the warmth if not the composition.

Luckily for the poor dear’s sanity, in every class there are a few who excel. A few who only need a nudge in the right direction. A few whose latent talent flowers under skillful tutoring. And then there are those who only have desire, hope and effort.

After she repeatedly told us that drawing is a skill that can be learned. Painting is a skill that can be learned. I asked her, what about talent? She shrugged.

Excuse me? Talent dismissed with a shrug?

No, I persisted. You know what I mean. Talented youth. Those students whose painting seem to flow from a well unmapped. Whose work is amazing, from its very beginning.

She shook her head.

Our class was in the art room of the local high school. Every week, the high school students’ current projects were displayed in the hallway. A short stroll by this display wouldn’t take an art critic to see the range between the kids. Some still drew like they were in Second Grade. Some flashed with brilliant ideas and struggled with technique. Some had everything going on. Their work stood out like a bare ass at the symphony.

Surely, you must admit, I said to the teacher, some students have a talent for art and others do not.

“If you want to learn to paint,” she replied, “desire is the most important ingredient.”

Desire will make you work hard enough to learn any skill, is her point.

Wishing don’t make it so, is mine.

Of course, she probably could not make a living if she only taught talented youth. It is in her interest to encourage everyone with desire. Although, I was aware of this reality as our conversation progressed, I didn’t hold that against her. If she couldn’t produce results with her students, she wouldn’t make a living either.

I wanted her to say that talent mattered. Talent is a gift, unevenly bestowed, perhaps, but an important gift, nonetheless. Talent counted toward success. Desire only counted in bed.

Her final answer - wanting is what you must have.

Professor Harold Hill took Iowa by storm with the Thinkology System. If you think you can play music, you can. I wonder if there was an Art Corollary -- If you want to paint, you will.

Those tricky steps between desire and result remain a mystery to me.


  1. How silly of her to dismiss talent with a shrug.

    Can writing be taught? Of course. There are tons of books on technique, and many fine classes to take (hello, Pooks.) But talent? Nah, can't be taught. Steinbeck was notorious for sloppy spelling, run-on sentences, strange paragraph breaks, etc. He had a proofreader, yes. A "talent teacher," no.

    The steps between desire and result? Hmmm. I'm working on that one myself. (sheepish grin) I desire to finish my WIP. I've had almost this whole week to write, yet here I am, no results. Yet.

  2. I've been thinking about this one ever since I read it this morning. I think the teacher shrugged at the question of talent because either you have it or you don't--it doesn't matter. If there is a need in you to paint or play the piano or dance, the need drives you to express yourself, whether you do it well or ill by someone's judgment is irrelevant, in a way. You have painted because you needed to say something. That's all.

  3. I understand why the teacher shrugged. The same thing can be said about writing. Many talented writers don't have the gumption or drive to stick with it through rejection and frustration. When it stops being fun, they're outta there.

    Many writers build careers on drive and desire and refusing to accept that "no" is the only answer they'll hear.

  4. So, what part does talent play?

  5. I took a drawing course in the continuing ed program at RISD. Our instructor told us the same thing: drawing is a skill thank can be learned. He would agree that there were those with natural talent but he said that they had a problem in that they could already draw so well that it was difficult for them to concentrate on learning how to do it better, whereas those of us who could not draw well would be rewarded as we learned by seeing constant improvement in what we could accomplish. I wouldn't simply dismiss talent, but I must say that he did teach me how to greatly improve my drawing skills.


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