Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Who gets the "Creative Gene?"

Santa Barbara Mission in pencil and paint. I suspect my affinity for watercolor has lots to do with my love of drawing. I began drawing at a very young age and it has always been a source of enjoyment and comfort for me. Because of that, I've drawn constantly on any paper available at the time. All that practice, even though I did not consider it such, has built my skills as a result.   

I find it interesting to hear people profess their lack of artistic ability so readily. When I ask how many classes they have taken, almost always I hear, “None” or “Not since childhood.” When a talented pianist signed up for a beginning watercolor class with me I found out on the first day that she had practiced for 2 weeks prior so she wouldn’t look ignorant. I asked her if she’d done that with piano lessons and of course she shook her head. Somehow it is believed that “Talent,” with a capital “T” is the reason some can paint, or draw or create. Furthermore you should be able to do all of it well with no training at all.

This is easily observed in the elementary classroom. The children somehow assign the title of “artist” to one of their peers and then back away as if they should not excel themselves. The assigned artist accepts the title happily. On the day I demonstrated for my sister’s 2nd grade classroom, I watched the interaction of the children when I gave them an assignment. When I complimented others than the chosen artist, they were tickled but the boy who considered himself the only artist in the room got a grumpy face. Sadly, the community at large believes that at birth some are given the “creative gene” while others are not and that’s the end of it.

Sorry…wrong! Drawing and painting and design proficiency are gained the way all other disciplines are…by work and repetition and tenacity. Are some more inclined to do art? Probably. Just as some are more inclined in other areas it is true here. That interest and inclination or encouragement lead to practice that is completely enjoyable. And practice leads to competency. Simple as that.

I knew this internally and then stumbled upon an article published in Fortune on Geoffrey Colvin wrote about, “What It Takes To Be Great.” I have read portions to countless classes and watched their self-inflicted boundaries expand.

The article can still be accessed on the Internet by typing in the title and author’s name. It explains the scientific study behind the conclusion that targeted natural gifts don’t exist. Nobody is great without work. It is a fascinating article well worth the time it takes to read. And it is encouraging to those of us who will never be “great” but want to expand our horizons with the time we have.

I always think of Dwight Strong, my friend who began painting at 69 years and became such a wonderful painter that when he died in his mid-80s, he left a huge body of work. And this work was collected by some of the artists whose workshops he had taken. He was single-minded and focused on his goal. One time he told me that he had taken 50 workshops. When I exclaimed over the number he told me, “Judy, I don’t have any time to waste!” I am fortunate to own several of his paintings.


  1. Perfect words for me today, fit with a statement I read yesterday by illustrator/writer Aliki: "When you are young it's called talent, later on it becomes hard work & perseverance." I was taught that only a few people have talent & that to them it all comes easily. So, I stopped, but taught art to children for years. Like you & Aliki, I too loved to draw from childhood. I still struggle with early beliefs... Love is the key, though, yes? Thanks, from Rita at Sketchbook Wandering.

  2. Thank you, Judy, for this post. I'll have something intelligent to say to my students, rather than just what I think about talent/no talent. It makes me sad when people say they don't have talent. I don't enjoy being on the computer, but I've made myself learn some basics so I'm not totally helpless. It has taken a lot of screen time when I'd rather be doing something (anything!) else, but this old brain can actually do some things on here.
    Thanks again for your wise words...

  3. Right on, Judy! You said so well what I've always felt. My husband and I have a little inside joke where he rolls his eyes and says to me, "You're SO-O-O-O TALENTED!!", after I've told him a story, once again, about someone admiring my work and acting like my skills just came to me magically somehow, without any work or effort on my part.

    After years of urging people to give drawing a try, I've started teaching a beginner's sketchbook journaling class. I'm so happy to see people, who may honestly feel as if they have no talent, willing to TRY and learn and grow.

    Thank you for sharing your insights with us.

  4. Thanks for your post! And I's courageous to begin something so new and our students are putting themselves "out there."

  5. I have come to your site from fb and will "follow" from now on!! I couldn't agree more with all of this Judy and have written a similar blog on exactly the same subject... mine is called "Nature versus Nurture" and if you are interested you can find on 27 May 2012 on my blog. I haven't left you a link in case you think it might be a spoof comment!! I absolutely know that both painting and drawing are skills which can be learned and the only thing which will stop anyone from acquiring these skills is lack of desire. I am living proof of that in fact actually showed some of my earlier work yesterday to a group I was delivering a workshop to and am hoping it gave them hope and inspiration as some of my earlier stuff was just awful and why would it be any different... I had no skill whatsoever, why would I think I would be able to paint when I had never done it before. But, I always knew and had both confidence and self belief that with effort and practice I would one day have more skill and would get better, and guess what... I did!! Amazing!!!