If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Artistic Talent & Potential

The Myth About Talent

Art education isn't simply a matter of teaching students how to draw. An important component is unlearning, or myth busting, and one of the greatest myths is that artistic ability is a gift. Many artists get offended when they hear that word because they feel their skill is the result of years of practice and hard work. To quote Michelangelo:

"If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all."

Some even argue that talent doesn't exist. They say that you can achieve anything, if you put your whole mind to it. It's a nice sentiment, but there's one thing that contradicts it, something we've all experienced in our lives - the prodigy - a child who masters skills at a very young age.


Just take a look at these self-portraits:

Self-Portrait, by Parmigianino

Self-Portrait, by Giovanni Boldini

Self-Portrait, by Alexandre Cabanel

Self-Portrait, by Jana Schirmer

If talent didn't exist, then how could people learn to paint so well at such a young age? The answer is, of course, that talent does exist, and it is a gift of sorts. The misconception people commonly share is the extent to which talent matters.

What is Talent?

Talent is actuallly a very crude (nehotová) word. Its definition changes according to the topic. In sports, most aspects of talent are physical: strength (sila), endurance (trvanlivosť), agility (čulosť), long legs and arms, excellent hand-to-eye coordination, aim (presnosť). In music, excellent ears and long fingers are helpful. In modelling, a slim, beautiful body and face with a unique look are crucial (nutný).

But, the physical requirements for drawing aren't so challenging (nesu náročný). Drawing requires (žiada) two physical features where humans excel - eye sight, and hands. These are the two greatest, most specialised tools of the human body. Look in nature. What other animal has anything near our ability with eyes and hands? Most animals are color blind (farboslepí), and only a couple have opposable thumbs. Cats' vision is blurry (rozmazaný) as a trade-off (kompromis) to see better at night:

human vision vs. cat vision during the day

human vision vs. cat vision at night

The idea that a person isn't physically talented enough to draw is absurd. It's like a cheetah saying, "Oh, no, I don't run. But, you should see my brother."

Even in the situation where you have a physical handicap, it doesn't have to stop you. One of America's greatest illustrators, Robert Fawcett, was color blind. He would work in black and white first, and then hang colours on top, like clothes on a clothes line:

My mom told me she can't draw because her hands shake too much. Well, that didn't stop this guy:

A Talented Mind

So, assuming Parmigianino and Boldini had the same hands and eyes as everyone else, what made them talented? The answer is in the mind. Drawing realistically is not intuitive. There are several barriers (prekážky) you have to break through before your work begins to look right. Let's look at an example.

Here's how a beginner draws a vase:

Here, the student has focused on line, drawing as many contour lines as she could find, putting them together with no thought for perspective, symmetry, light & shadow, or background. She wasn't drawing what she saw, she was symbolizing it, the same way ancient Egyptians developed (vyvyjali) hieroglyphics. She was trying to simplify it (which is good), but didn't know where to start.

She's not alone. Every beginner makes the same mistakes:

So, the first mistake. Let's talk about perspective. Here's the vase from the first example:

And, what about symmetry? Well, there are two parts to fixing that. First, you must understand the structure of what you're drawing:

Secondly, you have to try very hard to make both sides equal. Here's a simple exercise that shows just how hard it can be:

from Betty Crain's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

Try making a mirror image on the right side. Does it look something like this?

I found this example here.

Drawing symmetry involves constantly measuring, remeasuring, and fixing mistakes.

One great barrier for beginners is they refuse to erase mistakes (odmietajú vymazať chyby).

They feel once a line is drawn, there's no going back. It has to be perfect the first time or start over. It's silly - ask any skilled artist.

Once you have the ability to see objects in perspective and measure them well, adding light and shadow is the next challenge - especially moving away from those contour lines. Let's take a look at how a great artist draws a vase:

Reflection, by Sasha Gorec

This vase has structure. It has symmetry. It's in proper perspective. And, where did all the outlines go? Let's take a closer look:

Here's another example by Nathan Fowkes. You see how contour lines are great for starting a drawing, but you need to hide them before the drawing is done (unless you're going for a less realistic style):

Anya, by Nathan Fowkes

Emotional Barriers to Learning

Those are the visual barriers for drawing. But there's also an emotional barrier, the frustration that comes with not being able to create what you want. The problem stems from the fact that, while...
...seeing light, shadow, perspective, and structure is not intuitive, but seeing mistakes is.
It takes no training to see when something is wrong:

But, in art, it's often hard to see how to fix your mistakes. It's easy to be embarrassed by your lack of skills, but you shouldn't be. Everyone starts out where you are, even the greats.

Remember, drawing ability is not equal to intellect.

Just because you can't draw, it doesn't mean you're dumb. It's just one area of your mind you haven't developed. Your brain is like a muscle, and it needs exercise. A key to improving is to stop judging yourself as you work:

Obviously, you're going to make mistakes. Learn to look at them without blaming yourself. As artist Michael Mentler says, "Don't try to judge your own work. It's really none of your business." And, also...

Remember, every artwork starts out looking bad. You have to keep working on it until it starts to look good.

Here are some examples - note how bad these works look in the first stage:

Another emotional problem boys tend to face these days has to do with image and machismo. Drawing is seen as a girlish activity. All I can say to that is, it ends after high school. It also ends once you start to impress people.

The Role of Talent

So, where does talent fit into all this? Well, Parmigianino and the other artists listed above simply started earlier and developed faster. Some had good teachers from a young age. Some didn't and simply developed on their own - it's not rocket science. Some people figure it out for themselves. I would say being talented at drawing simply means that the process is slightly more intuitive for some students than others. The barriers were a little smaller for them. Artists learn through little moments of epiphany (uvedomenie si), and the ones who are most determined experience this more often.

But is Talent Necessary?

Take a look at artist Jonathan Hardesty. Back in 2002, aged 22, he decided he wanted to be an artist, and began teaching himself. Here are some of his earliest studies:

Here's his first self-portrait:

Here's another attempt, his 50th drawing:

Here's his 100th drawing:

Here's number 200:

Here's number 278, after 6 months of daily drawing:

Here's after a year of daily drawing (number 520):

There's definitely improvement. The proportions are more accurate. The volumes are more accurate. The lines are more confident. But it's still student work. You might not think he could ever be great. Here's what he does now:

Jon Hardesty's an award winning painter and a teacher. And he's not the only one. There are many cases where hard work and ambition trump talent. If you can work through the anger and frustration, there's no reason why you couldn't be an artist.

Creative Talent

Everything I've said thus far relates to drawing ability. But there's far more to art than that. Drawing is about more than just copying what you see. In fact, the closer you copy something, the duller it can become. This portrait by Darrel Tank is very skillfull:

But, is it exciting? Is it more than a copy of a photograph? Is it memorable? To quote painter Chris Bennett,

"Two people can paint the same apple and one version is full of life and poetry while the other is just a listless indication that it is an apple we are supposed to be looking at. It's not what it is a picture of but how it is a picture of."

One of the rarest abilities of an artist is to combine draftsmanship with a rich imagination, to create new worlds that shock and surprise you.

Baba Yaga, by Min Hyuk Yum

War of the Worlds, Doomsday, by Jaime Jones
Ashling, by Donato Giancola
You have to develop your imagination at the same time as your drawing skills if you ever want to be a professional - because all the competitors can draw. Not everyone can create.

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