Talent vs. Training

Da Vinci, Mozart, Durer…

We all know the names of these geniuses who exist on that level above everyone else. There talent simply is, an untouchable level of perfection that we can never hope to achieve.

Or is it?

As a young artist, I would stare at the works of Linda Bergkvist, John William Waterhouse, and Edward Burne-Jones and think to myself, “Gosh, I will never be that good. Why am I even trying?” There was something sublime and unattainable in their art that I felt I could never reach no matter how hard I tried.

As I grew older and wiser, I entered into the art program at university and was exposed to the flurry of line, shape, form, texture, and color that make up the rudimentary foundation for the whole of visual arts. It was true that there were some students who were better than others, but it soon became very apparent that even the worst student among us could be fantastic if they pushed themselves to practice and the best of us could get a failing grade if we became lazy and complacent and didn’t do our homework or strive to be more original in our thinking than what was required.

Also, it wasn’t simply the act of practicing either that led to improvement, but the combination of repetition in addition to the presence of a good teacher. An effective teacher can help translate the mysteries of the universe into a language you can understand. When we train ourselves, we are left to unravel the mysteries on our own and may not learn as quickly as we would have if we had guided direction by someone who has already been through the learning process. Teachers can show us the golden moments of realization that happened for them so that we might learn from theirs and arrive at our own realizations of understanding.

I say this because I’ve had so many other artists and friends look to me and say “I’ll never be that good,” or simply sigh and give up under the weight of what it takes for them to get from the point they’re at now to the level they want to be at. They all had the mindset that everyone was so much better, when we can be just as good if we work at it. A hard truth is that there will always be someone better than you because all artists are continuously improving, including the ones that came before and are already established in the industry.

Personally, I am not a believer in natural talent, of people who can just draw and have a masterpiece right off the bat. I define talent less as the ability to draw well and more the ability to come up with the idea that’s out of the box and to combine that idea with the expressive act of realizing it in painting, drawing, sculpting, or what have you. The true talent is in having the patience to push yourself to study and draw again and again and again until you’ve united the idea with the act of expressing it physically.

I have never seen a successful artist, or anyone in a creative craft for that matter, who isn’t 5% natural talent and 95% pure drive to succeed. If you have, than I guarantee they had an early exposure to that craft thanks to very encouraging parents.

So the next time you find yourself staring at another artist’s work and feeling insignificant while placing that artist on the pedestal of “thou has has recieveth talent without effort”, remember that they’ve probably had their own sleepless nights of staring at the art of someone they respected as well and practicing until their hands cramped.

We all have our nights of sighing and dreaming. Even now, I still sit, chin in hand, and stare at the work of Da Vinci and Kuniko Craft and think to myself “When will my time come?”

Still, perhaps it’s the dreaming that keeps us motivated to succeed?


  1. ban says:

    now while i agree that practice is a HUGE factor, i have to say i believe talent is an equal one. yes, one with more talent must practice as much as one with less, in order to get better, but there are those out there who have greater ability. and there are those with less. When I went to art school there were kids that kept sketchbooks, did every lesson, put in all the work, above and beyond but they could never hope to reach the level of those rare few who put little effort into their masterpieces. a dear friend of mine could draw ’till her hands fell off and she’d never be able to draw a person beyond the ability of your average 1st grader. i believe it is the same with writting … everyone needs to practice, to keep their abilities sharp but for some people things just come naturally.
    hope nothing i said came across as confrontational – was not my intent

  2. Angela Sasser says:

    No worries, Ban. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I don’t think you came off confrontational at all.

    I too had, and have, friends who seem to hit what I like to call ‘the wall’ in their skill, but I don’t consider that a lack of talent, I consider that moreso the fact that they haven’t found that key angle that will help them understand what it is they want to achieve. Sometimes, people are just stuck because they simply cannot find the right key to fit a particular keyhole.

    I do think the degree of natural talent comes into play with the way a person learns and absorbs a certain skillset. Some may pick up on how to do things a little easier than others, but that doesn’t mean others can’t, in my opinion anyways. It’s just harder for others because they have a different style of learning and varying levels of patience to learn said skills.

    I still think that ‘natural talent’ as a term is far too empirical and leads to the illusion that all one needs to succeed is to be a ‘natural’. It can lead to talented folks being lazy and others quitting before they even try because they believe they don’t have that magical joo joo called ‘natural talent’.

  3. ban says:

    interesting way of looking at it – guess that’s where the good teachers come in … they are able to help those struggling see things in a new way and hopefully overcome those barriers. and yes, i agree the term ‘natural talent’ can be a wall to those who think they lack any.

  4. Angela Sasser says:

    There were many revelations that came to me when I was researching learning styles at the Writing Center I used to work at that helped to open my eyes a little. It seems like some of us are more easily equipped to be artists because we have a Visual learning method. We can process and interpret visual symbols better whereas others might find it frustrating and would rather see it spelled out in words. That is not to say that all visual learners are artists, but it seems to help!

    Now what I’d really like to know is why some people are like this and others aren’t? Is it genetic? (everyone always tells me I get the talent from my mother, who was interested in art) Or is it a style of learning we can learn if we’re conditioned at an early age?

    I’d love to see some studies on that. Ohh if only I were a mad scientist with her own lab…

  5. Hayley E. lavik says:

    I read an article for Gender studies class a while ago about an interview with an australian athelete (analyzing his interview for what he was saying about masculinity), and he talked a LOT about ‘natural talent’. What the article said was that his defaults to natural talent, ability, and the like, were actually buzz-words his coach had taught him, and he was overlooking the incredibly rigorous practice he’d undergone since his early teens. I think a term like natural talent can be a way to buoy someone up so they think they have the advantage and have confidence, and likewise a way to undercut the competition who don’t have natural talent.

    I do think there is some measure of talent involved, but I agree with you that it’s moreso a matter of having a good teacher to help you along. I think ‘talent’ is a way of seeing or thinking, a way of working your brain, and some people’s brains work better one way than another. With help though, I think you can learn new ways of thinking or seeing. I think I could probably get a lot better in my art if I devoted more time to it, the way my writing improves, and also if I found someone to help me get to that a-ha moment. I hoped I would with that drawing course I took, but it really fell short of my expectations.

  6. Fayn says:

    Good points, I do believe that there is natural talent. Of course my definition of natural talent is a little different from yours. I believe that natural talent is just the ability that everyone has to do something. There is always something that people are good at from the start, but to remain good there needs to be training or else its just, as I see it, a one hit wonder

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