I had an interesting conversation about talent with my younger son the other day. (He’s an artist and you can see his work here.) He is very talented and also mostly self-taught, so he resists learning more about something he already knows a lot about. He has a particular style and genre he prefers, so convincing him he needs to draw things outside his wheelhouse is a challenge.
I get it. When I was a kid I wrote stories resembling The Outsiders and I drew horses. That’s pretty much it. I was good at those things, and not much else until I took writing and drawing classes, which years later led to careers in art and writing. Even so, I’ve been told I was talented since I was a kid in writing and in art. It always kind of bugged me. I’ve always felt my talent was middling at best, so it was never a compliment I trusted. Now I consider “talented” largely ignores what I have done and still do, which is spend years studying and learning and working my ass off to make my words worth reading.
So I put it to him like this: I gained valuable skill from blogging every day that influenced my fiction writing. Not all writing is the same, but some is universal: pacing, word choice, rhythm. I learned how aesthetics inform my writing: how words look on the page, the contrast between paragraphs and white space. Most importantly: blogging wasn’t precious. It gave me room to try and fail, in front of an audience, no less. It taught me efficiency and sufficiency. When you see your words every day in a more formal format than a private doc, you start to learn these things about your own process and style. So yes, dearheart, drawing a crumpled up piece of paper WILL inform your comics art.
And then it divulged into a conversation about talent vs skill. He was irritated when his teacher said anyone can learn the skills to make art. He argued talent is the most important (and why not? He’s got an abundance) and really, actually, essential. I said they were both right (which he didn’t like one bit). Art is no walled bastion for special talents. Besides, I posed, talent only translates into skill with a lot of practice and attention paid to craft.
Tougher to learn though, is drive. Blogging really helped me with drive, particularly because I had a decent, interactive audience to encourage me even when I wrote something stupid. Drive is essential because it translates into habit, which translates into hours and words. Because it does, for most of us, take a sheer quantity to get good. There are some ways to get there in writing. Write a story a week and try to sell them all. Ten thousand hours to proficiency is another theory. I’ve always thought of it as a million words, which I passed by blogging and fiction writing years ago (starting with the Outsiders riff I wrote my 13th summer). My kid has natural drive. By low, rough estimate, has made something like 5000 individual pieces of art in his short life, and that’s just one per day. It’s arguable he might have made close to twice that. The hours he puts in don’t stem from talent or skill so much as from drive. However, without skill that drive would likely falter.
Some might say investing such time or quantity will give you mastery; well, I’m not sure thinking of yourself as a master is so helpful as an artist. That way lies peril because people think of masters as being finished with learning. Masters know. Masters teach. But working artists are never finished learning.
I prefer to think of working artistic success in terms like honing your vision, proficiency, and salability. These are worthy goals and achievable by degrees. You create for yourself first, in any case. That never goes away, even if you are a top seller in your field. Euphoria in your creations, if you ever had it in the first place, diminishes bootcamp style to shoulder-to-the-wheel, satisfied exhaustion with occasional bursts of pleasure. Even sales are on a measurable scale achievable by degrees: money, markets, quantity.
This trifecta of drive, talent, and skill isn’t a three-legged stool. Nor are they some kind of Maslov’s pyramid. They really don’t require one thing as a base, though raw talent might be the base for a lot of us. Talent can give us the idea to even try for the other two. But at the end of the day, I think if you have enough of just two of the three, you probably can make some pretty damned good art.