For ages, we’ve believed that those people who can do something utterly amazing-art, music, dance, engineers, architects, scientists, are just talented. They were born understanding how to draw, how to move to rhythm, how to put together structures, how to take apart complex problems to discover the solution.
And for those who feel that they’re “just average”, there’s no hope for anything more than an average life.
I’ve got good news and bad news for you.
Talent is real.
But it’s not the be-all-end-all.
In fact, without work, talent doesn’t help much at all.
Check out this photo.
Now, she is a talented dancer, on that, I’m sure we can all agree. But she isn’t so talented that one day she woke up and said, ‘I think I’ll be a professional ballet dancer today. I know I’m talented.’ When we watch a dancer or an athlete, or a musician, we know, underpinning their performance, were hours upon hours of drills, practice, rehearsal, and study. Yes, they’re talented, but they also worked incredibly hard.
But guess, what?
We’re discovering that even without “talent”, disciplined, directed work can still get you an amazing distance.
Vincent Van Gogh is often considered one of the greatest and most influential artists of the Impressionist Period. Many people consider him to be one of the best who ever lived.
But by some measures, he wasn’t naturally talented at art. He loved to draw. He filled his little brother Theo’s letters with sketches of the places he lived and the landscapes around him, but rarely drew people or perspective. He found it hard, and his sketches rarely turned out well. In fact, he thought drawing something correctly was “…downright witchcraft or coincidence…” (excerpt from letter to his brother Theo 2 April 1882). But to his younger, beloved brother, Van Gogh drew all sorts of things.
Theo had been the one to notice this tendency to draw, and suggested Van Gogh take up art after failing as an art dealer, schoolteacher, bookseller, pastor and missionary.
It’s one thing to sketch small things in letters to your little brother, but drawing full time–that was hard. Correct perspective was that witchcrafty coincidence. How could he possibly make a living being an artist?
He never did make that living, but art consumed him from that point to his death ten years later. First things first, he spent two years studying drawing. He read books, took classes, learned from other artists. Since he left behind so many sketches, we can see his improvement.
On the left, Van Gogh drew a sitting man in 1881. If you look, the chair is out of proportion to the table and the subject. The man’s legs are too long for the tiny torso, and the arm facing the viewer doesn’t appear to have an elbow-or bones. His writing hand is too large and much larger than the hand resting on the too-thin crossed legs (Are they crossed? It’s hard to tell).
I’m not saying this to be mean. This is the sort of critique (and worse!) that training artists have to live through to improve. To the right, just a year later, you can see how much Van Gogh has improved. The chair and man are in proper proportion. His head, torso and appendages are not only in proportion, they look solid and correct.You can almost feel the weight his arms support as he leans forward into his book. Practice paid off.
Even today, some consider Van Gogh to be a poor or average draftsman (that’s a person who is skilled a drawing), but you can’t argue with his efforts, or the results. His paintings are some of the most famous, and valuable, in the world. If Michelangelo was talent paired with work, Van Gogh was an example of how far sheer determined practice could take you.
So what does it take to learn to draw well? Patience, and deliberate practice. Talent will help you accelerate your progress, but even now, scientists wonder if “talent” is half real and half, “Oh, that turned out better than I thought. I’m going to try that again,”. The rest of us might say to ourselves, “That looks terrible, I give up.”
Which one do you think leads to better results?
But back to Van Gogh. I sort of lied. Well, not lied, as my Cytology professor at college used to say, I just oversimplified so much it became a lie. Van Gogh still thought drawing was hard, but, by the 1882 letter I quoted, Van Gogh had practiced enough that he no longer thought drawing well was coincidence. He’d learned, and practiced. Just read how excited he was about this discovery.
“What made me stop doubting is that I read a clearly written book on perspective, Cassagne, Guide de l’Abc du dessin, and a week later drew an interior of a little kitchen, with stove, chair and table and window in their place and on their legs, whereas it used to seem to me downright witchcraft or coincidence that one had depth and proper perspective in a drawing. If you drew just one thing as it should be drawn, the desire to attack 1,000 other things would be irresistible. But the most difficult part is taking that first step. If a painter took you by the arm and said: Look, Theo, this is how you should draw that field, this is how the lines of the furrows run, for this reason or that they run like this and not otherwise, and must be brought into perspective like this. And that pollard willow being this big, the other one further on is by contrast that small, and that difference in size can be measured this way or that and – look! if you fling that down on paper then the broad outlines are immediately correct, and you have firm ground beneath your feet on which to continue.”
[Bold text mine-italic text Van Gogh’s from original letter. Read a translated transcript with footnotes in its entirety here: http://www.vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let214/letter.html#translation ]