Creativity Myths

I thought drawing and other forms of art were an expression of creativity. Teaching fundamentals and techniques strips all the heart out of it.

If you go to a ballet or concert with amazing dancers, you’d agree they are talented individuals.  But you’d never claim that they just woke up one morning and danced that way. Before someone can perform professionally in dance, he or she spent hours learning basic moves, how to put those moves together, how to strengthen muscles, all so they could perform better.  By the time any of us in the public see them dance in a way that makes our jaws drop in awe, they’ve sunk hours into basics, they’ve practiced moves until their muscles just react, they’ve rehearsed each step until it feels as normal as breathing.  And we sit there in awe, going, “they make it look so easy…!”
Art is not different. But for over a century now, it has largely been taught as a means of self expression without teaching the fundamentals which support the expression. That’s like shoving someone on stage in a dance outfit and saying, “express yourself!”  They might dance, they might dance alright, but they won’t do well.  We might say, ‘that’s all right, just dance better!  Look more closely!  Express yourself better!”  That won’t be much help. Some may like dancing enough to keep going and over time, they will naturally improve through sheer determination. But most will just say, “I can’t dance!  I give up!”  They will then watch those who like it enough to keep practicing, and, as the dancer gets better, the discouraged person might say, “I’m glad they have the talent. I wish I did.”
But in dance, as in art, if a teacher took both people and said, “hold yourself this way, move your feet this way, lean back this far…” both would improve.  It may be that the one who would have danced anyway will rocket in skill and ability, but the other will also improve dramatically, and will dance with confidence and joy. Whether they pursue dance professionally or not in the future, the knowledge of how to do so will enrich their lives.
In the same way, learning the techniques and fundamentals of art doesn’t strip the creativity out of anything.  On the contrary, learning how art works is no different than learning dance steps, choreography, or exercises.  The fundamentals give you the tools so you can more quickly and best create with the least amount of frustration.
I was one of those who learned through sheer determination until I got to high school and college, when I got instruction of the actual techniques.  Even today, as I research how art  works on the psychological, physiological and historical levels, I learn so many new techniques and my art improves.  I’d love to help you learn fundamentals and techniques from the beginning so you can improve ahead of your frustration curve.  Believe me, it is possible.
I don’t have any creative ability.
The late Steve Jobs, of Apple fame, is often quoted as saying, “Creativity is just problem solving.”  His co-worker, Ed Catmull, who is the President and Founder of Pixar Animation, expanded on that when he was interviewed for Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter, Faster, Better.
“’Creativity is just problem solving’. Once people see it as problem solving, it stops seeming like magic-because it’s not.  [Creativity] Brokers are just people who pay more attention to what problems look like and how they’ve been solved before.  People who are most creative are the ones who have learned that feeling scared is a good sign.  We just have to learn how to trust ourselves enough to let the creativity out.”
Creativity is really just problem solving: how do I show this?  How can I express that?  If I change these colors, what happens?  If I view this from the top, bottom, through the table, what could it look like?  And it can be scary.  It can take up time and energy, but it is glorious fun!  Everyone is creative in some way or another-art is just the way we think “creativity” looks like. But engineers, like my father, are creative-they have to design systems and machines to accomplish a goal. Gardeners are creative, they have to figure out how many and types of plants to fit in a space, whether its for food or beauty. Even Doctors and nurses and scientists are creative, for they have to solve problems like, “Given what I know about my patient and the symptoms they’re revealing, what could be wrong with them, and how do I treat it?”
Drawing will give you another tool for being creative, whether you want to spend your professional life surrounded by pencils and paper, or computers, or people, or laboratories, or classrooms. And you CAN draw. It’s just a skill, like cooking or reading.  It takes some lessons and practice and determination, that’s all. And in the process, you’ll discover your particular brand of creativity.

 Drawing is fine if you’re “Artsy”, but it’s not really practical for real life.

I love this one.  Some people look at me and say, “well, sure art’s okay for you, you’re an artist!  By definition, you have to know about art.  The rest of us in the practical world don’t benefit much from it.”
I’ve got news for you: I have an Art Degree.  But the strictest drawing instructor I ever had was not in the Art Department in my college.
It was my Zoology Professor.
Before I changed to art, some well meaning adults in my life (not my parents) encouraged me to pursue something more practical because all artists starve.
So I entered Taylor University as a Secondary Education Biology major.  I was going to be a science teacher.
And to my shock, my first several days in Zoology was spent under the steely eyes of an amazing woman who informed us that all  that science students should have basic art lessons so we could accurately record what we would observe in the world, including under our microscopes. And off we went, into the world of diagrams and lessons.
I can still hear her now:  “If you need to shade something, you stipple.  Don’t shade, don’t hatch, don’t scribble.  I won’t be able to tell if you really did see those hatch marks, or if you’re shading.  So stipple your shadows in, and we’ll all know what that is.  And when you stipple…”  Because of her, I can make amazing cell diagrams to this day!  But it wasn’t just her-watching a documentary about an archaeological dig, I noticed a shot of a number of archaeology students drawing a re-glued pot.  And they were meticulously stippling the shadows in!
I laughed.
But through other studies we know how drawing impacts people.
It makes them more observant.
It can help relieve stress. (The adult coloring books craze apparently started in France when Psychologists and therapists were looking for something to help calm their patients without yet-more drugs.)
It can help focus and memory.
It increases brain plasticity, which is the ability to learn new information and skills and use them in other ways.
In increases problem solving skills.  Because there is not a “single right answer” to an art problem, you learn to try different things. This  leads to increased problem solving in general, just as Steve Jobs and Ed Catmull (both of whom were/are very creative, neither of which were/are  professional artists!) said.
In short, even if you never want to be an artist, learning how to draw gives yourself a new set of tools to see the world and solve problems.  Try it!  You might be surprised!

Knowing how to draw won’t help me/my child get a job

Well, like the answer above, drawing and art in general, are just tools.  Some people love art so much, they decide to spend their personal and professional lives in the field.  But for the rest, it helps us learn to solve problems and think critically.  In drawing, you have to resolve multiple complex issues, like, “How does this thing fit together? How do I show the texture? How can I show movement, or sadness or…?” ) You learn to break down large concepts (like a portrait) into smaller steps (the overall shape of the head, the location of facial features, how to measure proportions to transfer to a canvas…).
Another thing to look at is how drawing is a universal language. Anyone can understand drawing on some level. Even today, thousands of years and languages separated from ancient peoples, we can learn about their cultures through the images they left behind in caves and tombs. If you’re stranded in Paris and draw the Eiffel Tower, anyone there would know what that is, and might be able to help you find it.
In the late 1700’s Ben Franklin advocated for a new, “American” education. The first thing to teach was handwriting, so ideas could be communicated between people.  But the thing of second importance wasn’t math, or history, or science.
It was drawing.

This was why:

“Drawing is a kind of Universal Language, understood by all Nations. A Man may often express his Ideas, even to his own Country- men, more clearly with a Lead Pencil, or Bit of Chalk, than with his Tongue. And many can understand a Figure, that do not comprehend a Description in Words.”
Again, we see how drawing, if nothing else, is a tool to help us communicate and understand each other.
As the 21st century dawns, more and more people are looking for employees who are good communicators, and  problem solvers.  I know I’m prejudiced, but I see a lot of that in art.  It gives me a universal tool of communication, and it forces me to solve problems in each composition or observational drawing.

Do you need to be talented to understand drawing?

This is sort of related to “I don’t have creative ability”, but talent is a little different.
Anyone who has siblings, or more than one child, or a group of friends, knows that we’re each wired just a touch differently. Some excel in logically based things like mathematics.  Others excel in languages, or storytelling, or yes, drawing.  That’s talent, the natural ability to just “see” the world through a certain lens.
But some researchers and scientists are making some really interesting developments in the definition of talent. And they’ve discovered something
Talent isn’t that important.
It certainly isn’t as important as hard work.
Let’s drop art and talk cooking for example.  Specifically, myself, my husband, and whichever professional chef of your choice.
I can cook, and cook well.  Since I do the cooking every day, I’ve had lots of practice. There are lots of people (other than my children, who, of course, hate everything that doesn’t look like a pizza, tacos, or hot dogs,) who think I cook very well.  But I am not a talented cook.

My husband is talented at cooking, but because he supports the family outside the house, he doesn’t get as much direct practice. That being said, he reads and researches food and techniques.  Because of his talent and knowledge base, he can go, “okay I have protein X, the contents of the pantry and fridge and 30 minutes,” and kick out a glorious dinner under those constraints. (Give him a couple days to prepare, and you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven!)


  I’ll look at the same kitchen and go, “I have no idea. I’m making spaghetti.”  I’m not talented, I’m practiced, and could probably out-cook anyone who rarely cooks. But my mind doesn’t easily invent new recipes or combinations of food or seasonings. My husband is talented, as practiced as me, but not as practiced as a professional, and can out-cook both me and my hypothetical competitors. He’s also the one who invents new recipes around here. 


But look at a world-class chef.  They are talented and work exclusively in food every day with passion.  There’s nothing about ingredients, techniques, or cuisine that they don’t want to learn. That’s what makes the world class.  Give them six random ingredients and a kitchen and they’ll invent all sorts of new foods that taste amazing.  If you don’t believe me, watch “Chopped”.

And yet, despite my lack of talent and passion, because of my practice and continuous work at cooking, I’ve become fairly good.  No one starves in this house.  They may whine about the lack of pizza, but they don’t starve!
Unless my husband read and practiced when he could, do you think he would be as great a cook as he is?  If the world-class chef of your choice had never entered the kitchen, would it matter that they were talented?
Same thing with art.
A person who has talent and naturally see the world through an artist’s eye will quickly, especially with deliberate training, get better.  They might be a Michelangelo someday.
But a person who had little talent, but is willing to learn and practice can still get better. With instruction and guided practice, they’ll get very good relatively quickly.
And they could even go professional at that rate. There’s more than one art historian who looks at Vincent Van Gogh (of Starry Night fame) as the type of artist with little natural bend to art, but through determination, practice and education, became an amazing artist.
Don’t let your lack of talent scare you.  Besides, until you spend some time in the “kitchen” of art, how do you know you don’t have the talent you fear you lack?