Tag Archives: making art

#Inktober and the Myth of Talent

I let myself be inspired by some friends on Instagram to participate in #Inktober: an ink drawing every day for the month of October, prompts provided. (What is it with October that lends itself so well to this “hashtag-something-tober” thing? #socktober, #inktober… For some reason we never do that with April or June. #sockril – hmm, yeah, maybe that’s why.)

I’m already late starting on #Inktober, so I definitely won’t do the “every day” thing, but regardless, it’s just for fun anyway. I do a little sketch, with a fountain pen with royal blue ink (i.e. ordinary German elementary school kids’ writing ink), and use my newly impulse-purchased waterbrush to blend it. And then I post it. 

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And boy, am I glad I didn’t actually look up the hashtag before I posted! Some people on there are ridiculously talented (like this, or this, or this). My little five- or ten-minute sketches look – urgh, so amateurish (I did a drawing of a wonky Lego brick for the prompt “build”, for crying out loud!). I don’t have that kind of talent, obviously. Had I looked at those highly accomplished drawings before I started, I never would have dared.

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But then – “talent”. What is talent, anyway?

The standard interpretation of the word is usually something like “ability”. “You’re so talented” means “You’re so good at this.” And I, for one, used to think that “talent” is inborn – you’ve either got it or you don’t. People like Mozart and Van Gogh and Goethe have it, and people like me don’t.

But I’m starting to think that that idea is nothing short of a myth.

I’m sure you know the story that Jesus tells of a man who goes travelling. He calls his employees and hands out some talents to them – five to one, two to another, one to the third. The first one does business with his five talents and earns five more; the second one makes two more talents; but the third guy just takes his talent, digs a hole in the ground and buries it. When the boss comes back, the first two guys give him back the talents with all the extra they earned, and he’s pleased with them, but when the third guy comes along with his freshly dug up dirt-covered bundle of unused talent, the boss is not impressed. “You could at least have put it in the bank,” he says, “then it would have earned some interest!”

Of course, the “talent” this story talks about was something a bit different than what we think of when we hear the word – it was a measure of weight and therefore of currency, i.e. weight of silver; Jesus is talking about money (and a great big whack of it, by all accounts). But as with any good story, there is more than one way to look at it. And in this case, you can take the word “talent” literally in its modern sense, and come to some interesting conclusions.

The worker who was given five talents went and used them, and at the end he’s got five more talents. The guy that only got one and was miffed because he got shortchanged never used his talent – he stuck it in the ground, left it to tarnish, didn’t do anything with it, and in the end, nothing came of it.

And that’s the thing about “talent” – yes, some are given more of it than others (some a lot more – see above re. Mozart, Van Gogh, Goethe etc.), but in the end, what matters is whether you use what you’ve got. I’ve heard it said that ability is 10% talent, 90% effort. Even the ones with big talent – the five lumps of silver – still need to put in the time practising it for the talent to grow. And even the ones with small talent can grow their gift by using it.

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Back to #Inktober, if I had seen the “talented” people’s posts first, I might have let myself be scared off. But that’s nonsense – it’s exactly contrary to what this event is meant for. It’s not a venue for showing off your gifts, but your efforts, which is meant to help you grow what you have. Whether that’s big or small doesn’t matter; what matters is doing it.

And anybody can do it. Well, okay, most people. You don’t think you’re one of them, at least where art is concerned? All right, there’s actually a test to see if you have what it takes. You didn’t know that? There is! You want to take it? Okay, here goes: 

First you need some equipment. Find a pencil and a piece of paper. Any paper will do – the back of an envelope or a grocery receipt, if you can’t find anything else. If you don’t have a pencil, use a pen or a marker.

Put the paper on a flat surface. Take the pencil in your dominant hand.

Put the tip of the pencil to the paper.

Now write your name.

Got that? Done it? 

Take a close look. Did you write your name? Yes? Not your next door neighbour’s name? Or your first-grade teacher’s poodle’s grandmother’s name?

Fantastic! Congratulations!

You have made purposeful marks on paper. Therefore, I can now tell you without a shadow of a doubt that you can learn to draw, and you are qualified to practise your gifts. You can even join #Inktober if you wish. 

Yes, okay, I’m being just a tad tongue-in-cheek here. But only a tad. You see, people have told me I’m talented. They’ve even said it about my #Inktober posts (yeah, I know). But it’s really a learned skill. Some twenty-five years ago, I started taking art lessons, after someone told me that you don’t go to art school because you’re good at art, but because you want to become good at art. That comment revolutionised my thinking, and allowed me to go after the dream I had of being able to paint. I took lessons, read library books*, watched videos, spent countless hours hanging out on sites like wetcanvas.com, generally obsessed on art, and this is where I ended up.

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And that’s why I’m being somewhat facetious about this “talent” thing. Don’t let yourself be scared off by the myth of “talent”. Do you want to draw, paint, write**, play the tin whistle, dance ballet in a tutu? Go for it!

It doesn’t matter how big the talent is that we’ve been handed, what matters is what we do with it. That way, even a small talent can grow into something big. And when it does – when a talent of any size grows up into something – it’s a joy to behold. Even if that “something” is only someone having fun with pen and ink on an October morning.

Life, the Universe, Inktober and Talent. What could you be having fun with today?

*My two favourite books for learning art were Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brainand Rudy De Reyna’s How to Draw What You See. I’m glad to see they’re both still in print; they’re well worth it.

**If drawing isn’t your thing, and you’re more into, say, writing, I have one word for you: NaNoWriMoIt’s coming up – just three more weeks!

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Just Me and Art

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Vancouver Art Gallery

It’s been quite some time since I got to be alone with art (I mean small-a art – visual constructions, not big-A Art – person named Arthur who had his name chopped down to a three-letter word; I don’t know any of the latter). But this past weekend I had some business to do in the big city – Vancouver, to be precise, a five-hour trip over the mountains – and when I was finished with what I had to do, I indulged myself with a visit to the Art Gallery.

It was lovely. They had a show of a collection that included works by Cezanne, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec, and another of Chinese art that examines the interaction of traditional art with the modern. It was in the latter, when I was standing in front of a marvellous work – an installation of ceramic art by Liu Jianhua – that suddenly a realisation took  shape in my mind: visual art is something I need to experience alone. Inside my head, I was having a dialogue with an imaginary partner, telling them (it’s not a specific him or her, or it, for that matter) what I thought of this piece – half-baked sentences that bubbled up and sunk away again unfinished as my mind walked through the visual realities in front of me and then moved on to the next piece, focused on seeing. I was looking, I was responding – I was, pretentious though it may sound, communing with the art work.

In the fabulous art instruction book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain author Betty Edwards talks about how visual art, or visual perception, primarily takes place in the right hemisphere of the brain, while the brain’s language centre is located in the left. Because of that, it’s not uncommon for artists to be unable to draw and talk at the same time. I know that’s certainly true for me – if I want to really focus on what I’m doing visually, my flow of words dries up.

I’ve had friends say “Let’s get together and make art!” Well, actually – that doesn’t do much for me. Sure, I have fun hanging around with friends and mucking about with art supplies, no question of that; but the result is practically never one of my better pieces, artistically speaking. If I am with another person, my thoughts are focused on that person – and as I think in words, by definition my brain is stuck in the wrong modus operandi for thinking of art. If I’m talking to someone else, I cannot communicate with the art.

So art is something I need to experience alone. In order to get the most of a visit to an art museum or art gallery, especially one of the calibre of the Vancouver Art Gallery, I need to be by myself. I need to be able to get stuck in front of a piece that grips me, just staring at it, letting it impact me, without having to get back out of myself and explain to whomever I’m with. It’s not that I don’t enjoy looking at art, or making art, with friends – but the experience of the art will be far more shallow than anything I could get on my own. I’d never realised it quite like that before – but for real depth, it has to be just me and the art.

So, what did you do last week? Me, I went on a date; we had some great conversations, myself and an installation of Chinese ceramics in celadon and oxblood glazes. We got real close.

Life, the Universe, Myself and Art. It’s got to be just the two of us.

2139PS: I wanted to post a picture of that marvellous Liu Jianhua piece, “Container”, but sadly, I don’t think it would be right under the fair use copyright law. If you go here and scroll down, the second picture on the left is of an earlier installation of the same work; at the VAG it was sitting on white ground, which made it even more amazing. But just so you’re not deprived of a photo of an interesting piece of pottery, here’s one of mine: “Squashpot, Untitled (2011)”. Yes, I know, it’s stunning.

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