Current research is now telling us that something other than high IQ and putting in lots of time makes for talent. New theories are ventured weekly, it seems, including such ideas as individual physiological differences like having the good luck to own an oversized connector between your left and right hemispheres. Some researchers are concluding there’s some sort of unique feature — some sort of “gift.”
Meanwhile, Malcolm Gladwell’s solution of putting in 10,000 hours is still alive and well.
In one recent study, psychologist K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University asked violin students to estimate the amount of time they had actually practiced since they started playing. The students (all aged 20) whom the faculty identified as the “best” players had accumulated an average of over 10,000 hours, compared to just under 8,000 hours for the “good” players and less than 5,000 hours for the least skilled.
My inquiries into cumulative painting times have met with dubious results. Actual working time of artists who told me they paint “all the time” ranged from people who paint twelve hours a day and keep track of it — to people whose studio door is always open. Recently I noticed a small painting on the easel of an “all the time” painter that she had signed and dated “1978.”
As far as I’m concerned, Professor Ericsson’s studies could only be confirmed by some sort of gizmo fastened within the violin that only counted the hours when the instrument was vibrating.
I once installed a timer on my studio chair that activated when I sat, only to find just how little I sat. Also, not surprisingly, sitting did not always result in painting. While contemplation-time counts, the “Genn Improved Patent Painting Interval Time-Tester” (GIPPITT) would only tally when the brush completed an electric circuit as it touched the canvas. How to avoid electrocuting the painter has not yet been developed.
Fact is, artists who keep track of time may be whistling Dixie. Keeping track of both finished and unfinished projects is a better way to measure progress. “Putting Paid to Projects” (PPP) is my new and improved measurement. A worker with 10,000 projects is more likely to be the one with the “talent.”
PS: “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.” (Emile Zola)
Esoterica: Some outside problem, inconvenience, disability or inadequacy may be needed to find the will to craft the work that finds the talent. Edward Bulwer-Lytton thought it to be simply “the will to labour.” At some point it generally requires some sort of solitude. “Talent develops in tranquility,” said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I think it may have something to do with innate curiosity. I’ve wondered if some people just aren’t curious enough to become talented. Whatever the mysterious thing called talent is, it is there, like Santa, by agreed consent. And however evasive this “gift” may be, most of us would love to have more of it. Perhaps unlocking talent is in itself a talent.
Total engagement in the work
by Dean Drewyer, Leesburg, VA, USA
A wonderful little book that touches on all this is called Life Work, written by Donald Hall — I highly recommend it. In it he relates some wonderful time he spent talking with Henry Moore and the paraphrase from (my) memory is that a sculptor can be tap, tap, tapping at a marble, day and night, and still not really be working – what is required is an absorbed-ness resulting from total engagement in the work. You will have to fine tune your invention for measuring to detect this engagement! Enjoy that book if you can find it.
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Painting-a-day pays off
by Kimberly Santini, Lake Orion, MI, USA
I’ve gotta say, the choice to become a Daily Painter (6 years ago) was one of the best decisions I ever made. Originally designed to allow me to explore and experiment with ideas outside of commissioned work, I allotted one hour each day to a smaller piece with no pressure to complete it. The project’s blog caught on, the artwork appealed to my collectors, and my entire studio operations shifted seemingly overnight to a self-sustaining model. While I was at it, the hours of practice accumulated and my knowledge banks grew. I’m closing in on that magic number, 10,000 hours, with roughly 1300 paintings created, but only now starting to fully realize the scope of what I have yet to learn! However, I look back at what I’ve been able to process during a relatively short window of time, and I am amazed.
Measuring your progress
by Randall Cogburn, Alvin, Texas, USA
The ability to learn from one’s mistakes I think is the key to becoming a great painter. That and focusing on what you’re doing. I’m mostly talking about painting that requires multiple levels of skill like brushwork, color matching, drawing etc. I think the artists who pick it up quick learn from their mistakes very quickly, while others need to hash it out. Kevin Macpherson’s Landscape Painting Inside and Out stated that one should be able to match a color he sees within 3 tries of mixing paint. Well I’m probably a 4-5 and that’s if I really try to match something and that’s in studio. If I’m plein air painting it might be 4-5 but that’s only if I’m not picky. One thing holding me back is funds to paint. I remember you saying to go for a 6 month painting spree but I don’t think I can work and not paint until I get enough money to go for a 6 month painting vacation.
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Hit by a Mac truck
by Mary Spring, Rochester, NH, USA
I was living in California for quite some time and painting weekly with a group. I would also keep my current painting on my easel with my oils at the side, and could not pass the easel without stopping and doing some “work” on the painting. I was very prolific and was increasing my talent by leaps and bounds. I was also attending SWA’s meetings and Demo’s on a routine basis, which helped. Well, 2 years ago, I was hit by a Mac truck and lost my job as a trauma nurse in the ER, due to my injuries. With the onslaught of depression, I stopped painting! (How odd that I didn’t turn to painting for healing). I have just started painting again, and have included water colors.
Now, with any other talent, if you don’t use it, you usually lose it… I am as good as, if not better than, I was before. I have taken to watercolors “Like a duck…” I think talent is a combination of many things: The brain hemisphere connection (I am ambidextrous) – Practice, practice, practice, and the deep desire just to create something beautiful.
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Passion more important
by Claudio Ghirardo, Mississauga, ON, Canada
I have met and known many talented individuals who never continued pursuing their “gift.” Interesting enough, I met many successful artists in many fields and they all told me that they weren’t that “talented” in the beginning of their career and had to learn their “trade” but it was something they loved to do and wanted to do it for the rest of their lives. I don’t believe it is the amount of hours you put in or a gift that makes talent. It is passion for what you do.
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The squandering of a talent
by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA
I have a friend who no longer draws or paints though she has a studio. She married excessively well which probably killed her interest. She did a large painting of a motorcycle rider when she was 17 that knocked my socks off. It looked like it had been done by someone with enormous talent who had been painting for years. It was a completely bravura performance with not a hint of amateurism. I was green with envy. However, she really did not like to paint because she was a very social person and disliked solitude. She became a very successful illustrator despite herself, worked only when she was paid and grudgingly. She only went to art school for a year but picked up techniques with alacrity.
Whenever I think of the question of talent, I think of her.
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Keeping track impeded talent
by Jill Charuk, Vancouver, BC, Canada
After renting an “outside” studio (outside the home) I decided to set down on paper how much work I produced. I gave myself a quota, at retail prices, to paint each month. I wrote down the sizes, medium, etc, of each piece and kept a running total. At the end of the year I had an impressive amount of paintings. I would say that this was my least favourite group of work in ten years. I became a poorer painter rather than a better one. There were successes, but forcing the work out didn’t work for me. It seems to me that something as fickle as my talent has its own time frame. I still spend lots of time at the studio but production has slowed way down. I feel better about that.
Camera setup follows process
by Maxx Maxted, Nimbin, Australia
I once set up a super 8 camera with a 10 second delay on each exposure at the Lismore Regional Art Gallery. This gave me a 3 minute movie of a 30 hour painting. I did another 30 hours in the studio to finish. I had a sketch of what I wanted but had no idea what the interlocking motifs or details would be. I took no references in with me.
My prediction was that the viewer would see me start in chalk then charcoal onto a toned canvas and then build up the painting through wash to solid passages, details and final finish, in a dull blur, realizing that the camera needs 12 frames at least in order to register an image on the retina and therefore I would not be clearly ‘in shot’ for very long.
To my amazement, on viewing the final result I saw that I started the painting in overalls and very quickly moved through a week’s worth of costume change but my image was consistently recognizable, as if I had been standing still for hours at a time while working from the same spot, perhaps conscious of the stationary camera but moving my arms?
by David Chesney, White Rock, BC, Canada
Bob Lefsetz writes a very fine blog along the lines of yours, but for people within the music industry. Here’s some material from his latest: “It’s 10,000 hours of HARD PRACTICE! Let me put it to you this way… If you spend 10,000 hours on the bunny slope, you’re never going to win the World Cup. You’ve got to challenge yourself, ski the double blacks, go out when it’s blowin’ and snowin’ as well as when it’s sunny and smooth. So you can play the riffs on the record, good for you. But can you play the riffs on the records you don’t like, that aren’t in your genre? Mutt Lange, the best record producer in the world, honed his chops, learned his craft by making soundalike records in South Africa. Speak to anybody who’s worked with him. Mutt can make the records himself — can you? Can you play the drums as well as the guitar? Jeff Beck plays without a pick — have you mastered his technique? It’s only when you’ve got all the basics down that you can fly. Have you written a thousand songs?
No, let me refocus this so you get it. Have you worked on your craft to the point of frustration? Instead of telling everybody how !@#$% great you are, have you gone to bed thinking you’re dog shit, that you just can’t get it right? If you haven’t had this feeling, you’re never going to make it.
Get off your self-satisfied soapbox and realize that all the masters slogged through shit to get to where they are. Don’t look at Justin Bieber and the TV wonders, they’re flashes in the pan, celebrities du jour barely different from the kids in the “Real World” house.
Play to the public. They know what’s good. And if you haven’t made it, chances are you suck. Or you’re just not good enough yet. Instead of complaining, go back into your bedroom and PRACTICE!”
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Dr Aniko Boda’s successful show
by Damar Minyak, Kansas City (area), MO, USA
A few weeks ago, your twice-weekly letter discussed a Dr Boda, of Hungary, in a blog that you called A Shrinking Violet. Since that time, I have traded emails with her a couple of times. First, to give her some words of encouragement after the horrible way I felt she was treated by some of your readers. (She informed me that she had also received some rather hateful emails from some of them.) Then, just this evening, she returned the following to me, in response to my enquiry about her exhibition:
The opening was on 9th of Dec., and it was a great success. I’ve never dreamed of so many people sacrificing their spare time because of me. I gave a little speech and organized a tiny show with reading Somerset Maugham and playing Grieg songs on guitar. An article was published in the local papers about the show and the municipality wants to publish a brochure of my work and biography. Students turned up asking me to teach them. I decided not to sell and not to put out a price list, though I keep receiving offers. I’m thinking on ordering giclée prints. The paintings will be there for 6 months, and after the show I’ll give the paintings to carefully chosen people to place them in their homes, but they will sign a paper that they have to return the works when I ask for them. I attach some photos, I’m the one with long curly hair and extremely red cheeks. (I was sooo nervous!)
Dear Damar, it feels so good you remembered me, your letter is one of my Christmas presents.
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Maroon Bells Magic
oil painting, 18 x 24 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Alex Nodopaka of Lake Forest, CA, USA, who wrote, “As usual I appreciate your venturing into cerebral electrostatic territory. I think you got something here: electro-statism!”
Enjoy the past comments below for Finding your talent…