In this episode of Nela’s Art Chat I’m sharing the process of creating a drippy mixed media portrait in a sketchbook and talking about the difference between skill and talent. How can we recognize and use our own talents? What to do if you donʼt feel like youʼre talented?
Listen to audio only:
Full transcript is included below!
Tools used in this drawing:
- Fabriano Schizzi sketchbook
- Recycled book page
- Amsterdam transparent gesso
- Derwent Studio colored pencil
- Roman Szmal and Sakura Koi watercolor paint
- Caran d’Ache Neocolor II crayons
- Derwent Inktense water-soluble pencils
- Stabilo All water-soluble pencil
- Raphael Precision flat 8534 size 12 brush
- Raphael Precision round 8524 size 4 brush
- Pentel Aquash waterbrush (large)
- Spray bottle
Experienced artists are usually annoyed when someone tells them “You’re so talented”. While the person saying it means it as a compliment, we may feel like they’re discounting all the hard work that brought us here. We weren’t born with the ability to draw, or write, or make music. We spent thousands of hours doing what we love, and we got really good at it. Without the many hours invested, we wouldn’t be so good.
When someone says “I wish I was as talented as you” to us it sounds like an excuse and like they’re discounting our effort. As if they actually believe we possess a magical power that makes us so good at what we do. But our own work is proof that we used to suck, and over time we improved. The drawings I made when I was 4 years old are no different from other 4-year olds’ drawings. But because I kept drawing, I got better. And because I didn’t draw as much as some other people of my age or younger, I’m not as good as they are. It’s quite logical. The more work you put in, the better you get.
Talent totally exists.
It’s just not what non-artists consider talent.
Even some artists are oblivious to their own talent because they take it for granted, or they can’t even name the specific talent. It’s something that happens below the conscious level that we may not be aware we’re doing.
Some artists and art instructors conflate talent with skill. For example, artist Bobby Chiu tweeted once:
“Most talent is cultivated. If we put in enough effort, we’ll become talented.”Bobby Chiu
He’s using the word “talent” as a synonym for “skill”, which is… imprecise. That’s what happens when you’re not differentiating what your talents are from what your skills are. You think your talents and your skills are the same thing, but they’re not.
I didn’t know what my talents were until people started asking me to explain how I do something, and I found myself unable to explain it because I had no idea how I do it. I didn’t have a method. Nobody taught me how to do it, and I didn’t try to learn how to do it. I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t do it.
It’s not that the process became automatic like tying my shoes. I could break down the process of tying my shoes if I slowed down and thought about it. Talent doesn’t feel like a process at all. There’s nothing to break down.
The difference between skills and talents
Skills can be taught and learned.
They develop through consistent, conscious work.
You can acquire new skills in many ways:
- By reading a book.
- By receiving guidance from an experienced teacher.
- By observing how others are doing it.
- Through trial and error.
If you have a knack for teaching, then you can also teach others how to do it.
Example of a skill: I can reasonably accurately draw an inanimate object from observation because I’ve done it countless times and I’ve learned some methods like drawing geometric solids in perspective, and how the light falls onto the object and its surroundings. When I’m drawing from observation, I’m thinking about what I’m doing, and I’m looking out for errors.
If I don’t draw for a long time, my skills drop for a bit and I have to practice to get back to my highest skill level.
Talent is intangible and almost impossible to explain.
It’s extremely difficult to teach others, and to consciously learn. Talent is something we’ve picked up without trying, just by living our life in a specific set of circumstances.
I can find evidence of skill development in my early drawings and graphic design works, but I can’t seem to find any clear evidence when a certain talent appeared. It really feels like an inseparable part of me, more like a personality trait that’s always present in my daily life.
Example of a talent:
- How can I distinguish and name so many individual colors and shades?
- How do I know these two colors go well together, but those two don’t?
You might say “color theory”, but I could do this well before I even heard of color theory. I don’t know how I know it, I just do.
I have a hypothesis on how I developed this ability, but I can’t prove it. What I do know is that I always loved flowers and colorful insects, and I loved playing with fabrics and dressing up in my mom’s shawls… Did this influence how I perceive the subtleties of color? Do other people who loved nature and fashion items as kids also have this ability? I don’t know. Maybe it has nothing to do with it, or maybe I’m a tetrachromat—someone who sees a wider range of colors because of a difference in eye physiology. I will never know for sure.
Of course, it’s very likely that my color sense is better now than it used to be a decade ago, or when I was a kid—but I never struggled with it, I never consciously practiced it, and I couldn’t teach anyone how to see and arrange colors like I do. And I’m a really good teacher when I actually know what I’m talking about.
I can explain the color wheel and harmonies, I can explain cool and warm colors, I can explain color systems, but I still can’t explain how I know a certain color palette is harmonious. I just… feel it.
I guess it’s a bit like having a perfect pitch. I don’t have it, but I know musicians that do, and they’ve all had it from a very young age. You don’t need a perfect pitch to be a good musician! You can memorize the sound of each chord instead. But having the perfect pitch makes it easier.
I don’t remember learning my native language.
Because I was born in a country where this language is spoken by everyone, I just assimilated it. Learning how to speak my native language was a result of the circumstances I was born in.
But I remember learning English. I remember that I used to watch a lot of cartoons and TV series in English and that allowed me to pick up some words and American pronunciation, even before I started formally learning it in school.
I will always speak better Croatian than any foreigner who tries to learn it.
I will always speak worse English than any educated native speaker.
But it’s still worth learning foreign languages, even if we make mistakes, and even if we’ll never be as good as people who have been surrounded by this language since birth.
Talent is a bit like understanding and speaking your native language. Nobody was born with the knowledge of a language, but learning and practicing it was an informal process. Unless you have a disability related to hearing, speaking, or language-learning, it rarely involves a professional approach. By kindergarten, we can already string along complex sentences and have an intuitive understanding of the subject versus object of a sentence, how singular or plural works, before anyone explains the language structure to us.
Skill is like a foreign language. Because we were not immersed in it at an age when language acquisition is most effective, the learning process is more formalized. You can speed the process up by immersing yourself in a community of speakers, and attending a class, but it’s still going to take a lot of conscious effort.
So in its essence, talent can be a type of a skill. But it developed so early in our life and through circumstances that other people can’t recreate in their own life—because unlike language learning, we can’t know for sure what those key circumstances are.
One person’s talent can be another person’s skill.
Like I explained in the language analogy, we can learn at an older age what someone else had learned at a very young age. We may not become as good, but this is not a contest, and comparing yourself with other people is not useful.
Someone’s talent shouldn’t discourage you from attempting to learn a skill.
I don’t use any formal idea generation methods because ideas just pop into my head on their own schedule, but there are books upon books written about idea generation. Someone else has cracked that nut and developed practices anyone can follow and get results. Please, learn from people who developed these methods.
Skills and talents work together
A talent can push you in a certain direction, but it’s not enough on its own. We need to develop skills that will bring out our talent to the forefront.
I learned a lot of graphic design skills and I learned how to use graphic software, so I can make use of my “natural” talent for color.
I could’ve gone into fashion design and I’d have to learn a different set of skills.
Yeah, talent certainly gave me an edge, but I still had to work to become a professional.
My vivid and prolific imagination is a talent. I never worked on developing it, and I feel like I’ve always had it. I don’t know where my ideas come from, it’s just the way my brain works. I have theories, but absolutely no proof that the circumstances I grew up in helped me develop my imagination.
But being able to draw what I see in my mind is a totally different matter! That’s a skill that I still struggle with. Without this advanced drawing skill that took years to improve, I couldn’t share my imagination with other people. They wouldn’t be able to see what I can see.
Talents guide us to the best use of our skill
We’re drawn towards activities where our talents shine.
The word “drawing” implies a discrete skill, like all drawing is the same. But not all people are attracted to drawing for the same reasons, and not all people bring the same talents to drawing.
Drawing architecture and drawing cute animal characters require different personality traits and sub-skills within the vast array of drawing skills.
- Knowing how to construct objects in 1, 2, and 3-point perspective
- Being able to visualize and rotate complex 3D objects in your mind
- Immense patience
- Knowledge of physics
Designing cute animal characters requires:
- An upbeat personality
- Basic animal anatomy (so you can clearly portray different species – duck vs. goose, or fox vs. wolf)
- A good color sense
- Knowledge of facial expressions
- An appealing visual style
Drawing realistic people, or imaginary creatures, or landscapes, or complex fantasy scenes, or cartoons, or costumes, or surface patterns, etc. each have their own requirements. That’s why most people choose a few things they learn how to do very well, and are not interested in learning other things. We don’t have to know how to draw everything.
The so-called drawing fundamentals are useful, but there’s a bunch of people who never learned those fundamentals, and they were able to find a style that works for them and reach an audience that loves their work, because they used their natural strengths—their talents.
Talent can compensate for a lack of technical skill.
Some people are naturally funny. You can learn the joke structure, and you can practice improvisation, but most people who are super funny didn’t read a book or go to a class in order to become funny. They were likely the “class comedian” since elementary school. And when a funny person draws comics, most of us won’t care whether the characters are drawn well. We’ll laugh regardless.
Someone who is in touch with their emotions and very empathetic, and can figure out how to project those emotions into their work can develop any kind of visual art style, even abstract, and people who care about emotional depth in art will still get it.
Sense of humor and emotional eloquence can be increased if you dedicate yourself to it. But people who are the best at it, had a great deal of it from a young age, and that’s talent. That’s why “ugly” art can become popular—there’s something else that people value about it.
People who are highly skilled at drawing realistically sometimes look down on less skilled artists, especially if theyʼve achieved more success. To a skilled artist, it doesn’t make sense why all their hard work is not valued as much as someone’s scribbles. It seems unfair.
But art is about a lot more than skill.
You can be super-skilled and not such a great artist, because your art isn’t touching other people.
In order to create meaningful and original art, we have to lean into our natural strengths. When we say that “a student has surpassed their teacher”, it means that a student has discovered something within themselves that no one else couldʼve taught them.
This “special something” can even be perceived as a flaw by traditional teachers. I’ve heard stories about art school trauma. Teachers shaming students for using a certain style or technique… I can understand the desire to teach people proper technical skills. But we don’t all have to be Rubens! It’s the original artists that make a name for themselves.
In order to be happy with our creative work we need to acknowledge and use our talents.
Technical skill without an applied talent is just work without a soul.
You can be excellent at something and paid really well, and still feel dissatisfied because you’re not allowing yourself to express a talent. Certain talents are not accepted in certain professions. You may need an outlet like personal creative projects that revolve around your talents.
I know many engineers whose curiosity, precision, patience, visualization skills, and attention to detail made them excellent at their technical profession, but in their spare time they let their imagination run free in a way that they can’t in their job. Or they feel the need to build something with their hands, as many engineering jobs are digitized these days. I also know many former engineering students (myself included), who jumped ship into a profession that’s more aligned with our talents.
We can’t all make a living from all the skills and talents we have, that’s why I keep encouraging people to find fulfilling hobbies. To keep those talents alive, even if it doesn’t bring in money. Otherwise we may become resentful of people who are able to express those talents and feel sorry for ourselves.
Don’t ignore your talents as you’re practicing skills.
When I started learning how to draw for real, people admired my still life pencil drawings, but to me it was just boring practice. I didn’t even consider it “art”—it was just homework. Keeping up with that kind of practice was hard because I didn’t enjoy it. It didn’t stimulate my imagination. It had no relationship to the kind of art that I wanted to make.
In order to stay motivated and keep practicing, we need to include our natural strengths and passions as much as we can. For example, if I were to dedicate myself to a regular study of drawing people from observation, I’d find a way to include experimental, surrealist, fantasy elements into those portraits so I can have the satisfaction of doing what I enjoy the most, while I’m learning skills that will be very useful in my imaginary art.
If we practice our skills while ignoring natural talents, we may start feeling less authentic about our art.
- We may start emulating the style of our mentors and teachers, instead of developing our own.
- Making art may not feel as rewarding as it used to be when we were just creating for pleasure. It may even start feeling like a chore.
- We may get sucked into an echo chamber of artists who all value certain skills, and focus on gaining respect from those artists, at the detriment of following our own path.
All skills are valuable, but we don’t have time to learn them all perfectly. We need to prioritize those that make the biggest difference in the genre and style of art that we want to be creating. Our favorite genre and style of art are greatly influenced by our personal interests, and our talents.
What if you donʼt know what your talents are?
The tricky thing with talent is that we sometimes take it for granted, and don’t realize that other people struggle with things that come easy to us.
I had no idea until a few years ago that there are visual artists with aphantasia—a complete inability to see images in one’s “mind’s eye”. They still produce beautiful art, but they need to use certain workarounds. I thought everyone can see complex images clearly in their own mind!
I’m sure there are things you can do with ease that others would find difficult to learn.
- What do people compliment you on?
- What part of the creative process do you find easiest and most enjoyable?
- When you practice art fundamentals, what do you miss the most?
- What activities did you enjoy when you were a kid?
Answers to these questions can point to your talents.
Everybody has some kind of talent.
It might not be the talent that you wish you had, but it’s useful and valuable nonetheless.
When you discover what it is, you’ll be able to use it to your advantage.
Donʼt waste time wishing you were as talented as someone else.
For all you know, it could be a skill that they had to work really hard for.
If you want to get better at something, keep learning and practicing. Perhaps invest in lessons with a good teacher who will help you overcome your biggest hurdles to improvement. No matter what your starting point is, you can get better.
It’s pointless to wish to be like someone else. It’s also boring! Why would you want to be someone’s copy?
Each of us has something special to offer. Lean into your own special sauce and surprise us with it.
I’d love to see more people sharing their unique talents with us.Keep up the good work, and I hope I’ll see you again in the next episode of Nela’s Art Chat.
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.