Thank You, But Please Don’t Call Me ‘Talented’

Text: Thank you, but don't call me 'talented'. Image: Illustration of Gen the turtle (left), watching Amina the hedgehog (right) pouring tea from a teapot into a teacup.

Hello friends. No pond friends today, though I thought I’d draw Amina and Gen together because this is going to be an art and discussion post. 🥰

Before I begin, I want to make it very clear that I have appreciated every single compliment and praise that I have ever received about my art. I am acutely aware that the support that I receive from everyone in this community has inspired and motivated me to continue my art, and has been integral to my growth and exposure as a small artist.

No matter their content, I understand that compliments and praise come from a good place and mean no ill intent. Therefore, if you have ever expressed your support for my work, liked my work, retweeted my work, shared my work – thank you. Please, please know that I appreciate you, appreciate your support, and am grateful.

On Praising ‘Talent’ and What ‘Talent’ Means

“You’re so talented!”

“I wish I had your talent!”

Friends, let’s talk about the word ‘talented’ and how we use it to praise an artist’s work.

I know when people tell me that I am talented and that they wish they had my talent, I know that it comes from a good place. I know that this is praise, and that I should appreciate it. The thing is, I do appreciate the good intent and I appreciate the support – but I’m also, at the same time, uncomfortable with being called ‘talented’. And whilst there may be some artists out there who don’t mind being called talented, I also know that I’m not the only artist who feels this way.

Talent implies an inherent ability or a natural affinity for something. It implies that a person is naturally better at something than others because their skill is significantly better than others. It implies that this person is special because they got lucky and can do something better than everyone else. ‘Talent’ seems to imply that there exists two types of people: those who are ‘talented’ or are ‘not talented’ – which is so strange, because do we still truly believe that human ability is so simple, so rigid, so predetermined?

What are you telling artists when you tell them that their talent is the reason why their work is so awesome?

There are certainly people who are ‘talented’ – there are people who have a natural skill that exceeds ordinary expectation or ability; there are people who will pick up a pencil for the very first time and will just produce the most incredible art. But these people are so incredibly rare.

Here is a pill that people find difficulty swallowing: a lot of artists out there are not ‘talented’ nor were they born with this innate ability to draw well. Rather, the artists that you call ‘talented’ are hard-working and persistent individuals who have poured hours upon hours to improve their craft – and have succeeded in improving.

Maybe you didn’t mean it that way when you called an artist ‘talented’; you didn’t mean that they didn’t work hard. And honestly? Most artists get that. We get that you’re just trying to compliment us and that you’re just trying to be nice. We get it. But, I implore you to reflect on what you might also be saying, intentionally or not, when you call someone ‘talented’. I implore you to try and understand why ‘talented’ tastes bitter from the artist’s point of view. I implore you to critically examine why you perceive art as something that is about talent, something innate and inherent and something that you are born with. I implore you to see art as something that is a skill, something that can be nurtured, something that can be improved over time.

Art is a Skill, Like Anything Else

So one day, you decided that you wanted to create amazing art too. You picked up a pencil, drew a few things, and perhaps after a few hours of trying, you decided that you were not cut out to be an artist because you did not like what you drew. You decided that you had ‘no talent’.

But what if you had kept trying?

Like playing a musical instrument dancing, writing, and the ability to slice vegetables super fast like all the chefs on Masterchef do, art is a skill. Drawing and art is something that, given a lot of hard work and time, you can improve over time. Producing good art requires learning and having a good grasp of basic art skills before you drawing something bedazzling; basic skills entail learning how to draw good lines, learning how to shade, draw good line-art, understanding perspective, human anatomy, how lighting works – so, so, so many things. Likewise, you wouldn’t expect someone who has never driven a car before to hop into a car and pass a driver’s test on the first go – to become a competent driver, driving (for those able to do so) requires practice.

Art, like any skill, requires practice; hours and hours, and days, and weeks, and months, and years of practice. Practicing is not fun either – it is riddled with failure and self-doubt and challenges that test your ability and make you question yourself on whether you can ever improve. Sometimes practice makes you feel like shit. It can feel scary because the prospect of failing can be paralysing.

There may be factors that limit your ability to improve – whether it be a disability or access to resources to produce art, and any of these reasons are valid. Nonetheless, everyone’s journey and experience with art will be different. What tends to be the same, however, is that improving art can be painfully and unbearably slow, and it is incredibly difficult to ‘see’ growth as it happens. Growth is different for everyone and means different things to everyone. But practice is absolutely and positively correlated with improvement over time.

I thought about the number of hours per week that I spend drawing. As a hobby artist (which means that I don’t do artist work full-time), I probably spent about 20 – 25 hours on drawing this week. (And, of course, the hours I devote to drawing vary week by week as my responsibilities and commitments to other things in my life change.) And even though I devote such a significant amount of time to practicing (most of which I don’t show people – and perhaps I need to change that and be more transparent with my practice pieces?), my progress and improvement is still extremely slow. But when I look back at the pieces that I did only one year ago? I have improved, without a doubt.

Talent isn’t the thing that has made me a better artist. Persistence, practice, and hard-work have made me a better artist.

Here’s a challenge for anyone here who doesn’t agree that art is not about ‘talent’: To those who think they don’t have ‘talent’ – if you really want to get good at art, devote 10 hours a week to improving your artistic skill. You may start only being able to draw a stick figure, you may start with an already decent grasp of how to draw. Either is valid, and it doesn’t matter where you start. But if you don’t see any improvement after a year of genuine effort, I’ll concede that there is no hope for you and that you are hopelessly un-talented. (Spoiler: you will improve, you will be fine.)

You see a finished piece; artists see the process

I get it. When you look at a piece of completed art, you think, “well holy shit, this piece is so good and this artist is so good, I cannot imagine ever drawing this, they must be so talented to have accomplished this”, and so your answer to their incredible ability to produce something so beautiful must be ‘talent’.

But the thing is, what you see is a completed piece. What you don’t see is that a lot of artists have devoted a lot of time to and have worked hard to get to where they are today (and with still so much room for growth!); what you don’t see are the many discarded drafts that will never see the light of day; what you don’t see are the many failed attempts and the projects on hold because an artist’s ability doesn’t quite match their vision yet; what you don’t see are the hours spent trying to finish it, so that we’re happy with it. What I am saying is: the art process is messy as heck, riddled with mistakes and continuous effort to produce something that is perfect and presentable. What we present and share with others is a curated process.

Are you starting to understand how dismissive and reductive the compliment ‘talented’ can feel to an artist who has poured their energy and soul into improving their craft and have pushed past all the challenges and struggles to get better?

Art is messy. Art can be such a struggle and it can rip your emotions to shreds. Art, for me, is a lot of self-doubt but forcing myself to keep trying because if I don’t try, I won’t improve. Art is consistently trying to unlearn the talent myth and being terrified that my latest piece will be my peak, and that I will never improve. (I might write a post on this one day… maybe.)

But look. Below are the first drawings I did after my seven-year hiatus from art, on May 2017. The mermaid on the right was something I drew to the best of my ability.

And below is one of my most recent fanart pieces that I did for Descendant of the Crane, on April 2019 – two years later. My ‘best’ now looks different.

Hesina in gold and red hanfu, surrounded by cranes taking flight.

(Do you need more convincing? I highly recommend going through these incredible before and after pictures that show how artists have improved over the years.)

Drawing makes me so happy and it’s something I am so passionate about. And because I love art and I want to grow as an artist, I have invested a lot of time into it, I have worked so extraordinarily hard to grow and get better, and I have grown – a lot. It wasn’t talent that got me from May 2017 to April 2019. It was hard work, time, effort, perseverance, my love for art – things that are so much more complex than ‘talent’.

And I’m still growing, and my best is going to look even better in 2021.

Some Compliments That You Can Use Instead!

So thank you for your good wishes, thank you for your compliments, and thank you for your support. But please, don’t call me ‘talented’.

But that doesn’t mean that artists don’t enjoy compliments. In fact, we do! Artists love compliments! And if we’re sharing our art for you to enjoy for free*, it’s likely that we would love to hear your compliments and would appreciate it immensely.

(*And no, reposting art is not a compliment! Artists hate it when you repost our stuff!  And for those of you are not clear on the subject, here is a great post that covers what ‘reposting’ is, and here is a FAQ on why reposting is bad and really harmful for artists.)

The next time you’re scrolling through social media and you come across a great piece of art, you can show your appreciation by using one of the following compliments instead of ‘you’re talented!‘:

  • You are such a great artist! [works every time!]
  • I really love your art! [this makes artists happy!]
  • Your art is so cool! [a great compliment!]
  • Great job! [short, simple, and kind!]
  • You have put a lot of work into this piece and it has paid off! [validates our hard work!]
  • Congratulations! This is an accomplishment! [cue warm fuzzies!!]
  • You are awesome! [this is so nice!!]
  • This art could step on me and I’d thank them for it. [fun, chaotic, we’ll love it!]

Friends, the last thing I want you to do is to think back to all the possible times you might have told an artist that they were talented and whether it upset them. IT’S FINE. The last thing an artist needs to hear is that you are sorry for calling them talented. It’s awkward. The artist probably doesn’t remember anyway.

And if you want to continue using ‘talented’? That’s your choice and I’m not here to stop you! But I hope this piece has given you my perspective, which is one of many, on why ‘talented’ can feel a little uncomfortable.

Just — before you call the next artist or their next piece a work of ‘talent’, take a moment to think about what you might be saying when you call an artist ‘talented’. And then, tell them that their art looks great. It’s simpler and we’ll love it all the same.

33 thoughts on “Thank You, But Please Don’t Call Me ‘Talented’

  1. I’d like to apologise if I have ever said anything along the lines of which you’ve mentioned here. As you said, it does come from a good place, but it’s also important to acknowledge when things create negative feelings, and I’m really happy you chatted with us about this today. I really do love your art very much and I think you will get better as you keep going at it. I recently (a few months ago) finally started doing art myself. I’m very newbie, but I have noticed that practise makes a world of difference. It’s hard work for sure, and it can be more challenging for some individuals versus others (something an artist friend of mine and I discussed a while back). I appreciate your passion to keep with up something that inspires you and allows for creative expression. Always wishing you the best, CW. Thanks again for this chat. I will be more aware when I engage with artists and creators moving forward. ♥

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  2. As a decidedly UN-talented musician who earned every note through bookoos of hard work, I totally get where you’re coming from. My husband, on the other hand, had talent by the boat-load and breezed through both of his music degrees. Talent is a funny thing.

    I love your art! Though I’m well aware of the hard work that went into it, I’m still always amazed when I see something so outstanding. You have a great art style and you execute it *very* well.

    Like

  3. Points have been made tonight, CW. I’m so proud of you for posting this!! Every word of this just hits the right spot. I know I’ve made the mistake of calling people ‘talented’ before and though I try to avoid it as much as I can, sometimes, I say it. I’m going to make more of an effort to avoid using that word in the future.

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  4. Really interesting post and interesting views on talent! I completely agree with you. I don’t know much about art but I do know something about sports and gymnastics. In sport there is a tendency to overuse the word ‘talent’ and use it incorrectly. There is also a tendency to select people into groups of “talented” athletes. (people do this even to children who are only 10 years old, which I think is wrong in so many ways) By doing so I believe you say that the other group don’t have talent. Maybe they just develop slower or haven’t been practicing for as long.Of course there are, as you say, some people that are naturally very good but that is a very few people. (Probably in elite sport I think that number will be higher) However I still believe “talent” is overrated and overused. I believe in practice and in hard work whether it is within sports, arts, or something third. Practice makes perfect!

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  5. Your improvement is sooo amazing. I totally agree with you. Yo don’t learn anything if you don’t try or practice as much as you can. I am learning korean and like any skill it requires patience and hard work! Your process is amazing and the descendant of the crane fanart (I will read it soon) is amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for writing this post, CW! I’m not an artist, and even though everything makes perfect sense that you’ve written, it somehow never even crossed my mind. *hides* I have artists friends and I’ve seen all the hard work and effort they’ve put into their craft through the years – and I’m 1000% sure I don’t even know the half of it – and I’d never want to hurt them, or make any artist feel like I don’t see/appreciate all that they pour into their work. Again, thanks so much for posting this!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re totally valid Veronika, don’t worry! I totally understand why it wouldn’t cross people’s minds, and some artists don’t even mind when they’re called talented! So it’s a mixed bag.

      Tbh, your artist friends probably know very well that you support them, and that goes a long way. They’re lucky to have you. 💛

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow, this post left me with a lot to think about.

    I’m a writer, so I definitely relate to a lot of what you said here. Art and writing takes SO MUCH WORK and most of it is the kind of work that doesn’t get appreciated, because people don’t see how much work truly goes in. And while I’ve never really balked at being called talented (it doesn’t happen to me all that often, tbh), I can understand why it’s actually really not a great compliment. Honestly, I think the concept of talent is incredibly harmful to artists of all stripes. If success is based on talent, then some people will be successful, and the rest of us, well, we’re kidding ourselves, or art is just a hobby. But like you said, being a great artist is a lot more about doing the work, about showing up to the page or the sketchbook or whatever it is and trying to get better.

    But on a side note, I really do love your art. I hope you keep making art for a long time – it puts so much joy into the world. And thank you for writing this. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for such a thoughtful comment, Christine!

      Absolutely! Any creative pursuit – or any pursuit in general, I suppose – takes a lot of work and effort, and that’s definitely a process that a lot of people don’t see.

      “If success is based on talent, then some people will be successful, and the rest of us, well, we’re kidding ourselves, or art is just a hobby. ” oh my god. YES. This thought is a daily battle for me, and it can be so tough. Because often the ways I defeat myself are thoughts like, ‘I’m not cut out for this’ and ‘I’m not good enough’, which is so counter-intuitive to my own philosophy of improving? Ugh it’s rough!

      Aw Christine, thank you!! That makes me really really happy, and your supportive words inspire me. 😭💛

      Liked by 1 person

      • It sucks that we both have a lot of the same hang-ups when it comes to self-defeating thoughts… but it’s honestly so nice to know that I’m not the only one who struggles. Every time I open up to others about my creative struggles, I feel like people respond so well, with understanding and “me too.” So I always appreciate reading posts from other creatives, whether it’s visual artists or musicians, etc. It’s so nice to know that there’s an aspect of universality to our struggles. And for what it’s worth: the work you put in pays off, and you’re doing amazing. Keep fighting for your art ❤

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I think people do have talent, a natural affinity, to some task, passion, etc., but I think it’s unfair to judge people by it?? Like by saying “you’re so talented”, I wholeheartedly agree that you might be missing all the hard work that goes into it. I’m not an artist, I’m a writer, but I can also see that any creative arts take a LOT of dedication to achieve. Without hard work I believe you can go nowhere in art, or any kind of pursuit tbh. Plus it’s honestly so discouraging to people with “less” natural inclination.

    Thanks for the post! <33 It felt needed and also gave me a lot to think about ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Miri! I totally agree with you. I think as a society, we are very enamoured by the concept and idea of talented people, and people who are just so gifted, that we fail to see that… well… with hard work, we can get there. It’s almost like a cognitive dissonance.

      And heck yeah! Even writing; I imagine it takes a lot of work and time to nurture your skill, and I hope your writing is something that you are proud of because of all the time effort you’ve put into it. 💛

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Not-so-fun fact: I had an unfinished draft I wrote last year titled, ‘Talented is overrated” but I couldn’t finish it without sounding ungrateful or a snob.

    Which is why I truly appreciate you writing this! I am one of those artist who find it kinda uncomfortable when I’m told I’m so talented. But what irks me more, I guess, is when someone also says something like, “I’ll never be good as this.” I feel like saying this is being unkind to me and my years of practice (albeit unintentionally) but most importantly, that this is being unkind to their own selves too.

    It’s sad that the burden of artistic creativity is somehow given to a select few when really, it’s a skill that also needs to be nurtured and put in effort.

    You asked if you should be transparent with your process? For me, as someone who (for the lack of better term) “consumes” art, I would love to see this. But as an artist — and a perfectionist at that — I know full well how pressuring it could be to share this part to the world. At least, it is for me. Whichever you decide to do, I’m sure is the best one for you.

    Such a great discussion, CW! Thank you for writing this 🙂

    Oh, and — I love the dreaminess in your art!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kate!!

      Oh heck, believe me, I wrote this with so many mixed feelings. I totally get you though – I wanted to articulate these thoughts and my perspective without coming off ungrateful — and telling people how to be grateful thoughtfully made me worry that I sounded like I was ungrateful? So I totally get it.

      I relate and understand completely! For me, it’s definitely more than they’re unkind to themselves. They absolutely can do it, even if it takes more time than usual. And it’s frustrating when you encourage them (because they clearly want to get good) but they’ve already defeated themselves. gah!

      Oh heck, you really understand. Showing progress and my failures is a terrifying idea to me, even if I know most people would be very supportive. It’s like… sharing a very vulnerable side, particularly since sharing art is such a deliberate and curated process! Maybe I’ll work up the courage to it eventually.

      Thank you so much! I’ve never been praised for the dreaminess of my art but… thank you. I think that’s something I want to develop in my art one day. 💛

      Like

  10. I remember you tweeting something to this effect and it really made me realize how careless I was being with complimenting artists by calling them talented. Now I make the effort to compliment you and other artists by acknowledging the hard work and effort you all put into being the best artists you can be.

    Thank you for sharing this piece AND your art with the world, CW! You are, as always, amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aw, Kate! You’re a gift. And to be honest, it’s totally okay. I think it’s just a knee-jerk reaction sometimes to praise a person for their talent/ability, and it’s quite… normal? understandable? to not really realise the implications of it!

      Thank you Kate!! You’re amazing too and I appreciate you. 💛

      Like

  11. This is so true! And I am relating so hard right now. I was once an artist too, but I was never very good (rather, I had a friend who was constantly just that lite bit better and it crushed me, and I stopped. Maybe for the best.) But even if I don’t draw anymore, why I’m relating isn’t art because that’s deep in my past now – this applies to basically EVERYTHING. I used to be a super good student when I was young. Like, honors and everything. It would drive me crazy when people would just offhandedly say, oh, you’re so talented, you don’t have to do anything to be so smart. I wanted to scream because I studied so much I had no free time to even socialize. People simplify this so much! I also spoke 7 languages at some point, and whenever people would hear that, they’d be like, oh, you’re a genius! Wish I could do that! At some point I started replying, YOU CAN. Just stop being lazy and spend 3 hours on language study EVERY DAY, you dickhead. I’m no more special than you. Of course, that didn’t go down well. Until at some point I stopped studying those languages so it wouldn’t be a thing about me anymore and people wouldn’t have to know.
    It’s crushing when they think that you don’t need to do anything to get where you are. I don’t think anything works like that. I don’t think even beauty works like that – beautiful people invest so much time into their physical looks and we all just assume they were “born that way”. Meh.

    Anyway, good post! And I’ll definitely be checking out that before and after list!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Evelina! I’m sorry for your past experiences, and I totally, TOTALLY, understand how hurtful and undermining it can be when people reduce your time and effort into an arbitrary construct like ‘talent’.
      It definitely sounds you worked your butt off to achieve everything that you did. That’s something you should be so proud of, even if it was in the past. 💛

      I hope you enjoy the before/after thing! I thought it was really inspiring, so have fun!

      Like

  12. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, CW! I never realized the implications of “you’re talented”, and I’m grateful that I’m able to see it now. I don’t think I’ve ever personally had a problem with it when it came to my writing or dance or music playing, but I feel like if someone ever told me I was talented for my art, I’d feel the same way as you do? (It’s probably because I haven’t been doing art for as long as the other art forms I do, but still weird haha.)

    I’m so glad you decided to post this; your voice and your words are so important and I hope you don’t feel as nervous to post something like this in the future because we love you and want to support you in the best way possible!! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s so valid, May!! And if you don’t have a problem with ‘talented’ being used as praise, that’s totally cool and valid as well!!

      That means so much to me. ;~; I don’t really know what I’d do, or be doing, if I didn’t have your and everyone else’s support. I appreciate you sm!! 💛

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Ahhhh thank you for posting this and sharing your perspective on these words!! This is such an important post and also, you are SO amazing at art and skilled and just,,, really good!! I’m so proud of you for posting this, for putting so much work into your art, and for sharing your beautiful illustrations with the world. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  14. oh my gosh I am so completely in agreement, and you’ve expressed this better than I ever could. personally I believe that talent exists, but its effect on someone’s work (whether that’s an art or a sport or something else) works in tandem with hard work and learning – and as you mention, so many people manage to create wonderful things through a lot of practice and persistence. they don’t coast on innate ability.

    my mom sent me an article a few years ago about how girls in particular tend to develop self-esteem issues because we’re praised for traits beyond our control (being pretty, “smart,” and yup, talented) and when we don’t feel like we live up to those standards, a lot of the time we don’t know who we are or who we should be. it really hit home for me then, especially having been called a “talented” writer by classmates and teachers for years (mostly just because I was good at grammar and spelling, to be quite honest), and it still rings true to this day. the mechanics of writing come relatively easily to me, in large part because I was lucky to have parents who read to me and helped me get access to lots of books, but I put as much thought into the content of my essays, as much time into rewriting and reorganizing, as anyone else.

    I especially love the list of alternate compliments you’ve included, because I agree that most people mean well and just don’t realize the implications of complimenting “talent” instead of hard work! I myself have probably been guilty of defaulting to “you’re so talented!” at some point, just because it’s become one of the go-to compliments; it’s definitely something that I’ll be more mindful of, going forward. thank you so much for writing and sharing this post 💕

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for sharing your perspective and your experience, Isabelle! I totally agree with you. You make such a good point about women being complimented on our traits that are beyond our control – I never thought of this, but now that I think about it — YEAH!!!

      I totally get it! ‘Talented’ definitely is a go-to compliment and that’s why I take no offence when people say so. I just hope this article will make people a little more thoughtful of the implications! 💛💛

      Liked by 1 person

  15. You explained everything so well!! I now realize the implications of those words & I’m definitely gonna think before using them now. Also your art is so good and I agree that you improved a ton 💕 this post really motivated me about my art skills because I consider art to be one of my weakest points lmao

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aw, thank you so much Caitlin! To hear that my work has gotten better over the years is so validating and is something I need to remind myself of more often.

      Aw, if you ever want to pick up art, do!!! It’s tough but rewarding and you absolutely can do it! 😘

      Liked by 1 person

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