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.
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.