You’re So Talented

When I share my work, in person or on social media, it’s always gratifying when someone tells me how much they like it. I put hours of careful work and detail into each piece, so I love getting positive feedback. One of the things I do hear about my work is ‘you’re so talented!’ While this is absolutely meant as a compliment, and I do appreciate the sentiment, I’m not a huge fan of that phrase. 

One of my first coloured pencil drawings. It’s not terrible, but I’ve certainly improved a lot.

‘Talent’ implies an innate level of skill, or natural aptitude for something. And perhaps I do have talent, but more importantly, I draw A LOT. When I first started my business five years ago, I was working multiple other jobs, and so I kept my drawing time to two hours a day. When I started growing my business, that time increased to three to four hours a day. 

When you practice a skill multiple hours a day, you’re going to get better at it. I did not pick up a pencil and start drawing highly realistic animals — it took time, and lots of crappy drawings, and many, many hours of practice. 

So when people tell me I’m very talented, I feel like it skips over the hard work and time I’ve spent developing and fine tuning my skills. I don’t take it personally — again, I know it’s meant as a compliment. But what really bothers me about the idea of talent, is that there’s an implication that if you don’t have talent, you can’t draw or can’t learn to draw. 

Just a bit more detailed and realistic! This is the result of hours and hours of practice.

I’m a firm believer that anyone can learn to draw realistic portraits, with enough time and practice. So if you want to learn to draw animals, or landscapes, or any kind of art, don’t worry if you have talent or not. Just start drawing! Take some classes or watch some online tutorials to learn techniques. If you put in the time and effort, you’ll improve and get to where you want to be. 

I follow a lot of artists on Instagram, and many of them are ‘better’ than me. They produce art that I look at and think, ‘Wow, I wish I could do that,’ and then I set that as my goal line. I work and practice until I can draw the way I wish I could. The danger of thinking in terms of talent is that you might look at another artist’s work and think that level is unachievable, because you don’t have innate talent. 

So please don’t give up, whether you’re an established artist or just beginning. If you have a goal in mind, you can get there, no matter where you’re starting from! 

4 thoughts on “You’re So Talented

  1. I understand what you’re saying and your thought processes are almost identical to mine on this topic (I wonder why?), and I agree that “you’re so talented” can be shorthand for “you’re lucky you happen to be able to do that, because I can’t” (after all, would Marconi have invented the wireless if he hadn’t, by sheer chance, spent years trying?).

    So “you are so talented at [blank]”, while intended as a compliment, can be taken as an insult, for just the reasons you say.

    All that said, I think there is a flaw in your logic. Taking “talent” to mean “innate ability”, it is generally true that talent without effort doesn’t lead to anything, but that doesn’t mean that effort without talent will lead to something. I think talent, or innate ability, sets an upper limit on what you can achieve in any given area, which is different from guaranteeing that you can achieve it.

    In sports, this is pretty obvious – it is much more difficult for someone who is only five foot six inches tall to become a professional basketball than if they were 6′ 10″. It is very difficult for someone who weighs 160 pounds to become a heavyweight boxing champion.

    In other activities, the innate abilities or inherent limits are hidden, and often unknown. They can be discovered only by trying to master the activity. Someone with no artistic talent can become a competent artist through hard work, but they will reach their limit. The same is true in virtually any field (in chess, for example, there is a numerical rating which informs the player quite clearly where they stand, and progress gets slower and slower, until at a certain point no amount of work and studying will lead to improvement).

    You actually do have artistic talent, which wouldn’t have mattered without the work and effort, but the latter doesn’t rule out the former. The intended compliment, in this case, turns out to be an actual compliment.

    A final point. When someone does have an ability in an area, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that they don’t, and that the activity just isn’t that hard – and therefore people who want to get good at that activity just have to work at it. This is true, but only up to a point. A person who works hard might become a mediocre artist, or musician, or writer, but that might well be as far as they can go. If something is easy for a person (through a combination of talent and hard work), that doesn’t mean that it is actually, objectively easy. It might well be objectively hard, but someone who is accomplished can make it look easy.

    So you really are talented, in this and other things, but don’t worry about it going to your head. You’re bad at lots of things too!

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    1. I think that’s certainly true – we talk about this with dogs and genetic variation. So the way you raise and train a dog will affect what they are capable of doing, but only within the range that their genetics are variable. That being said, I think the problem here comes when we assume that the only things worth doing are things you’re going to be really good at or be the best at.

      I like playing squash, but I’m not talented at it. It’s just fun. I’d like to be better, so I can play against some better opponents and keep improving, but I will never be a competitive squash player. The same goes for art – many people wish they could draw or enjoy the process but are discouraged because they feel they don’t have talent. My point is it doesn’t really matter, to get to a level that you’re satisfied with, you don’t really need it.

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      1. That depends on what level you’re satisfied with, doesn’t it?
        It is quite common for people to think that they will never be very good at something, so they don’t do it at all. This is unfortunate if they would enjoy the activity and get reasonably good at it just by working at it; it’s a tragedy if they actually have a talent for it and don’t realize it.
        I think we are largely agreeing, in our own way.

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