Sunday Mailbag

May 27th, 2007 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Do you believe a person can learn to be a great artist? Meaning a person that shows a little talent, do you believe that person can be developed into a great artist? I have viewed studies of “historically” great artists such as Picaso and such and viewed the transformation of the level of his drawing (not very good at first) and then 5 years later after intense study the splendidness of his drawing. I am just starting to pursue my dream of being a great artist (enter the college of art here in the fall) and I think I am above average compared to the normal person’s drawing ability but there is so much I do not know or “see” for a better word at this time. Can a person be taught to draw what he/she “sees” and not the symbols the mind has created and be a great artist.

A: Tough question, both because the terms “talent” and “great artist” are unquantifiable. I believe there must be a spark of natural talent present for someone to be able to develop into any kind of effective artist. If you have zero talent then you can somewhat learn to draw mechanically but you’ll always be missing an important piece of the puzzle. However, the level of natural talent does not determine how good or far someone develops as an artist. That is all up to the individual, and how hard they work at developing their abilities. I know many very naturally gifted artists who have never grown into their abilities nor become successful because they lack the drive and determination (and sometimes the humility) needed to work hard at their skills. An artist must be highly self critical and objective about their own work in order to grow. Sometimes if you have a lot of natural talent you don’t feel the need to work at becoming better, and therefore you do not become better. Those with lesser talent, by necessity, work harder and sometimes achieve greater skills and success than their less energetic but more talented brethren.

That said, great natural talent coupled with hard work is the only combination for that rare, true greatness in art. Take a baseball player as an example. Almost anyone can learn to play baseball, but you need natural athletic ability to become a really good player. Extremely hard work can bring you to the pinnacle of your abilities, and maybe even to the major leagues. However, even among the major leaguers there are some who have superior natural talent, and given the same hard work they will rise to the top and outplay those with less talent, no matter how hard they work. Not everyone has it in them to be a Hall of Famer.

I’m a good example. I am not the most naturally talented artist, but what I lack in talent I make up for in effort and determination. I am very critical of my own work… not enough to cripple me with self doubt but enough to see glaring weaknesses in what I do and understand I need to keep working at becoming better. I’ve seen ( I think) constant growth in my work over the years as a result of that attitude. I don’t have any illusions of ever reaching the level of a Mort Drucker or Jack Davis, but I can promise you I will reach as as high a level as a Tom Richmond can reach. Whatever that level will be, I’ll be happy with it. I think I have a lot of room for growth.

There is an old saying: Art is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration… meaning it just doesn’t happen, but has to be worked hard at. Work as hard as you can, don’t be discouraged by failures and never let anyone tell you you can’t do something.

Thanks to Daniel Singley for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Kannard says:

    I agree with ya. Though I think it really boils down to the differences between talent and skill. You can teach a skill and those that have great skills are great craftsman. What I mean in this is that they have the ability to execute an idea or concept. This is what you really go to artschool or mentor under another to learn. Talent is that something special or intangibles that take the skills and make you into something more than just a craftsman. I think a lot of talent to me is the ability to think and see originally. How can one draw, paint, sculpt, something they cannot experience, even if in their mind? I’m not too sure that one can exist without the other. For me, alot of this borders on the differences between concept and execution debate. Ideally you need both to be great, but most tend towards one side or the other. Basically I think the formula becomes for the artist: Talent or the sight 40% +Skill30%+Discipline20%+Perserverence 10%


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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