Talent vs. Training

August 2nd, 2016 | Posted in General


A few peers of mine on FaceBook recently had a discussion regarding the age old query: is being an artist based on God given talent or training and practice? I think most people would agree it’s a combination of both, but how much of what an artist can do is a result of the talent, and how much the hard work? That’s where the debate and difference of opinion lies.

I’ve had many people tell me they “wish they had the talent to draw” and make other comments that demonstrate they obviously believe that artistic ability is magically bestowed by the gods or the universe or some extra chemical that stimulated that part of the brain, or whatever. I’ve heard some artists get really angry with that kind of attitude, like it dismisses the years of work and practice that they feel got their skills to where they are now. Like really angry. It’s equally ridiculous to think art skills are 100% talent based as it is to think they are 100% the result of hard work and practice.

Let’s take the idea that it’s all talent first. Why do those with little or no art skills seem to think it’s all something you are either born with or not? Most people to do not think that way about other highly skilled abilities. Playing an instrument, for example. While most people would agree a true “musician” has talent, the ability to play their instrument well is recognized as the result of hard work and practice. The same with athletes. Most people acknowledge that, while elite physical skills depend partially on genetics, the ability to play their sport well is achieved by countless hours of dedication and practice. So why is drawing often not considered a skill requiring countless hours of practice, but rather something you can either do or not do? I think it’s because the physical act of drawing is something anyone can do. There is nothing hard or challenging about moving a pencil or pen across a piece of paper, not like playing a guitar or throwing a curveball. Anyone can do it, and so therefore whatever causes someone to do it better than others is in their head and not their hand. Therefore, it’s something you either have or have not. No one seems to consider training your brain is as hard and time consuming as training your body.

Well, it is.

No one, no matter how “talented” they are, just picks up a pencil and draws like Michelangelo. Even Michelangelo didn’t draw like Michelangelo when he got started. He trained and studied and practiced to advance and hone his skills and craft, until he eventually became “Michelangelo”. It is a disservice to artists who have worked their whole lives (in many cases) to get to the point where their art wows people to say it’s a “gift” that they were just born with.

On the other side of the fence, I would never say that some kind of talent isn’t part of the equation. Anyone who thinks their art skills are nothing but a testament to their hard work is doing a disservice to people who genuinely have no eye for visual communication and never will, but wish they did. Talent does play a part, but how much of a part is different for every artist.

Anyone who thinks talent is never anything more than a minor “spark” in the making of an artist’s skill set has never met an artist with an incredible amount of natural talent. Back when I was in art school, there was one student whose ability to draw was head and shoulders above the rest of us. We were all the same age (young), and most of us would say we’d been drawing since we were little kids and focused on being artists since we could remember, yet this guy could draw far better than we could. Worse, he didn’t seem to even really care about it. He was going to art school because his parents wanted him to go to college, otherwise he’d have preferred to stand around smoking pot and playing hackeysack. He did every assignment at the last minute, did the minimum amount of work to get by and only got interested in drawing once and a while in a sketchbook, usually some weird creature. This guy had never worked hard at drawing yet his work was the best I’d ever seen. How do you explain that if it’s not pure talent? Since I graduated I’ve never seen or heard of him again, and I am guessing he works at some print shop somewhere doing the bare minimum… had he applied himself he would have probably been the next Andrew Wyeth or Maxfield Parish.

On the flip side of that I’ve known a few artists that have been working their asses off for 20 years or more doing live caricatures and wanting to break into illustration or animation or comics whose work has not improved one single bit despite constant drawing and working at their skills. They have apparently reached the apogee of their abilities, and no amount of practice or training will advance their skills. How do you explain that if hard work and practice is all it takes to become an elite artist? Come to that, why isn’t the world filled with Michangelos if every hour of practice increases your skills a little more? Eventually the kind of metal the knife is made of will limit how sharp it can get, no matter how many hours you spend honing it.

Going back to the guitar analogy, there is a difference between someone who practices playing the guitar long and hard enough to to play it very, very well, and Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton or those considered the greatest of guitarists. Yes, these players put in the same countless hours and dedication to their instrument, but they have something else as well. Something that made them among the greatest of all time. The athletic analogy also fits… a person can practice dribbling and shooting and learn the strategies of the game of basketball until they are the star of their high school team or gym’s pick up squad, or even play professionally, but that does not make them Dr. J, Michael Jordan, or Stephen Curry. Those athletes have something else. Physical abilities thanks to genetics, yes, but lots of people are very tall and strong and are not NBA Hall of Famers. Extreme levels of natural talent AND the will to put in the hard work to make the most of it, is what separates the exceptional from the merely good.

I prescribe to the old adage that most art is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, but for some people that 10% is a lot more potent than for others, and that only makes their 100% that much greater. I’m very far from the most naturally gifted artist. I’ve got what I would consider marginal talent at best, but it was enough for me to stay interested in art and to choose it as my career, and then to realize I didn’t have enough of that natural talent to skate along on it like that college classmate of mine. I knew I had to work hard at my skills if I was going to have a chance to do something with my art. I know I’ll probably never be as good as some of my heroes like Mort Drucker, Jack Davis or Wally Wood. Those guys worked as hard on their art as I have, but they have (or had in both Jack and Wally’s case) something I don’t—truly exceptional talent. But that’s why they ended up becoming Mort Drucker and Jack Davis and Wally Wood. Everyone has a ceiling and those that reach the heights those guys and a few others have reached did it through a combination of incredible natural talent and unbelievable hard work and dedication. They are the Micheal Jordans and Jimmy Page’s of my cartooning.

I cannot teach myself to have more natural talent, but I can keep practicing and studying and reaching for the next rung. My ladder will only go so high, but I am determined to get to the top of it. I don’t get angry at people who think what I can do was bestowed upon me in my crib because they don’t understand the dynamics involved. I also don’t get angry at myself when I fall short of the what artists like Mort and Jack and Wally could do. I just keep trying to be the best I can be, and that’s all anyone can do.


  1. Sad guy says:

    ? well this reminds me that I’m a garbage artist , and probably won’t get any better.

    • Tom Richmond says:

      I’m not sure you read this through. I’m saying that hard work and practice does translate into improved skills, but that it’s the talent part that ultimately separates the Halls of Famers from the merely really, really good players.

  2. Dennis Cox says:

    Marginal talent…you’re selling yourself way short. You’re one of the best caricaturists around! Great post, I enjoyed reading it

  3. Jack Myhervold says:

    We should all have your hard work and practice advice on a sign in our studio’s. I’ve mentioned it before, the early Mort Drucker MAD art was very good, but with his hard work, and conscious decision to stretch his talent over the years, he became a great deal better at drawing, and capturing the personality and humor in his subjects. When I look at Jack Davis art in the very first MAD comic issues, he already had a strong drawing style, but he also grew with movie posters and his great candy color watercolor work got better and even more fun. I think a lot of us see you up there with those guys when we see the strength of structure, line work, personality, humor and color, in pictures like Jack Palance, Leslie Nielsen, Oldman, and other recent Dracula pics.

  4. Dareq says:

    Thank you for this post I will print it to remember.
    Conclusion for me: GET TO WORK !
    PS. Sentence about your ”marginal talent” is exaggerated anyway 🙂
    Sorry for language mistakes English is not my native language.

  5. lordsinclair says:

    This is a great post, on a subject I’ve often thought about. I feel a lot of people genuinely view artistic talent as a sort of unfathomable magic. When I drew back in high school, kids would say things like “Wow, I wish I could draw,” but just as often they’d say something like, “Did you have to look at something to draw that?” Not “did you trace it” but “were you looking at something?” Well, yes, obviously I was looking at something, otherwise how could I draw it? But for me, that proved these folks thought art was all about “magic,” that it should just spring from the artist’s brow fully formed like some kind of transmission from the Almighty. Somehow, for them, using a model for reference reduced a mysterious miracle to a mere, earthbound excercise. So I don’t think people are trying to belittle the hard work of a good artist when they put it all down to “talent”; in their own way, they’re trying to express true admiration, if not awe. And honestly, some artists have no qualms about encouraging the “gift from the Gods” conception because it can boost the ego. BTW, I’ve spent a lot of time with your book this year and I feel like it’s helped me grow a lot as an artist. Personally I think what feels better than having a casual bystander compliment either your hard work OR your talent is to look at your own stuff and feel like you’re making real progress; that you’re better today than you were the day before. Thanks for giving me that.

  6. Arthur says:

    Great read, Tom, and actually wonderful timing. I work for the Disney store and many young artists work there as an opening to the business as well as to appreciate what Disney has done for animation. I work with a young college student who is incredibly adept with different areas of illustration and painting, and I always marvel at her works. But now I realize that by crediting only her talent, I’ve been dismissing the hard work and long hours she puts into her art. Oh, she’s told me more than once that a lot of people could do what she does (maybe not as well) with practice, but I’ve always used the excuse, “Oh no, I don’t have the kind of natural talent that you do.” She and I have never had a debate over talent versus practice, but why would she want to if I constantly think that high praise is all that is needed to show appreciation for someone’s display of talent. Maybe I being a bit hard on myself, but I see that ignoring the work and crediting only the talent is actually a bit insulting. Thanks for letting me see both sides. (By the way, is it wrong to assume that talented artists actually love to draw?)


Sketch o’the Week- Burgess Meredith! #batman #batman66 #penguin #caricature #madmagazine

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