Musings on Photography

Talent/No Talent

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on December 1, 2006


Take a look at the sketch above. Ask yourself if the artist is talented, or untalented, and try to articulate your reasons.

Does your opinion of the talent possessed by this artist change when I tell you that the artist was 27 years old when he made the sketch? If a 27 year old man came to you, handed you this sketch, and told you he intended to pursue art as the primary focus of his life, what would your advice be?

Would you tell him to give it up, get a decent paying job, find a wife and have some kids, and forget about the whole art thing?

Or would you tell him “This sketch seems pretty primitive, I know. But it’s important not to judge your abilities as an artist based on what you’re doing now. Go work hard, and see where you end up.”

Does your opinion change if I tell you that 5 years after making that sketch, the artist painted this, and then two years later this, and then a year later this?

5 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on December 1, 2006 at 8:33 am

    I get the impression from how you phrased it that you don’t think the sketch is very good. Yet I see good use of texture to suggest shape and depth and a generally good rendering of the scene. It’s certainly better than I can draw.

    Also I don’t think talent ever (or certainly very rarely) emerges fully formed, demonstrating mastery of a craft & art simultaneously.

    Talent is more of a latent ability or knack for a particular field. It has to be developed and refined over time.

    So the idea of identifying ‘talent’ in someone doesn’t mean seeing a great work by them from an early age – but the potential for it. I don’t know if that can be seen in any given instance of early work – but perhaps a trend can be seen.

    E.g., a photographer with a good ‘eye’ for composition, that makes pleasing arrangements of objects and light/ shapes, but maybe doesn’t know the technical side of things well enough to express what they want in a fully formed way.

    Hints and indicators towards capability, pieces of the puzzle, rather than fully realised greatness.

  2. Anonymous said, on December 1, 2006 at 9:14 am

    I have viewed the portfolios of hundreds (high hundresds) of aspiring photographers. The tact I always take is –

    After a conversion with them about their photography related objectives, I give my opinion on the current “state” of their photography mixed with some advice on getting to the next level.

    I usually throw in a healthy dose of “it ain’t an easy row to hoe kid” stuff because no matter where they want to go – fine art, commercial, journalism, etc – it take gets, determination, perseverance and usually at least a little bit of luck to make it.

    At the time I was dispensing this advicce – mainly to RIT students and graduates – less than 5% of RIT grads were making a livng in photography 5 years after graduation. “Making a living” in photography included working in a camera store, photo lab, sales rep, and many other non-shooting jobs.

    Don’t know what the stats are today.

  3. Paul Butzi said, on December 1, 2006 at 9:36 am

    I get the impression from how you phrased it that you don’t think the sketch is very good.

    It’s not so much that I don’t think it’s very good so much as it has obvious problems – disproportionate head and hands, unrealistic posture, bad portrayal of depth, weird profile depiction of face and head.

    More to the point, in any decent sized high school, there are kids who can currently draw better than this. Does this mean they will become future artists with the impact of Van Gogh? No, it does not.

    Talent is more of a latent ability or knack for a particular field. It has to be developed and refined over time.

    Right. And as such, it can really only be recognized in retrospect. And that makes it worthless as a predictor of future abilities.

    Am I saying that ANYONE can become Van Gogh just by working really hard? No, I’m not.

    But I am saying that it’s not possible to look at someone and say “oh, he’s got talent” except in hindsight, and thus the myth that we can tell whether someone has talent (and thus will meet great success in their art efforts) by looking at their early work is complete bunk.

  4. Anonymous said, on December 1, 2006 at 11:47 am

    van Gogh is an interesting choice – he was certainly not encouraged as an artist. Perhaps with a careful nurturing hand he would never have painted Starry Night at all, but also would not have killed himself.

    This gets to the heart of the issue – why are we talking about talent? I think talent exists and matters in the end, but why do we care? Whether talent exists does not matter to the course an artist should take – work hard, master the craft, and do more work.

    Maybe the real question, and one gravitas et nugalis seems to be getting to, is what should you do to encourage artists? Tell them that anyone can do great work if they just work hard enough? Try to make them understand that what you mean is that their work can have meaning to them, but that hard work does not assure success in the material sense for an artist? Or perhaps be like the Zen master who tells them nothing and just keeps pushing them to work?

    How many great artists were encouraged? Isn’t art as often a battle against failure? Do we know that cosseting and encouragement produces great artists, or does it stunt them by making them complacent? Does rage produce better art than happyness?

  5. rj said, on December 1, 2006 at 1:09 pm

    well said.


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