Let’s say you have an eye for design, colour, and composition. Friends and family all say you have plenty of talent. You’re too modest to admit it out loud, but, yeah, you know they’re right.
You spend a few years in art school, you’ve mastered your craft, and you’re ready to claim your prize: the biggest stakes in the arts’ world. But here’s the question: Are talent and technique enough?
No, not necessarily. The problem is even if you have innate talent and the sort of focus that means you spend years committing to the subject of your passion, there can still be factors that can hinder your path to success. What other components are essential not just for good artists, but great ones?
What lies beyond talent and technique?
Here are a few elements that I believe lie outside those things:
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posits the 10,000 hour rule. In a nutshell, this ‘rule’ says that excellence in any endeavour, whether it’s playing chess or sculpting in marble, requires a phenomenal amount of work before the individual achieves some degree of success. “Achievement is talent plus preparation,” he says, and that’s a hard point to argue. Gladwell lists a number of examples and it’s hard to dispute his findings despite the lack of scientific research to back them up.
Genius needs technique, sure, but it also needs practice.
Thomas Edison, no mental slouch himself, was right when he said,
Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.
A couple of days ago, I watched a Sky Arts about the importance of failure in art. A lot of the examples cited had to do with talented painters taking chances. It didn’t always end well. Some of Da Vinci’s work started to erode during his lifetime because of the chances he took with new materials and techniques. Many of the Impressionists were derided because their work looked so slapdash. James Joyce shocked the literary world with much of his writing. (“Snot-green sea,” anyone?) But just slavishly following what went before may be clever and technically competent, but is it art? Is risk-taking a component of talent, or something beyond it?
The artist must be willing to experiment, to try new things, to ask questions and refuse to accept trite answers. School systems, at least in my experience, seem more invested in telling students “the facts”, rather than encouraging them to seek their own answers. My first day in university when I was told a third-level education was about research and discovery rather than fact gathering, I knew this was what I had longed for all my life.
I have read any number of interview with famous authors in which they have said, “I wanted to know more about XX, so I wrote a book in order to research it.” I’ve done it myself. When I sat down to write A Biased Judgement, I was curious about London society in that period where Victorian society was waning, and the modern world was starting to emerge. Likewise, a recently completed short story, The Ghost of Lincoln, was written because I wanted to know more about what happened after the president’s assassination.
Scientists experiment. So do artists. Writers play with ideas and language. We ask ourselves those “what if…?” questions and see where they lead us. Even if we end up at a brick wall, along the way we’ve had…
Artists know how to enjoy themselves. I don’t mean shooting up or getting drunk (though I admit, those things are not unheard of in the world of creativity), but the really talented enjoy their work. OK, we may gripe and moan about hours spent at the keyboard, or at the easel, but there’s nowhere else we’d rather be. If you’ve read Ulysses, you’ll know it’s hilariously funny. Look at the paintings of Magritte or Dali and tell me those guys weren’t enjoying themselves. Watch Bruce Springsteen perform before a live crowd: These guys are having fun! The aforementioned 10,000 hours is nothing when you’re learning something new, living on the edge, and enjoying yourself. Really, it’s a wonder more of us don’t do it. Perhaps it’s because of…
On the road to fun you have to live with the chance of failure. This comes with the risk-taking, of course. Think about it: You spend years of your life toiling on a project with nothing but faith and hope keeping you going. You release it, the book, the song, the painting, and it’s greeted with derision. After his death, people discovered that JMW Turner had left many canvases that he never exhibited. The gilt of his reputation had oxidized and the public decreed his later work was that of a man in ‘senile decreptitude’. Only when the Impressionists appeared on the scene were Turner’s later works reevaluated and deemed to be works of genius. Shame that reversal came after his death.
Have Something to Say
Art exists within the confines of time and space. Yes, I know that’s obvious, but it’s amazing how many people seem to forget it. Blake painted and wrote about the changes he saw in the landscape as a result of the industrial revolution. The Impressionists responded to an increasingly electric world. More recent artists address the precarious nature of our modern society. Artists generally paint what they see around them. Would Lowry have succeeded if he’d gone to Arles? Would Van Gogh have made anything of Manchester? What if you sent El Greco to Norway? The same issues apply to writers and musicians. I’m not saying you have to make overtly political statements, but your work should reflect something of your town, city, country. Jane Austen famously ignored the French Revolution in her writings, but she wrote about her time and place nonetheless.
The artist’s ability to focus on the project at hand is fundamental. You cannot write a novel, or even a piece of flash-fiction without being able to keep your eyes on the task. The same goes for painting, sculpture, and music.
Preparing a Fertile Ground for Creativity
Some things even the most talented artist cannot do without:
Imagine having the talent to be a great sculptor, but never having access to the materials or tools. Imagine having the potential to become one of the greatest concert pianists of all time – but you don’t have a piano and don’t know anyone who owns one.
This is a long way of saying, you must have the tools to do the job.
You also have to have time. Time to concentrate, time to focus. I find that any break from writing making it extremely difficult to get back to it. Days of trying to hush my brain down, to relearn how to focus. It’s very hard for mothers of young children to succeed as artists. Single parents. People whose circumstances demand they hold down 2 or 3 jobs. How can you create when you’re exhausted, or frazzled, or both?
Solitude and Privacy
A room of one’s own, as Virginia Woolf said, is essential to being an artist. Yes, Jane Austen seems to have managed without, but most of us need space to create, to make our mistakes, to swear at the keyboard or the canvas. Being able to shut the door and close out the world is essential, at least some of the time. Art does not thrive in the presence of backseat artists or writers.
Yes, Degas sculpted when his vision failed beyond his ability to paint. Virginia Woolf wrote despite the emotional demons that plagued her. Freda Kahlo painted her pain and suffering onto every canvas. All the same, the artistic life is hard enough without adding infirmities into the mix. Not saying it’s impossible, but try sculpting if you have intractable back pain.
If you had to distill success in art–or anything else, really–down to one element, it would surely be desire. You must be driven. You must be willing to pay the price, to work through the pain, the isolation, the doubt. You must want this more than anything.
The heights by great men reached and keptWere not attained by sudden flight,But they, while their companions slept,Were toiling upward in the night. — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
In his book, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that, “Most of the things that are interesting, important, and human are the results of creativity.” He further suggests that creativity, “when we are involved in it, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.”
So, if you’re thinking of becoming an artist, as long as you have talent and technique, you will probably do be fine. Well, give or take 10,000 hours.