I’ve been teaching painting and drawing for over 30 years, and it always amazes me how different students can be from one another in their perception of what art is. It seems to me that the way we feel about art has a lot to do with what we have been exposed to, our likes and dislikes, paintings we’ve seen, people we’ve met, and places we have traveled, etc. All of this is a product of our experiences in our unique and individual history. As time goes on exposing us to new and different things, we might be surprised to see how we view art in the future. Some people feel they know a lot about art, some people feel like they don’t, and some people don’t know what they feel. I personally feel that the idea of art and our perception of talent can seriously get in the way of our ability to learn the needed skills to become better painters. Let me explain.

Ever since I can remember my mom taught piano and organ lessons in our home while growing up. She was very popular and people would even drive from out of town to take lessons. My brother and I spent a lot of time outside or at friends’ houses because of the ugly sounds coming from our living room. These ugly sounds were called beginning students. In music it was understood that your first classes were involved with learning the language of music. With flashcards and keyboard charts, a student could identify the notes with the keys and learn what kind of notes do what, etc. No one was expected to play any masterpieces or anything else that sounded really good.

Now after a while of practicing, skills developed. There was now some recognition of what the student saw on the sheet music and how it was converted to sound. Still, nothing to get excited about, and definitely nothing you would want to listen to all day. This is where my mom was different than some of the other teachers. She kept index cards on each student. If they were older students, somewhere in their conversations, mom would find out what year they graduated from high school. The purpose of this was to find out what kind of music they liked and to find the popular melodies that they would have likely been listening to at the time of their graduation.

As soon as the student could start reading a few simple notes, that’s when the fun started. Mom would write down the melodies that the students could relate to on their skill level. This gave the student more gratification sooner, which meant they were more likely to practice and continue their lessons. If a student happened to be a child or young adult, mom would give me a list of their songs, and when I heard a song from the list playing on the radio, I’d record it. I got 25 cents per song, and made some bucks from the old Beatles tunes.

The reason I told you about my mother is because painting is a lot like music and I teach painting a lot like my mom taught music. Individual attention for individual needs, keeping it fun. I remember my mother telling a little girl’s parents that they shouldn’t have her practice the piano so much. She told them that they may win the small battle by making her practice, but they will lose the war because if you take the joy out of it, she’ll quit; then what has it all been worth? In music there are some people that play by ear. I associate the self taught painters with them. These are the people whose gratification comes from figuring things out and getting a thrill out of reinventing the wheel you might say. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trashing these people by saying that; I used to be one of them. I was a self taught painter until I was eighteen, and that’s also the way I played the guitar. It was a big challenge and a lot of fun. However, I don’t use any of the information I learned on my own in painting, and I gave up the guitar years ago.

People who play music by ear are those that take their instrument and start picking out the notes, judging them by the way their ear hears them. Usually the notes are played to resemble the person’s favorite tunes, and sound pretty good at first. Now if you compare this with the person that takes music lessons, the person playing by ear sounds a lot better in the beginning because he is playing recognizable tunes—instant gratification.

The person learning to read music sounds awful in the beginning. They are trying to associate the notes on the sheet music to the notes on the instrument. Learning lines and spaces, what different abbreviations mean, and it goes on, this is the person involved with learning the established universal language of music. A completely different attitude than the person playing by ear. The person playing by ear will always be limited by his memory of what he can play and may even be able to devise some sort of pictorial way to write down on paper what he has picked out or played. The person who learned the language of music, however, will be able to read music others have written as well as writing down his original compositions. They will be able to play with other musicians, and having a common language and it will also make it a lot easier to move onto another instrument if desired.

Learning the elements of painting and drawing and then learning how to control and use them are part of that language. Would it be to your advantage to draw from inside out, or outside in? What elements are you going to need to express your ideas? The less you know, the viewer your options, and the more uncomfortable you’ll be with your work. Earlier I mentioned that students are amazingly different and that the idea of art and talent sometimes make it difficult to paint and draw. The reason people are so different is because everybody has a different idea of what art is. I think that is a good thing. Look how boring the world would be if we were all the same. I heard one artist say that talking about art is as useless as talking about love. My feelings are similar. I teach the different skills of painting and drawing, not art. The musician that plays by ear starts off sounding more artistic than the one trying to learn the language of music. And it’s very likely that the self taught painter, in the beginning, will have more desirable paintings than the painter learning the language of painting, however, one will always be more limited than the other. The question is are your art ideas helping or hurting your ability to grow your drawing and painting skills? In school we learned to spell, punctuate, diagram sentences with the understanding that in life it’s up to us to use that knowledge to say whatever it is that we are going to say. Sometimes by saying more, we are actually saying less.

I also mentioned earlier that I believe the idea of talent can be negative or destructive also. Where does talent come from? Is there a supreme being that determines at the time of our birth that one in a hundred or even a thousand of us should receive this free and special gift. Think about it, people speak of natural born talents, don’t they? Here’s another idea, maybe this mysterious thing is genetic. After all, don’t the talented ones have aunts, uncles, or grandparents that were also talented? So, does that make those of us that didn’t get it at birth or in our genes, untalented losers? I don’t think so. To limit ourselves and our children to this idea, I think is wrong; it is very limiting.

I started questioning the idea of talent when I started teaching. I saw that some students in the beginning that had never had any training did better than others and others yet seemed to have trouble. All had received basically the same information. However, after one to three months of once a week classes, the abilities in all seemed to even out. What had happened to the more talented students?

I always encourage people to paint on their own when some of the basic skills have been achieved and once again I saw more difference. Those that painted at home on their own got a lot better. If I had a student bring in three or more paintings in per week for critiques, then these were the students coming up with the most improved progress. Talent didn’t seem to play an important part anymore. The people that were motivated spent more time painting and progressed faster.

This observation made me look at myself, I had always considered myself talented, and if it doesn’t play a big part in ability, what was talent? When I was younger I could draw better than most kids my age, and people called me talented. Now I can look back in my history and see that I had more experience drawing than most of the other kids my age. My parents supplied me with pencil and paper to draw on, keeping me occupied and out of trouble during church, and sometimes church was 5 and 6 times a week during revivals.

It’s also natural that when a person can do something well, it makes them feel good about what it is they are doing, therefore keeping interest up in that particular activity. I liked being called talented. I wasn’t a talented reader, I was slow and enjoyed looking at the pictures in the books and especially the illustrations in the magazines. Could this have been another reason that I liked painting and drawing so much?

I believe now that the interest in a subject and the motivation to pursue it has more to do with success than talent. A lot of my students have proved this to me. I think the idea of talent has more to do with marketing than it does in the real world. After all, no one wants to spend a lot of money on a painting from an untalented artist. By the way, if you’re looking at one of my paintings to buy, I’ll be the first to tell you how talented I am.

I do have trouble with the idea of talent. I’ve heard too many times people say, “I could never paint, I don’t have the talent for it.” Is it talent or is it the interest in painting that they don’t have? It’s sad, painting adventures ending before they ever start. It’s even more sad when someone that really wants to paint limits himself or herself by this belief in talent. No matter what the subject is, people will not do what they don’t believe they can do and therefore never try.

I believe in attitude, and that learning can be fun in the right environment and yet still be taken seriously. If a student doesn’t get enough gratification for the time that they spend in class, that student is likely to lose interest and quit painting. As an artist as well as an instructor, I try not to let this happen.

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