The matter of talent

ONE of the great things about drawing is that it's so immediate and autographic. With only a few lines, scribbles, or smudges, we can transform an idea into an image; record the appearance of reality or evoke imaginary things and places; give form to our intuitions and emotions; and invent abstract patterns and designs. All it takes is the desire and the decision to do it. Contrary to popular belief, everyone can draw - not as well, perhaps, as we might wish, but certainly well enough to fashion a passable record of what interests us, or to produce a rough idea of what we want to communicate. And if we're really eager to draw better than we have so far, we almost always can - providing we focus on ``seeing'' rather than on merely looking, and remember that drawing is a shaping process as well as a recording and communicating device.

Of course, there is the matter of talent. Unlike some of my colleagues, I believe it really exists. Not that I'm certain I know what it is or why it appears so strongly in some people and hardly, if at all, in others. I suspect it has something to do with interest and enthusiasm.

But then, that begs the question of which came first, the talent or the interest? Does interest derive from talent, or does a young artist's special enthusiasm trigger the necessary degree of talent?

Take my own case, for instance. I'm fairly good at drawing heads, less good at drawing hands, and awful when it comes to feet. My excuse is that I'm really only interested in heads because they can communicate almost everything I want to ``say''; that hands interest me only to the extent they make a head more expressive, and that feet bore me. But, do feet bore me because they fall outside the range of my expressive intent - or because what talent I have fails me in this area?

I tend to believe it's the former, that I'd learn very quickly how to draw feet well should what I wanted to ``say'' ever require it. But even were I able to do so, I would only have brought a particular, less-developed skill up to my highest level of performance. I would not suddenly become a superb draftsman, and I would most emphatically not suddenly become a genius.

That doesn't, of course, mean that an artist must remain forever ``stuck'' at what appears to be the limit of his or her talent or facility. Art, as we have discovered over and over again during the past century, can soar beyond skill and technical accomplishment. Van Gogh, for instance, never learned to draw ``properly.'' And C'ezanne, if judged purely on his draftsmanship, comes across more as a clumsy amateur than as one of the greatest artists of all time.

The list goes on and on. Where would Henri Rousseau be today if he were judged exclusively by the standards of the academy? Or Paul Klee, who had a modest drawing skill and who yet, thanks to his vision and brilliant utilization of every intellectual and intuitive resource at his disposal, became one of the best and most important artists of his age? Or how about Brancusi, Mondrian, Calder, Mir'o, and Pollock? Or even Picasso who, almost overnight, went from talented art student to innovative genius? Where would he be if he had settled for what he could do so brilliantly at 16?

On the other hand, there are artists who've spent 40 or 50 years perfecting every aspect of their art until, at the age of 60 or 70, hardly anything is beyond them. And who yet, in the deepest sense, are neither better nor more creative than they were at 20.

Art, in short, must be permitted to emerge on its own terms and in whatever form is most appropriate for its time and place. It cannot be willed or coerced into being - although its skills can be developed and polished to a point close to technical or formal perfection. And if that is true of art in general, it is true of drawing in particular. There is danger here, of course, largely because the ease with which drawing techniques can be learned leaves any young artist open to the temptation of producing work that is merely clever and facile.

For proof, we need only consider the many exquisitely rendered, incredibly detailed drawings that bedazzle their way into our galleries and museums every year. Every one required considerable skill to execute, and more than a few show evidence of genuine talent. But that's about it. Beyond their superb technique and brilliant craftsmanship, these clever and highly polished works on paper convey little, if anything, of genuine substance or interest.

Their very showiness, in fact, can produce negative results. Quite a few art lovers, awed by such extraordinary virtuosity, find it difficult thereafter to take less sensational examples of the art seriously. Conditioned as they are to technical brilliance, they cannot understand why a quickly dashed off sketch by Nolde could be special, or why anyone would wax enthusiastic in front of a Paul Klee ``doodle.''

This ``blindness'' is particularly evident in the case of Matisse, whose drawings strike many as too ``unfinished'' or simplistic to be significant art. Which really is a pity, for among them are a number of modernism's finest creations. Perhaps we should study them a bit more open-mindedly and give Matisse credit for never showing off, for always communicating to us simply and directly.

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