TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #1: Artists Are Born, Not Made

(Reprinted from 2003)

I’ve been invited to do an artist presentation to various schools in my area, including a whole day at a high school in Vermont. I’ll be speaking with six art classes, not only talking about my art but also sharing my process of how I finally became a full-time artist.

I want to share with these students the beliefs that interfered with me taking my own art seriously. Some of these beliefs I held onto tightly well into middle age. A few are still with me even today, but I slowly chip away at them daily.

Let’s look at some of these myths closely. Today’s myth is one of my favorites!

Myth #1: Artists are born, not made.

Fact: A passion for art has to be there, but all other skills are acquired. No one is born knowing how to play the piano.

The first step to becoming an artist is to want to be an artist. Sounds too simple, doesn’t it? After all, artists are born, not made….right? You either have talent or you don’t.

Wrong! No one is born knowing how to draw, or how to paint, or how to sculpt or throw a pot, anymore than anyone is born knowing how to play the piano or drive a car. These are all skills. They can be taught, they can be learned. Some people may find the process of acquiring those skills to be exhilarating, others may find the process boring. The people who find the process exhilarating may pick up the skill quickly and easily. Or they may not.

I happen to be a slow learner at some artistic processes. For example, I don’t like to draw. When I put my mind to it, I can draw passably well. But I don’t like sitting quietly and observing something, then using a tool to recreate that image on a two-dimensional surface, such as a piece of paper. So I was called an artist in elementary school because I could draw reasonably well, but secretly thought I was an imposter because I didn’t like drawing. And never progressed very far with it.

Later in life, I discovered I did like modeling clay into pleasing forms. And that I enjoyed a collage-like approach to most of the artwork I made. If you look at my artwork, you’ll almost always see a combination of media, and some sort of shaping and manipulation of form going on. But you’ll hardly ever see a 2-D work. (I do carve my own rubber stamps and make 2-D art from them. But it’s the process of carving the stamp, and then embellishing the surface that fascinates me.)

DO WHAT YOU LOVE, LOVE WHAT YOU DO

So we can fall into two traps by believing the myth that “artists are born, not made”.

One, we can be very good at something we don’t really enjoy, and believe that is our calling. Part of the reason for that is sometimes we learn how to do the things we don’t like, really, really well, so we can get them done and out of the way. But if you don’t enjoy doing something, no matter how good you get at doing it, it will always drain energy from you. So be careful about putting the focus of your energy into doing things you don’t enjoy, if you don’t have to.

And two, we can love doing something we aren’t very skilled at….yet! And that’s actually okay. Being willing to pursue something just because we love it can be very rewarding, if only because we’ll spend more time doing it–and hopefully, get better at it someday. Doing something we love feeds us. It gives us more energy.

So what are we born with? If not an innate ability to draw, then perhaps an attentive eye. We notice that there’s more than one shade of green in that leafy tree, or that the light just before sunset makes everything glow more richly. Perhaps we enjoy observing something closely and like the process of drawing.

Or maybe an attentive ear. Maybe we can remember tunes easily, and enjoy riffing off them every chance we get. Music affects almost all of us, but some people feel it is more than just enjoyable–it is necessary to have it, compose it, play it.

Maybe it’s our hands that have to be busy. Maybe picking up unusual rocks and pieces of driftwood and shells is as much fun for us as shoe-shopping is for our sister. We always have to be touching, hefting an object, enjoying its odd texture or beautiful grain. Maybe having the right mix of color and texture in our living room furniture is more important to us than the brand name.

All of these tendencies and yearnings may be the signs of a budding artist. But unless you follow them, nurture them and feed them, they won’t bloom. (Oh, no…a gardening metaphor!!)

So if you’ve always wanted to be an artist, but felt you didn’t have what it takes, you know better now.

Go sign up for that drawing class, or ceramics class. Learn how to carve a rubber stamp, or how to paint with watercolor. Jump in, and simply enjoy the process of learning a new skill.

Keep at it, and eventually you may find one that gladdens your heart enough to do it every day.

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9 Comments

Filed under art, choices, craft, creativity, inspiration, mental attitude, perseverence

9 responses to “TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #1: Artists Are Born, Not Made

  1. Pam Corwin

    I’m with you, Luann. Some of the most inspiring art I’ve seen is from students who apologetically tell me they’re not ‘really an artist’.
    It’s not just about training or experience. If you’re pulled to express yourself through any kind of art, you are (by my definition) an artist. I always tell the folks that come to my workshops: stop comparing yourself with others, just embrace it, enjoy it and own it. ‘Artist’ is not a title you should have to earn, , it’s in our hearts – no one else can tell you whether you are or aren’t ‘a real artist’.

  2. I wish I’d been told about working on art skills. I always thought you either had it or you didn’t in the visual arts. I am a music teacher but I often wish I were teaching or doing art. In high school I knew I liked art but didn’t think I drew well enough for a career. I have discovered that I have not enjoyed my post -graduate classes in music but am thrilled when taking art classes. I do art when I can. Though, I too like textiles and clay better than drawing.

  3. I was born an Artist. I knew it from age 4, I could already draw quite well, by kindergarten the teachers and teacher aids stood behind me and watched my every crayon drawing and then bent down and asked me if they could take them home. Most kids bring home lots of crayon drawings from kindergarten. The teachers kept all (but 2) of mine. They were nice.
    My first drawing was before kindergarten. It was a pencil drawing of a plant in a pot. I became that plant so that I experienced it like it was an acid trip or something on those lines. It was frightening and awesome at the same time. I was born with a natural Gift to be able to do something that cannot be taught.

    • You are blessed with the knowledge of your gifts, and I can tell from your powerful and beautiful writing that you are thinking deeply and passionately about your life and how you move in the world. I agree, you can’t teach a “natural gift”. I do think there are people who yearn to do something creative, who either judge themselves (“I’m not good enough”) or who believe it can’t be in the world unless it comes naturally to them. My objective with this post was to encourage people to follow their heart, even if they don’t have the clarity you have about what you bring to the world. You are someone who figured it out for yourself. That is your gift, too–and a wonderful one! :^)

  4. Ash

    I have to disagree with you about “artists are made, not born”. Of course, the tools to create art are learnt- for example, learning how to paint, to draw, to sculpt. But those are artistic skills that are merely tools for an artist’s work. Artists are actually born with the talent for art. The artistic skills they learn simply give them more options to recreate their artistic vision in real life through the various forms of art. I say that artists are born because art is more than just learning the tools to create it. Before one can even start creating art, one must be able to put their visions into real life through: precise hand-eye-mind coordination, imprinting mental visions onto a physical medium, turning something intangible into something tangible, the ability to understand innately the relationship between angles and ratios, the innate ability to bring an image that has no dimensional value into the 3D world, to give ideas physical forms. These are things that cannot be learnt. One must first have these innate talents, then learning artistic skills will only enhance these existing talents. If one does not already have such talents, learning artistic skills will not help. I know this because I have encountered many students who have joined art classes and who even after years of learning artistic skills, are still unable to correctly and accurately portray the image they have conceptualized in their minds into real life. They tell me that what they put to paper is vastly different from what they have in mind, but no matter how hard they try, they cannot accurately manifest their ideas into reality. They have problems with visual perception of angles and distances with relation to the horizon and are unable to gauge proper distances when drawing because their hands, eyes and mind do not synchronize as one entity. When they draw, each body part is working separately on the same image when they should be working in tandem with each other. This leads to them not being able to bring to life their concepts and there is no way to learn something as innate as this.

  5. To quote from your article….”and that artistic training in addition is associated with enhancement of structures pertaining to visual imagery.”

    Just what I said. Innate talent is useless if you don’t use it and practice it. Someone with less talent who works harder may go farther with their art.

    And anyone who derives happiness, joy, fulfillment and monetary gain from their art, and makes the world happier, more joyful, more fulfilled, no matter whether their talent is innate or not, gets a thumbs up in my book.

    Also, just as I suspected, the study is not worthwhile because we get to eliminate all those annoying people with no talent. It’s being used to understand people with other brain disorders, so that we can enhance and expand their experiences.

  6. Pingback: DIFFERENT KINDS OF SMART | Luann Udell

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