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Facing a Blank Canvas - Part 2: The Difference Between Skill and Talent

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Activities ProgramPart two of a four-part blog series, from a conversation with Visual Arts Instructor Mark Mulherrin

Two other words that students often get confused are “skill” and “talent.” A student may say “I have no talent; can I just leave?” What they mean is “I have no skill.” Now, they might have talent, but they don't know it because they haven't tried to see if it’s there.

When people look at a piece of art, and remark “they have so much talent,” or “they’re so talented,” to me, that is a meaningless statement. Yes, you can be talented (born with this lucky card and have some ingrained, genetic aptitude for some “this” or “that” —running fast, throwing a ball, being good at chess), but what people are really remarking upon is the skill. I think that talent is there or not there, but art is an exercise of skill and understanding of material and putting it together in some way that elicits a response.

When people ask me if a student I am working with is talented, I think, “That’s the wrong question.” The right question is: “Does your student work hard?” or “Does your student sit down and do the work?” At that point, talent is less relevant. For any artist or for any worthwhile endeavor, it always comes down to the time we put into doing something we see as meaningful. That is not to say that talent doesn’t matter—it does make it easier, but it doesn’t trump having no talent, working hard, and putting in honest time.

I feel that people are more creative than they believe they are and they’re more talented than they might know they are. They don't always understand that if you don't sit and do it, you won't develop a confident command of what's in front of you through familiarity. It's not really a reflection of quality, but it’s the confidence of familiarity.

Check back next week for Part 3: Overcoming Barriers 

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