You Might Be Surprised
“Is drawing learned skill or natural talent?” asked one of my very first art professors. “I’m here to tell you that drawing is a learned skill,” he said. Really? I’ll admit to being a bit dubious when I heard that, but I perked up a bit, took another sip of my coffee and actually paid attention. You see, I wasn’t dubious for myself. I had ‘the gift.’ I’ve always been able to draw without any formal education. I had what most would call natural talent. But, I was curious. I’d seen some of the initial attempts of my classmates and wondered how he intended to prove this point. Granted, it was a beginning level drawing class. But you know how some people say that they can’t even draw a stick figure? Well, that was most of this class!
This class was required for art majors, but one of the General Ed courses available to everyone of every major. So there was a wide array of students in there, different backgrounds, a dozen different majors. Most had some appreciation for art, but couldn’t draw to save their lives. Some girls were in tears (literally), just knowing that they couldn’t draw and this elective was going to drag their GPA’s down the drain. I’ll admit that I never considered it. His question, I mean… “Is drawing learned skill or a natural talent” was a new concept for me. I thought either you could or couldn’t. How he intended to teach them this “skill” was beyond me. But as I said, my curiosity was piqued.
Set Your Skepticism Aside for a Moment
You don’t have to say it out loud. It’s clear that you’re thinking… “I can’t draw to save my life. I just don’t have the talent!” My professor would say that that’s just an excuse. If you really wanted to, and put your mind and efforts towards learning, you could develop that skill. Yes, some people seem to be born with the talent. It comes much easier for them. What is it about them that gives them this seemingly innate gift? “The ability to SEE,” he said. “They have the ability to see what is in front of them and to interpret that on a canvas of some sort. You, my little fledglings, must learn how to see.” Thus began the low murmurs of confusion to the general consensus of “What’s this guy talking about? Of course I can see!”
“Oh, I know you can ‘see’,” he said, raising his voice above the rumblings of the class and doing the little finger quote thing. “You can see, but you are not truly seeing…” And so he proceeded to lay to rest the debate I’m sure he met with at the beginning of every term when he posed the question. Is drawing learned skill or natural talent? He began by breaking down what an artist sees and more importantly, how they see. For example, an artist begins to do a portrait while looking at a live model. They don’t just see a face; they see a network of shapes, planes, and angles. The very complex nature of the human face is broken down into the most basic of structures. Those are the basic building blocks.
From there, the artist starts working in the smaller shapes and continues working down shape by shape until you get to the smallest of them (the details). The problem with non-artists is that they try to start off with the details. That’s like building a house and trying to put the roof and windows up without first laying the foundation and framework. Take a look at this video of artist Yuehua He painting President Obama’s portrait. He doesn’t start off with getting the eyes and nose just right. In fact, the beginning stage only vaguely looks human! What he starts off with is the foundation, the very basic structure or shape. See for yourself…
I’m not one hundred percent certain (it was nearly 30 years ago after all!), but as I recall, everyone’s ability to draw in that class improved greatly. Most of them ended up as good as those of us ‘natural talents.’ So I had to come to the conclusion that drawing is a learned skill, much like math or music or sports. While some may have a natural inclination for those things, others can be taught the skills necessary to do them with at least some competence. The rest is up to the individual and how much they practice and work at perfecting the craft. In some cases, the new artists were better off learning from scratch. There were some of us who have been drawing for ages that had to undo some bad habits.
My Final Answer
At the end of the term, I had to come to the conclusion that yes, drawing is a learned skill for some and natural talent for others. It wasn’t until years later, when I took a child development course that pointed out that all very young children love to draw and paint. It isn’t until they reach ages 8–12 that they begin to shy away from it for a couple of reasons.
First, children begin to understand that what they’re drawing doesn’t quite look like what they’re seeing. Second, peer pressure kicks in and they begin to fear criticism. Those two things coupled together spell an end to that child’s creativity (at least in public). So, the skills they were learning as a child (in terms of art), got squashed at an early age. That’s why as adults, you hear people say that they draw like a child. Well, sure! That’s where you stopped learning. I get it now!
If you want to be a good mathematician, then study math. A good musician must study music or the instrument they’re interested in. If you want to be an athlete, practice, practice, practice! And if you want to be an artist, then be an artist. Study the basics. There are any number of courses you can take at an adult school or junior college, or a gazillion online courses. This is one that I’ve checked out and like. Stan Prokopenko delivers the basics via humorous YouTube videos for free, with more in depth lessons for paid premium members (lifetime membership at a very low cost). He also has package lessons available on his website.
There are also books such as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain or How to Draw What You See. (The science behind Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain was debunked long ago, but the exercises are pretty great.) Study, build the basic skills, and build on them by practicing and continuing to learn. Sketching (practicing) every day is essential for progress. Even for those seemingly born with the gift, if they want to grow as an artist, they must continue to hone their skills. In short, to answer my professor’s question… “Is drawing learned skill?” Absolutely!