I’ve been liking “Line by Line,” a Friday column in The New York Times in which illustrator James McMullen teaches people how to draw. His weekly lessons—on how to set up a still life, how to get the shading in a tree or a nose—value verve and not just technique, which tempts me to read his book, Drawing from Life. I’m also thinking of other titles that might open up my creativity, like drawing The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain or Zen of Seeing.
That said, I’ve also been bumping up against the injustice of talent levels these days. Over the past few months, I’ve had the neat job of organizing a group show in a local art gallery, which has included lots of studio visits, looking at work from the great to the bad. I’ve seen evidence for what a cruel thing talent is. Some people have more than others do. You work forever, and you’re still you.
Seeing major artists at work has prompted me to think about my own real limitations, so I’ve been thinking about what characteristics keep talent so bounded. E.g.: Why am I sloppy with details in most things, like organizing papers and not just painting? I think one good explanation for the rigid boundary lines of someone’s talent is that talent and personality itself are deeply linked. We tend to be good at certain technical feats and not others because of what our personalities can handle.
James McMullen said something similar in the first line of this week’s drawing column. He said that even though he’s a proficient realist, he’s not great with humorous art: “I’m not going to [teach you to draw caricature]. When the art god was doling out the syrup of graphic wit, he must have slipped on a banana peel just as he got to my cup and most of it spilled out on the floor.” He can draw great trees, down to the bend of individual leaves; but he can’t “do” funny. His sensibility draws him to parts of life and not others.
I’m working through this in myself with a little pang. Below is today’s short list of things I’m learning about my limitations and possible strong suits in talent in the visual arts. I’ve been obsessed with sewing for a few weeks. But my sewing pieces are always a bit of a mess: even after I try to iron them, they look unironed. I’m in thrall with Heather Johnson, who has a show on right now at the Christina Ray Gallery, who stitches minute maps covering the precision of land and heath. See hers:
My stitching always ends up less clean, sprawling with emotion. My work tends to be more about mood as it preps a scene. See mine:
Evidence that I don’t have the personality for Johnson’s detailed stitching is the fact that I can’t, say, bake, either. I’m not the type of person who measures or waits well. I tend to wear wrinkled clothes without worry about my appearance; I'm what a personality test might describe as an introvert with strong impulses. But what sets my limitations in neatness both at home and in art also probably affords me with certain strengths. I express myself more impulsively than many people do, and I sometimes achieve a certain saturation of mood.
Or, another example: I’m more excited by inventing than learning from the past. On a personality test, I come out as controlling, as impatient when learning from others, as most excited by strange adventures where I nonetheless have some control. In turn, I’ve dropped out of the 2 art classes I’ve entered, and I’ve lost steam on any project focused specifically on technique. While this means I’ll never achieve the finesse of classical realism (read a biography of Michelangelo to feel bad about your dedication to any one thing), I am able to move quickly from one project and even career to another, each time with new energy. In one summer, I painted 50 authors on paper plates, using 99-cent tubs of acrylics. Then I stopped with the faces and started sewing. I won’t be great, but I’ll be energetic.
I do believe that our tendencies in life determine certain tendencies in “talent,” and that these are facts of personality, not some more tangential quality.
What do you think? What circumscribes someone’s talent? Do you know any good books on expanding talent or creativity?
Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.