When children first begin to explore art and the process of creating it, results vary widely. What can eventually be seen as a “natural talent” might occur without prompting from a teacher or parent, while other children practice drawing the same thing over and over again until it is finally recognizable—or even spectacular.
So, the question remains—are artist born or are they taught? And is artistic skill a prerequisite that an artist has from birth or is it something they develop over time and with practice? From ancient times, philosophers have argued that the truly great masters of art, literature, and music were born with a gift from the gods. This concept of natural talent continues today, and by its very definition, allows an individual a steep learning curve, through which he or she acquires skills quickly with less practice or hard work than what would be required of the average person.
The Case of Two Artistic Siblings
Orazio Gentileschi, a 17th century Baroque painter in Rome, ensured that both of his children—including his daughter, thus going against cultural norms—received the best art education available. While both pupils would go on to become famous painters, it was his daughter, Artemisia, who would become the better painter, even surpassing her father’s ability.
She later became the first female member of the Academy of Design in Florence and she paved what was a difficult path for women painters of her day. Her brother, Francesco Gentileschi, would also go on to become a painter, but would not achieve nearly the degree of his sister’s fame.er, did this mean that Artemisia was a natural born talent? And if her brother acquired skills in his practice but was unable to reach his sister’s mastery, does this mean that the truly great artists were simply born with talent?
The Psychology of Skill Acquisition
To answer these questions, it’s important to look at human psychology and what happens in the process of honing a skill. In his paper entitled “The Psychology of Skill Acquisition,” author R.H. Sharp defines skills as:
(A) intentional, i.e. goal directed, (b) learned, (c) organized and coordinated, and (d) not just the simple connection of responses to stimuli, but involving central integration. This latter point is reflected in the term which is now frequently used to define most skills whether previously termed “motor”, “physical” or “mental” skills, etc., and that is the term perceptual-motor skill, which emphasizes the important relation that exists between the stimulus and subsequent response.
The author goes on to discuss how the acquisition of skills, being learned and goal-directed, is limited in that there is a maximum amount of information a person can process at a given time. He writes, “We say that man has a limited channel capacity, which is reached when increasing the amount of information input does not lead to further increases in the amount transmitted.”
“Practice Makes Perfect”
Considering this, an artist who is not born with natural talent would be at a disadvantage to one who was born with it—but only if they spend the same amount of time practicing. Since Gentileschi’s children likely sent similar hours in practice, we can only assume that Artemisia was simply born with more natural talent as an artist than her brother. Had she not developed her natural talent through practice, along with her brother, it is unlikely that she would have reached such heights of fame as an artist in her own right.
Classical Greek physician, Hippocrates, once wrote, “First of all, a natural talent is required; for when Nature opposes, everything else is in vain; but when Nature leads the way to what is most excellent, instruction in the art takes place.” If nature or birth has indeed gifted an artist with raw talent, there are few limits to what she or he can accomplish with enough practice. However, natural talent can also be wasted, or perhaps leaned on too heavily without enough focus on honing it. In cases such as this, the artist who was born without natural talent but has worked hard to practice an artistic skill can rise above those born with such skills naturally.
The true question to ask, then, is not whether artists are born or made. The question to ask is how much time and effort does an artist spend perfecting his or her craft? It is this focus on honing one’s ability that either turns a natural-born talent into a master or an acquired skill into a work of art.