Stephania: There is talk on the internet over whether or not artistic “talent” is a myth. What is your opinion on this issue?
Breck: There is no yes or no answer to that. It’s a fact that some people are better at some things than other people are, but that doesn’t mean that things can’t be learned. Some people say that if you work hard enough anyone can draw or paint. I think of it as having a wall that you have to push through, and that different people have different thicknesses of wall. Some people might get there in one course in one semester and some people might take 2-3 years of taking every course and working outside of class every day. Of course, daily practice is a good idea for any artist anyway. One Italian artist used to say, “Draw a line every day,” meaning draw a little bit every day.
Stephania: What do you mean by a wall?
Breck: The wall is one you have to be able to push through to be able to draw or paint well, or do anything, really. Why do I say a wall you have to “push through?” You are resisting your lack of innate ability. That may sound strange, but this non-art example may help. I can’t speak Spanish, so I have a wall to speaking Spanish. I could speak Spanish, but I just haven’t put the effort into learning it. It seems to me that the same analogy could be used for almost anything.
Stephania: Where do you think this wall comes from? I look back on my own childhood and at how much I liked to color and draw, and I think most little kids feel that way.
“Students… fear they won’t be able to make their work look like what they are drawing. It takes some people longer than others.., but with enough application, anyone could do it."
Breck: The biggest component of the wall for new students is that their minds are caught up in the fear they won’t be able to make their work look like what they are drawing. Good artists, when they’re drawing, see their subjects as particular shapes, adjacent to other shapes, or lines going at particular angles. One thing I like to ask students is, “Look at the edge of that form. Is it going down and to the left or is it going down and to the right?” Getting my students to focus on the shapes, angles and lines will help them to get less concerned with their fear that what they draw won’t look like their subject matter. Eventually their drawing will look like what they are drawing. It takes some people longer to get to that point than others, but with enough application, anyone could do it.
Stephania: How do you work with students to break through their walls?
Breck: As a teacher, to get through the wall, I have to start with where the person is now. The book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards has some great exercises for beginners – or really anybody interested in drawing. Here is a sample exercise I use in class: to copy a Picasso drawing of Stravinsky which has been turned upside down:
Igor Stravinsky, 1920 by Picasso, upside-down
Some students will be more proficient at drawing this than others. I just work individually, one-on-one, with each student, wherever they are.
Another thing to think about with talent (whether “inborn” or learned) is that if someone is talented in a certain area and they pursue that path as a vocation or avocation, they have a good chance of being successful. However, I also think a person has more of a chance of being successful if they try to work outside their comfort zone. This means attempting some things that they’re not naturally good at. By that I mean pushing yourself. Even if you are working in a field and doing something that you’re good at, if you push yourself to work outside your comfort zone, that’s when you stand a chance of doing something exceptional. In fact, the real danger for people who are good at something and stay within their comfort zone in that field is that their work will get stale – clichéd – and they will not like doing it themselves, either. They will lose interest in doing it.
Stephania: I think I have heard of the same idea with writers and movie makers. They call it getting “formulaic” with their work and usually don’t like it.
“… Talent can become a crutch.”
Breck: An additional issue to consider is that talent can become a crutch. If it’s easy for a person to see things and draw what they see, they can get lackadaisical about looking at things and they can say to themselves, “Oh, this line goes about here and that line goes about there.” It will be close enough to convince them and the viewer that the drawing is ok. The problem here is that it only looks ok. It’s not exceptional. If you’re willing to accept that, the level of your work is going to gradually fall off.
One method I’ve used to get around that is to draw with my non-dominant hand. When you are doing that you have to really look and say, “Does it go here or does it go there?” That’s what I mean by going outside your comfort zone. I think you can make some exceptional work, as well as keep yourself interested in your work by doing things like that.