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What talents or skills do I need to become an artist?

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The main skills required by artists is willful curiosity, and the endurance to establish your own work processes, based on this curiosity. Specific knowledge about predefined artistic processes is not essential (but can be exciting and enriching).

Sometimes it feels as if certain people are meant to be artists, while others could never ever become one. A lot of people still believe in the notion of preexisting talent or excellence; according to them, artists are often thought of as rare geniuses. This is outdated. In actuality, the idea of talent is mostly used as (self-)mythologizing marketing strategy – or even as defense strategy by those who don’t want to fail, or even start trying: “If I can’t do something today, for sure I’ll never be able to do it. After all, others can do it so well already: why bother starting?” If this was true, life would be static; we wouldn’t ever be able to learn something new: another language, a new hobby or craft. People couldn’t ever change jobs or raise children – simply because ten years ago they didn’t know how to do it either. Life wouldn’t feature change.

At the same time, people rarely talk about talent when discussing less romanticized, more down-to-earth activities (like learning to cook or how to ride their bike). Yet in the arts, especially by outsiders, it’s often used as metric of excellence. Considering the many hours required to master any complex craft, the reality of “talent” becomes obvious: while it can be a kickstarter, it will never outweigh someone’s sheer power of will: whoever truly wants to become a chef, skateboard pro or jazz guitar player, for sure won’t be hindered by their perceived lack of initial talent. Rather, they’ll approach the new field according to their character, and find ways to turn alleged shortcomings or flaws into their signature style – with a mixture of humbleness and boldness. In addition, remember that talent can at times be problematic: if it creates arrogance and a wrong sense of security about a field’s complexity, and one’s position within it.

What About Talent?

If discussing talent and arts, here’s a controversial idea: Contemporary art is an especially amazing field for those without talent, simply because it doesn’t feature a unique, static set of expectations towards content or form. Resultingly, there isn’t (and can’t be) a specific set of skills required to become an artist. If you’re blind but want to paint, if you want to film but can’t afford camera or editing software, if you’re insensitive but want to sculpt, then for sure there can’t be a better place than the arts. Don’t misunderstand: the arts are not a place for dilettantes. Amateurism and incompetence will always stand out as signs of bad quality – but the arts even have room for these: Since tastes are subjective and temporary, what might be perceived as “bad” by someone at some time, will feel like actual bliss to others, or the same person at another time. For an artist to make proper “bad art”, they need to embrace and expand on specific ideas of that quality – which is far away from operating naively. As long as you pursue your work authentically, continuously questioning and expanding it, and ignoring destructive criticism, then your work can thrive – entirely independently of preexisting talent or skills.

That’s why in today’s world, the most general requirements to becoming an artist are 

  1. your will to be curious, and 
  2. the endurance to establish your own work processes, based on your curiosity.

For these to exist, you need to show up – there can be no art without it. Instead of cliché sufferings, artists should expect the hardships experienced by anyemerging entrepreneur or business person: slow recognition and sales, a lack of structure, all sorts of financial worries, the requirement to do side jobs, the doubt of whether it’s all worth it. The beginning artist’s journey brims with ambivalence: to be faced with one’s inadequacies and lack of competences, a general joy that frequently gets mixed with frustration; unexpected learning curves, the depth of the medium’s history far exceeding one’s previous expectations, surprise about the field’s lack of diversity, anger about the field’s unfair distribution of wealth, etc.

What an Openness..

Because of fine arts being such an open field, with such a myriad of qualities to experience, it can be hard to understand whether your work is “good” or “good enough” – and even whether you yourself are succeeding or failing. How to know such things? A frequent strategy in the world outside is to compare ourselves to others: if we are similar to specific aspects of successful people, then surely we are in some way successful as well? Because of the open nature of art though, you are not likely to answer these questions through comparison; art simply doesn’t offer comparison metrics like e.g. sports, where you can judge excellence by comparing numbers.

We often start making art because of the impact that other people’s had on us – so on a certain level, it makes sense to compare our work to the one we love. While these comparisons can fuel your artistic imagination, it’s tricky to compare yourself to others; their surroundings, socialization, their culture and spirit usually cannot easily be compared with yours. No two people swing their brushes identically, mix their colors identically, use the same techniques in their modelling software.

The challenge instead is to create the best work you can, and this work will always be the consequence of your surroundings and socialization, culture and spirit. It’s a consequence of the tools and infrastructure available to you. That’s why it’s better then to compare yourself with (a) yourself from the past, or with (b) your potential; the former focuses on what you already achieved since (focus on past), while the latter focuses on what you still haven’t managed yet (focus on future) – and to use other people’s art mostly as inspiration.

Otherwise, you risk experiencing art through a tainted, stained, maybe even cynical filter – to start despising the art world you crave to get accepted by, as much as potentially your work and yourself. It can then become difficult to appreciate or enjoy someone else’s works and achievements – even your own. By seeing this potential dynamic, it becomes a choice: it’s possible for you to instead engage the world with a realistic kind of positivity. One way to do so is to not compare your work (and yourself) naively.

It might make more sense then to take some distance, to take a breath, and to not define the artist’s job by what you might like and enjoy about it – but by the hardships you’re willing to endure: are you up to face the challenges listed above, and find your own path through them? Sometimes  it’s not about what you want from art, but what art wants from you. While this book suggests many strategies, the meta-advice is to 

  • stay utopian (“I know I can manifest this feeling/thought/idea!”),
  • while firmly being rooted in the realities of our world (“I know I have to work hard doing x/y/z to make my work visible!”).

Artistic skills and traditional notions of talent really have nothing to do with these.

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