Talent or Effort?

The great Rembrandt Van Rijn was regarded as a genius early in his career. This “Master of Light,” despite working harder than ever and getting better than ever in old age, was disregarded without much fanfare late in his career. At the end, what the critics say matter little. Only the work does.

In the creative fields, the question of talent is always there. Some view it as a predetermined thing, ordained by heaven. Others prefer to think of it as something that can be acquired, or at least, with enough persistence and sacrifice, earned. Every young artist I’ve ever worked with has had that fear in them, and sometimes I can even see it in their eyes. It’s as if they’re asking me (and themselves at the same time) “do I have what it takes?”

When we think of talent, we all think of the naturally-gifted Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci, or more commonly, the musical prodigy, Mozart — whose name is synonymous with the word genius. The movie Amadeus certainly didn’t help break that perception, watching the brilliantly acted performance by Tom Hulce (who also voiced Quasimodo in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame) dancing around playfully in life, as he did on the piano, with ease and bravado.

AmadeusTom Hulce, portraying Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus

But in Mozart’s own words, we might have to acknowledge another, perhaps greater truth:

“People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I”.

In fact, Mozart’s hands were deformed by the time he reached the age of twenty-eight due to all the endless hours of practice and writing. Then we find out that the wily painting maestro, Pablo Picasso, had been hiding his sketchbooks and preliminary studies for decades. This slight of hand definitely aided in the perception of his god-like genius and most certainly didn’t stop him from becoming the wealthiest living artist of his time.


Picasso seen here displaying his “spontaneous” genius.

Still not convinced? Well, lets look at who has been called the greatest animator in the world, the marvelous Milt Kahl. In John Canemaker’s wonderful book, the Nine Old Men,  Milt’s counterpart, Frank Thomas revealed how Milt would torment himself in his room during the creative process, where he was often heard muttering to himself, yanking drawings violently off peg bars, and tossing them into the trash, which were also ‘kicked’ for good measure:

“When he blew up and trampled his drawings in the wastebasket, it was real frustration … self-criticism, feeling of being inadequate, pure concentrated torture.”

Milt Kahl at work - filled with intensityMilt Kahl at work on his desk, filled with intensity.

Milt was very proud of his tenacious approach to animation. He often lamented how other animators expected good results without putting in the effort or time to do it right. He states, quite blatantly:

“I think a lot of people are a lot lazier than I am”

Milt Kahl -SwordandTheStoneMilt Kahl’s drawings clearly show an abundance of talent but also serious analysis and hard work. Every single frame of his work was beautifully and painstakingly developed.

Finally,  we come to these words from acclaimed writer, Stephen King:

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful is a lot of hard work.”

stephen-king-books-collectionA small sample of Stephen King’s novels.

I agree — big talent accompanied by tiny effort goes no where.  But a drop of genius attached to a large dose of dedication can lead to amazing results. The most commonly heard lament in the arts is the phrase “what a waste of talent!” Effort, confidence and talent build on top of each other, each one pulling the other higher in a continuous cycle of greater growth.