Industry veteran and Senior Technical Artist at Epic Games, Tom Wright, has a work history to make you swoon. Being the incredibly generous - albeit busy - guy he is, he's more than happy to share his insight (as he did during a recent CG Cookie livestream). Tom's experience has shaped his seasoned perspective on art, CG, and the industry: One of them is the consensus that being a good artist is directly related to talent. Tom begs to differ - and here is why:
My mother is an award winning painter, our town’s Artist of the Year several times running. It wasn’t easy being the child of a well known local artist and pursue the same course.
Long story short: I struggled. At some point, I even started to believe that my mother's talented DNA had not been passed to me. Until one day, she told me a dirty secret...
“There is no such thing as talent.”
Why would she say this? She was obviously mistaken, I thought, looking at how easily she produced an amazing piece of art while I struggled to make convincing stick figures.
“It’s a skill,” she told me. “A skill that takes many, many hours of practice to build.” Without those hours of disciplined training, she told me, I would never be able to make the images I wanted. As much as I loved traditional art I would never become a skilled 2D artist unless I put in the time.
The Truth About Talent That People Don’t Want to Hear
Claiming “there is no such thing as talent” is controversial. Think about the implications: It places all the blame of unachieved goals squarely on you. It’s hard to accept that you simply didn’t work hard enough.
Now, in some circumstances that isn’t entirely the case. A star athlete is born with certain traits; you can’t practice being taller, for instance. And even if you are the ideal height and build to be a football player, it doesn’t mean you will have the fast-enough reflexes to get to the NFL.
At the same time, the highest achievers in sports are also the hardest workers. Tim Notke, a famous high school basketball coach, coined one of my all time favorite quotes: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”.
In art, hard work matters even more, since there are no physical requirements needed to become the best: Nothing is out of your control.
Years after giving up as a painter, I received a birthday gift that changed my life: a personal computer. It was a Commodore 64.
I was absolutely infatuated and worked the entire next summer to afford its successor, the Commodore Amiga, a computer capable of 3D raytracing graphics. My passion for art was rekindled a thousand times over. Remembering the secret I learned from my mother years before, I knew that I could be as good as any artist at this new medium.
During this process, I discovered some valuable lessons.
1. To Succeed as an Artist, You Have to Learn how to Learn
It’s hard to imagine a degree less relevant to art than Criminal Justice, but that is the degree I graduated with. Totally worthless in my field, right?
Well, not entirely. Getting that degree is probably the most important experience I have ever pushed myself through because it taught me how to learn.
It takes real discipline to be a learner, which is why I highly recommend completing some sort of higher education even though it’s not required for our field.
2. Believe in Your Power to Improve
“Growth Mindset” is a concept developed by Stanford researchers showing how effort placed into learning changes your ability to learn. It posits that your brain will literally grow with your ability to learn. The key is believing that skills are acquirable, as opposed to being fixed; precisely what my mother told me.
3. Practice Does not Make Perfect!
Ok, to be fair: practice does kind of make perfect, but only if you’re practicing the right things. A proper foundation of technique is one of the most important things to begin your career with. If you spend 10,000 hours practicing poor technique, you will become a poor artist.
If you’re building your skills on an inadequate substructure, tear the whole thing down and start again with a new base. You will be ten times faster and a hundred times better for it.
4. Enjoy the Process, not the Product.
Don’t worry about what you’re producing, worry about how you are producing it.
In Los Angeles, there are two types of actors: Those who love the idea of being a famous actor and those who love acting. As a rule, the latter becomes far more successful. Fall in love with the process of making art and don’t worry about creating a masterpiece. If you’re doing it right, you’ll never be satisfied with the final result anyway because of your desire to keep improving. So just enjoy the ride!
5. Be Crazy Determined.
Push yourself as far as you can and when you think you have reached the ceiling, keep pushing!
A seventh grade teacher in New York, Angela Lee Duckworth, started to realize that IQ was not the only determining factor for success in her students. While in her PhD program, she began studying a common characteristic in her successful students which she calls “grit”. Duckworth talks about this find in her amazing TED Talk and defines grit as the “passion and perseverance for very long term goals”. Find your grit!
6. Don’t settle for great.
As a kid, my mother told me to throw my paintings away and paint them again no matter how good they were. It was a lesson to always push myself further, to never be satisfied. If you believe that you are the best at what you do, it will be very difficult for you to grow and achieve the level of skill that you are actually capable of.
The amazing artists that I know don’t see themselves as great. They see themselves on the journey to greatness.
In my mind, a talented person is someone who can understand complex concepts quickly and is interested, driven and determined. At the end of the day, the artist that works the hardest becomes the best artist, talent or no talent. Learn, remember, practice, be patient, be dedicated and above all, cherish the journey. It might be the only one you get.