Nature vs. Nurture

It’s a long-standing debate and it has been studied for a long time. Can we do the things we do because it is our natural ability (nature) or is it things we have learned (nurture)? The nature vs. nurture question comes up with anyone who sets out to call himself an artist.

Would you expect to sit down at drums, like in this image, pick up the sticks, and be a master immediately? Of course not. If you take lessons and practice for a long time will you become a famous drummer? Probably not. You may be a good one, but not necessarily great.

So what should natural ability do for us? I think it makes it easier for some people to learn to do some things. We say they “take to” things naturally. Whether it is playing tennis, or doing math, or playing the drums, there is no doubt that it is less of a struggle for some. Note, though, that it is “less” of a struggle. It’s still a struggle. I’ve never met anyone with natural talent who did not have to also work very hard to excel.

On the nurture side, should we expect that anyone can master anything if they are determined enough? Yes, but. Sorry to break it to you, but you probably can’t become a world class ballerina just because you practice enough. Most people can learn to be good at almost anything if they apply themselves diligently. Some things take certain inherent physical characteristics that cannot be learned. E.g., don’t expect to be the next Michael Jackson unless you are about 7 feet tall.

If I decide I want to play tennis well, I can take lessons and practice hard. I might get to the point where I can beat most of the people in my area, but I won’t be competing at Wimbledon. There is a huge gap between good and great.

10,000 Hours

It is often quoted that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to master something. That may be correct, but what does it mean? That study is documenting that it takes those 10,000 hours of great practice to get to the level of a Tiger Woods in golf or a Yo-Yo Ma on the cello.

The number gets thrown around a lot to prove how hard it is to learn things, but it is not as daunting as that. Most of us rightly get discouraged at he prospect of taking 10,000 hours to get good at something, so we don’t do it. Remember, though, that this is the investment to get to be the best in the world. Other studies, and common sense. show that it takes a much lower level of investment to get to proficiency or a level of expertise. Common numbers I hear are 20 to 40 hours.

Try it yourself. Pick out something you think you are interested in but know nothing about. Take knife throwing as a weird example. Get a simple throwing knife at your local sporting goods store, watch some You-tube videos and practice for 40 hours. Good practice where you evaluate your mistakes and learn to correct them. You will probably be the most expert knife thrower in your area.


I asked the question of nature vs. nurture in the context of an artist. Do you have to have natural talent or else you should give up? If you have natural talent do you need training?

What I have observed is that “making it” – whatever that means to you – takes work. Lots of work. If you have a natural talent you may get there with less pain. If it takes pain, you will probably learn more deeply because of it. Either way you have to put in the work. If you want to be an artist, put in the time. Artists don’t have to suffer, but they do have to work long and hard at their craft.

So, nature or nurture? For me, it’s a don’t care. If you put in the time and keep developing yourself you will not need to ask the question. Some luck doesn’t hurt, too.

Point of View

POV can convert a blah scene to something special

Is all art really about point of view? I think that is a big part of it.

I am a digital artist. A camera is the original capture device for most of my images. I will talk abut this because it is probably one of the harshest examples of my point.

Digital images. A commodity. Billions of them are made each day. What would make anything I do stand out from the crowd? Why should anyone look at, much less buy, mine?

If I walk to the viewpoint for the lower falls in Yellowstone, wait my turn, place my tripod in the holes thousands of others have worn, and snap the picture, what do I have? If I have done my technical job correctly, I have another pretty picture of the falls. They are beautiful and it is hard to take a bad picture of them. Millions of people do every year.

What is Lacking

What’s lacking is a unique point of view. I just shot the same picture millions or other people shot. I have not added anything to it. I have not given you anything different.

How do I make my image special? I need to bring a new point of view. I need to see it different, or in very special light or weather conditions. I need to do some work to get to a location hardly anyone goes to. Or I need to treat it as raw material and modify the bits. Maybe combine with others or blur it or change the colors, ending up with a more abstract image.

Almost anything can be done with the scene or the image to make it into something unique.

Different for Difference’s Sake?

If being the same as everyone else is bad, then I should be arbitrarily different, right? I have to do what works for me. I have to be proud of the resulting image and I have to want for you to see it. I have to hope you will want to hang it on your wall.

So I can’t just do arbitrary mechanical enhancements. It’s not good enough to just make it different. Different to be different is not art. I have to express my point of view.


Where does my point of view come from? It sounds trite to just say it comes from me, but it does. I have to bring something new to you through this common image. I have to use my imagination and creativity to expand on the ordinary. Even if it is no more than making it more vivid and real looking than you normally see. Or to re-imagine the scene and craft a new reality in my computer.

If I am an artist, I have to bring you something worthwhile. All I have is what is in me. When I get it out, I am expressing my point of view. In reality I think that is all any artist can do.

Pretty Pictures

If I call myself an artist, am I allowed to take “pretty pictures”? If you look at fine art galleries and catalogs the answer seems to be no. Some would say I am not an artist if my images are pretty.

I know. I know. This is a long standing conflict. The modernists and postmodernists and surrealists and photojournalists and conceptual and fashion and even environmental activists have seized the microphone and control the dialog right now. According to their designated gatekeepers, “prettiness” is not a worthwhile reason for an image’s existence. It should have deep meaning or angst or futility or confront the evils of modern civilization.

I can’t wholeheartedly support the politically correct party line here. People are wired to perceive beauty. No, beauty is not in the eyes of the beholder. That is a silly notion. There are objective notions of beauty that most people share, regardless of race or culture – a sunset, flowers, waterfalls, mountains, the ocean, certain facial features, human bodies, etc. We are all drawn to these. Even, I believe, the most hard core postmodernist. There may not be much agreement about truth, but there is actually surprising agreement about beauty.

So if we all react to it and we share such common appreciation of beauty, why is it rejected? I think there are a couple of reasons.

First, I think the guild of artists is trying to protect their turf. Everybody who picks up a camera (or phone) rushes to take pretty pictures, so, by implication, it must not be something an artist would do. If everybody is doing it it must not be special; it must not be very valuable. Besides, if 4 billion pretty pictures are taken a day, how can I stand out as an artist?

Second, most artists want to be taken seriously. In the current vernacular this involves being gritty, dark, bland, sometimes ugly, confrontational, challenging. By going the opposite direction of the mainstream we show that we are different. Maybe that makes us an artist. We need to be elitist, above our audience and leading them.

There is some truth to all of these statements. It is necessary for an artist to stand out from the crowd in order to be seen and to make a living. Art is a business. Having a differentiator is good business.

But we should lighten up a bit. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We need an edge to differentiate ourselves, but acknowledge that beauty is still beauty. I may create some totally abstract, even surreal images in the name of “art”, but I am a sucker for a beautiful sunset. I have to shoot it, even if I know I may never show it to anyone. Maybe it’s partly because I am fortunate to live in Colorado where I am surrounded by beauty: mountains, plains, waterfalls, snow, etc. Within 40 miles of my house I go through many of the major climate zones of the country, from high desert to tundra. I love it. And I shoot it. It may not be what the “serious” artists would call art, but I love it and can’t resist.

Is it really art, though? If it is art to me, it is. And if I can create something a little bit above the norm, maybe other people will see it as art, too. I take it fairly slow and disciplined, asking myself “why am I wanting to take this?” I try to come up with a slightly different treatment of the subject. But those are refinements. The truth is I may be taking the picture because it is beautiful to me.

The image accompanying this article is a minor example. I just loved it. That’s why I stopped to take it. Sure, it was the time of day, the stark old barn, the bleakness and loneliness, the composition of the cloud formations, the expanse of the Colorado plains; these and other things. But what grabbed me was the beauty I perceived at the moment. I couldn’t. help myself.

Bottom line is that sometimes beauty triumphs. Beauty is beauty and it is worthwhile even if it is not bringing any “deep” message. We need more beauty in our world.

Looking vs. Seeing

Old door

We all look at things every day. Do we really see them? What’s the difference?

When we’re driving, for example, we look at everything around us. (I hope! Put that phone down!) What we mostly see are threats, dangers, problems to work around. Is that car going to run the red light? Does that driver seem distracted, so I should move away from them? Is that pedestrian going to walk in front of me? That construction is blocking the lane I want to be in so I have to make a different plan.

We look at things like this all the time, but we don’t really see them. That’s not inappropriate for a situation like driving. After all, when the guy swerves into your lane and nearly hits you, you don’t really care what he is wearing or what color his eyes are. Looking is sufficient to take in the essential information to let us get by. Doing it is efficient. It prevents us from having to waste time and energy examining things that probably are not directly important to us.

Unfortunately, most of us go through life in this state. Things are happening all around us but we only see the minimum necessary. We get in the habit of not noticing. It simplifies our life and reduces the clutter of things we have to examine and consider. Simple is not always better. It can lead to a minimal existence. We are aware of enough to stay out of trouble but we don’t always appreciate the beauty, irony, joy, pathos that is swirling all around us.

But what about those of us who consider ourselves artists? We don’t want to just get by. We don’t want the minimum connection to the world around us. Artists and creatives should see more. One of our jobs is to wake up people to what they are missing in the world around them. That decision comes with costs. Actually seeing is much harder. It takes a lot more effort.

What do I mean by that? Say I am walking down the street. I walk by a door. On the looking level it is easily dismissed as “door is closed, nothing to watch out for there”. But what about what the door actually is? It’s texture and color. Is it tagged with interesting grafitti? Is it weathered and rough or smooth and modern? Where does it lead? When is the last time I say someone go in or out it? Does a door like this say anything about our environment, or about people’s relations to each other, or about the people who built it and their history?

Going through like this way takes much more awareness, more intention, more thought. And it is distracting. Sometimes we get lost in something we have seen and end up late to an appointment, maybe even miss lunch. It fills our minds and crowds out Facebook or the TV shows we watched last night. It focuses us on something we did not expect when we left the house.

All in all, I think seeing is a better existence than just looking. It is more rewarding, if for no other reason that that we are more in tune with our environment; with the world around us. It encourages us to take in more, to examine things more deeply. I try to practice seeing every day. When I don’t, I feel like I have drifted through the day in a daze.