Talent is Overrated

Today’s post is in honor of Dear Reader susie, whose Comment from last week  — in response to this picture of my first ever illustration —


was this:

You hear and see all over it doesn’t take talent,

just perseverance.

I don’t think so, if that’s your first shot out of the box.

I read that and I had to prove the one thing I know for sure about life. This one is for you, Dear susie:

Talent is Overrated.

To start, I want to show you all a photo I took in Monet’s garden at Giverny, France, when I spent three days in the little village in May of 2013:


I like the color scheme here, and I really liked those bright tulips. (I snapped this photo just as a passing breeze ruffled some petals.) I chose this picture somewhat at random for today’s post, because today’s post is all about how terrible, how truly terrible and awful I am at painting flower beds.

Oh, sure, I’ve made little bitty watercolor try-outs of flower beds:


These are studies I made of Monet’s flower beds, picking out patterns rather than actual fleurs.

I’ve even painted bits of Monet’s Giverny garden before:



I’ve also copied directly from Monet himself, in various Triscuit forms …



But this is not the same as actually being able to paint Monet’s FLOWERS. The reason I do not paint Monet’s flowers is because I have no talent at painting flowers but is that lack of talent going to stop me? Non! Well, not today, at least. Because it doesn’t take “talent” to paint — because talent is overrated.

Talent is Overrated is the title of a book written by Geoff Colvin (published by Penguin Group in 2008). It’s about how the majority of people in the world never achieve excellence (or even proficiency, at their job, their avocations, their hobbies, etc) because of their notion that excellence is possible only thru talent, and  talent is a freaky, DoG-given gift that nature has not bestowed upon them.

In fact, Geoff argues, talent is the least part of excellence. Stick-to-it-ness is the only thing that matters:

One of the most important questions about greatness surrounds the difficulty of deliberate practice. The chief constraint is mental, regardless of the field – even in sports, where we might think the physical demands are the hardest. Across realms, the required concentration is so intense that it’s exhausting. If deliberate practice is so hard – if in most cases it’s not [the least bit] “inherently enjoyable” – then why do some people put themselves through it day after day for decades, while most do not? Where does the necessary passion come from?

Geoff spends a lot of the book answering that “Where does the necessary passion come from?” question, which interests me not in the least. I don’t care where “passion” — just another word for stick-to-it-ness — comes from. You know it if you have it. That’s all that matters.

I only care that if you have that passion, that desire to stick to it, then you know the secret that I know: you know the great quantity of horrible, boring, unpleasant, discouraging, and vexing work it takes to make “talent” happen.

And so I am going to paint for you today, because I can’t paint flowers for shit, and I dearly, desperately want to be able to paint flowers.

Specifically, I’d like to paint flowers like an Impressionist. And actually, Monet is not my favorite FLOWER painter, even of his own garden (excepting for the lilies, he couldn’t paint flowers for shit, either):


Claude Monet, view of his garden at Giverny.

No, I greatly prefer other Impressionists, such as the American, Childe Hassam:


This looseness with paint is  foreign to how I do things naturally, as a fuss-budgety painter of Tricsuits. So I know, and rather dread, that it will take a lot of deliberate practice until I get it right.

And so, with a sigh of resignation for what I am in for, I begin:


I paint fast and loose and this is what I got:


I swear to you, this is NOT me trying to paint ugly. This is me trying to paint pretty, using skills I DO NOT YET HAVE.

So I do it again, this time starting with a quick little drawing/painting of the tulips:


I got this far when it became clear to me that the painting was OVER:


So I tried a different tactic. I used my masking fluid to mark out the flowers, and I swirled a verdant background all over them (because it’s a technique I ave used before, with some success)…Fun! Loose! Free! All the things I am not!:


I dropped in some more background texture:


And I lifted off the masking fluid and painted the flowers:



I am beyond frustrated at this point. I dislike painting ugly pix, and I loathe it when I do not know what I am doing. Of all the ways I’ve tried, so far, to paint an impressionistic flowers bed, none of them has felt like “me”.

So I do something that IS “me”. I try to paint an Impressionistic Triscuit:


Nope. Impressionist Triscuits are not “me.”

OK, then…let me try doing a hybrid, mix a bit of Impressionistic blurriness with my natural fuss-potty attention to detail:


I think the result looks…unhappy.

At this point I would like to quote from another Dear Reader whose Comment from last week’s post was right on the money. Barb Hutch wrote:

I don’t believe we know if you are completely self-taught or how you came to have such remarkable abilities. “Hard, relentless work” could be the explanation, based on all that you have shared. 

Well Dear Barb, as you can see, I am indeed what you would call “self-taught”, and by “self taught” I mean I have learned how to paint through “hard, relentless work”, and being willing to paint one bad picture after another.

Now, I’ve done this yellow tulip flower pic five times now, and I still havn’t figured out how to paint it. But am I ready to call it quits? Am I???

Hell NO!

Because I have it in me to try one more time. 

Again, I start by laying down masking fluid, then doing a light wash, into which I will drop shots of “flower” color:












Although I am not happy with this pic, I am most unhappy the way the background comes on too strong. So, since I dislike this pic away, I’m going to try something that might become a new “tool” for me, a new way to tone down bad painting:




Don’t think I’ll ever try that again.

By now I am thoroughly sick of this scene. Stupid yellow tulips. With their stupid red streaks. But am I ready to stop painting flowers??

Well, for now I am. But I am not ready to quit my search for the Way I Paint Flowers. I’m already eyeing a new photo of Monet’s garden at Giverny, one that I like better (probably because it has no yellow tulips in it)…


Yeah. Maybe it was the reference photo’s fault. Stupid yellow tulips.

Maybe all I need is a super-pretty pic to get me in the groove. Pink tulips! Yes!

All I have to do is hang in there, withstand the discomfort of being really, really bad at painting flowers until the day comes when I can be good at it. But I am done for now…

…and in the meantime, I can still paint all the Triscuits and Squints my heart desires. And today, my heart desires to give away this lovely Squint of the Long Island Sound to the Reader who picked Top Cat’s Squint Number between 50 and 100. The number that Top Cat chose was …



“Right in the middle”, is how he explained his pick. SBut snce nobody picked No. 75, I went with the Dear Reader who came closest to that number without going over, and that Dear Reader is…


Congratulations, Catya!

Please email me your address at vivianswift at yahoo dot com, and I will post this out to you PDQ.

Thank you, everyone, for sending in your numbers!

Will I ever learn how to paint a damn tulip? Will there be a half-way decent Monet flower garden picture painted by next week? Or will I explain the secret of how I’ve seen hard working people like you and me become brilliant illustrators without having an ounce of “talent”?

Only the next seven days will tell.

Have a great weekend, Dear Readers.






17 Comments, RSS

  1. Patricia September 18, 2015 @ 9:05 am

    Well, this explains it. You’re willing to work a heck of a lot harder at it than I am. Which also explains why it took me so long to learn how to ride a bike without training wheels (age ten and I most certainly DID NOT want them gone).

    And I need to read instructions better. I picked number two and was feeling pretty good about my chances…

  2. Alica September 18, 2015 @ 9:12 am

    Congratulations, Catya. (Vivian, any chance that you’ll do a How To Squint book so the rest of us can “own” a V. Swift work of art suitable for framing????)

    Patricia is right. I hate being bad at stuff so I have no tolerance for the learning curve — how do you do it? that is, how do you stay so foucsed, when the desired goal [of painting flowers like Childe Hassam] remains so far out of sight? How do you NOT GIVE UP?????

    Not giving up: that is in itself a real, true talent.

    As usual, a fun and thoughtful and artistic and inspiring post.

  3. Monique September 18, 2015 @ 9:13 am

    Encouraging for anyone to just keep trying..


    I bought a new masking fuild w/ applicator..thought of you..now I need to practice!

  4. Monique September 18, 2015 @ 9:13 am

    ohmygosh masking fluid.

  5. Casey September 18, 2015 @ 11:22 am

    You had me until “hard work”. I already find “work”, alone, to be more trouble than it’s worth. I want to be a cat. From what I’ve observed, there is no amount of “work” at all involved.

    Yay. It’s Friday!

  6. Deborah S. Farrell September 18, 2015 @ 11:39 am

    One of Malcolm Gladwell’s books (I think it is “Ouliers”) makes the very same point about talent — he says the rule of thumb is it takes 10,000 hrs. of practice to get really good at something. That really made me sit back on my heels and think about what in my life I had, or was willing to, put that much time into. Dogs. Gardening. Looking at art. But NOT painting or drawing. Nope. That is why I am Dilettante Deb. I have way more than 10,000 hrs. of dilettante-ism.

    I’m not concerned about being bad at something or making mistakes. I just assume that’s part of a learning curve (plus, this honey badger don’t care what others might think!). I like playing with paint & colored pencils, etc., but I don’t have the patience, drive, whatever it is, to put in the time. DoG love ya for doing so & sharing it with us. (My 9 wk. old black standard poodle puppy, Miguel, is snoozing as I write this.)

  7. Deborah S. Farrell September 18, 2015 @ 11:39 am

    Oops! “Outliers”

  8. Jen A September 18, 2015 @ 2:10 pm

    Hey Vivian –

    Thanks for showing us what tenacity (a nicer word for stubbornness) looks like! Does anyone like being “bad” at something? No f-ing way! I write short stories, have had a few published and read them voraciously. All I ever seem to learn is how amazing the amazing writers are and how I never seem to live up! And yet…I keep writing.

    My big question for the day, for you: What happens if you switch media, too? Maybe your brain and fingers are too entrenched in a particular style with the watercolors. Maybe it’s time to experiment with new mediums too? (and not the ones who say the dead speak through them…) Or is that too much of a leap out of the comfort zone?

  9. ann September 18, 2015 @ 8:06 pm

    This week I have been trying to select pictures for the Perry Fair art contest. Each of my pictures have problem areas, like the colors are too dull or the lines crooked. I finally found a few which I liked. Its funny how when you are painting it, it looks acceptable, but near the end you wonder how you missed the boat. It is hard work, but I love the journey. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Deb Mattin September 18, 2015 @ 9:15 pm

    I always thought that a person was either born with “talent” or not. Then someone (ahem!) showed me how to draw a cat and let me in on the secret that even I could learn to draw something recognizable. It gave me the oomph to draw – whatever I see, copying other drawings – some Ok, some DoG-awful, but each one frankly more than I thought I could do.

    But your flower gardens are lovely – and who likes yellow tulips anyway? I admire not only your results but your persistence. It gives those of us with far lesser skills (I REALLY want to say “talent”) hope, and a good kick in the touches to keep at it.

  11. Ken September 19, 2015 @ 3:32 am

    Here’s what I think. Because you have talent, and there is no denying that you really do, you are not in awe of it. But I am.

    I think what is the lesson of your post this week is that talent alone is not enough. We all know talented people who are too lazy to make anything of it. But talent plus hard work is the path to genius.

  12. Catya September 20, 2015 @ 10:37 am

    I’m with Ken!
    And thank you Vivian!
    I look forward to next week’s ‘lesson’, too.

  13. Cher September 20, 2015 @ 1:45 pm

    oh, holy mother of god, you are wickedly funny!! I’ve always said that ANYONE is an artist, you just have to work at it, and your post just NAILED that sentiment. I am now totally hooked on your blog, but when I hit the “Subscribe” button, it gives me the html code page. Please let me know when your “subscribe” is back up and running, because I do not want to miss a single post.

  14. Kirra September 20, 2015 @ 7:30 pm

    Excellent post Vivian! As someone who studied music and is now a music teacher I totally get the practice over talent concept. Good luck for the next flower challenge!

  15. Jeanie at Marmelade Gypsy September 22, 2015 @ 8:35 am

    OK, YOU may not be satisfied but every single one of these shows work, innovation and evolving. And they’re all a lot better than what I might do in the same amount of time!

    But what matters is how it feels to you. So, I’m eager to see if pink tulips are the charm!

    And all that said, reading this right now is very timely for me. I’m in the process of learning some new things and you know, the time for practicing seems so limited. Well, it can’t be limited if I really want to learn. I think we all need to be unafraid to fail, just tear it up or file it away or do what we need to do to rescue or begin again. And again and again. I need to hear that and I need to hear it from someone like you. A gentle, colorful kick in the pants.

    A true story. When I was a kid, my three-year-younger cousin Patty could draw rings around anything and anyone. At eight, she’d be drawing animals and babies that jumped off the page. This was the natural talent. I had trouble drawing anything that looked like it was and it was long before discovering Impressionism! My mom tried to make me feel better, saying Patty had the natural talent — and I did, too. I could write. And I did. But I wanted to draw. So, she bought me books on drawing. I drew (read that, copied) every drawn fashion ad in the newspaper and all the comic books. And pretty soon, I threw them away and could hold my own. Not like Patty, but OK for then.

    Time passed. I kept doing art — not always drawing or painting, usually mixed media, some carving, a ilttle of a lot of things, some better or worse than others. But I did shows, I sold some, it was part of me. Patty, with all the natural talent never painted again until she was about mid-50s. It was like discovering something new for her and her talent returned. I will never have that talent, but I do know that when I want it, I have the drive. Thank you for reminding me of that.

  16. Felicia September 22, 2015 @ 2:55 pm

    Vivian, you have a real talent for sharing what matters most in life, character, persistence and love.

    Hope you enjoyed your time away running through the August sprinklers (at least that’s what I hope you were doing.)

    After spending all morning painting two really bad pictures, this post was just the balm I needed. I would have stopped after your first painting thinking I’d nailed it, but we’re never easy on ourselves are we? Especially when we can see in our mind’s eye what we intend.

  17. Barb Hutch September 22, 2015 @ 6:43 pm

    I really, really appreciate the post of all of your thinking on the effort. I learn as much from your self-critiquing as the how to. As to whether you will master the flower painting, as my dad would say -“look at the evidence”. Is it not true that you have mastered already much of what you one time struggled with. Can’t wait for the Garden Book to be available!! Thanks for the generosity of your detailed account. Barb

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *