Where does ability come from?
We've all seen the child prodigy who dazzles the world with a display of extraordinary skill, which we often refer to as talent. We imagine that this child emerged from the womb immediately able to amaze us. But is this ability a talent or is it a result of practice? Did the child's genes or their environment play a factor in the outcome?
Florida State University psychologist Anders Ericsson and science writer Robert Pool argue that talent is a myth. They conducted a study of child violinists, and concluded that the level of competency was directly proportional to the time practiced. By the time child violinists reached 20 years old, those at a world-class level had practiced between 10,000 - 50,000 hours. Ericson's studies showed that no violinist achieved mastery without the investment of many practice hours. The great masters became great, because they spent more time focusing on their skills than others.
Malcom Gladwell proposed that practicing anything for 10,000 hours will make you a master. However, he also pointed out that the quality of practice is as important as the quantity of time practiced.
An important key to success is the motivation to practice. A person must be willing to fail again and again, as that is part of the learning process. This motivation to persevere can be strongly influenced by the environment, which can take on many forms. The motivation to invest in practice can be the encouragement of others, the chance to become more popular, financial rewards, or inspiration by the success of others.
And that's a problem for scientists. Its difficult to account for the variety of influences in a person's life, which adds to the challenge of determining what enhances a persons potential for mastery.
Born with it?
There is evidence that some people are just born with a natural gift to be incredible at something without much effort. But this is perhaps less common than one might suspect. No one at birth can play the violin, or draw like Leonardo. There are limiting factors at an early age, both mental and physical. These prodigies, like all of us, are born with potential.
Everyone who becomes a master first develops an interest in something which grows into a passion. Perhaps they had encouragement and access to the right tools. A combination of things propelled them forward and motivated them to invest many hours of practice, culminating in a high level of skill. On the other hand a "gifted" child who is denied the right environment, will probably not advance their skills to become a prodigy.
So what is different about child prodigies?
A study of 18 prodigies studies by Joanne Ruthsatz and colleagues revealed that prodigies all scored extremely high in standardized IQ tests and in the 99th percentile on working memory. A major factor underlying the ability to acquire complex skills is robust working memory. The better the memory, the more quickly the children grasp new concepts and skills. Since memory is an inherited characteristic, this lends evidence to the notion that genes do play some role in prodigies.
What about the rest of us?
While its true that some people acquire skills more readily, that alone is not enough to result in mastery. Everyone must invest time and focus in order to develop world-class skills. Evidence suggest that anyone can master a skill if they are willing to put forth the time and effort. Granted some people will master skills more quickly. However, given enough dedication and time, everyone has the potential to become a master at something.
What about Art?
There seems to be a popular notion that if you make 10,000 strokes with a paintbrush or airbrush, you will have mastered it. At the very least, you will be competent at making a stroke. However, art is more than just being able to handle the tool. It is about understanding the visual world. All the technical ability in the world will not serve you if you don't have observational skills.
How do I practice?
My suggestion is to study the visual world around you, especially photographs. I'm aware that there are some naysayers out there who denounce using photography as a tool. However, studying photographs is a tremendous way to experience how 3-dimensional objects become translated onto the 2-dimensional picture plane. Photography records light, shadow, color, perspective, proportion, edges, shapes and more, and lays these elements out before you to observe and understand.
You should study live objects too, but don't neglect the opportunity to learn from photographs, because when painting from either, it is all from memory.
So the key to mastering art is not to practice making marks for 10,000 hours, but to study the visual world around you. You must understand the visual world in order to realize your artistic potential.
Best of luck in all your painting endeavors.