I’ve been liking “Line by Line,” a Friday column in The New York Times in which illustrator James McMullen teaches people how to draw.  His weekly lessons—on how to set up a still life, how to get the shading in a tree or a nose—value verve and not just technique, which tempts me to read his book, Drawing from Life.  I’m also thinking of other titles that might open up my creativity, like drawing The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain or Zen of Seeing.


That said, I’ve also been bumping up against the injustice of talent levels these days.  Over the past few months, I’ve had the neat job of organizing a group show in a local art gallery, which has included lots of studio visits, looking at work from the great to the bad.  I’ve seen evidence for what a cruel thing talent is.  Some people have more than others do.  You work forever, and you’re still you.


Seeing major artists at work has prompted me to think about my own real limitations, so I’ve been thinking about what characteristics keep talent so bounded.  E.g.: Why am I sloppy with details in most things, like organizing papers and not just painting?  I think one good explanation for the rigid boundary lines of someone’s talent is that talent and personality itself are deeply linked.  We tend to be good at certain technical feats and not others because of what our personalities can handle.


James McMullen said something similar in the first line of this week’s drawing column.  He said that even though he’s a proficient realist, he’s not great with humorous art: “I’m not going to [teach you to draw caricature].  When the art god was doling out the syrup of graphic wit, he must have slipped on a banana peel just as he got to my cup and most of it spilled out on the floor.”  He can draw great trees, down to the bend of individual leaves; but he can’t “do” funny.  His sensibility draws him to parts of life and not others.


I’m working through this in myself with a little pang.  Below is today’s short list of things I’m learning about my limitations and possible strong suits in talent in the visual arts.  I’ve been obsessed with sewing for a few weeks.  But my sewing pieces are always a bit of a mess: even after I try to iron them, they look unironed.  I’m in thrall with Heather Johnson, who has a show on right now at the Christina Ray Gallery, who stitches minute maps covering the precision of land and heath.  See hers:





My stitching always ends up less clean, sprawling with emotion.  My work tends to be more about mood as it preps a scene.  See mine:



Evidence that I don’t have the personality for Johnson’s detailed stitching is the fact that I can’t iron in real life, either.  I’m not the type of person who can set the cloth straight and practice patience.  I also tend to wear wrinkled clothes without worry about my appearance; I'm what a personality test might describe as an introvert with strong impulses.  But what sets my limitations in neatness at both the ironing board and in the sewing arts also probably affords me with certain strengths.  I express myself more impulsively than many people do, and I sometimes achieve a certain saturation of mood.


Or, another example: I’m more excited by inventing than learning from the past.  On a personality test, I come out as controlling, as impatient when learning from others, as most excited by strange adventures where I nonetheless have some control.  In turn, I’ve dropped out of the 2 art classes I’ve entered, and I’ve lost steam on any project focused specifically on technique.  While this means I’ll never achieve the finesse of classical realism (read a biography of Michelangelo to feel bad about your dedication to any one thing), I am able to move quickly from one project and even career to another, each time with new energy.  In one summer, I painted 50 authors on paper plates, using 99-cent tubs of acrylics.  Then I stopped with the faces and started sewing.  I won’t be great, but I’ll be energetic.


I do believe that our tendencies in life determine certain tendencies in “talent,” and that these are facts of personality, not some more tangential quality. 


What do you think?  What circumscribes someone’s talent?  Do you know any good books on expanding talent or creativity? 



Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.

by on ‎11-12-2010 02:01 PM

Spontaneity/impulsive art, IMHO, is the best kind of art.  To be free to express those emotions, is a rare gift.  Recently, I was asked to write a short (three line) bio. Write something that makes you accessible.   I was stymied.  Who am I?  Ha!


I like your needle drawing, Ilana....wrinkles and all!  Makes you accessible.


Yesterday, I was sitting at the PT office, squeezing hot pink putty balls....I've been reduced to this!  I made a little pinch pot out of one, telling the tech it was his new cereal bowl!  And then made something that resembled a phallus, and laughing my head off, as one of the women helpers, who was changing the pillowcases and watching me...laughing too!  What a potter thinks of!  Anything to take my mind off of a torture chamber!


I love, love, love Betty Edward's books, especially Drawing on The Artist Within.  I took both of these classes, and couldn't get enough of them.  This book, DoTAW, deals more with the psychology of art, more than Drawing on the Right Side of The Brain.  It's been a long time since I've looked at either of these books.


Here's the Table of Contents for DoTAW:


Part 1 - A New Look at the Art of Seeing


Creativity:  The Chameleon Concept

Drawing on Gleams from Within

Taking a Long Look at Creativity

Drawing on Definitions


Part 2 - Making Thought Visible


Drawing on a Parallel Language

Making Telling Marks

Drawing Out of Insight

Drawing on Intuition

Drawing on Fist Insight to Find the Question

Drawing Meaning from the Inside Out


Part 3 - New Strategies for Thinking


Drawing Up the Rules of the Game

Drawing on New Points of View

Beaux Gestes:  Drawing on Beautiful Gestures

Drawing at a Snail's Pace

Drawing on the Other Side of Our Assumptions

There Is More to Seeing than Meets the Eyeball

Taking a Sight on Reason, Ratios, and Relationships

Shadows that Light the Way

Drawing Close to the Magic Moment

Drawing Power from Within


by on ‎11-12-2010 03:17 PM

Questions.  When you say,  I won’t be great, but I’ll be energetic. 


Who gives you the right to say you won't be great? 

How do you know this? 

What makes you think this?  

How do you base this assumption? 

If you don't think you are great, or will be, what would you do to change this? 

That is, if you wanted to change this? 

What if I said this about myself? 

What would you say to me? 

Are we being honest, or fishing for a pity party?


What is the importance placed on sticking with something until it's finished?  And who holds the bar in putting that importance on you?


I think, if you give up, and go on to something else, before actually reaching the highest goals/levels set by other people, it does say something, actually a lot, about what we think we should have, or want to have, out of our life.  Yes, I'll quite, just to show you I can....and stay in control.  And if you don't think I can be accomplished, then I'll show you!  Unfortunately, I think we can get stuck in this rut.....We have to decide for ourselves, what's important.


I think there will always be someone [whether ourselves, or others] who will think there is more, to being better, and you  really do need to know whether that better is in the best interest of them, or for you. 


And when someone asks you, what do you do [for a living-or in general] in your life?  What's that answer?  I can't answer this!  I'm certainly NOT energetic!  Ha!

Have a good one, whatever ONE is.




p.s.  As always, I'm just whistling in the dark.

by on ‎11-12-2010 07:40 PM

What circumscribes someone’s talent? 


by on ‎11-13-2010 09:43 PM

Ilana wrote:  That said, I’ve also been bumping up against the injustice of talent levels these days.  Over the past few months, I’ve had the neat job of organizing a group show in a local art gallery, which has included lots of studio visits, looking at work from the great to the bad.  I’ve seen evidence for what a cruel thing talent is.  Some people have more than others do.  You work forever, and you’re still you.


For some reason (and I'm trying to figure it out), this whole paragraph just doesn't sit right with me. 


First, I never thought, or looked at, talent levels being related to injustice.  The world isn't always fair!  I mean, we've all had jobs, many for some of us, and with each job we've had to apply ourselves the best way we can.  Experience, education, growth...it all relates to finding what you're good at.  And years of experience certainly makes a difference, if you let it.  Of course we can change and improve, and we do, over time!


Talent can be described as a God given gift, a natural-individual selection to doing something that takes little effort to achieve.  But there are a lot of very good artists that have worked hard to achieve something that may look effortless, but maybe takes more time and encouragement than that gifted individual, to bring it to light.  And then the selection of what is great, from what is bad, has to be made.  We can't live in a bubble, or be allowed to not see what we create.....


There is no injustice to someone for not being selected, it's just part of the order of natural selection.  I'm not sure if this makes sense, because I'm fighting to figure this out, and show the differences.


Talent isn't cruel, as I would define it.  It's the people who define it.  If you're no good at something, and there is room for improvement, than the cruelness comes to yourself when you haven't taken advantage of using the resources that are available to you.  Get off your butt and work harder, or resign yourself to defeat...and yes, again,  we aren't all made the same.  Some of us can't get off our butts, but that doesn't mean you're going to be hand fed, either.  Get over it.


That's how I look at it.  If I had to select someone's art, there would have to be a criteria for the medium....good, or bad.  Who's to judge my art....?


With my writing group, there was five against one this week, when it came to agreeing on that one person's submission.  He was hard nosed, and refused to change a sentence, a line, a word....to a certain degree, objectivity was lost on him.  He's an old guy who's written, published, and taught writing forever.  And likes what he writes.



I just think it's cruel to lead someone on, too, who produces bad art, and has no idea why; or what good art entails. 

Good or bad, I'm done.




by on ‎11-14-2010 12:15 PM

No, I'm not done, where it comes to talking about art.  Ilana, I could talk about art until the cows come home....that is, if I had some cows to call home.  I could take every little brush stroke, thread, color, apart, and attempt to tell you what it means.  I could try to tell you why someone's art holds an accurateness to strict discipline, or not; what controls that discipline, what allows it to leave, letting emotions come through, sliding away from control..


We talk a lot about control, too.  Every little curl of the brush, every little twist of the thread.  Some in control, some out of control, when happiness, sadness, madness, or depressed wants to enter.  How do we judge, critique, select from these pieces of art?


What/who deems when something is 'out' of our control?  Is it conscious 'whimsy', or does is come from the subconscious?


When I see a creative piece (from the mind's exact present state-an intuitive piece), not one that has been copied from someone else's picture, that's when I see art in its reality.  It's living, breathing in, and exhaling the artist's involvement with their own soul.  This is what I interpret Betty Edwards to mean by that "Magic Moment".  I can see this in those little thread pictures of yours, Ilana.  Am I right?.....Am I wrong?....What, really, does any one person see?


by on ‎11-15-2010 12:02 PM

I woke up this morning to see two cows standing in my driveway!

by Blogger IlanaSimons on ‎11-15-2010 01:56 PM

did you tell them to moooooove over?

yeah, i still think that life's unfair.

but life's so interesting too, and I love the power of justificaiton--my ability to rewrite everything to give everything a positive spin. 

by on ‎11-15-2010 05:13 PM

Ha!  Yes! But when I told them to moooooove to the udder side of the yard, they told me I was too bossy.




p.s. We are not all created equal. 

Some cows are black and white,

some are brown.


by on ‎11-17-2010 10:27 AM



write on the paintings

write on the drawings

Full of Grace........Stop and Trust


Trust the readers

Trust the viewers

Trust Yourself....Let go and Trust



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