Painting is not a Talent
If by talent we understand a natural ability, painting is definitely not a talent.
by Vicente Collado Jr

Vermeer's Young Girl with a Pitcher
(Oil on Canvas, 60 cm x 50 cm)
Carol and I, once, saw an artist painting this work of Vermeer on a pavement in a shopping center in Leidschendam amidst passersby who occasionally dropped some coins in his hat. Had he painted it on a canvas and sold it, I'm sure, he would have earned a lot more. Since I was still in that stage of "learning-from-the-masters-by-copying-them", I decided to have my own version. The original only has a blank wall behind the girl and, of course, it was more effective because it helps the viewer to focus on the girl, the center of interest, by omitting distracting details. But, I couldn't resist the urge of adding my own ingredients and so there goes the modern kitchen as a background. I just wanted to have fun and in the process make some studies on cooking pans. Pun not intended!

When did you discover your talent for painting? Many often baffle me with this question. The perplexity is by no means due to a failing memory. I still remember the exact date and time when I made my first work. Rather, it is because I never considered those initial strokes as manifestations of a talent, let alone a discovery. All I did was follow instructions from Bob Ross in his TV art show; certainly, following instructions can hardly be used as the yardstick for talents. Besides, my first painting - a landscape - was more of a deformation than a faithful portrayal of nature. In addition, and this is an open secret, I don't know how to draw; I use pantographs to replicate my subjects; and the only reason why I don't use a projector or a beamer is that I don't have one. To be honest, I have nothing that can give me the right to call myself a naturally gifted painter. And yet, modesty aside, a great number of viewers has always expressed lavish admirations for my art. To what should this phenomenon be attributed then if not to the presence of an inborn talent discovered later in life?

Talent as Natural Ability

To answer this question, let me first analyze the notion of talent and then see if it applies to painting, which is the skill of manually forming the visual likeness of objects using pigments.

Talent is defined as a natural ability. Ability is a habitual disposition of our faculties that enables them to carry out certain actions with ease and perfection. As ability, talent is no different from any ordinary skill or habit. But, its distinguishing feature is its being natural; it is inherent or inborn. The clearest example of a talent would be singing. No amount of training will enable one to sing beautifully if one does not have the right kind of vocal chords and eardrums. In short, talent is a capacity for easy and flawless action embedded so to speak in some bodily parts. It is already present in birth, albeit only in its crude form. That is why it makes sense to say it is later "discovered".

Our problem, therefore, is to determine whether painting is a natural ability. If it is natural, it should be easy to identify the bodily organ or faculty where it resides just as it is straightforward to single out the vocal chords and the ears as seat of singing.

At first, it may appear painting is a skill of the hands. After all, a certain degree of dexterity is needed to create an image on a canvas. But, if so, a person without hands should then be incapable of painting, just as a person with damaged vocal chords cannot sing. Experience tells us the contrary. There are countless handicapped people producing masterpieces using only their teeth, toes, or chin to hold the brush. The hands are not indispensable in painting!

Is painting based on the memory or imagination? Clearly, the answer is no. These two internal senses are necessary when the object of painting is absent. But, one might as well suffer Alzheimer's disease or lack of imagination and can still paint as long as the model is present. In the majority of cases, memory and imagination play no role in painting.

But, we are not going to examine every single organ and human faculty to find out which one is essentially link to painting. There are too many of them. Instead, let us analyze the process of painting, isolate the specific actions involved and then identify the organ or faculty responsible for such actions.

Essentially a Skill of the Intellect

Let us take the simple case of painting an apple. Here, a three-dimensional object needs to be represented visually on a two-dimensional surface. There are three basic steps in the process. First, we examine the apple until we fully understand its color, shape, size and position. Second, we mix the pigments until mixtures imitating the colors of the apple are achieved. Finally, we apply the mixtures on the surface until an image of the apple is formed.

Tropical Delights
(Oil on Canvas, 60 cm x 80 cm)
This is a commission work for a client who wanted a Still Life with Filipino fruits. All the fruits were painted from memory except the pineapple, which I closely examined but never bought in a nearby grocery store. For balance and unity, I added a trophy and a vase, making both translucent. The glow that appears at the bottom right side of each where the light emerges after going through both is called transmitted light. Painting transmitted light was initially a painstaking task for me but when I discovered the secret it became a matter of routine and I add it every now and then to spice up a piece.

In the first step, the eyes no doubt play a very active role. But their action consists only in capturing colors or shapes. They passively receive the light reflected from the apple and pass the signal to the brain. The main action is understanding and judging the apple's shape, color and orientation in space. Understanding and judgment are specific operations of the intellect or mind. Using the eyes as instruments, the intellect apprehends the universal essence of the apple and judges it accordingly. The intellect can carry out this operation without the eyes by using images of apples in the memory. Thus, in this step, painting depends principally on the intellect.

In the second step, reproducing the apple's colors by mixing pigments no doubt involves a lot of hand and eye activities. But, again, the manual and visual movements are not the main action here. What is most important is deciding whether the mixed colors are already the same as those of the apple. It is neither the hand nor the eyes that decides when color likeness is reached. It is the intellect. Decision-making is a proper act of the intellect. Once again, in this stage, the intellect is the indispensable faculty for painting.

In the final step, we apply the mixture on the canvas, again with our eyes and hands. But, then it is not a random application. The applied mixture must form an image of the apple. The image being formed must be constantly compared with the model, making the necessary adjustments where differences exist. Comparing is essentially an operation of the intellect.

It is clear from this analysis that painting is primarily a skill of the intellect and secondarily a skill of hands, eyes, brains and other bodily organs. The intellect is the principal agent and the physical faculties are its instruments. This explains why even with incapacitated eyes or hands, one can still paint. The main agent is still around and can make use of substitute instruments in order to carry out the manual demands of painting.

Natural Ability of the Intellect?

Now the crucial question: Is painting an ability natural to the intellect? Put in another way, are artists born into this world with already the skill to paint embedded in their intellect?

Gabi Na Sa Aming Nayon
(Oil on Canvas, 50 cm x 60 cm)
Like Munting Nayon, I also decided to take a break last month. But, when in vacation, I don't stop painting. Instead, I paint landscapes, which is more relaxing because less effort is required. The sweltering heat in my attic studio must have prompted me to paint this rural scene. Actually, I've always been fascinated by the warmth and glow emanating from a window at dusk. I tried to create the same effect but this time in a setting distinctly Filipino.

To answer in the affirmative would be to go against the firmly established truth about the intellect: nothing in the intellect is natural. Everything in it is acquired. According to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, the intellect is like a blank tablet - tamquam tabula rasa - from the first instant of its existence. There are no innate knowledge, habits and skills. Everything in it is acquired from outside through its three basic operations: simple apprehension, judgment and reasoning.

This means painting is not natural to the intellect; it is not an innate accessory of the mind; it becomes a skill of the mind only through repeated intellectual operations. Therefore, if by talent we understand a natural ability, definitely, painting is not a talent.

Painting is an acquired skill, similar to writing, accounting, computer programming, plumbing, or cooking. Anyone who dedicates enough time and interest can learn it easily. And since it is principally an intellectual ability, it follows adults will have easier time acquiring it than children because of their more developed mind.

I am not sure if anyone had reached the same radical conclusion before. I am a relative newcomer in the world of painting, having accidentally stumbled into it. I am not familiar with its history and with the current related ideas and theories. But, outrageous as this conclusion may seem, it is the only plausible explanation for my experience and for the amazing phenomenon of many physically disabled but successful painters.

No Discovery

So, when did I discover my talent for painting? Sorry but something previously inexistent cannot be discovered. What occurred was a slow but systematic acquisition of a skill, a learning process initiated by boredom and sustained by a natural curiosity of how to represent a 3D image on a 2D surface. Had I studied Fine Arts I would have learned it faster. But, I finished BS Mathematics and Physics, not exactly the course recommended for people inclined to arts, and it needed a horrible brownout to plunge me into the art world. It was a circuitous path for an artist, to say the least, but I am glad I went through it. The satisfaction of finishing a painting is a great reward in itself.


Painting is not a Talent
August 30, 2003