Once upon a time, I had a debate with my dad.

He was talking about how some people are seemingly “gifted” and automatically excel at whatever they are good at. Tiger Woods with golf, Albert Einstein with physics, etc. You can practice all you want, but if you aren’t “gifted”, you’ll never reach the same heights as someone who is. He then applied this notion to artists.

Bam. That’s where I snapped.

A huge debate ensued. Usually I don’t even care about things like this, but something in the back of my head said “NOPE! WRONG. NUH-UH.” Despite my best efforts and my mini mental breakdown, I was never able to formulate a clear and concise answer.

Can artists be gifted with innate creativity?

The journey

This past March, I went on trip to Japan. I found crazy crowds, awesome mountains, stores that seemed to be the offspring of IKEA and Dollarama spread out over 10 floors, a Mini-Golf & Fish (where you can go either mini-golf or go mini-fishing), smelly black eggs, amazing ramen, other eggs 
(too many eggs) and a bunch of other crazy stuff; I also found the answer to my lingering question in an unexpected place.

I went to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. It’s a museum that showcases the work of the Studio Ghibli animation studio. It’s an incredible amalgam of a fine arts museum, a technology museum and children’s museum that’s completely reminiscent of the atmosphere and visuals of their movies. If you ever have a chance to visit, buy your tickets in advance because it’s sold-out everyday.

Your visit starts in a weird little tunnel where a nice lady trades your entry coupon for a ticket which is actually a piece of 35mm film print actually used in theatres. Then you enter the central hall: a towering european styled open space with a ton of ironwork and wood, topped by a glass dome. The whole place is a huge maze with spiral stairways, bridges, overhanging terraces and secret passages to get to the different rooms. If you want to see what it’s like, check out this video.

The history of animation exhibits and the animation studio mock-up room were definitely my favorites. The former showed off what happens behind the scenes of animation and simplified it for kids to understand. There was a huge, mystifying 3d zoetrope which was the centrepiece of the room. You could also see all the “internal organs” of a projector to see how a film is projected. The mock-up room seems like you just stepped in someone’s studio where he was sketching minutes ago. The walls are covered in illustrations, drawing tools and at ton of reference books.

Boom. That’s where it clicked.

Before I got to the museum, I expected it to be a showcase of their work, like other museum I’ve been to. I thought I would be bombarded by the standard “Here’s the producers, here’s the directors, here’s a couple drawings”. Instead, the goal of the museum was to get kids, teens and adults to think that art is cool and get them to want to do art. They didn’t do it by celebrating their output, but by celebrating their process. They got people to get curious and mess around with interactive toys, to observe how the technology works, to try out a secret passage just because it looks cool. It celebrates creativity.

“What?” you scream, “That has nothing to do with your question! It has nothing to do with wether artists can or cannot be gifted!” you proclaim.

I think it does, and here’s why: If the museum only showed off their output, they would be telling people: “If you can draw exactly like this, you are a great artist.” By concentrating on celebrating their process and making the museum itself super interactive, it teaches “There’s more to making great art than technical skill.”

In a recent interview Hayao Miyazaki himself, the founder of Studio Ghibli, talked about this. You can see the entire interview here.

You see, whether you can draw like this or not, being able to think up this kind of design, it depends on whether or not you can say to yourself, ‘Oh, yeah, girls like this exist in real life.’ […] If you don’t spend time watching real people, you can’t do this, because you’ve never seen it.

He’s talking about how the japanese animation industry is full of people who prize the product over the process, and how this affects the quality of its output. He’s a bit grumpy, but it’s understandable when the thing he loves is being overrun by people who don’t understand it.

A prodigy’S testimony

POP QUIZ! This painting is called “Ciencia y caridad” and was made in 1895 by who?

What’s your answer? WRONG! Well probably, if not than congrats, smarty pants. Pablo Picasso made this painting. Pretty crazy right?

“Where’s the cubism?!” you ask, “where’s the weird colours and shapes?!” you inquire.

Picasso was “gifted” at painting, he was considered a “child prodigy”. He made academic level drawings at age 7 and his father, an art professor, believed he reached master levels of technique and realism at age 13. He made “Ciencia y caridad” at age 14.

This was his last well-known painting, made in 1972 at age 91.

What happened? Picasso answered it best:

Unlike in music, there are no child prodigies in painting. What people regard as premature genius is the genius of childhood. It gradually disappears as they get older. It is possible for such a child to become a real painter one day, perhaps even a great painter. But he would have to start right from the beginning. So far as I am concerned, I did not have that genius. My first drawings could never have been shown at an exhibition of children’s drawings. I lacked the clumsiness of a child, his naivety.

It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.

Even though his later paintings displayed much less his technical skills, that was not the point. By creating his own style, he was able to convey much stronger emotions and paint more memorable paintings. As realistic as his first paintings ever were, you remember Picasso for his innovative endeavours.

tl;dr / Here’s my concise answer

You can objectively be the world’s best golfer; however, you cannot be objectively the world’s best artist or musician. Even if you have a predisposition to have great technical skills, like perfect pitch or if you know your tools better than you know your own mom, the art you make won’t be automatically great or memorable.

You have to be curious. You have to love technology an use it to your advantage. You have to observe your surroundings and absorb every detail you see. You have to let people see through your eyes with your art.

To be a great artist, you have to cultivate your creativity, because there’s no such thing as
 innate creativity.