Artistic Talent – Nurture vs Nature?

Whether we are born with an innate artistic talent, or, whether it is learned, is an age-old multifaceted debate that is fascinating, complex and compelling. I am sure most artists have considered it at some point or have an opinion on this theory.

DNA spiral in Unison Colour Associate Artist
DNA spiral by Unison Colour Associate Artist

As an Associate Artist for Unison Colour Pastels this a deeply personal question I have considered for some time. For me the fascinating balance between nature and nurture goes right back to my birth and has followed me throughout my life.

As a baby I was given up for adoption. My birth parents were young students and not in a position at that time to give me a secure home. I was blessed with the most wonderful adoptive parents and had a fantastic upbringing full of encouragement, education and love. However I never studied art, not even at school, having followed a more academic path instead. But some years later after pursuing an alternative career I picked up some soft pastels, played, experimented, learned and now am lucky enough to have made that my ‘job’.

Where did my talent and interest come from when my adoptive family are not at all artistic?

There are multiple studies that have taken place, especially with recent genetic developments, that study genomic information of individuals with the potential to be used for predicting or manipulating certain traits or genetically simple diseases, such as sickle-cell anaemia or cystic fibrosis. So can science examine a person’s genetic profile in the same way for more complex psychological traits such as intelligence, creative or artistic talents?

Plenty of studies repeatedly suggest that genetics play an important role in shaping our creative abilities. Whilst this does not give us the full picture, it is part of the story. What is hard to quantify is how far the environment in which we are brought up allows us to express or develop our creative genes, the all important nurture aspect of our creativity.

Studies have been done such as the Neurolmage paper which examined both brain scans of artists and non artists: researchers concluded that the artists had far more active neural matter located in the specific area of the brain which is associated with visual imagery and fine tuned motor skills. This led to the far more widespread idea of drawing with the right side of the brain. Obviously it didn’t go as far as decoding the genes and switches that were aligned for artists vs non artists, but it is the start of a discussion of whether it can be passed down through your genes.

After several decades of always wondering about my roots there were countless times when I came so close to searching for my natural parents, to complete my jigsaw, but put it off for fear of disrupting or upsetting other families, or simply those families not wanting to be found. This year by some unknown catalyst I decided the time was right to do this.

It was not an altogether straightforward process, with many obstacles along the way. However my findings have been life changing, mind blowing, overwhelming and at times heart breaking too, but also more wonderful than I could have imagined. I will explain my discoveries below:

My birth mother studied art both at College and then at University. She taught art at one point in her career, and became an accomplished and collected artist having various solo exhibitions around the world, as well as taking part in joint exhibitions and shows, such as in Poland, Bulgaria, Japan and obviously around the UK. She worked a lot with watercolours and then her great love became etchings, having her own press. She enjoyed exploring the female form before becoming more influenced in the ‘80’s and 90’s with more natural forms such as tree roots and bones, in the latter case influenced by Georgia O’Keefe. In her later years she worked with pastels. The heartbreak comes as I discovered she sadly died in 2017, before I undertook my search.

Below are examples of work of hers that I have been lucky enough to have been given or sent photos of. At the time of writing I have not seen her art studio and all her catalogue of works, but I will in the very near future. I know it will be both uplifting and inspiring, yet also utterly gut wrenching that I left my search too late.

Various works by my natural mother
Various works by my natural mother

My birth father pursued a medical career, but has also always painted. Now retired, he enjoys using acrylics and is an active member of an art group and is a very accomplished artist. He has been inspired by D’Oyly-John and paints bright sunlit scenes as well as having a love of portraiture, detailed architectural paintings and has an affinity for boats and seascapes having sailed all his life. He has also recently tried soft pastels. Here are a few examples of his work.

Various works by my natural father
Various works by my natural father

Crucially however, in my mind, what is not in doubt is this perceived natural talent, gift, ability or aptitude we are given (or not) at birth is not enough on its own. No natural talent alone guarantees success, we need an interest in it to begin with, then persistence, discipline and hard work to develop that talent. This is true of any creative sphere. Any creative success also depends on having the right temperament not just talents, again some of which may have their origins in our genetic makeup.

After all you cannot grow a full garden just because you have a packet of seeds: seeds need to be planted, nurtured, watered, cultivated before they grow. Unless an artist learns how to use their tools, finely tune their skills, with practice, practice and more practice, they will never achieve their potential.

Other fields or skills, such as writing, athletics, playing a musical instrument, dance etc can be in a person’s DNA but also clearly depend more on environmental ‘nurturing’ factors in the home that ignite the interest or enable the possibility of developing it to begin with.

I do believe that our creative ability is heavily influenced by our DNA, but I also think that everyone is capable of learning to be creative to varying degrees – we all drew freely as children without insecurities such as feeling that we couldn’t draw. At some point that carefree attitude to creating leaves us and we doubt ourselves. Ernest Hemingway famously said “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

Maybe we will never have clarity. Any natural talent also requires discipline and hard work. How can we differentiate between the nature and the nurture ourselves?

Instead I take comfort and a warm glow from continuing and growing my artistic creativity, loving the feeling that has been passed down to me from my natural parents, all mixed in a happy melting pot together with the encouragement to work hard to achieve what ever I wanted to from my adoptive parents.

This is the best of both worlds for me. My natural parents, whilst they both remarried and found their respective soulmates, both have passed on to me this mysterious genetic smörgasbord of qualities which may or may not explain my love of painting. Incidentally, and more amazingly, their greatest surprise gift to me however has been the discovery that they went on to have more children, who knew of my existence. My natural siblings. A true gift from nature.

Regardless of any inherent talent level, we should never be discouraged from pursuing a hobby or a career that sparks joy in us. We should all take the metaphorical bull by the horns, keep building our skill set and our passions, even accepting failures or working through the infamous artists block along the way. Inevitably we can never fail if we never give up.

I will continue to practice, to learn, to develop – Unison pastels make that a joy for me – but now I will do it with a fuller heart.


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9 Responses

  1. This is a beautiful piece. I felt so sad they didn’t get to meet their mother. A great read thank you

  2. Thank you for sharing such a touching & heartfelt story. I am truly inspired to keep going on my artistic path.

  3. Thank you for sharing. I am not a scientist, but I believe there is a connection. But, I have also see people who have no talent become quite accomplished through investigating and practicing (the latter being critical to any area of learning. How wonderful that you were able to find your “roots” and I can only imagine the doors it has opened. Thank you for your blog.

  4. A fascinating blog and you raise interesting questions and points. Nature for sure but nurturing so vital and life, so much of one’s experience goes into being an artist, nothing is ever lost

  5. As a professional artist, I hear all of the time “I wish I had talent”. Your blog showcases that hard work and perseverance are required to be good at anything. A bump of talent will never make up for lack of effort. For those who wish for talent, I offer to them joy of process. You are right, it is the doing that creates the happiness and fulfillment. Blessings on you and your continued creativity.

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