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If You Aren’t Technical, You Aren’t an Artist

I needed to write this down somewhere because it keeps coming up. There’s this thing that people keep talking about; maybe you’ve heard it before. It goes something like this:

I’m an artist. I’m not technical.

The implication is that being a creative person is somehow the opposite of understanding the technical underpinnings behind how things work. That artists can’t or won’t comprehend things like math or science or engineering. Somewhere along the line, society got in its head that art is produced on intuition alone.

I call bullshit.

This idea that artistry and technical understanding are mutually exclusive is not only false, it’s an insult. The fact is, those two things are so tightly intertwined that you can hardly have one without having the other. Being an artist is being technical. Period.

So that’s where the rant ends. Now, let me try to explain myself for those of you who still disagree.

First, let me address the notion of natural talent, because it’s bound to come up. As far as I’m concerned, whether natural talent exists or not is irrelevant. Natural talent only accounts for having a different starting point. You either cultivate that talent or you don’t. Once you start practicing your craft, the value of your talent diminishes significantly. As an example, let’s look at racing. In a short race, where you start makes a lot of difference. However, the longer the race gets, those different starting positions matter a lot less.

The practice of creating is a lifelong pursuit. It is not a sprint.

So now that we’ve dispelled with the value of natural talent, let me get to my point: creating is a skill. Like any skill, you refine it with practice and training. The thing is, though, that training requires more than just practice. Sinking ten thousand hours of practice into anything is worthless unless it’s properly guided. Proper guidance is born from understanding, from seeking competence.

Fortunately, artists and creatives are naturally curious people. Believe it or not, we want to understand. So we study our medium, our tools, our audience, our subject matter.

As we improve in our craft, we expand our knowledge; we become experts. Technical understanding is built-in. Want some concrete examples? Too bad, I’m sharing them anyway.

Talk to a group of writers about story structure, or even grammar. I know writers who can’t spell to save their lives, but they can construct a series of sentences that will move you to tears. They wield words like a surgeon with a scalpel. I’ve listened to painters drone on for ages about color theory. Hell, most of the “great masters” were basically amateur chemists because they mixed their own paints. Musicians have a finely tuned understanding of acoustics; even mechanics. They may not build their own instruments, but they absolutely know how they work to get the best possible sound out of them. I could go on… carvers with their understanding of different wood species, sculptors with their knowledge or materials science and physics, cinematographers and photographers with their expertise with light, and, hell, all artists and our insights into psychology.

Our mastery of these things is what helps us move audiences, to evoke emotions with mere marks on paper or arbitrary sequences of sounds.

Oh, and before I forget, don’t think for a second that folk artists or “outsider” artists are exempt. Sometimes these people are even more technical because they’ve had to figure shit out on their own, without the benefit of training. That’s experimentation, a fundamental underpinning of the scientific method.

The most baffling thing to me is that the place where I hear this nonsense the most is among artists who use computers as their primary creative tool. I’m looking at you, 3D artists, digital painters, compositors, and animators. The meme of the non-technical artist seems to be most contagious among creatives who work in some of the most technical media. Maybe these people are just overwhelmed and don’t want to take in more technical study, so they use this false idea to persuade themselves that they don’t have to (or worse, can’t) learn this stuff. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to make sense.

The growth of computers as tools to express creativity has somehow managed to convince people that the computers are the technical things and the artists aren’t. We think we’ve outsourced that technical understanding to engineers and programmers… who we foolishly believe aren’t creative themselves. That’s stupid and multiple levels. Hell, looking at one of my favorite tools to create, Blender, the majority of the core development team is made up of people who started as artists, but were frustrated that Blender wouldn’t do something that they needed it to do. So they figured out how to make it happen. And Blender isn’t an outlier. Some of the best tools in existence are made by artists scratching their own itches.

So no. The “I’m an artist, I’m not technical” line that constantly gets spouted is a giant bucket of wrong. If you believe that, you’re contributing to a delusion.

You’re an artist. You are technical. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.