I remember when I first started to draw the human body; it didn’t really start with a full nude or portrait or any body part for that matter, it started with boxes and a long stick, so that I could get the hang of perspective and of simple shapes. Then we built our way up to ovals and vases and flowers and in the end my professor at that time brought a large schematic plaster head, that was made up of only flat surfaces. And we drew for months to get to that head, so this was no weekend trip to becoming Rembrandt!
And only after we did all that work, we would be ready to tackle our first portrait. And all of us failed, miserably. The first time, the second time and a few more before maybe 5 people out of my group of 20 made the kind of work, where the model was starting to look similar to the drawing (albeit the drawing was almost always a mix of the person making it and the model, and usually aged an additional 5/10 years). And maybe after half a year of 3 hours a week and some homework, almost all of us were making palatable portraits.
Now this is where it becomes interesting. Some of us went to the national Academy to hone our skills some more, and when there, it took us another year or two of 5-6 hours a day (5 days a week) of drawing to get the portraits to a level, where you could confidently charge a normal amount for your work, because the portraits were actually really good (speaking almost explicitly in technical skill, because non of us were at the point, where we would have developed our own style of drawing, not by a long shot).
That took another 2-3 years of work, some of us (like me) stopped completely with realism and focused on abstraction or conceptual projects, but one of those who persisted, to give an example, went to Italy to study the old masters, spent about 4 more years to understand underpainting, colour tone, lighting and just the exact anatomy of the human body (and some animals).
So after a year of a weekly 3 hour course 19/20 people from my high school class could draw and paint just fine; they might have even sold their work to some – like a portrait, made with the help of a photograph for a birthday present, and probably everyone receiving that work would have been impressed by the level of their skill (they did go to an art high school after all).
But if one wanted to play in the big league, he or she went to the Academy, took the rigorous tests and then spent 5/7 years honing their skills to get good. Not great, and by far not excellent, just good. Because after our Academy (and mind you me, the national Academy in my country is quite heavily focused on realism and maybe modernism after the second year) you could draw a portrait and have it look almost exactly like the person drawn, but there would be no life in the image, no personality captured, just a bunch of lines that our brain is used to perceiving as a face.
To get to the point where you could paint a person so vividly, she would look as though she just popped in the frame, still but kinda moving, flat but definitely full of life. Well, 4/5 years of work divided me from those of my friends who pursued realism. And if we were to compare them to Titian or Raphael, they couldn’t stand a chance. Even comparing them to some of the lesser known old masters, who spent their whole life honing that one skillset – painting people and things as lively as possible – it would have been impossible to compare the quality of work.
My point is this, it’s not hard to get good at something (and good is subjective, because if I was the only painter in my country, well I would be considered the best – and my drawing skills have almost vanished due to lack of practice by now). It’s easy to get to 70% mastery at anything. Some do it quicker some take more time. But it’s so much harder to get the next 10% down, and to get to 90% is almost impossible for many people, who would either get bored from all the practice or just give up because of the amount of work that needs to be put into learning to paint anything in particular, like a banal detail of a soft shadow on a cherrywood and ebony chessboard that in the big picture had nothing to do with the person in the portrait (not counting symbolism). And after 90%, well, let’s just say nobody gets to 100%, ever.
And this isn’t to discourage anyone, on the contrary I just thought about all the time I spent drawing boxes thinking: “This is horrible, I want to make horseback portraits of people in lace robes.” and how unrealistic that wish was, coming from a 17 year old who didn’t have more than a year of technical drawing experience. It’s a long path, but the longer we persist, the greater our skills become. The point is not to stop after we get good. Not because good isn’t good enough, but because to get great, the path becomes incomparably steeper. And many take this as a sign that they just aren’t talented enough and give up, when most likely they would have needed to just keep going at it. And while 100% at anything is unattainable, being excellent isn’t, it just takes a bit longer than we could dare to imagine.