Discovering Picasso’s Genius

Picasso is the icon of a successful artist. When a child draws a picture, or dedicates themselves to art others often say: “you could be the next Picasso!” (Although this may also be said out of irony on account of Picasso’s child-like style.)

Pablo Picasso

By Revista Vea y Lea (cuadrado por Juan Pablo Arancibia Medina) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As a kid, I remember being in awe of Picasso because of this. I thought: “If only I could be as good of an artist as Picasso -everyone knows him and it must be impossible to actually see his work in person.” Like many, when I eventually became acquainted with his work, I was perplex by a style that I could not understand. His paintings were child-like, he used colors that were off-putting to me, and I simply couldn’t make sense of what he’d created.

As I grew and got more involved in artistic study, I became repulsed by Picasso. First of all, I saw what the man actually looked like, and he frightened me. His eyes were those of a madman, and he had this general wildness about him that made me uneasy. I also discovered the incredibly awful things he said about women and the way he depicted them in his paintings and wanted no part in condoning that behavior. Finally, I (like many others I’d suspect,) really didn’t find his style that compelling and his pieces often left me wondering what the big fuss was about.

Then I travelled to Spain –Picasso’s homeland. While I was in Barcelona I found out that the “Museu Picasso” had free admission on Sundays. I went, perhaps compelled by that same child-like reverence I felt years earlier, and discovered the many sides of the legendary painter.

Viewing such an extensive collection of his work allowed me to see him as a man and not just a figure or legend. The museum was filled with not only some of his more famous stylized paintings, such as those from his blue period, his cubism, and african style, but also some of his earlier more realistic and far less distinguishably “Picasso” pieces like this one. This experience communicated to me that Picasso’s fame was not a fluke; he was highly trained.

Surprisingly, the next place where I found appreciation for Picasso’s work was in a documentary about 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (most famous for his work “Girl With the Pearl Earring.”) Vermeer and Picasso’s style couldn’t be more different. Vermeer’s paintings are extremely realistic, especially, as it is often noted, for a time that was long before the invention of the camera. The documentary I saw was about a man who had a profound fascination with the fact that Vermeer’s paintings were so realistic. After a large amount of studying Vermeer’s life and work, the star of the documentary, Tim Jenison, sought to replicate one of Vermeer’s paintings despite never picking up a paintbrush before. Tim came to the conclusion that Vermeer used a system of mirrors to create an almost paint-by-number style painting. By the end he did, indeed, replicate “The Music Lesson” by recreating the room in which Vermeer painted. What struck me in this film and gave me more of an appreciation for Picasso is how possible it was for Tim to achieve all this, and yet if someone used the same method to try to recreate a Picasso, it wouldn’t work. Anyone who looked at what Picasso looked at would not be able to depict that image the same way he did. This is what makes a genius.


Johannes Vermeer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the end, what is truly astonishing about Picasso’s work is not that he painted like he did because he lacked the technical skills necessary to paint realistically, but that he could paint realistically but chose not to. Picasso’s genius lies in his ability to not care. He made whatever he wanted and if people like it, cool, if not, that’s still fine. His genius is in his ability to portray what only he sees, which is the epitome of creativity.

Picasso once said of his own style: “It took me 4 years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

If that doesn’t sum up his style and brilliance, I don’t know what does.

"Turkish Delight"

While writing this post, a story about this painting I did in high school came to mind. I had entered it into a contest to have it travel around to area schools with other works of art by students in those schools. This piece was chosen as a finalist, and as I admired my work (as well as the others) in the display case, some classmates of mine came up and started getting excited about another piece: a very large, life like rendering of a scene from the movie 300. One remarked that he didn’t understand how an image like that was at all the same caliber as mine (not knowing it was mine.) I’m proud to say that I took ownership of my creation immediately, although I did feel dejected and started to agree with him (whether he was right or not was irrelevant.) Just then my art teacher came up and defended mine saying: “It is a lot easier to draw something exact from a photo than it is to create something more abstract.” I was so grateful to her for standing up for me, but I don’t think I really believed her until I watched Tim’s Vermeer.


Creative ATTACK!

I happened to log on today (after taking a rather long hiatus) and realized it is my blogging anniversary. What a year it has been! I also feel the need to explain my absence for the last few months. In addition to working overtime since August, I also decided to take an informal sabbatical in order to focus more on reading and just absorbing the world around me (a necessity for any writer or artist.) But now I’m back, enriched by the books and articles I read and the observations I made during this time. With that being said, I am revisiting some familiar topics in this post-sabbatical post highlighting some articles, cartoons, and websites about creativity that have inspired me.


Taking the creative path is certainly not easy, which is why many either give up on it, or else don’t even consider it because it’s not “practical.” Those that do end up following it find themselves facing a lot of obstacles, mainly: time, inevitable failures, and even their paradoxical selves. So what do these obstacles look like?

Time: According to Malcolm Gladwell, true mastery of an art takes 10,000 hours. (What does that look like? Here is a great diagram that plainly illustrates that!) Time is the first thing that people must understand when they are working on a new medium. With that being said, sometimes it seems like society is plagued by the idea of the prodigy. People see other people “come out of the woodwork” to achieve enormous success for their talent and believe that it can happen to them. What they often fail to realize is that those people had probably been cultivating their talent for years, but the reveal is all others see. Everyone thinks that talent is placed in a vacuum and if you’ve got it, all you need is to be discovered and the rest is history. In fact, it’s all about taking what little talent you do have and running with it: immersing yourself in the successes of others in that field, learning, growing, absorbing, trying, and yes, of course, failing.

Failure: Although I know I have mentioned it here before, it bears repeating that failure is a huge component to any creative process. (This cartoon does a great job illustrating (haha) this point.) I failed epically recently. My brother and sister-in-law just had a baby and they wanted me to paint/draw/create in some way, some artwork for his room. After finally deciding what I wanted to make (scenes from Narnia!), I set out to draw some preliminary sketches. In all honesty, they were pretty awful. They looked like a fourth grader drew them:

This isn't embarrassing at all...

This isn’t embarrassing at all…

I knew that I couldn’t give up, though, because my siblings were counting on me. Of course there was a voice that crept into my head saying plenty of negative things, but after I abandoned the original sketches and honed my vision a bit more, I, in a nearly effortless attempt, created these:

If I didn't know any better, I'd think these were drawn by a different person than the first picture.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think these were drawn by a different person than the first picture.

If I had given up after the first few attempts, renouncing my ability to draw, these images would never have happened and I would have had a false view of myself. My initial issue was not that I couldn’t draw, but that I had to release myself from all the preconceived ideas I had attached to myself and drawing. I also had to realize that that day/headspace I was in, for whatever reason, might not have been right for the task I was attempting to undertake. This leads me to the final obstacle:

Paradoxical Self: Creating great art is all about finding balance. As this article highlights, creative types are usually paradoxical: they are often equal parts introvert and extrovert, proud and humble, and even have a sense of androgyny. Thus, art is created often by straddling the line between seemingly conflicting parts of the self. It is harmony. It is yin and yang. People who are seen as creative have been able to find this balance by exploring the extremes in their own lives and then marrying them in their work.

Now at this point it would be nice and fashionable to say that true success in a creative field means overcoming these obstacles in one great and final battle, but that approach is both simplistic and unrealistic. Creativity is not about overcoming obstacles so that one can create; rather it is about creating in the midst of and often because of obstacles. As I alluded to in the part about the paradoxical self, it is the tension that makes art so spectacular. It’s figuring out how to flirt with failure but not take yourself too seriously when you are successful. If you want to be creative, you must realize that you are both better than you think you are and worse than you think you are. All you have to do is keep pushing yourself through the hours of failure and self and gently coax the genius out of you but not giving up when that genius seems to suddenly disappear.