Lessons Every Artist Can Learn from Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso essay
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Pablo Picasso. Argentina. Revista Vea y Lea, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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I have been hearing the name Pablo Picasso from a very young age. Anyone who happened to do anything beautiful or creative in any field was instantly labeled the Picasso of that field.

For example, when a chef prepares a visually appealing and tasty dish, the chef is often deemed the Picasso of cooking, and his dish would often be praised as an absolute work of art, like a Picasso masterpiece.

Such comparisons are not just limited to chefs, but to every other field where some sought of creativity and imagination is involved. The reason for this phenomenon is quite simple actually. Picasso’s name has now become synonymous with creativity and innovation and brilliance and skill. His name symbolizes what is good and important in art, what it stands for, and what it represents.

And so, when one eventually achieves such a status in life, it is only natural for everyone else to associate progress and greatness in any field with such a person. It is not only Picasso who has fallen victim to such comparisons. Other great figures from various fields, such as Michael Schumacher in racing, Michael Jordan in basketball, Michael Jackson in dancing, Pele in football, Tiger Woods in golf, and Sachin Tendulkar in cricket, have also been made victims in a similar fashion.

Such victimization, of course, is nothing but a great compliment. It is the harmless flattery of a person who has so beautifully mastered his craft that one cannot help but compare him to others in some other field.

But enough on that. As usual, I somehow managed to get distracted from the topic at hand even before I could begin addressing it. Today it is my wish to discuss not Picasso’s life (something which I have already done in another post) or even his importance and significance and greatness and all that stuff, but the important lessons he can teach all aspiring artists. And by artist, I mean anyone in any creative field whatsoever. You know who you are!

Now, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to explain what exactly I mean by that.

By now, many of us already know (and I presume even more of us do not know), that the great Pablo Picasso was considered to be, what one might call, a child prodigy when it came to drawing and painting. He began drawing at a very early age, it is said. In fact, so early that I do not even know the right age. Probably no one does. All I can guess is that it was surely before he was seven years old. Because by the time he was seven, he had already begun painting under the tutelage of his father. He soon became obsessed with drawing and painting, and it began interfering with his schoolwork.

Even Picasso’s career as an artist is believed to have begun in 1894 when he was just thirteen years old. I admit, it seems way too early to start any sort of career, let alone an artistic one. But, then again, it is said that he was a prodigy. And that’s what prodigies do I guess, start earlier than everyone else.

When he was only fourteen, Picasso finished a month-long entrance exam for the advanced class, at the School of Fine Arts, within a week. This feat by the young Picasso left the jury so impressed that they admitted him to the school. Now, you may ask yourself, did this really happen or not? Again, I shall be the first to admit, it sounds a bit far-fetched. Is it just one of those fantasy-mythical-legendary stories that inevitably spring up around men and women who end up doing something remarkable with their lives? Maybe. Possibly. But, who are we to judge? I read it somewhere and I laid it down over here to make a point. So let’s move on!

If the above points were not enough indication of little Picasso’s genius, I beg you to take a look at his painting, The First Communion, which he painted when he was only fifteen. The painting is a large composition depicting his sister Lola, and it shows the academic realism style he had become quite good at by then.

The same year, Picasso also painted the Portrait of Aunt Pepa, which is a portrait that poet Juan Eduardo Cirlot, somewhat dramatically I admit, had described as one of the greatest paintings in the whole history of Spanish painting. It is also said that the portrait was made in less than an hour. Is it true, or just another legend? I do not know.

Sure, one could very well argue that Cirlot’s comment might be a bit over the top, or that he got a bit too carried away while praising the prowess of young Picasso. And I would even agree with such a valid argument. However, in spite of this possible exaggeration on Cirlot’s part, one can hardly deny the fact that these two paintings seem to be the work of a well-established and confident artist, and not one who happens to be in his mid-teens.

Now, you might be wondering why am I talking about all this, and what does all this have to do with the topic at hand? Well, good question, I say. Now that I have somewhat established Picasso’s case of being a prodigy, with the help of truths and half-truths, I can begin to address the actual subject.

And this is what I have to say.

For an artist who was a prodigy, an exceptional talent from the very beginning, Picasso worked very hard, and, that too, very consistently, all his life. It is said that he went into his studio every single day, to paint or sculpt or to do something else creative. As most of us are quite lazy in general, we tend to downplay a person’s success by focusing on his natural, god-given talents and abilities, while almost completely ignoring the hard work put in by that person in order to achieve what he has achieved.

For example, if you ask someone why was Picasso successful, or why was he great, their immediate response would be, “Well, Picasso was a prodigy. He was gifted. He had a natural talent and ability to aid him to achieve that kind of greatness.”

And this, I believe, is a mistake and an excuse. It is an excuse for men who are lazy and afraid to work hard and to try and fail. And because of this fear of theirs, they tend to relegate another man’s success to either luck or destiny or fate or to the person’s so-called natural talent. This helps them to avoid responsibility for their fears and failures, as they believe that only natural, god-given talents make a man successful, and not sheer hard work, perseverance, and patience.

But in reality, one often finds that the opposite is true. Great artists and athletes are almost always greater than the others in their field because of their ability to work hard consistently, persevere for as long as it takes, and wait patiently until it is their time to shine.

And Picasso was no different. In fact, I consider him an important example to everyone out there who thinks talent alone leads one to success. Picasso painted almost every single day of his life ever since he decided to make it as an artist. Even while he lived in poverty in Paris, struggling to survive in the cold, he painted every single day.

Now, one may say, well, that was mainly because he was a struggling artist then, with the fire and desire to succeed. He was desperate to make it as it was his only way to survive. That is why he kept going, one might say, just so he might create that one painting that would change his life.

This argument too I can agree with. Yes, one does have an abundance of energy to dedicate toward one’s craft when one is hungry for some form of success or recognition in it, or when one seeks to establish themselves in it. Every artist knows and understands that burst of energy and that hunger that gives birth to it.

But, even if that is so, Picasso never really stopped there. He never stopped his daily painting even after he had created and exhibited his breakthrough painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which changed his life. He did not let the success hamper his productivity and output.

Picasso notoriously kept up his rigorous routine until his very last days. He dedicated his life to his craft, to art, spending hours every day in his studio painting and sculpting, even when he had become Picasso the brand, the most expensive artist in the world, and the greatest artist of his era.

In short, he kept at it, never looking back, never merely relying on his so-called natural talent, and never taking what he had for granted. He continued to put in the hours as a true master does, sacrificing everything else at the altar of his art.

And that to me is inspiring. For it is difficult to imagine how an artist as successful as Picasso never cared to slow down and relax, take a step back maybe and look behind and be proud of what he had achieved. It never ceases to amuse me how he was able to remain so productive and consistent in his output.

It was only much later that I realized that it was that very routine, rigorous, and demanding, that kept his creative juices constantly flowing. It was his discipline that made him a truly great and prolific artist, just as in the case of other great artists such as Michelangelo and Henri Matisse.

Think about it for a second. Did he really have to keep up with that routine of his until his last days? Surely nothing drastic would have happened if he would have taken a break or slowed down. Or maybe just painted when he felt inspired to do so. Was that rigorous discipline required?

The answer to me is obvious. Not only was it required and necessary, but I believe it was of the utmost importance. It was that discipline, that consistency, that habit of working daily at his craft, that made him the creative genius that he was. It was not some supernatural, God-given talent, but good old hard work and discipline, which is the classic, time immemorial recipe for success.

Just like how a writer can avoid writer’s block merely by showing up at his desk every day to write and then writing his heart out, regardless of whether it comes out good or bad, the same, no doubt, works in the case of any artist, I believe. Just showing up every day and sticking to one’s routine can ensure that one’s creative juices will keep flowing, thereby allowing one to be productive every single day.

It is that discipline that leads to the formation of a habit, which then ensures creativity and productivity in any artistic field. Basically what I am trying to say is that just showing up is half the battle won.

Now, this is just one of the lessons we can learn from the great Picasso, which is to work at your craft every single day, and be dedicated to it, which will, in turn, allow you to be consistent in your output. In the long run (and the long run is all that matters in life), hard work beats talent. Without hard work and consistency, one will go absolutely nowhere in life no matter how naturally talented one is.

It was that insane dedication to his craft that led Picasso to create around 50,000 artworks in his lifetime, which is significantly more than any other artist of his time, thereby making him one of the most prolific artists of all time.

Now, I must admit, I did beat around the bush a lot so far. I probably repeated myself multiple times and went around in miserable, never-ending circles saying the exact same thing either directly or indirectly. For that, I would like to beg your pardon, for it is a serious illness of mine that I just cannot seem to get rid of.

And now that I have apologized for my lack of direction and straightforwardness, allow me to torture you with those same mistakes in lesson number two.

The second lesson that the great Picasso can teach us is perseverance. A quality most of us tend to lack. And to learn this lesson, we must go back to the time when he was a struggling artist in Paris. And don’t worry too much, for this will be a short lesson. Not because Picasso did not struggle long enough and hard enough (I am sure he did both), but because I do not have much content on it. I hope you excuse me for such frankness.

Picasso moved to Paris in 1900, aged 18, as an aspiring artist. He arrived there with barely any money or contacts to help him survive. He began sharing an apartment with journalist and poet Max Jacob, who became his first friend in Paris. The two of them lived in severe poverty, with Picasso religiously painting during the night and sleeping during the day.

There were times when they were so cold and desperate that Picasso was compelled to burn some of his old paintings in order to keep their apartment warm. Picasso lived this lifestyle more or less for the next 7 years until he created Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907 (interestingly, the painting was only exhibited to the public in 1916).

Now Imagine. Most of us, you know who you are, would never have lasted 7 years in that struggle against poverty, while remaining productive at the same time. Most of us would have become discouraged and given up a year into the struggle. A few would have dragged it out for another year maybe and then given up. And even fewer of us would have continued to struggle three years or five years or seven years in.

We would have lost all hope, become disappointed and demotivated and disenchanted with the whole struggle to make it. And that is the truth! The absolute truth.

How much longer do we have to struggle? we would have asked ourselves. How much longer could we go on like this, struggling against poverty and failing to survive? Eventually, doubts would creep in. We would begin to question ourselves. We would let ourselves be defeated. We would stop believing in ourselves. And, worst of all, we would stop working on our craft, and stop being productive. In short, we would fail to persevere.

This, you must admit, would no doubt be the fate of most of us.

And that was exactly what Picasso did not do. He did not give up. He did not lose all hope or stop believing in himself. He did not fail to persevere. He kept going. Did he have no self-doubts, you wonder? I am quite sure he did at some point or the other. But that did not stop him. It did not leave him hopeless and useless and unproductive. It did not stop him from working on his craft, putting in the hours, and improving at it. He persevered until he eventually made it.

This is another important lesson all aspiring artists can learn from Picasso. Struggle, persevere, and be patient until you make it, all the while mastering your craft. Remember, it is all about the craft.

And now, let us move on to the third and final lesson before you get bored and curse me for this never-ending essay, which now seems more like a speech given by a man who does not deserve the honor nor the attention. This is the lesson of constantly experimenting, evolving, innovating, and creating.

If one cares to look carefully at Picasso’s career as an artist, one would clearly notice the different and eclectic styles he painted from the very beginning.

Most of us have heard of his Blue Period, which lasted between 1901 and 1904, and was characterized by somber paintings in shades of blue and blue-green. This was a sad period in his life as his friend, Carles Casagemas, a Catalan poet and painter, had committed suicide. Hence, all his paintings during this period have a sad, gloomy, and somber mood about them.

When his Blue Period came to an end in 1904, Picasso’s Rose Period began. This period was characterized by a lighter tone and style, with a lot of pink and orange colors, often featuring harlequins, acrobats, and other circus people as subjects.

And from 1907 onward, after being deeply influenced by African art, Picasso’s painting style changed once again, making a radical departure from traditional European painting by abandoning perspectives in favor of a flat, two-dimensional picture plane.

The new painting style led to the early development of Cubism and modern art in general. Picasso became a founder and pioneer of cubist art. His cubist period could be roughly divided into two categories. One, Analytic Cubism, which lasted from 1909 to 1912. And two, Synthetic Cubism, which lasted from 1912 to 1919.

But Picasso refused to stop there. Ever the true artist, he continued to change, adapt, experiment, and innovate with his art until the end of his life. He produced sculptures, ceramics, and copperplate etchings. And several of his final works were a mixture of styles, more expressive and colorful than ever before.

Picasso’s painting style was ever-evolving. Never stagnant, never fixed, never permanent. He would never let it be that way, no matter how much success he had achieved through one particular style.

And that is what every artist ought to aspire to. That is the mark of a true, honest, and serious artist. One who keeps moving forward, ever-changing, ever-creating, ever-evolving in his craft, while never once resting on his past laurels or achievements.

It is exactly because of the above-mentioned reasons that for me, personally, Picasso shall always remain one of our greatest artists and creative geniuses ever. His life, professional, not personal, must serve as an inspiration to all the struggling artists out there.

1 Response

  1. Sweetsy Joseph says:

    Well written 👏👏 until I read this article, Picasso was just a famous talented painter and sculptor. By detailing his hard work, perseverance and evolving work, you have escalated my admiration for this great man.