Originally posted December 21, 2018
It’s not an unusual thing to want to become an immediate master at whatever we set our hand to. I think it’s just human nature. We shy away from the work and discipline necessary to develop the skills needed to become really great at something.
When I was in college, I took up ballet. Yep, first time. I was 18, and no, I wasn’t any good. But the class gave me a half a credit, and there was no homework, so why not?
When I was 28, I picked up a violin for the first time. No teacher, no lessons. Just me, a book, and a violin. And as with ballet, I was pretty awful.
I didn’t go into either ballet or violin thinking I’d become a master, much less get any good at it. I was actually after something else (besides the half credit): a better understanding of the art. I knew I’d come away with an appreciation for those who have put in the time, the years of hard work, the discipline and sacrifice to become masters.
The flip side to this is that when it comes to art, to freedom of expression and being unique, it’s tempting to think that, just like with mastery, we can just jump into it—break the rules, go where the wind takes us, forge our own path. This is common for students. Why do I have to learn all this stuff I’ll never use?
How about Pablo Picasso? He did what he wanted, painted whatever came to him, didn’t he?
The name Pablo Picasso conjures different emotions for different people. Those even a little familiar with art can recognize at least one of his famous works. They may know him as the most influential artists of the 20th century, pioneering Cubism, inventing collage, and making major contributions to Symbolism and Surrealism.
His work often stirs feelings of befuddlement. A person might see his abstraction of the human form, his penchant for moving body parts around, misaligning noses and mouths, and comment “My kid could do that.”
Surely Pablo Picasso is an example of what it means to do art the way you want to do it, right? Don’t tell me what to do, and all that?
But here’s the thing about Picasso… There is an old anecdote that tells of Picasso who, after visiting an exhibition of the drawings of young children, is supposed to have said, “When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them” (the kids at the exhibition).
What did he mean? Well, if you know nothing about Pablo Picasso, you must first know that the man was considered a prodigy. So he had that going for him from the very beginning. At age twelve, a young Pablo could draw with exacting photographic realism. That’s a far cry from the drawings of most kids. But even as a prodigy, he still had to learn and develop his skills through education.
Born to a family of artists, Picasso’s father taught drawing and curated a small museum. Pablo began drawing and painting by age seven or eight, and by the age of ten, he helped paint minor elements of his father’s own paintings. By the age of twelve, he could draw with photographic realism, an ability he would later admit was quite boring, for there is nothing more real than realism, and hardly any art to be found.
His father moved on to become a professor at the art academy in Barcelona, where he persuaded administrators to allow his son to take the entrance exams at age thirteen. It was at this point Pablo’s father was convinced his son had already surpassed him as an artist. Eventually he moved on to Spain’s foremost art school, the Royal Academy in Madrid, though he quickly grew tired of the formal education of the institution and dropped out, moving on to spend his days inside Madrid’s Prado, which displayed paintings such as Francisco Goya and El Greco.
While in school, just like every other artist, Picasso learned to work through the skills and techniques of the masters who had come before him. It was only later, when he was around the age of twenty-eight, in the year 1909, that his art moved into a movement we now know as Cubism. It was this movement, with its use of colors, shapes, and geometry to depict images, that Picasso changed the direction of art for generations to come.
“Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” – Pablo Picasso
So where do writers come into it?
I use Picasso as an example because it’s easier to explain my point of this article using a visual artist and visual art rather than with written art. One takes in a painting with a single glance. A novel, not so much. But each of these pieces of art share one of many things in common. The artist behind the art had to master the fundamentals before beginning the experimentation, which ultimately led to his or her art being unique, even revolutionary. We could say the same of music and musicians. Study the masters, master the masters, and once you can do what they do, create your own art.
As young children, we study grammar, spelling, and how to write both creatively and effectively. We learn rules, practice elements of language by rote. Commas go here, semi-colons here, and for the really advanced students, ellipses. But never, ever, ever break the rules.
- Never end a sentence with a preposition
- Never open a book with weather
- Avoid prologues
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”
- Keep your exclamation points under control
- Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
I will not argue against these rules, but I will add a disclaimer: never break the rules until you have mastered them. Once you know them well enough to use them like any tool in a painter’s tool kit, you may bend them, weave them, blend them, warp them, turn them into your own minions with you as their master.
You must know the rules before you can break them.
Picasso’s art has had a most profound impact on the twentieth century. While the example that Picasso leaves us suggests that there is value in unlearning the academic tradition, we never forget that his art became successful only after he mastered the fundamental techniques by a very early age. Yes, he might have been a prodigy, but the seed of the truth we learn from his example remains the same for us all.
“That [Picasso] chose to struggle to overcome his visual heritage in order to find a language more responsive to the modern world is an important triumph that has had a vast effect upon our world. Picasso’s art has transformed and inspired not only artists, but also architects, designers, writers, mathematicians, and even philosophers.”
- *“Picasso’s Early Work” by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker; https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/early-abstraction/cubism/a/picassos-early-work