Friday, June 8, 2012

Breaking the Rules

My last post is a bit of a spoiler for this one, but I'll go ahead with it anyway.

While I was in New York I went to the Met, and in the special exhibit there I saw this piece:

Take a wild guess—who do you think drew this? (I'll tell you in a moment.)

If I didn't already know, I'd never be able to guess. In person this drawing is so life-like. The eyes and the mouth seem real. I was impressed with how well the face was captured. I felt like I knew this boy.

In order to create this piece, the artist had to have sound technique. None of the lines are haphazard or out of place. The drawing took real skill, attention to detail, and a solid foundation in the rules of composition.

This piece was drawn by Pablo Picasso. Does that surprise you? I was certainly surprised.

When I think of Picasso, I think of the artistic absurdity of Cubism. I think of an art form that breaks all kinds of rules in order to create something new that had never been done before.

But as I stood in front of this drawing, Head of a Boy, from 1905, I realized that Picasso would never have been able to break all those rules successfully if he hadn't known how to follow them to begin with. So it is with any art.

And maybe that's a lesson that most of you already know and have moved beyond. I know that for me, however, there's a temptation to dive straight into the chaos without first becoming familiar with order. Here's an example:

When I was in middle school I had this thought one Saturday morning of “Wouldn't it be cool if I could write a conversation between several characters in which the personalities and speaking habits of each of the characters are so distinct that the dialog can make sense without tags?” So I tried it. I wrote a page-long conversation with a happy character, a grumpy character, some others (Sleepy, Doc and Bashful, maybe?) and excitedly took this page to my mother to see if she could distinguish the various voices without any tags. You can probably guess what happened. She couldn't. She was completely confused. I was completely crushed.

I hadn't learned the rules yet. I didn't understand the subtleties of tagging and voice and dialog. I didn't know why tagging and distinctive voices were both important. So I was going in a great direction in one sense—trying to make very clear characters—but diving straight off a cliff in another sense.

So what's the take-away in all of this? For me it's that there's always another layer of subtlety. I will always have to keep studying and developing my instinct for the rules and why they work. Because the more I understand the foundation behind the rules, the more I can stretch myself to create something new.

What's the take-away for you?


  1. OMG! I had the EXACT same thing happen to me, but it was with a different picture. Picasso did a picture of his girlfriend, which was beautiful and 'normal' and next to it was the same abstract. It was incredibly and really solidified the true measure of his talent in my mind. I've never looked at his work the same since.
    People who have never written a book think it's easy...those who have attempted to climb that mountain and have done it well, truly understand the immense undertaking they have. Congratulations on not only doing that, but also doing it WELL!

  2. Thanks, Eileen! Your Picasso experience sounds pretty cool. Do you remember anything else about the portraits? I can't seem to find them online.

  3. This is the advice we get in art classes. It frustrates the abstract-art students to no end, but it's why we're forced to draw the human form and still lifes over and over and over again. :-)