There’s a scene in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Mystère Picasso, a 1956 documentary that shows the artist Pablo Picasso at work. The artist starts with random lines, splashes of color. There seems to be no method in what he’s doing, but soon a few recognizable images emerge — a boat pulling a water skier, a woman in a bathing suit, people at a café. As he paints, the details coalesce, but just as everything seems to come together, something goes wrong.
The artist seems to lose control of the work. The painting changes, grows darker, loses continuity. Finally, the master stops, assesses his progress, and says: “This is going badly, very badly, very very badly.”
There’s something therapeutic in that comment. It’s reassuring to know that even the masters stumble, or — as critic James Wood tells us in his sometimes abstruse, often insightful book How Fiction Works: “It’s useful to watch good writers make mistakes.” Both Picasso and Wood remind us that the creative process isn’t linear. It’s rife with experiments, setbacks, and dead ends that often force us to reevaluate and possibly scrap work that has taken hours, days, or longer to complete.
When that happens, consider doing what Picasso does next.
After reassessing the work, he says, “Now that I know where I’m going, I’ll get a new canvas and start over.” And so he does. And this time, his artistic vision clarified from hours of experimentation, he completes the painting.
This week, as I lay down the first exploratory lines of what I hope will become a new writing project, I find myself reflecting on Picasso’s approach. It’s useful to remind ourselves that art requires exploration, and exploration takes time and an ability to step away, reassess, and learn.
Sounds like a good resolution for the new year.
Picasso. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Mystère Picasso, 1956.
Spider Cartoon. Gary Larson. The Far Side.
Trailer for Le Mystère Picasso.