Pablo Picasso was one of the most prolific, creative, and inspirational artists who has ever lived. Here is a man who created his own destiny — who constantly re-invented himself (regardless of what his critics said), was always creating art, and had fun (like a child).
I feel that many of us can learn from his personal philosophies, and more importantly, from his work, and how he lived his life.
Below are some lessons I’ve learned from him, and how I’ve been able to incorporate them into my life:
1. Create like a child
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” – Picasso
Do you remember when you were a child? When you had no limits or restrictions on your creativity?
Your parents might have given you a sheet of paper and some pencils. You scribbled on that paper, and expressed your child-like curiosity. You had no concept of “good” or “bad” in art. You weren’t forced to color inside the lines.
Then we get older, and our teachers tell us what not to do. They tell us to color inside the lines. They tell us the “rules” of art.
Our inner-child dies. We become adults. We are no longer as creative as we were initially.
Picasso told us that every child is an artist. But how can we remain artists as we get older?
My suggestion: forget the rules that others impose on you. Rather, try to just play and have fun. Express yourself, without an inner-censor telling you to do otherwise. Don’t ask others for their feedback on your art. A child doesn’t need approval from others on their art. They create art for the sake of it— because it is fun.
Another quote from Picasso which illustrates the point of remaining like a child:
“It took me four years to paint like Rafael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” – Pablo Picasso
When we start off in our apprenticeship in art, we are told to copy the work of the masters. We learn composition, form, and light. We work hard to create imitations of the masterpieces.
However when we finish our apprenticeship, we need to learn how to “kill our masters.” To not let their influence restrain us.
It means learning the fundamental rules, but knowing how to break them.
The more experienced you get in art, the more you need to “unlearn” the “rules”.
Think of the artwork of Picasso. He started off being able to create hyper-realistic imitations of the great artists. Furthermore, the common misconception is that all of Picasso’s work were these abstract cubist works.
Incorrect— Picasso knew how to draw a damn-convincing still-life. Picasso knew how to make hyper-realistic artworks.
One of the most fascinating things about Picasso’s work is how he was able to distill an image into its essence. And in order to do so, Picasso had to dig deep into his child-like mind, and create with spontaneity, fun, and originality.
Observe a child for a day. See how every experience is brand new to them. Every experience is fun, and a chance to grow, and learn.
A child doesn’t listen to rules. They do as they please. Their creativeness is at a maximum.
Now observe us adults— as we are stuck in our cubicles and office jobs. We are told to respond to emails within the hour. We are told to obey rules, laws, and restrictions. We are constantly being judged and criticized.
As we get older, don’t seek to become more mature. Instead, seek to become more child-like as you get older. Try to be like Benjamin Button — age in reverse.
Tap into your own inner-child, and create art without restrictions. This is the way you can truly express yourself creatively.
It might take your entire life to become a child, as Picasso said: “It takes a long time to become young.”
2. Steal good ideas
There are two versions of a quote that are credited to Picasso:
- “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
- “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”
For me, the essence of the quote means this: take the best ideas from those who have come before you. But don’t simply imitate the masters line-by-line. Rather, transform your art into something new.
There is no such thing as being “original” without drawing inspiration from others. We are all a collection of our life experiences, as a part of a society.
When we are starting off in photography, we need to learn the fundamental technical aspects, about exposure, light, shadow, and framing. When we are starting off in painting, we need to learn how to paint like the masters. When we start off in music, we learn how to play our scales.
However if you want to create truly original work that expresses yourself— draw inspiration from as may resources as possible. But then, see how you can add your own spin on it. See how you can re-mix a piece of art into the past, and add your own interpretation.
Always ask yourself, “What is something slightly new I can bring to the table?”
Often the best writers aren’t the ones who make the most original stories. Rather, they will take old story ideas, and refresh it into something more modern for a contemporary reader.
A photographer will draw inspiration from master photographers in the past, but use new technological advancements to create a new type of image that will inspire contemporary audiences.
Who can you shamelessly steal ideas from, without feeling any shame?
Don’t feel like you need to be “original” in your creative life. Steal from any source or master you can.
Yet see how you can put your own unique spin on it — infuse your soul with the inspirational source, and make something new.
So for an assignment, find one master photographer whose work you admire, and shamelessly steal their ideas, technique, and style. Try to make your photos look like theirs, but do it in your own unique way. Keep doing this until you get bored, and try another 2-3 masters.
Remix the old, and make it contemporary.
3. You can’t succeed without action
“Action is the foundational key to all success.” – Picasso
We have lots of great ideas. We share these ideas with our friends, our families, and ourselves.
Yet how rarely do we actually put into action our ideas?
Picasso said that “Action is the foundational key to all success.” It makes sense. If you’re a painter or an artist, you cannot become “successful” without creating art. Similarly, if you’re a photographer, you can’t make any “successful” photos without clicking the shutter.
How can you take action in your photographic life?
If you’re starting a business, what is the first actionable step you can make?
For example, does that mean making a post for your services? Or cold-calling a client? Or attending a convention?
Don’t write down a list of your photographic dreams, just put them out as action-item lists.
For example, it is silly to have a goal like “gain a million followers on social media.” It makes more sense to have an actionable goal like “upload only my best work, once every (or every other) day”.
If you want to make better photos, your assignment can be: study all the photos of Henri Cartier-Bresson in his portfolio, print out the ones you like on your home printer, and trace his compositions with a red pen, and try to deconstruct his images.
Don’t have an “idea” mindset— have an “action” mindset.
4. Use what you got
“If I don’t have red, I use blue.” – Picasso
Picasso was known for going through certain phases— when he would only paint with a certain color or hue. For example, during Picasso’s “Blue Period” (Período Azul) he only made monochromatic paintings with cold blue/blue-green colors. These paintings tended to be on the moody and melancholy side.
Then contrasting to this period, Picasso embraced a “Rose Period” (1904 to 1906) in which he only used orange and pink colors, which were a lot warmer, and lively in spirit.
When asked why he did this— he said that those were the only colors he had.
What I found great about this is how it shows how few colors you need in your palette to make great art.
As photographers, we complain not having enough gear, lenses, or cameras. If we want to be like Pablo and be more creative, it means to limit our palette. Take the few colors that we already have, and made the best out of it.
Choose a certain color, hue, or palette and stick with it for a month. For a month, only shoot red colors or blue colors. Only shoot circles or triangles.
Only stick with one camera and one lens.
See by limiting your creative choices, how creative you can get.
5. Paint your own reality
“The world doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?” – Picasso
Being an artist means to create the world you want to see. It means to also show others what you see in reality.
Picasso is misunderstood for only being an abstract artist. But before he embarked on his epic cubist images, he mastered realistic painting.
But what I love about his work is that they evoke emotions, confusion, and the chaos of reality. They don’t show reality as being perfect and fitting inside boxes. Rather, Picasso rebelled against the boxes that other artists were stuck in, and made his own version of reality.
Photograph your own reality. Rather than making your photos in-focus, sharp, and ‘real’ — try to make them as ‘unreal’ as possible. Make your photos blurry, out of focus, and grainy. Increase the contrast, the colors, and the saturation. Try to post-process your photos that evoke a certain emotion out of your images.
Try to create images which evokes how you feel, rather than how the scene looked in “real life.”
6. Eliminate the unnecessary
“Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.” – Picasso
The more I study artists, the more I realize how art is more about subtraction and elimination of the unnecessary and superfluous — rather than addition.
One good example of Picasso’s working method was to see his studies on “deconstruction of a bull.” You see how he started off with a realistic form of a bull, and kept subtracting, until he was left with what he considered the “essence” of the bull.
Great artists do this. When it comes to the design philosophy of Steve Jobs, he was always obsessed with eliminating the unnecessary — eliminating buttons, confusing additions in user-interface, and complexity.
The Zen and Taoist masters said this too — to become a master was to eliminate one superfluous thing everyday, rather than adding one thing a day.
Find a scene you find interesting that you want to photograph. See how you can deconstruct the scene, subject-by-subject. Keep slicing away from the frame, until you are left with what you consider the “essence” of the frame.
Trim away all the unnecessary fat from the edges of the frame, then you will only be left with the meat.
7. Don’t repeat yourself
“To copy others is necessary, but to copy oneself is pathetic.” – Picasso
If you want to stay fresh as an artist, you want to avoid copying yourself over and over again. This is what leads to stagnation.
If you’re a bodybuilder, you want to increase the intensity of your workout— whether increasing more repetitions or weight. If you’re an artist, you want to stretch your creative capabilities. You might still be working with the same materials— but you want to add challenge to your working process, to create new works that are at least a little different than the work you did before.
I feel this is what can help us stay motivated our entire lives. Picasso went through many different evolutions in his artistic life. Whenever he felt like he was becoming complacent, he totally switched up his style. He kept his audience guessing— they never knew what his next painting or piece would be.
Picasso experimented with tons of different forms throughout his career. Although he was best known for painting, he also experimented with poetry, photography, sculpture, and other forms of art. He kept pushing his boundaries, to express himself in as many different creative ways as possible.
Picasso continues by sharing the dangers of “success” in art. Once we feel we are “successful” — we stop innovating:
“Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.” – Picasso
Forget your old work. Delete your old photos off your social media networks, or at least mark them to private.
Pretend like today you’re starting your photography again from scratch. What old shooting methods from the past would you not do? How would you approach your image-making from a different perspective or angle?
Does that mean for you to photograph different subject matter? Does it mean for you to capture different emotions and gestures in your images?
Whatever it means for you, never stop innovating.
8. Sell yourself, not your art
“Artist is a person who paints what you can sell. A good artist is a person who sells what he paints.” – Picasso
Another big problem artists make is that they try to create art that will please an audience, so they can sell their art.
Picasso teaches us the opposite: the great artist is the one who sells himself, and what he paints.
As humans, we want to be loved, appreciated, and supported by others. As photographers, we want to make images that are admired by others.
But the difference between being average and great is this — the great artists stick to their singular vision. They don’t compromise. They go against the grain, and create things that might scuffle feathers. Their work might not be appreciated as widely, but they find a small group of people to intensely like their work. And that is what makes them successful — they stay true to themselves.
Stop uploading photos to social media for a week or a month. Make photos that you feel are truly creative, innovative, and unique. Don’t ask others for their opinion of your work. Follow your heart and gut.
Then make a series of images, print them out, and see if you can sell them to people you know, or online.
Don’t measure your success by how many you can sell, but use this assignment to give yourself confidence in the work you create.
9. Don’t procrastinate on what is important
“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” – Picasso
Picasso was one of the most prolific artists in history. How did he do it? Simple — he procrastinated on unimportant things, and focused relentlessly on what was important to him (his art).
Although Picasso was famous for being a party-animal and social butterfly, when it was time for him to get down to painting and work — he shut himself out from the world. He knew to create his great masterpieces, he needed silence to think, meditate, and create his work.
It is easy for us to procrastinate our lives away. I do believe procrastination is good—if used the right way. Only procrastinate on what you would be okay being left undone if you were to die tomorrow. But don’t procrastinate on your life’s task — your creative work.
Write down a list of things you are okay if they were left undone if you died. Then write down a list of things you would feel frustrated if you left undone if you were dead.
Focus on what is the most important to you, and procrastinate on the rest.
10. Give your gift away
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” – Picasso
We all have a gift that we can help others with. We have a gift to give others— a gift that can empower others become the best version of themselves.
Your gift can be your ability to make beautiful images, to make moving words, to show love and compassion, or to be a good friend or family member.
Whatever your life’s gift is— spend your entire life giving it away to others. That is when you will feel the most gratitude, empowerment, and happiness in life.
What if you don’t know what your life’s gift is? That is okay — most of life is trying to find out what our gift is. Many don’t find their gift until old age— and then once they’ve discovered it, they spend their entire life giving their gift away.
There are many musicians, artists, and film directors who only got started in old age. And that was the right time for them — they had enough life experience, resources, and finances to embark on the creative work they were destined to do.
Don’t force it. If you know what your life’s gift is, focus on contributing it as much to others as possible. If you don’t know what your life’s gift is, don’t stop searching. Don’t settle for anything less.
See what of your activities creates the most value for others— not yourself. See how you best empower, excite, or motivate others. Is that through your counsel, your voice, your actions, your art, or something else?
For me, I think my gift is blogging. Blogging is very enjoyable to me, and the words flow from my fingertips. It is never boring, and I never have to force myself to do it. And it reaches the largest number of people through the internet, and I hope that it also empowers others in their photography, life, and creative process.
Write down a list of talents, passions, and values you have in life. Think of how you create the most value for others. Think of how you can help even more people. What are some distractions you cut out of your life, so you can add more time, energy, and focus into your life’s gift?
Picasso was a rare man who lived according to his own standards, and was creative until he died. He left nothing undone. He stretched and pushed his artistic boundaries, and was prolific as hell. He played like a child, experimented, and always questioned authority and the “rules.”
We can all live a creative life like Picasso. It just means re-connecting with our inner-child, and seeing our creative work like play. It means not compromising with our artistic standards, and making the best art regardless of our situation in life.
So re-discover the inner-child in you, and have fun.
Respark your passion for photography:
- SF BAY AREA STREET PHOTO ADVANCED WORKSHOP (November 13, Saturday 2021)
- LEARN FROM MASTERS ONLINE WORKSHOP (December 11, Saturday, 2021)
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