I remember the first time I saw Picasso’s La Vie — a six foot tall canvas of a nude couple standing opposite a mother holding her baby. My focus was on the life-sized figures ascending above the surrounding gallery paintings. I could not help but wonder: Why did Picasso decide to make the figures so large? Did he know exactly what dimensions would leave the strongest impression?

For the past forty years, researchers in various fields have been trying to understand how artists transform their ideas into completed works. Picasso, the famous 20th century painter who sparked my curiosity, has proved to be a top resource for understanding creativity. Researchers have focused especially on his famous war painting, Guernica.

Guernica is one of the most famous anti-war statements of the 20th century. The mural is composed of horrific images of injured animals, women, and children and was created in protest of the bombing of a small Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. What makes the painting useful for understanding creativity is that Picasso’s numerous preparations for the mural show us how Guernica was created. Immediately after the bombing, Picasso started sketching. He made over forty sketches within a thirty-three day period (they’re dated and numbered), producing a visual “timeline” of the decisions that led to the completion of the mural.

Researchers in art history, psychology, and the digital humanities have been able to provide insight into the inner workings of Picasso’s artistic process, uncovering the hidden characteristics of creativity, as highlighted here:

How to Represent Emotion

Rudolf Arnheim, one of the first art historians to deconstruct Picasso’s artistic process, analyzed Picasso’s work psychologically. In The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica, Arnheim created a page-by-page timeline of Picasso’s progress. In his comments on the sketches, Arnheim seeks to understand the artist’s thoughts and decisions while painting. He writes:

“When we ask: Why did the artist do this? we are not trying to find out the personal reasons that made him select a particular subject and present it in a particular way. Our interest is more limited or perhaps more ambitious; it is concerned with the task rather than the person who accomplished it. Given a particular assignment, why did it induce Picasso to select the subject matter he did? Why did it make him present the subject in this particular way?”

Arnheim picks up on the kinds of decisions Picasso makes. For example, Picasso knew early on that he wanted either a horse or a bull to express the emotion of agony, but was undecided about which animal would best achieve this task. From looking at various sketches of the bull and horse, Arnheim deduces that Picasso experimented with both animals to see which better showed agony. Deciding how to represent an emotion was one of the important decisions Picasso made on his way to completing the painting.

Drawing on Your Memory

The Guernica sketches explore various characters. Upon looking through the sketches, creativity researcher and historian Subrata Dasgupta noticed their connections with Picasso’s previous pre-Guernica artworks and “the artist’s remembrance of things past.” Picasso used his life experiences and previous artworks as a resource for creation, such that the painting displays “the artist’s rich knowledge of his personal past.”

Darwinian Creativity

Dean Simonton, a professor of psychology at UC-Davis, argues for the theory of “Darwinian creativity.” Simonton contends that some of Picasso’s sketches are very different in style from the final mural. He claims that these “off” sketches demonstrated the chaotic, trial-and-error nature of creativity—some ideas will be abandoned, while other ideas will be pursued. Picasso did fully know how he would complete the task at hand, so he experimented blindly. Blind variation and selection pressure are key tenets of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

If Simonton is right, Darwin’s theory can help explain why artistic pursuits often include many failed attempts before resulting in a satisfying outcome for the artist.

For critics, Simonton’s interpretation of the sketches understates the importance of each step Picasso took. Liane Gabora, a Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, argued that “the process of generating one sketch affected how Picasso continued.” Each sketch leads to the final result. There’s variation, but it isn’t blind.

A More Scientific Approach

A recent study at the University of California asked subjects to try to put new versions of the sketches without the dates and numbers in order. The study sought to quantify opinions on Picasso’s creative path using numerical ratings. The researchers wanted to obtain more objective results and create a method that could one day be applied to other creativity studies. However, reviewers of the study argued that, while the method may have reduced the degree of bias, the study did not fully achieve objectivity, since its results still rely on individual opinion.

A Prime Catalog for Digital Education

New programs are being developed to make the sketches digital. The Online Picasso Project, created by Dr. Enrique Mallen, is an electronic database allowing users to easily browse through the Guernica sketches by year and date. Anyone who wants it now has quick and free access to the source material. And Simon Fraser University has started developing an interactive toolkit that displays the sketches in a visual timeline, with accompanying captions that explain Picasso’s creative steps.

These tools can help us all in continuing to think about the creative process.

Further Reading:

Image credit:  via Wikipedia

About The Author

Allison Smith
Philosophy Researcher, Simon Fraser University

By Allison Smith received her B.A. in Philosophy from Simon Fraser University and later went on to work as a researcher for the university. Her research explores theories on the mechanisms of artistic creativity.