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October 6, 2004
What Sets Great from Good?
 

Picasso was one of the great artists of the 20th century. He was enormously talented and amazingly prolific—and his massive presence was matched by his massive ego. He told the story of how his mother had said to him that if he entered the army, he would become a general; and that if he chose the priesthood, he would surely end up as the Pope. Concluding, he said that he chose to be a painter—and ended up Picasso.

The egotism is forgiven, though, in our consensus on his brilliance. This is a man who left the world a better place for his having been here.

But what can we learn from the fabric of his genius? Apart from the work, did he leave us any wisdom? Can we take any portion of his spark, and ignite other areas of creativity and expression? John Richardson, Picasso's Biographer, describes a set of qualities that places his early portrait work above the other artists of that era. They were detachment, sharp focus, quirkish insight and technical bravura.

Those qualities form a foundation for the insightful examination and re-presentation of the human condition.

I would argue that the characteristics that made Picasso's work stand above that of his contemporaries can shed light on what distinguishes the great from the good in other disciplines. They have guided my work over the years and I share them with you today.

I. Detachment To divorce yourself of all that you think you know about your subject can be both clarifying and liberating. It allows you to be objective. To see things as a skeptic might. Because nothing keeps you from the truth like an agenda.

Picasso looked at his subjects with a dispassionate eye. He sought to know them with the eyes of a stranger.

So too must we, if we intend to arrive at insight. If you approach a challenge with no preconceived notions, then the range of possibilities for meeting it will be wide open from the outset.

II. Sharp Focus Detachment is the starting point that will nurture us to the next stage of clear and focused direction.

What are you really trying to accomplish? What are the facts that matter? What is superfluous? And what is the most convincing argument?

These questions should be applied equally to that which is being sold and to the intended audience.

Picasso distinguished himself at a very young age through his ability to see what really mattered in the character of his subjects. He drew both known figures and strangers, but in either case he left the viewer with the impression of intimacy.

Intimacy reflects truth. It gets at the heart. Most importantly it is the product of an ability not just to look at something, but also to really see it.

 

IV. Technical Bravura (Craftsmanship) One of Picasso's early works has a brown patina that he drew from a cup of coffee. A number of others he literally fried in a pan. Throughout his career he gave constant consideration to what could be wrest from the materials he had at hand.

As a rule, creativity loathes boundaries and barriers.

Excellence in craftsmanship starts with knowing that there is no such thing as a full exploration of creative possibility. Tools can always be applied to materials in new and surprising ways.

It is all too easy to accept the norms of a discipline. But true creativity emerges when the artist uses both the material and the tools with imagination.

At Taxi whether we are creating a 30 second spot, a poster, a web page, a package or a T.V. show, we are telling a story and we are always looking for a great story to tell. The ego part we can do without.

III. Quirkish Insight Real truth often hides behind the obvious. It is easy to go no further when you have arrived at the obvious. Insight propels you beyond this point—quirkish insight reflects a unique point of view.

The challenge is to tell your story as humanly as possible. To be vulnerable. To be real. But also to reveal a universal truth that has eluded mass consciousness. Whether through humor, poignancy, subtlety or a sledgehammer, the message should both surprise and resonate.

For Picasso, individual human characteristics were the subject at hand. It is no different for us.


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Paul Lavoie is the chairman and chief creative officer of TAXI, a Toronto shop that's gaining international fame with fresh, unconventional creative for global brands like Molson and NIKE. Paul also sits on the boards of Covenant House Toronto, the Virginia Commonwealth University, and the New York Art Directors Club.

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