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Don't learn to paint.

I don't often take issue with Picasso. In fact, maybe it is not with him that I have an issue, but with the internet for making a ubiquitous meme out of a supposed quote of his:

"Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist."

I can see where one would want to believe this. It seems to give an easy solution to the mystery of how art is made and what it takes to be an "artist". But I believe that it is a misrepresentation that limits our understanding of what is really going on here and keeps people from using and experiencing a magic that is right at their fingertips. In fact, I spend a decent amount of time in my workshops, and various conversations about art in general, trying to undo the damage done by the misconceptions born of this quote, namely that 1) There is a set of rules. 2) Artists are breaking them.

First of all, where is the list of art rules? I understand that if you want to produce a certain result with certain materials, there is definitely a cause and effect relationship involved in attaining the desired outcome. But it's more of an "if this, then that" situation. The only "rules" here are the underlying laws of physics, which for our purposes are unbreakable. Thinking in terms of cause and effect and then experimenting with different outcomes is a much different approach than that of learning a set of rules. It makes you an explorer on an adventure rather than a student studying for an exam.

An explorer does need one very important thing - a compass. The compass of the artist is their guiding intuition, their inner voice. Whatever materials or techniques are used, what is happening during the making of art is a series of decisions, moment to moment, second by second. We decide to apply this color here, make that cut there, etc. It is when we learn to be aware of our instincts and actually heed them during this process that art starts to appear. Therefore, the most important thing an artist can study is how to read the compass of their own intuition.

Think for a minute about the mental shift this represents. It moves you from trying to make a painting to practicing listening to your inner voice. This is what I mean when I say "Don't learn to paint." When people believe it's about learning a set of rules, they tend to be disappointed, because the magic they are looking for can only happen on an intuitive level. Does your studio time make you feel like an explorer of great mysteries or like a kid trying get an A on a school project? If the latter is true, I have a new meme for you, and one that I think Picasso himself would have endorsed:

"Learn the cardinal rule of listening to yourself so you can follow it like an artist."


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