A Dorm Room Project

Seen and Unseen

I learned more about how to make art from the Henri-Georges Clouzot documentary “Le Mystère Picasso” than I learned from any previous semester-long painting class. The 1956 documentary is entirely dedicated to recording how Picasso draws and paints. Some of the scenes show him drawing with thick markers that bleed through his paper, so that to the camera, filming from the backside of a glass easel, the lines seem to be making themselves. For paintings where this through-glass approach does not work, the filmmakers take dozens of still images of the painting as it progresses.

To me, then a beginner artist in a studio art class freshman year, Picasso’s process seemed truly alarming. He draws something beautiful—the head of a goat, for example—and puts it through a wringer of destructive changes, going much further than it seems like any sane artist should.

For the goat, which can be seen on YouTube under the title “Le Mystère Picasso 1,” Picasso begins with a weird, gestural, lively, and sympathetic pen drawing—already an artwork in its own right. Then he fills in the background with crude swaths of red, blue, and yellow, disturbing the delicacy and humor of his drawing. Next he covers the drawing by building up the goat’s head in gray, black, and white paint, patterning the fur with ornate strokes of neutral tones. The work is beautiful again; if I were him I would stop there. But then he wipes out all his careful patterning and replaces it with a few angular marks on the goat’s cheek and nose: a third beautiful stage, and distinctly Picasso—but of course he keeps going. He builds up the background, obliterates it, and replaces it with trees and flowers. He exaggeratedly shrinks and bends the goat’s neck, making it into something closer to a caricature, then he builds up the face again with busy lines. And then, finally, he stops.

This is not even an extreme example; the drawing that he changes from a fish to a rooster to a human face is much worse. Each one of his drawings and paintings is shown to contain many hidden drawings and paintings underneath. From a starting point of sketchy realism, Picasso moves through stages of maximalism, simplicity, and cartoonishness to end up with something that defies any category. As you watch, you realize his genius.

Like every groundbreaking artist, Picasso does not stop at the merely good. He goes for the crazy. He blows things up. This compulsion strikes me as deeply courageous. He’s not afraid to lose what he has in favor of some unknown. He seems to be constantly striving for something no one has seen before—stranger, busier, less safe. He is a savage editor and an even more inventive creator. Picasso filled his whole life with creation, making use of everything, from a broken chair to a sardine skeleton, in his painting and sculpting. The documentary taught me to be bolder and to approach all things as accessible and mutable and better for being so.

With all this in mind, I have a proposal for a dorm room art project, if you want to try these things yourself and go beyond the good. Start at Utrecht, an art supply store up Massachusetts Avenue in the direction of Central Square. For less money than a dorm-room poster, you can buy a large sheet of watercolor paper, a medium-sized brush, and your favorite two or three bottles (or more) of colored ink—the Higgins brand is good. Ink is more portable and easier to clean than acrylic, and it dries faster. When you get back to your room, fill a cup with water and dampen your paper all over, which will make the ink easier to use and will cause lines spread with feathery edges. It doesn’t matter what you draw, or if you draw anything at all; you can just make shapes and lines. Wait for it to dry, and then mess up your favorite part, unbalance it, add a pattern or a central figure, cover something up. Do this over and over. At the end your paper will probably look like a huge mess. You should hang it up on your wall and step back.

The point of this activity, and the mystery of Picasso, is figuring out how to push beyond the boundaries of habit or taste or even beauty. No matter what your ink-painting looks like, your methods and your intentions make it something worth thinking about and talking about. You work on a loop of intuitive action and response, you blunder past blunders, you allow nothing timid or sacred.

—Columnist Molly E. Dektar can be reached at mdektar@fas.harvard.edu.