From Outline to Completion - Learning from Picasso

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The Mystery of Picasso is a 1956 movie that lets us watch Picasso painting. Nothing else - it's not a documentary in the usual sense, it's really only showing how one of the most popular and influential painters of the 20th century works. Which makes for a fascinating film.

During the 78 minutes of the film, we can see Picasso working on a wide variety of paintings - from very abstract to more realistic ones. He's also using various different techniques. But there's a common theme:

All the paintings start with an outline - mostly just drawings but sometimes also broad strokes with a brush. Some of the paintings change very little after the initial outline - he's just tweaking details or adding colour. In other cases, the painting is going through an enormous amount of changes until Picasso arrives at something he's happy with.

The almost dramatic end of the movie is when we see him working on a beach scene. It starts as a sort of light, almost naive, cartoon-ish drawing (for some reason, it makes me think it would be the perfect backdrop for a Monsieur Hulot movie). But Picasso seems unhappy with it and keeps changing things over and over, sometimes only details, sometimes making more drastic changes. Then, night falls over the beach scene and we hear the painter declaring that it's going badly. He makes some more drastic changes before finally declaring that he's found what he's looking for - but that he needs to start over on a fresh canvas. And with just a few strokes, he then paints a new, light and mostly abstract beach scene, in which we can still find some of the elements that he had been struggling with in the previous version.

What does all this have to do with presentations? Picasso's way of working does have some things in common with the way presentations are created.

You start with an outline. You have certain images in your head and now you try to turn them into slides. When the presentation starts taking shape, you notice that some things don't work out as well as you thought they would, so you're tweaking the flow of the presentation or the content of the slides. Usually, though, the end result will not be too far away from what you had in mind originally.

But sometimes, just like with that beach scene, things just don't work out at all. You're constantly changing and tweaking things but it doesn't seem to be getting better. In such a situation, it helps to take a step back and start over fresh. Keep the elements that have survived all the tweaking but put them into a new context.

This, of course, isn't anything radically new (or anything specific to art or presenting). It simply shows that creating a presentation is an iterative process. Still, I think the parallels are worth being pointed out:

  • It's important to start with an outline, so you have an idea what you're aiming at.
  • Keep tweaking things to see what works and what doesn't.
  • If, after some tweaking, it becomes apparent that there are deeper underlying problems with your approach, consider starting over fresh.
  • When you do that, don't think of the failed approach as having wasted your time and effort - you learned a lot in the process and you can probably still reuse parts of it.
  • Preparing a presentation is a creative process - certainly not in the same league as a painting by Picasso, but there is a touch of creativity required.

You can see a trailer for the movie on YouTube:

(Photos are stills from the trailer.)

If you'd like me to talk or write about this topic, you can hire me to do so.
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Creative Commons Licence "From Outline to Completion - Learning from Picasso" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.