Picasso Teaches Improvisation

Pablo Picasso’s Le Peintre from 1967

When Pablo Picasso taught art classes, one of the first exercises he told his students to do was to take pen to paper and draw a perfect circle. All of the students worked hard to impress their teacher. Spoiler alert: there is no way to draw a perfect circle!

So, after all of the students tried and failed, Picasso gave them Part Two of the exercise. He told them to study their drawings closely and to find the most imperfect part of the circle, the very place where they failed in the exercise. Then he had them start from that spot, and extend their drawing, using that “mistake” as the starting point, and as the inspiration for their first actual drawing in the class.

This, of course, was a revelation for the students. The result was not only that they had a place to begin their drawing. The broader implication of the exercise was that the artist must take the mistake and find inspiration there. This simple exercise led not only to some good drawings. It also helped, early on in the class, to build an actual philosophy and point of view that allowed the artist to embrace the words of Picasso himself: “I begin with an idea, and then it becomes something else.”

Improv creates that same point of view. There are no mistakes – there are only possibilities for spontaneous creative choices, and discoveries to be made out of what might before have been seen as a mistake. Pablo Picasso taught his students to improvise.

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