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More and More of Less and Less

We tend to think of the creative process as cumulative. Once inspiration has struck and an idea has been born then we work to bring that idea into being, step by step, line by line, brush stroke by brush stroke.

As we make our concept real we add details, refinements, colour, shape, texture; we work hard to give our concept a physical presence and to make it an entity in its own right, independent of the mind from which it came.

And yet, just as important to the creative process is what we take away.

In 1945, around Christmastime, Pablo Picasso set out to explore the form of a bull. The medium he choose was the lithograph: a format which allows one not only to add but also to subtract detail with ease. By the time Picasso had finished, ‘Bull’ was a series of eleven images, each of which you can see below.

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The first plate is a perfectly good rendition of a bull. One easily recognizes the animal … and yet it’s a bull which looks, well, like countless other bulls we’ve seen before.

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In the second image Picasso begins to depart from a naturalistic approach. He bulks up the head and shoulders to give us a mythical bull which echoes those seen in ancient works of art.

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The third bull is much like the second, except now Picasso has begun to work more like a butcher than an artist, dividing up the body into constituent parts.

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By bull four Picasso is moving still further away from a literal rendition, simplifying the planes of the animal and reducing the size of the head.

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This process continues in plate five as the head is reduced and an area of the back is removed to give added weight to the shoulders of the animal.

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By plate six Picasso is coming to understand the balance of the bull and so he adds a new head and tail.

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The seventh bull sees yet more areas of line and tone erased and the artist now describes the shape of the bull with a single outline.

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In plate eight Picasso simplifies the legs and redraws the head.

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In the ninth lithograph all areas of tone and shade have been removed. Well, almost all: the bulls testicles, the seat of its masculine energy, are rendered in dark ink.

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By plate ten, the penultimate image, Picasso continues to take away all but the most essential lines.

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And then, finally, triumphantly, in lithograph eleven the process is complete: Picasso gives us the absolute essence of a bull, now utterly his own, realised in as few lines as possible.

I share this suite of lithographs with you because I can think of no better paradigm for the process of creative execution. The most important decision for Picasso was not what to add, but what to take away.

Too often we become enamoured with the executional frippery of our idea. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that by adding further detail to your execution you’re making it stronger. More likely, you’re making it weaker.

Next time you set out to realise a concept, no matter what your medium, ask yourself this. … what is the essence of my idea and how might I express it in the most concise form possible?

The brilliant contemporary artist Marina Abramović, from whom I stole the title of this article, puts it beautifully and in even fewer words …

‘More and more of less and less.’

richard holmanComment