What Picasso Can Teach You As A Screenwriter
By Jacob Krueger
During a recent trip to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, I saw an exhibit that demonstrated a great secret that screenwriters can learn from painters.
In 1957, Picasso had set out to create his own interpretation of Diego Velázquez’ Las Meninas. Rather than starting out by trying to create his own perfected version of Velázquez’ masterpiece, Picasso approached this monumental task by completing a series of 57 preparatory “sketches,” all before he even started the real painting. Some of these sketches explore a specific aspect of the painting: a girl’s face, a gesture, a structural form, a play of color. Others explore the piece as a whole. Some are just some paint on a canvas, and others are complete paintings so striking, they could hang proudly in any museum in the world.
Are You Allowing Yourself The Freedom To Sketch?
The importance of sketching is a secret known by almost every painter, passed down from generation to generation of great painters and teachers. But sadly it’s almost entirely absent from the curriculum of most screenwriting programs.
A part of this stems from a natural anxiety shared by many screenwriters. After all, Picasso got to spend every day in his studio. But most writers don’t have that luxury. We have to hold down day jobs, and that means every minute of our writing time is precious. We already feel like we don’t have enough time to write, and its hard to allow ourselves the time to just play around, when we already feel so far behind.
Many perfectly well meaning screenwriting programs exacerbate this anxiety, by teaching shortcuts around the real art of writing: insisting on rigid outlines, external formulas, tricks and techniques that are supposed to get you to the finished product in one step, rather than going through the real process that actually leads you to great writing. As a result, screenwriters often become so focused on getting to the ending, on making every page count, and on only writing things that “work” that they end up draining their work of any real inspiration, cutting themselves off from their best creative impulses, and sucking all the fun out of the writing process.
Writing becomes a chore, rather than an art. The stakes feel so high that you’re paralyzed by fear of making a mistake. And even the pages you do write feel hollow and dissatisfying. The next thing you know, you’re blocked, and wondering if you really have what it takes to be a writer. Often, this feeling has nothing to do with talent. It stems from the fact that when you try to shortcut the process, you’re not really being a writer. Because you’re not giving yourself the opportunity to experience the inspiring and liberating process that allows you to discover your real voice as a writer.
It’s impossible to get creative if you’re afraid of making a mistake.
And it’s impossible to stay creative if your main focus is getting to the end. Sure, there are some projects that simply seem to write themselves: moments of inspiration when your whole story just pours out in a beautiful, polished form, as if you didn’t even have to do the work. Those are the easy times to be a writer. But if you want to make writing a part of your life, you don’t have time to wait for inspiration.
What made Picasso into Picasso was not the gift of inspiration. It was the freedom he gave himself to explore when the inspiration was not coming. To try things out. To do things the wrong way, before discovering the right way. Picasso knew what many writers forget: that it is the freedom and the play that come with sketching that allows you to discover the real masterwork inside of you.
What Does It Mean To Sketch As A Screenwriter?
Picasso’s sketches for Las Meninas now make up an entire wing of the Picasso Museum, and looking at them all together, you can’t help but be struck not only by their sheer volume, but also the complete lack of judgment that Picasso brought to the process. His sketches weren’t some kind of blueprint for his final masterpiece. And the paintings that came out perfectly seemed to have no more value for Picasso than the ones that didn’t work at all. Each painting was simply an exploration: a way of looking closely at his subject, and discovering what the finished painting was, and what it wasn’t. A way of understanding his final masterpiece, not by planning it, but by painting it, again, and again, and again, in 57 different ways, until he knew exactly what he really wanted it to be.
Because he didn’t have to be so darn serious about getting it right, Picasso had the freedom to let his mind wander softly around the subject of his painting, to play with it many different ways, to try many different solutions without worrying about how they all fit together. And ultimately, by not allowing himself to get attached to any particular solution, Picasso gave himself the freedom to throw away everything he didn’t need, as he began the real work of creating his final masterpiece, starting again from a blank canvas, but with all the knowledge of those sketches behind him. Keeping the elements that served the final painting without being locked in by old decisions, or elements that were no longer working for him.
How Many Pages Is A Screenplay?
As I tell my students, a finished screenplay may look like only a 100 pages of writing. But discovering the 100 pages that make it into your final draft often means writing many more pages that don’t. This can seem daunting at first, but it’s also incredibly liberating. It means you have the freedom to sketch just like a painter does: to play, to go down wrong alleys, to make mistakes, to try bold things that don’t work, to play around with 10 versions of the same scene, to contradict yourself, to explore, to have fun, and to discover things about your screenplay you never even knew were there.
When you allow yourself the freedom to sketch, you no longer have to race to the finish line, get depressed if you have a “bad” writing day, or feel like you’re falling behind if you write a scene that you don’t know what to do with, or brilliant scenes that don’t work together. Instead, you can enjoy the journey, free your creativity, and allow your screenplay to teach you what it wants to be, or what it doesn’t want to be. You’re no longer trying to finish. You’re trying to explore. The amazing thing is, this will not only get you to the finish line faster. It will also get you there better.
Getting Into The Volume Business
Every project reaches a point where the writing becomes easy—when you finally find the door you’ve been looking for, and suddenly you know exactly what you need to do. For some projects, the first door you open is the right one. But for most projects, finding the right door can mean a lot of searching. Picasso didn’t know that it would take him 57 sketches to find the door he needed for Las Meninas. But he knew the right door when he found it, and he gave himself the freedom to keep exploring, and keep having fun, until that door presented itself.
As a screenwriter, no matter how busy your schedule, you can allow yourself this kind of exploration in as little as 15 minutes. Whether it’s through writing exercises, like the ones I lead for my students, or through quick exploratory scenes that shake up the monotony of your writing day. When you put your focus on quantity, rather than quality, and playing and exploring, rather than getting it right, the pressure lifts from your writing, and suddenly things start to flow again. Whether or not they make it into your final script, these sketches will do more to help your writing than you can possibly imagine. Freeing your creativity, and teaching you the true potential of your screenplay.
If you’d like to learn more about “sketching” for screenwriters, and an organic process by which you can transform playful sketches into foundational material for your screenplay, check out my screenwriting courses.