The Bull, how Picasso practiced being concise…

14 Aug

At Drawing Down the Vision, we know the only way to get people on board with your wild dreams and aspirations is to make them digestible, to serve them up in byte-size chunks. If you start simple, and build from the core, you can slowly bring to life what previously seemed impossible.

However, we often have difficulty understanding what exactly is the core, and prioritizing which chunks to serve first. This is what makes successful people stand out… the ability to distill complex information to its essence, and communicate it effectively.

A few months back, we wrote an article about practicing to be concise. Today, we’ll revisit that theme with a series of Picasso’s sketches currently showcased at the MOMA, Museum of Modern Art in New York in the Paul J. Sachs Prints and Illustrated Books Gallery. This series showcases how Picasso started with a powerful vision, and dwindled it down to its core essence.

First off, here is a bull. Picasso started with an elaborate rendition of his vision, this bull. It manages to seem both emaciated and all-powerful at the same time. He spared no charcoal to develop all the textures and details fully.

Bull, State IV - December 18, 1945

A week later we see, another bull. This one certainly lacks the life-like textures and details of the previous, however Picasso maintains the jaunt-like skeletal structure and rough edges that personify this brick-like creature.

Bull, State VII - December 26, 1945

Later that day, Picasso varies on his morning sketch, and this time removes the noise surrounding the bull, focusing on just the powerful, woven frame.

Bull, State VII Variant - December 26, 1945

Two weeks after the original sketch, Picasso focused on less of the frame innards, and more on the outline. Slowly he decides to maintain the core body, but remove the lattice-like network that creates an inner girth.

Bull, State XI - January 2, 1946

One month and 18 sketches later, Picasso has come to a conclusion. The frame, four legs, two horns, a simple tail, and one more minor detail comprise the essence of a bull. Those elements could be drawn in another perspective to seem like a horse or an elephant, but the key is that Picasso understood the relationships and ratios of the lines between these core elements. Drawing is all about seeing relationships.

This sketch became so powerful to Picasso, it is the only one he felt comfortable gracing with title of ‘The Bull,’ rather than just ‘Bull.’

The Bull, State XIV - January 17, 1946

Those of you interested in the data visualization scene may equate this experiment of Picasso’s to the data-ink ratio of modern-day data shaman Edward Tufte (published in Tufte’s elegant masterpiece, The Visual Display of Qualitative Information).

Essentially, Tufte stated that a diagram should only include the non-erasable ink which communicates the content. If that ink were erased, the message would be lost. In Picasso’s example, the lack of horns, tail, legs, and the ink used to create the space between them would limit your understanding of this massive mammal, the bull.

So, in your future work… you may sketch out your thoughts and have far too many details to make them digestible for others, or even yourself. That’s ok, it’s a start. Give your thinking some time, and then revisit the sketches. Try to cut 10, 20, or 50 percent. Slowly you’ll learn what are the most important elements of your work, and you will be better able to communicate them to others. This will allow you to make what previously seemed impossible… a reality.

Go draw your bull.

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  • Adam Siemiginowski

    “Two simplicities. The bad: simplicity as starting-point, sought too soon. The good: simplicity as end-product, recompense for years of effort.” -Bresson
    via Ryan Ffrench,

  • sundaygirl92

    Thank you for this I am currently having to do my own ‘The Bull’ and didn’t understand fully what Picasso had done and was meaning when doing this series. This has helped me alot!

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