multi colored pencils on black surface

The art of seeing: how Picasso and children teach us to think outside the box

By Anastasia Baraeva
5 min read

”What do you need? I’ll draw it for you!” Here’s something that was said during a class I had with a young student of mine. “Oh, I’m cold, said a little mouse, – I want a scarf, a hat, and boots.” The kid drew a bag with clothes and said, “Mouse, put them on.”

It is common knowledge that children have a vivid imagination; they live in the domains of reality to which adults spend their ordinary days blind, but which are always there for the seeing if you know how to look. Maybe that’s why training to believe in thirty nonexistent things every day helps Alice enter Wonderland — invisible for an average person with a fixed mindset. Teaching that English lesson brought me to some questions: Can grown-ups preserve and regain the ability to see different wonderlands and step into them? And if yes, how can we hack the matrix?

We are taught from a young age what the world is like and how we are supposed to perceive ourselves in it. But only a few of us are courageous enough to question the assumptions we accept as true, discard them and look if there is something else they might conceal. This requires a willingness and courage to pivot. When courage is thinking, dreaming outside the box, and reflecting the beauty you see. You need courage to be who you are because the details that leap to you are not the same as the ones that stand out to others; you look through the lens of your memories, your knowledge, your preferences, and your emotions. 

However, the lens you look through doesn’t exist without the seer. The seer is here and now, neither coming nor going. Things come and go: the seer reflects everything that passes by, like a mirror, but doesn’t get involved. One Art History professor, talking about painters of the Renaissance, always repeated a phrase: “They didn’t draw IL fiore, but UN fiore,” explaining that they didn’t draw the flower that ever existed, but the whatness of the flower. Artists are those adults who maintain and master the skill of being seers. One of them, who remains a complete mystery, was Pablo Picasso. His most famous quote, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child,” still raises a lot of controversy: Why did he paint like a child? Why did he want to paint like a child? And what does painting like a child even mean?

pink yellow and green flower decors
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Picasso spent his life playing with new ways of seeing. He revolutionized the art world by using the technique of depicting people, things, and animals without trying to convey their image precisely. He believed that directly representing someone or something physically suffocated life and its creativity. His 1907 oil painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon challenged everything people had thought about art. The artist involved viewers in a game to find and solve a mystery in the simplest experience and face the challenge of knowing the fullness of life. Some were shocked, some were outraged, and some were disgusted. But what Picasso produced wasn’t chaos. It was a richer and more complex description of reality. In other words, it was the Overton Window that Picasso opened.

The Overton Window is a mechanism used to make people accept the unacceptable. According to the theory, widely spread ideas lie inside the Overton Window. The others exist outside it, but they are not popularized because of some risk of losing people’s support and provoking mass protests. When the Overton Window shifts and expands, new concepts of life come inside and go through particular phases, from completely uncceptable to unanimously approved by society. As with any mechanism, it can be used for good or for bad. Politicians and marketing experts apply it to guide people’s ways of thinking, beliefs, behavior, and consumption. Picasso, on the contrary, used it to get people familiarized with a completely new view of life, and the ground-breaking piece of art created in 1907 is proof of his genius.

What he painted wasn’t even women or creatures with no gender, like the majority of critics interpret. They are rather new codes of the matrix hidden inside the picture. The intricate message can only be decoded if the viewer is on the same high level of consciousness as Picasso. It seems that the profound piece of art contains a concentrated dose of something missing that helps people rebalance themselves. The original Picasso costs so much because it is a corrective to the spiritual decadence of modern society, it is a powerful tool to demolish the plausible, expand self-consciousness, and realize that we can be bigger than we are, and that we can be creators, too.

When Picasso was asked what he thought about Henri Matisse’s The Blue Nude, he said, “If he wants to make a woman, let him make a woman. If he wants to make a design, let him make a design. This is between the two.” What we are and our true reality are between the two: black and white, woman and man, good and bad, etc. And exactly this gives us the ability to manifest everything we need in this world from our imagination, even if it lies outside the acceptable and approvable.

Geniuses don’t happen in a sealed bubble, cut off from others’ intellectual development. Their emergence means that people are alive to ambiguity and more willing to accept that there are different ways of interpreting the world and living life. Picasso was one of the pioneers who saw it and guided us through it. Maybe that’s why we don’t respond to him like a figure from the past but rather as a brilliant, forward-looking contemporary.

“Discovery was what he deeply cared for and was what alone fascinated him”, his secretary, the poet Jaime Sabartés once said about Picasso. “He was a sum of curiosities. He had more curiosity than a thousand million women”. The artist was always abnormally alert; his eyes seized and noted everything. Curiosity, alertness, and a flexible mind are things that Picasso had in common with children. Children are usually drawn to everything peculiar and weird. When they examine it, nothing distracts them, and everything disturbs them. Without looking or listening, they see and hear all that is going on around them. Scientifically, their alertness could be explained by the way their brain simultaneously employs its different parts: attention and peripheral awareness. When the majority of adults alternately direct their attention to things they perceive and their surroundings, children are able to combine both processes at the same time. 

multi colored pencils on black surface
Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

Not being a child or as gifted as Picasso, but eager to master the same skill, I conducted an experiment. I was writing this article when I suddenly got stuck with the conclusion of it. Searching for ideas to finish it, I decided to apply the technique and widen my field of view as if I had eyes in the back of my head. In that state, the only thing I could do was watch the world go by; my consciousness reflected everything that passed by but didn’t get involved in it. I began thinking of Picasso’s painting and realized that he didn’t come up with the concept of those women in 1907 painting; rather, they appeared in his mind, and all he needed to do was capture them. Bingo! Suddenly, Jaime Sabartés’s every single word about Picasso, “Discovery was what he deeply cared for and was what alone fascinated him”, made sense to me. We don’t need to travel to different worlds, but these worlds become visible to us if we are able to simultaneously maintain attention and peripheral awareness on a high level.

And, then, the phrase “Think outside the box” became as clear and understandable as never before. It is not rocket science, but a skill. If you run out of creative ideas, refocus your mind, bring your attention to the present moment, and simply watch what comes to you. This article is now complete, which means the technique definitely works – it did for me, and it might as well work for you.