How the greats produced their masterpieces

November 15, 2022 | Vol. 1, Issue 3

Have you ever had an amazing idea—something you knew was special? Maybe it was an idea for a business, or a book, or a solution to a tricky problem.

What happened? Did you follow through?

We all get great ideas from time to time, but they often don’t make it into the real world. Why? I suspect we let these ideas languish because we don’t know where or how to start.

Enter Picasso, Michelangelo, van Gogh, and da Vinci—men who have created some of the greatest art the Western world has ever produced.

These artists had a secret to creating their masterpieces—a secret that you and I can steal.

I can’t guarantee you’ll produce art like Picasso, but I can promise that if you use this secret you’ll turn your best ideas into something remarkable.

And, this so-called secret applies to any kind of work: business, product development, design, carpentry, teaching—you name it.

It’s called the art study and it works like this:

An artist gets an idea or a vision for a piece of work. Rather than grabbing his brush and painting, he begins the process of figuring out how to best make his masterpiece.

He might do a series of pencil sketches to figure out composition. He might also do informal paintings to explore colors, lighting, and strokes. Maybe even experiment with different kinds of media. Everything is up for grabs because the study phase is where the artist is working out how he can best make his idea or vision a reality.

The art study phase can be quick or it can last months or years.

Don’t confuse the art study with practicing, though. It’s more than that. When we practice we’re doing something over and over again until we get it right. An art study is more about figuring out how to translate a vision into something real like a painting or a product.

Here’s how I’ve incorporated the art study into my writing process.

Let’s say I have an insight or idea for a piece. Rather than writing a rough draft, I will often do a mind map. I do this to work out all the critical aspects, topics, and connections associated with my idea.

From here I take the salient elements from my mind map and rough out a series of quick little posts on each one. Sometimes I publish these to my blog or I may just keep them as notes for my upcoming essay.

Having hashed out the key aspects of my idea, I grab a bunch of 4X6 index cards and write out the core arguments of my essay, assigning one atomic idea per card. At the end of that exercise I have a handful of cards, each containing one distilled idea.

Next, I shuffle them around into a sort of logical flow so that a structure begins to take form.

Then I write a basic purpose statement: What do I want to say in this piece? This is a simple sentence that articulates my main goal.

After I have my purpose statement, I then do a simple jot outline, like maybe four to six points, that gives me a general framework for the piece’s structure and flow.

Once all this is done, then and only then, I start writing the essay.

Each step is like a study. The mind map helps me to get my arms around all the potential details I should include, and exclude, from my piece. The short form pieces help me figure out what I think about each aspect, as well as how these pieces might fit together. The note cards are a study in composition: What elements will I include in my piece? They also help me distill my thinking into a series of powerful statements. The purpose statement brings everything into focus and the jot outline is both a compositional and structural study.

And, this approach applies to more than just so-called creative work.

There are all kinds of “studies” you can do before launching a product or business. You can do market research, field testing, ethnographic studies, role playing, financial modeling, customer journey mapping, A/B testing … the list goes on and on.

So, if you want to do great work, follow in the footsteps of people who have created something special; people like Picasso and da Vinci. Incorporate the equivalent of the artist study into your process. Do studies to explore and work out the details of your idea before attempting to make it out of thin air.

You’ll be amazed at what you produce.