what Salvador Dali taught me about creative work

Jay Clouse creativity, stories

Earlier this year, I took a brief vacation to St. Petersburg, Florida. I visited the Dali museum, which is home to a whole mess of paintings by Salvador Dali.

I’m not an art connoisseur. At this point, I’ve realized that I have an interest in painting and sculpture, but I don’t know many of the artists by name. And when I see something I like, it’s because it looks good to me. That’s all I know.

That said, it’s hard to not appreciate the work of Salvador Dali.

In 1976, Dali read a piece in Scientific American which claimed that the human eye could recognize an image with the minimum resolution of 16 x 16 (or 256 pixels). Below is the accompanying example in the magazine, which you will recognize as Abraham Lincoln.

(image by Leon D. Harmon)

Dali, who strikes me as sort of a brilliant jerk, called bullshit and set out to create a painting of lower resolution that could be recognized. His painting, shown below, used only 121 pixels.

(Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln)

Here is a slightly blurred vision of the same painting, which further highlights the resemblance you are able to register.

Dali’s painting, when viewed up close, reveals an image of his wife, Gala, looking out of a window (hence the title, Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln). But when viewed from afar (you guessed it: about 20 meters) you see the full image of Lincoln that Dali intended.For the last couple of days, I’ve struggled to keep the Lincoln view of what I’m working to accomplish. I know that I am painting Lincoln, but all I see is Gala.

What the hell am I doing? This doesn’t look right.

But the reality is, I’m looking too closely at the work. I’ve got the canvas right up in front of my nose, and all I see is the micro view that makes up the macro view.It’s an easy trap to fall into. When you worry that your work isn’t accomplishing what you set out to do, take a step back (about 20 meters) and take another look. Sometimes you just get too close.


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