Over the past week I’ve talked to several people about thinking in pictures. Some of them got it right away, some not so much.
Those who “got it” included artists, quilters, crocheters, and athletes. All of those are what we often call “creatives.”
As for artists, whether they work in oils or marble, we understand that they think in pictures. Then they make those pictures come true.
Michelangelo is still considered by many to be the greatest artist of all time, and one of his most famous sculptures is The David, which he began in 1501 and finished in 1504.
A statue of David had been planned in 1464, well before Michelangelo was born. A huge slab of marble was acquired for the job and the artist Agostino di Duccio was commissioned. He abandoned the project after roughing out some parts around the legs.
Another renowned sculptor was hired in 1476 but didn’t really begin. He said the marble wasn’t good enough. (Modern analyses of the marble actually confirmed that it is mediocre in quality.) Being too expensive to throw away, the marble slab sat untouched for 25 years. That was when Michelangelo was commissioned and given two years to complete the project.
Three years later, when he finished, he was only 29. Legend has it that someone asked him how he was able to produce this magnificent work and he replied, “I created a vision of David in my mind and simply carved away everything that was not David.”
While the quote may or may not be true, it is what he did. He could see David in his mind well before the finished sculpture was revealed to the world.
The Arch and The Beatles
Perhaps you know of the architect Eero Saarinen. He designed many famous structures, including The Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The building of the Arch began in 1963 and finished in 1965. Eero’s son Eric spoke on his father’s behalf at the dedication. Eero, who designed the Arch in 1947, died in 1961.
When someone said to Eric that it was too bad Eero didn’t get to see the completed project, Eric corrected him. “Sir,” he said, “my father saw this before anyone else ever did.”
Which makes me ask, “What can you see that no one else can?”
Which might make you ask, “How can I see things that aren’t there?” By thinking in pictures, like Saarinen and Michelangelo.
Einstein started practicing thinking in pictures while he was still a teenager. For some it is a gift, but for all of us it is a skill that can be learned. Even The Beatles thought you could do it:
Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes
Cellophane flowers of yellow and green
Towering over your head
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes
And she’s gone
And there you have most of what you need for thinking in pictures.
Learning by doing
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds has many helpful “picture mode” elements in the lyrics.
A good way to learn to think in pictures is by seeing yourself in the picture. John Lennon and Paul McCartney created a great one for you here. It is you, in a boat, on a river. You get to picture both the boat and the river. Are you rowing? Are you floating? Up to you.
But the surroundings are very specific. Tangerine trees and marmalade skies — if you don’t know what those look like it doesn’t matter, but they have to look like those things to you. The same is true with cellophane flowers of yellow and green, towering over your head.
Notice that this picture is moving, it is in color, it includes perspective, and it includes both hearing and talking. The more senses you can bring into the picture, the better.
Later in the song there are other people eating marshmallow pies, so taste is partially involved. The sense that is missing that can be very helpful in pictures is the sense of smell. No matter, this is a great way to practice thinking in pictures.
I’m pretty sure it was Curly (of the Three Stooges) who said, “I’m trying to think but nothing happens.”
That happens to all of us when we don’t practice thinking. We do think but we don’t make it a priority. We should, though, because even when thought is not immediately productive, the thinking itself is good.
By the book
I don’t know about you, but I have learned that for me “find a quiet place” is not particularly helpful. It is what the books usually say, so for many that may be great advice.
Figure out what kind of environment works best for you, then get into that environment and do some thinking.
What works for me is a place with background noise and people. Airplanes are ideal, except for the cost, and a comfortable coffee shop is pretty good too.
As with the place, it is helpful to find a time when you won’t be interrupted. This is work, after all, and worthy of the focus the right place and time afford.
Any time you are thinking, keep a pen and paper handy so you can capture key ideas. Use words or pictures, but save those thoughts in real time.
I can’t tell you the number of songs I’ve lost because I said, “I’ll remember that.” And I am not alone. Capture your thoughts.
Here is one last tip for thinking in pictures that has worked for me, and perhaps it will work for you: Find a trigger phrase that launches you into picture land.
I use, “Let’s see what ____ would look like.” That could be an ideal business meeting or a perfect golf shot or a brand new kind of car.
Because, as you may know, believing is seeing.
Picture good. It’s in you.