Icons break norms in order to expand them. But in order to subvert the rules, one must first understand them. That is precisely what elevated Spanish artist Pablo Picasso to the status of an icon, both in his day and in art history books.

Picasso is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. He is known for revolutionizing art and pioneering new techniques, like Cubism. But not everyone knows how he got there.

Picasso was a classically trained artist – often labeled as a “child prodigy” who demonstrated extraordinary talent in painting and drawing in a naturalistic manner. However, he disliked his art school’s singular focus on classical subjects and techniques. At the age of 16, he vented this frustration in a letter to a friend: “They just go on and on about the same old stuff: Velázquez for painting, Michelangelo for sculpture.” It’s no surprise that he is known for an ever-evolving style that broke from what he was taught.

He experimented with and pioneered different artistic theories, techniques and mediums. Instead of painting classical figures, he painted gypsies, beggars and prostitutes in his Blue Period. Instead of drawing great inspiration from the masters of the 15th and 16th century, he studied African and Iberian art to experiment with new techniques. Most notably, instead of focusing on capturing and recreating reality as artists had done since the Renaissance, he broke apart and reassembled the subjects of his art in an abstracted form to create Cubism.

In order to break and expand artistic norms, Picasso had to first know them. I’d argue that it was his classical roots that gave him the technical mastery that enabled him to truly push boundaries and rewrite rules. Brands and marketers can learn from this example. To be an icon it’s critical to know the past as well as the present in order to create something that stands apart tomorrow. Throughout his artistic career, Picasso not only pushed against the artistic norms of the day, he radically reinvented his own style and pushed the artistic envelope all the way to his last days.

By Rachel Plein, Senior Experience Planner at mcgarrybowen Chicago