Saturday art blogging: learning about art through jigsaw puzzles

by Eszter Hargittai on November 24, 2018

A few years ago I started doing jigsaw puzzles again. I found my way back to this hobby when I realized that putting together jigsaw puzzles of art pieces could teach you a lot about a painting. In addition to very much enjoying exploring paintings, I also make paintings (mostly acrylic and watercolor) so understanding an artist’s technique is of great interest to me both as a lover of art and as a maker of art. When you are working on putting together a 500 or 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, you become intimately familiar with every part of the image. By having to look very closely at each piece, and having to identify patterns and links across puzzle pieces, you notice things about a painting you may well miss otherwise. Sure, many people likely recognize Van Gogh’s special brush strokes, but you get a much more heightened awareness and appreciation for what the artist did when trying to piece together their work from such distinct elements. I highly recommend working on jigsaw puzzles of art pieces you like or want to learn about more.

To avoid confusion, I should note that the two photos represent two different puzzles. The top one is from a Van Gogh piece, the bottom from a Klimt piece.



Glen Tomkins 11.24.18 at 10:07 pm

I once spent weeks putting together a 5,000 piecer of Brueghel’s Tower of Babel. I had recently been to a travelling exhibit of Picasso drawings pieces drawn from a huge trove of his works that French tax authorities confiscated to pay off his back taxes) and I was struck by an odd correspondence. Get down to a detailed enough level — and putting together a 5,000 piece puzzle gets you way down in the weeds — and Brueghel’s very representational painting looks a lot like Picasso’s not at all representational drawings. It’s as if Picasso was bringing to a macro, obvious to the audience, level, the brush strokes that usually aren’t perceived in themselves, because they are too small, but only as the illusion of photographic reality that they contribute to on the macro level of a representational painting.

I have no idea if this is an insane idea, or something so obvious that many have already made this connection, but perhaps that is exactly what Picasso was doing in at least some of his work, playing with levels, showing his audience how the illusion factory that is painting really works by blowing up the micro level into the macro level.


bad Jim 11.25.18 at 5:38 am

I hate following a profound comment with something silly.

Back when both my parents were alive we were sent a black-and-white puzzle, perhaps from my father’s brother, with no instructions. When we pieced it together it turned out to be a family portrait, minus our Californian contingent. More recently another family photo was similarly tessellated, and this time some of its young subjects were able to participate in its reconstruction.

We’ve long puzzles as a holiday activity, as an opportunity either to withdraw from contentious intercourse (it’s a big family, two tables) or to sidle up to a soft body around an intimate task. Really big puzzles keep us up to all hours, at which point sometimes we become custodians of certain shapes. My brother-in-law, despite being red-green color blind, is a champion.


Eszter Hargittai 11.25.18 at 7:29 am

Glen, whoa, 5000 pieces, that’s something! I think the largest I’ve attempted has been 1500 and decided that 1000 is my max with a strong preference for 500. I started a 1000 piece of Schiele’s Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up recently and I seriously don’t know what I was thinking when I bought it. Just the background is completely overwhelming. So kudos to you for managing a 5000 piece of Brueghel, wow.

That’s an interesting point about Picasso’s work (something that could possibly be extended to a lot of work of that time). My art post from last week noted how the Art Institute’s high resolution images let you zoom in very closely, which then results in precisely what you seem to be describing about Brueghel’s work. When you look very closely, even representational works can look quite abstract. When I’m in museums, I sometimes take pictures of small sections of paintings that I think make for very interesting pieces in their own right. (Okay, this may be a somewhat different point, but related.)

bad Jim , I love personalized puzzles and have given them as gifts. Some of these come without a reference photo – your example sounds like that – and it’s fun to watch people’s expressions as they figure out what’s on the image.


SusanC 11.25.18 at 11:21 am

@1: books on art theory often talk about how c20th century paintings deliberately make it obvious that they are marks on canvas, rather than a strict representation of a scene being depicted -so yes, its a well-known idea. Also: that “absteact” works are often an abstraction of something, such as a realist scene – e.g. By taking a realist scene and just showing the elements of it that were visually interesting, without needing all the detail to create a strict realistic copy.


SusanC 11.25.18 at 11:22 am

P.S. see for example the paintings of Patrick Heron, where this is even more evident than in Picasso.


Bill Benzon 11.25.18 at 12:19 pm

Do you know about Tim Klein, Eszter?

While many jigsaw junkies enjoy making order out of chaos, Vancouver-based artist Tim Klein breaks the rules by playing the game his own creative way. After discovering that manufacturing companies tend to reuse the same shaped pieces for multiple puzzles, Klein decided to have some fun by combining the interchangeable parts to make his own montage puzzle art.

Klein prefers to use vintage puzzles from thrift stores and garage sales, across a range of themes and subjects. “The imagery in jigsaw puzzles published nowadays tends to be very busy, often consisting of densely-packed collages constructed with Photoshop,” says Klein. “But for my purposes, I favor puzzles from pre-digital years, when the picture was typically a photograph of a single subject, such as a galloping horse or a ballerina or the Empire State Building.” The random nature of Klein’s medium results in surreal artworks that might make you chuckle, but some also visualize deeper meanings.

Fascinating stuff.


Eszter Hargittai 11.25.18 at 3:45 pm

That’s fantastic, Bill! I was not aware of this work, thank you.


E. Noon 11.25.18 at 5:14 pm

This was “fun:”


Glen Tomkins 11.25.18 at 6:19 pm


The 5,000 piece Tower of Babel is the same size as the original, 5 by 4 feet, or something like that. We had to push tables together to get a surface that could hold it. It took two of us a few weekends and most of the evenings in between. The project sort of gave us a Nimrod experience, in that we haven’t tried the build a 5,000 piecer again to reach so high as to reach unto heaven. We still speak the same language, though, so that’s a big difference from the account in Genesis.


Matt_L 11.26.18 at 2:45 am

Thank you! This is a wonderful idea!


Eszter Hargittai 11.26.18 at 7:15 am

E.Noon, had you meant to include an image?

Glen, that’s incredible, what happened to the piece when you were done with it?


E. Noon 11.26.18 at 6:26 pm

E.Noon, had you meant to include an image?

I tried to. Must not have used the correct html tag for a photo. Maybe this link will work:


Eszter Hargittai 11.26.18 at 6:47 pm

E. Noon, thanks. That looks hard. Those grainy greens and grays and blacks, ouch. I’ve been gifted an Edward Gorey calendar before, but never a puzzle. I don’t think I’d have it in me to do the 1000 on this. I’m working on a 500 piece Degas right now, which shows his use of pastels nicely.


JakeB 11.26.18 at 8:05 pm

I keep meaning to start work on my Waterhouse’s _Lady of Shalott_ puzzle, but I lack a surface that will stay puzzle-usable for more than a few hours in my dachshund-sized apartment.

If you feel like splurging on presents either for self or others, there’s a few companies that make jigsaw puzzles out of wood that will include some fun and unusual shapes in them. I bought one for my girlfriend a few years ago that had a number of pieces that were clearly different animals — I think I recall a scotty dog and an alligator, among others — among some other bits of visual humor. They’re pricey, though. I think the one I got her was $99.

Allow me to recommend, should you ever need some excellent modern French literature that has a serious jigsaw puzzle element to it, George Perec’s _Life: A User’s Manual_ (La vie mode d’emploi in the original, IIRC).


Eszter Hargittai 11.26.18 at 8:57 pm

JakeB, that puzzle looks intense, especially the background and the boat. Regarding space issues, I bought one of those felt surfaces that can be rolled up. I haven’t used it yet, but that’s my plan for when I run out of room. I also use baggies/boxes for storing the pieces I’d already sorted.

I recently started on a 1000 piece puzzle in a hotel lobby (the weather was dreadful and I was too exhausted after a long work day to do much) and was able to gather up the pieces in the box in a helpful way. I’ll note that working on a puzzle in a hotel lobby seems to be an excellent conversation starter, certainly on a rainy day. I had tons of people stop by and say hi/comment on the activity.

The wooden puzzle with shapes of animals sounds like lots of fun although I am unlikely to spend that kind of money on a puzzle for myself. Thanks for the lit recommendation!


Eszter Hargittai 11.26.18 at 9:38 pm

A note on puzzles with unusual shapes. Puzzles like this one sold at US National Parks stores have very unusual shapes, which make them significantly more challenging to solve. They are not art pieces, but after I visit a park, I like to buy the corresponding puzzle as a memento and working on them lets me appreciate the natural beauty even more.


Glen Tomkins 11.27.18 at 12:08 am


My sister frames some of them for hanging around the house after we put them together, but this one was too big to hang anywhere. We don’t live in a gallery or cathedral. We took it apart when done, and I imagine it is in a box somewhere, though perhpas she donated it to the local library’s book drive. I could ask my sister where if you want me to mail it to you.


Dave Maier 11.27.18 at 3:25 pm

I’ve been doing jigsaw puzzles for years, and I’ve had that same experience with puzzles of paintings, although I have not pursued it deliberately. The hardest puzzle I ever did was only a 1000-piecer (my preferred size), but the picture was a photomosaic, so you can imagine what each single piece looked like: parts of a few different photos, with the only indication of where it goes in the puzzle being the dominant color (and this picture was mostly blue, a dolphin in the ocean at the macroscale, as I recall). It was maddening, but I did it in a week. (Fractal patterns can also be tough.) Interestingly, the French word for jigsaw puzzle seems to be “casse-tête” (headbreaker).

Also, +1 on Life: A User’s Manual – great book.


Witt 11.28.18 at 3:07 am

I am a big fan of the wooden jigsaw puzzles made by a small Massachusetts company, Zen Art & Design. The largest puzzles are 300 pieces, but they are quite tricky — fake edge pieces and the like. They also feature the delightfully shaped “figural” pieces which I understand in England are known as whimsical pieces or “whimsies.”

If the prices seem steep, sign up for their e-mail list — they have big sales (30-40% off select puzzles) a couple of times per year.


Eszter Hargittai 11.28.18 at 7:42 am

Glen, that’s kind of you to offer, but 5000 pieces is beyond the puzzle complexity that I will attempt. I was just curious to know whether you kept is assembled, but I understand that the size would have made this difficult.

Dave, I can see how that would be tricky. I don’t think I’d do a photomosaic, although now that I say that, I should confess that I just had a gift made for my brother that is a photomosaic of family pictures that I compiled. It’s going to be a tough one (even at 500 pieces), because all of the pictures are from the same day so everyone in the photos is wearing the same shirts and some of the photos are of similar locations so some pieces will be possibilities for multiple parts of the puzzle. Should be interesting…

Your comment about colors reminds me of something else I had meant to mention. Certainly with art puzzles, but this likely pertains to some others as well, it is fascinating to see how one starts to be able to differentiate among colors that at first seemed similar. I usually do color sorting after I put together the edges. The first-level color sorting tends to be rather broad brush, but as I work on the puzzle I realize how certain pieces are actually very different colors. It’s a neat experience.


Eszter Hargittai 11.28.18 at 7:52 am

Witt, those are some gorgeous pictures and the puzzle pieces look neat. Thanks for the tip about coupons. At the other end of the price spectrum, some of the 100 piece puzzles sold at the Dollar Tree (good for a short break) have those misleading edge pieces. (I recommend the 100 piece puzzles at the Dollar Tree. Anything larger and the size of the pieces is too small to be functional.)

Regarding different materials, I’ve very much enjoyed the plastic pieces of Pintoo puzzles. They snap together well so require no adhesive for long-term keeping.

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