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A Convergence of Tried and True Principles

Dan Blaufuss | February 2020

    My hobby is putting together the most difficult jigsaw puzzles I can find. Past projects have included the silver and gold one-color Ravens­burger Krypt puzzles and a puzzle consisting only of Dalmatians, with the same picture, turned 90 degrees, on the back. The box of the Dalmatians puzzle was labeled “The World’s Most Difficult Jigsaw Puzzle! 529 pieces – seems more like 4,000 pieces.”

    In November and December 2019, I worked on a 1,000-piece puzzle of Jackson Pollock’s Convergence, finishing the last 60% it in a 20-hour marathon puzzling session around Christmas. I found this puzzle more difficult than any I had done before, even the one-color ones. There is no rhyme or reason to the painting, so there was often no way to tell which pieces connected. I spent a fair bit of my time examining the picture on the box with a magnifying glass, looking for any small detail that might give me a clue what should be on the piece I was looking for.
    When I started the puzzle, people asked me how I planned to approach it. Many puzzles have distinguishing landmarks to start with and build around, but Convergence cut into 1,000 pieces offers little to start with. There were some musical principles that applied to my approach.
    One section at a time. Daniel Galloway, whose interview you can find on page 8, stated that when working on a difficult piece, he never starts with a read-though, but rather works micro to macro, learning a section at a time. I took the same approach, starting with the blues, whites, and oranges near the bottom right corner and working out from there. When I finished that section, I started other white, yellow, and blue patches. In hindsight, putting a puzzle together is no different from learning difficult music – it can only be done one piece at a time.

Convergence, Jackson Pollock (1954), 1,000 pieces

    Stay focused on your immediate goal. An unexpected difficulty with this puzzle was distraction. As I searched for the piece I was looking for, I would frequently spot something that looked like it went with another section I was building. This often led to forgetting the part I was working on to focus on the new because of the excitement of finding a piece that fit. By the time I would turn my attention back to where I had started I couldn’t remember what I was looking for, necessitating getting the magnifying glass back out to re-study what I was originally trying to find. I do puzzles because I enjoy them, but this was definitely an inefficient approach to it.

Dalmatians (with the same picture also on the back), 500 pieces

    Improvement is not a race. I am often asked how long it takes me to put puzzles together. I have occasionally kept track of the time spent doing so, but I no longer do this. It makes me feel pressured to finish and takes some of the fun out of it. Once in a while, I will stare at the table for three minutes before leaving for work in the morning. If I place even one piece, it is a good start to the morning, in the same way that mastering even one bar of sixteenth notes can make a fulfilling practice session. (There is such a thing as competitive jigsaw puzzle solving, and champions typically solve 1,000-piece puzzles in less than two hours – although I don’t know if Convergence is one of the puzzles they would use.)

Ravensburger Krypt (gold version), 631 pieces

    It takes time to plumb the depths of great art. After I finished the puzzle, a friend asked me whether I appreciated the painting more after staring at it for two months. I hadn’t given this much thought, but the reality is that I now know the painting much better than I thought I would. Before I started assembling the puzzle, I took a picture of the piece of pieces, and looking back at it, I knew where the top pieces went. I also could point to places on the painting I thought were particularly interesting. I like the hues produced by the reds bordering the bottom center white blob, as well as the blue and yellow tornado effect just above and to the left of the center. It just confirms a final musical principle: The more effort you put into something, the more you get out of it.