The World is as You See It

“You have to choose where you look, and in making that choice you eliminate entire worlds.”

– Barbara Bloom

Artists crop reality. That’s what makes us artists. We choose what to include and what not to include – this is the biggest and most important decision to be made about each piece. We seek a pleasing arrangement of the objects we include – this is composition. But more fundamental than composition is decisions about what is there and what isn’t.

My personal experience is that this “reality cropping” goes beyond our artwork and actually directs the way we see. We actively filter our visual reality according to our artistic intentions. For example, if I am interested in painting abstracts, I seem to notice more abstract shapes and colors around me. If I’m working on a series of plant and flower images, I notice more blossoms and blooms than before. My eye naturally goes to them – the reality is the same as it’s always been but I’m processing it in a different way. One of the great benefits of being an artist is the way in which our visual sense is sharpened and expanded in a way that alters our experience of the world.

A Day at the Lake

I am an artist who, for forty years
Has stood at the lake edge
Throwing stones in the lake,
Sometimes, very faintly,
I hear a splash.

– Maxwell Bates

We produce so many pieces of art over so many years and, occasionally, we hear the splash. Most importantly, we hear the splash “very faintly”. After all, it’s a very large lake – countless artists have thrown their stones into it.

None of our work is going to make waves in the lake – at best a small splash. But that is as it should be. We are members of an uncommon family, one that has congregated at this special lake for centuries, adding their contributions to the water one at a time. We are members of the family of artists…

The lake is larger than any of us throwing our stones and accepts each throw with equal consent. Not too long after the stone has broken the water’s surface, the lake returns to it’s earlier calm and patiently awaits the next toss. It teaches us that there is no need to hurry, no need to become attached to our stones, no need to take aim when throwing. Listen to the lake…

I, for one, intend to continue to visit this lake. The sound of that faint splash is all I need to know that I am where I belong.

Careful What You Ask For…

“If it’s free, it’s advice; if you pay for it, it’s counseling; if you can use either one, it’s a miracle.”

– Jack Adams

The act of seeking advice as an artist is a most delicate operation. Most of us want some feedback once in a while. But who to ask? Do you solicit it from another artist, the informed opinion? Or from some non-artist, looking for the fresh, everyman’s viewpoint? Should you ask someone close to you, a spouse or partner? Or is it better to get input from a more objective observer?

It’s all fraught with peril, to be honest. Our artistic egos are so fragile.

Sometimes asking for advice is a thinly veiled plea for praise or affirmation. And if we get advice instead of praise, it can be hard to swallow. Even if we know there is a problem with a piece and sincerely are looking for a new perspective on how to fix it, the feedback can be unexpected and unsettling.

My wonderful wife, Susan, is a professional artist and art teacher so you would think that we would be in the ideal situation where we could support each other by offering sage advice when needed. Well, that does happen sometimes and each of us always approaches all such opportunities with the sincerest desire to be nothing but supportive and helpful. But these interchanges can be a veritable minefield in spite of best intentions.We’ve both learned to be very selective about when to venture there.

We each have our own idiosynchracies when it comes to taking advice – my own particular variant is that I will often quickly reject advice, even bristling at it. But usually within a short time I do just what was suggested (assuming it is reasonable)! Just my foolish way of protecting my territory, I suppose…

Artistic Courage

“Don’t wait for inspiration. It comes while one is working.”

– Henri Matisse

For the past two or three weeks I’ve been frustrated with my monoprint making. Lots of interesting starts that went nowhere. Either I couldn’t figure out how to finish them, or I tried and ruined them. I felt like I was regressing in my work since for a while I had been happy with a number of my pieces and then, poof! Nothing for quite a while.

But I kept working at it, almost be-mused by what had become of my muse. And then, suddenly, the other night I had a spurt of about 45 minutes where everything I was doing was working. i was able to finish off to my satisfaction a number of pieces – more in that short interval than in the preceding three weeks.

I’m sure this is a common experience for artists but why does it happen? Why do we suddenly stop producing to our own satisfaction when it feels like we’re doing essentially what we had before? I’m not sure we’ll ever know why, but the more often it happens, the easier it becomes to continue working through these fallow periods, because we can trust that they will end. Our repeated experience gives us the courage to continue in the face of our own failures. Of course, they are not failures, but only what is needed to create the current piece!

A Rose by any Other Name…

“There are two parts to the process: taking the picture and finding ways of using it.”

– Martin Parr

“When that shutter clicks, anything else that can be done afterward is not worth consideration.”

– Edward Steichen

Two opposing viewpoints about photography (in celebration of the partisan political cauldron we’re engulfed in here in America!). I clearly am in the Parr camp, which seems to me more reasonable, pragmatic, inclusive, less arbitrary and less authoritarian – but, then again, I’m a Democrat…

I had a long talk this week with a fellow photographer who claimed that what I was doing with my images makes them no longer fall into the category of “photographs”. He couldn’t quite tell me what category they should be in – maybe digital montage, mixed media, ??? What he really meant by “photography” (when pushed) was “straight photography”, meaning a literal capture of something out in the world (the Steichen model).

The history of photography is filled with one identity crisis after another. In the relatively short history of photography (less than 200 years as opposed to painting which has been around for much longer) there have been a number of revolutionary changes that have caused confusion among photographers and audiences of photography. By far the biggest has been the introduction of digital capability. Many techniques used by photographers for years can now be done more easily and some techniques are only possible digitally. Photography has had a hard time hanging onto it’s self-image.

It is really, really hard to draw lines around these categories. The extremes are always easy to distinguish – some things are obviously not photography any longer, when they’ve been manipulated so heavily that clearly the photographic elements are playing a very secondary role. But as you move closer and closer to “straight photography” the demarcation lines become very personal and very arbitrary. My work tends to be (I think) in the gray areas where these lines are drawn and redrawn. Means I have to spend more time than I’d like talking about the process or just what this thing is, than looking at the finished product.

Many times this issue is irrelevant and I ignore it. Other times I can’t – when submitting work for juried shows, when selling your work directly (like at the Open Studio event we’re having next month), even when putting a tag on the wall next to a piece in a show describing it, you have to put a name to the category.

Sometimes I wish I was just a regular old oil painter!

Identity Crisis

“Nobody can be exactly like me. Even I have trouble doing it.”

– Tallulah Bankhead

As an artist, I frequently have to make conscious decisions about the artistic style in which I’m working. Do I attempt to create a “look” that is recognizable as me, or should I continually try to explore new styles and subjects? There are experts that say that you will be more successful in juried shows, galleries and exhibits in general, if there is a consistency to the work that makes it recognizable as your own. A distinct style, as it were. On the other hand, as an artist I want to try new things, experiment in ways that will cause my work to evolve and improve. How do you reconcile these viewpoints?

I suppose that part of the answer lies in what your motivation is in making art, what your goals are and within what range of artistic endeavor you find creative satisfaction. It is probably true that having a body of work with strong consistency makes it more marketable (I’m assuming that the quality of the work is also high – consistency alone isn’t enough!). Too much variation confuses buyers, galleries, collectors, etc. However, doing similar work over and over may feel to constraining for you.

But I think an important factor in this balance is that each artist must decide how much variety is needed for them to feel creatively satisfied. For some of us, we have to use different mediums, styles, techniques, subjects, etc to avoid feeling bored, stultified or stifled. For others, it may be sufficient to explore subtler variations within a more constrained style to get that same satisfaction. I believe we all must feel we’re being creative – it’s just that the requirements for that feeling to exist can be very different for each of us.

I tend to be the type that needs a greater range of variety to feel creative. I guess I have trouble being exactly like me…

Never mind…

Having finished Alan Watts’ wonderful chapter on Zen and the arts in The Way of Zen, I wanted to share a couple of other thoughts.

We’ve talked here before about the need to develop technique to the point of mastery so that you can then abandon, or go beyond, that technique. Watts says,

“The brush must draw by itself. This cannot happen if one does not practice constantly.
But neither can it happen if one makes an effort. Similarly, in swordsmanship one must
not decide upon a certain thrust and then attempt to make it, since by that time it will
be too late. Decision and action must be simultaneous.”

In order to reach a deeper level mastery in any aspect of our lives, it is essential that we get past the mind. It is just so with making art. The freshest, most exciting art we make is when we are not aware consciously of what we are doing. If we have practiced our craft enough, to the point where it has become second nature to us, the mind can let go of trying to control things and then other dimensions of our being can emerge to guide our efforts. Herein lies the true fountainhead of creativity.

Practice is one path to overcoming the mind. My youngest son is learning to drive at the moment. It’s an interesting process. At first, it is fiercely mental – you try to keep aware of every little detail of driving. Paying attention to every road sign, checking the mirrors and blind spots, your speedometer, the other drivers, etc. It is a real struggle to mentally manage all these details at once. At some point, however, you’ve done it enough that it becomes less of a conscious activity and you can relax – you become a better driver because the mind has moved aside.

When I am painting, I am usually happiest with my work only when I suddenly become self-conscious again and stop to consider what I’ve done – if I’ve been self-conscious all along, it’s usually become a muddle.

When the brush draws by itself, good things happen…

Friend or Foe?

At the excellent suggestion of Danu, I am reading a chapter in Alan Watts’ classic “The Way of Zen” entitled “Zen in the Arts”. Watts talks about how in the West artists can have an almost adversarial relationship with their materials. He quotes Malraux who said we strive to “conquer” our medium, much as we’d conquer a mountain. I suspect we have all felt this at some point, particularly when a painting isn’t going as we want. We may feel that if we could just get rid of all these brushes and paints and let our vision shine through, we’d make better art. It can feel as if our materials are our foes in the struggle to make art.

Watts says that in the East this view is not understood at all. He says:

“For when you climb it is the mountain as much as your own legs which lifts
you upwards, and when you paint it is the brush, ink and paper which
determines the result as much as your own hand.”

I love this metaphorical explanation of how the very thing we may view as our adversary plays a crucial role in our endeavors. In fact, without that with which we struggle, we would achieve nothing.

I will remember that the next time my brush, paint or paper seems to have a life of it’s own. They are taking me where I am going…


I’m re-reading an interesting book that many of you artists may have read – Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s a classic survival guide for artists of all backgrounds – if you haven’t read it I highly recommend it. My experience of reading it is a continuous series of exclamations to the effect that “that’s just what I feel!”. Since my recent theme seems to be centering around showing your artwork and the attendant emotional gyrations that entails, I thought another pass through this would be useful.

Here’s one of their observations I found interesting and familiar – there is a common fear among artists that they are “pretending” to be an artist. They are not really an artist, not like all the other “real” artists out there. They cite a couple of reasons for this feeling – you know the accidental nature of much of what ends up in your artwork and you also know what parts of it originated with others. You assume that other “real” artists don’t suffer these same secrets. Hah! Rarely do we feel comfortable admitting to either of these qualities of our work.

I know that in my photography often my favorite shots are totally unexpected and many of my shots I carefully planned out don’t work at all. I do know of photographers who seem to have more control of their craft and can plan shots that work more of the time. Perhaps they do have better technique than me which allows them to do this. But does that make them a better artist, or their art better than mine? Or does it just reflect that they know how to do something specific I don’t (yet)?

Speaking of accidental art, the piece above was taken many years ago of my two young sons. It was one of the first “figures in motion” pieces that I took and it has lead me down a long path, much of which you’ve seen on the blog. At the time, I was just playing around with my camera and liked the unexpected result. Since then, I’ve intentionally used the technique over and over, but it is such that I can’t really predict what will happen anyway. Maybe I’m more comfortable using a technique that is beyond anyone’s control!

I call this piece “Figments of Their Imagination”…

We’re all in this together…

“The creative act is not formed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

Marcel Duchamp

This quote I ran across reminded me of the recent discussion we’ve had here about showing your work to others or not.

I know that I am always fascinated to see how different people can look at the same piece and have such different reactions and experiences. It’s not just whether they like it or not, but why they do or don’t, what they see in a piece, what it makes them feel or think about, what experiences they’ve had that it reminds them of. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of being completely surprised at how someone reacts to one of our pieces and that invariably at least slightly changes how we perceive it.

When people react so differently to the same piece the difference obviously is in them. So it makes me wonder exactly what inherent quality or value is in the work without being observed by others. There is, of course, my relationship to the piece. But as it is shared with others, it is evolving, projecting it’s “inner qualifications” into the world, becoming something different than it would have been tucked away in my drawer.

I’ll keep repeating this to myself as I welcome hundreds of people to my studio next month for our Open Studio event…