Doing it Twice

“There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”

Louis D. Brandeis

I often find myself comparing the creative process in different artforms in which I have some experience: photography, painting, music, writing in particular. It’s interesting to examine the similarities and differences. Sometimes it can be revealing and perhaps will cause you borrow some approach from one for use in another.

This quote speaks to the process of editing one’s writing. Of course there are small edits you make along the way, changing a word, rephrasing a sentence. But when writing anything of significance, usually there are drafts, whole versions which are re-examined and reconsidered in their entirety.

The process of making a photographic print  is similar. There are minor adjustments you make as you make your first print, but that print usually serves as a proof (like a first draft) and often multiple proofs with revisions are made before a final version is created.

In my experience painters don’t tend to incorporate this concept into their work as often. I know that there are often preliminary steps that can precede the final painting: value studies, sketches, even smaller versions done in a different medium (pastels as a study for oils, etc). But rarely does a painter actually repaint a painting – do it over.

Part of the reason may be that it can take a long time to complete a painting and it’s hard to think about doing it again. Rewriting a book draft can take a long time as well – one reason it can take years to complete a book. Part of it is that some of the spontaneity which can make a painting fresh when it is repainted could be lost. Writing and photography are perhaps more “studied” artforms where that spontaneity is not as important or even wanted. Music is an interesting comparison – the writing of music is more like writing a book, with many revisions possible. Musicians obviously repeat performances of the same piece many times – each is unique but clearly the same piece.

What is your experience? Are there times when you’ve “redone” a painting? How has that worked for you? Does it depend on the type of painting, the medium, the subject matter, etc.? What are your motivations for doing or not doing this?

Collecting Collectors

beethoven memorial, photograph

“You can either buy clothes or buy pictures.”

– Gertrude Stein

All artists love art collectors – it’s just so darn hard to find them!

I’ve been reading an interesting book by Brooks Jensen (editor of Lenswork Quarterly) called Single Exposures: Random Observations on Photography, Art & Creativity in which he presents some interesting views about pricing your artwork and getting it out in the market. He suggests offering your art in some form that the average person can actually collect, ie afford. Everyone is a collector of something (books, CDs, paint supplies, etc.) but most of these items are far less expensive than the $500, $1000 or more pieces of art most of us put out there in the hopes of landing the big kahuna collector. Maybe we’re thinking of collectors in the wrong way.

This is an interesting concept that I’m going to explore more in my own work. I’ve always avoided making cards out of my work, for example, because it seemed to trivialize the artistic integrity of the pieces and it also seemed that without a major distribution channel I’d never sell enough to make any money anyway. It’s hard to think of a card as a work of art.

But is there an alternative that is clearly still a real piece of art but is affordable enough that the average person might be interested? Something that people might actually become repeat buyers, real collectors? Do you do anything in your art practice to make your work financially accessible to the average person, or is this not even a priority for you?

Do artists have any social responsibility to make their work affordable? Is it actually in our own self interest to do so? Are we preserving some insane and artificial valuation scheme that has been forced upon us by galleries, museums, etc.?


Inductive Creativity

well travelled, photograph

“One does not stand still looking for a path. One walks; and as one walks, a path comes into being.”

– Mas Kodani

Often as artists we reach a standstill when we feel we’ve lost our way.

One tendency is to stop working because we know that what we’re doing is not right for us. We feel the need to stop doing what is frustrating or not rewarding. We can easily get blocked and lapse into inactivity.

I have found that it is best to keep working even when I feel rudderless. What eventually emerges from this seemingly random activity is meaning.

It’s a kind of artistic inductive reasoning, whereby we reach the truth through observation. I think it is much less fruitful to take a deductive approach to creativity – to try to manifest our artistic expression from some higher rule or law.

The more we try, the more we experiment, the more steps we take – the greater the chance that our path will emerge. Remember this when you next feel stuck, lost or uninspired. Just keep walking, keep observing what you find and suddenly you will find that you are, indeed, on a path.

I’m the Decider


calla 2, photograph

“Creativity is allowing oneself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

– Howard Aiken

One of the most important phases in the process of making art is that of editing. By this I mean the decision what to do with a new work. I’m intentionally skipping past the prior step, which is the often paralyzing one where we have to decide if something is “done”.

Editing is commonplace in the photography world, where often hundreds or thousands of shots must be sifted through to isolate the few keepers. Often there is a hierarchical system used, perhaps a ranking of each image from 1 to 5. Many software programs used by photographers to catalogue their work have this capability built in. But such a simple ranking system doesn’t do justice to the complex analysis we all go through to sort this out.

All artists go through this discussion with themselves. They have to decide which pieces to keep, which to toss, which to put in their next show, which to invest in framing, which to keep as an example of something, which to put aside to come back to, which to paint over, etc., etc., etc. Rarely have I seen an explanation of how one should approach this imposing task, and it’s one we’re confronted with continually.

I suppose we each come up with our own system, though I suspect we all wonder if ours works to our benefit. Perhaps some of you keep everything – that’s one way to avoid making the harsh critical choice about our own efforts. Maybe you are more ruthless, quickly tearing up or painting over anything you know isn’t among your best work. You could let the public give you feedback – I’ve heard of comedians who take their material on the road in small clubs first to see what resonates.

I think knowing what to keep of your work implies a deep understanding of your own goals and standards. It implies a degree of objectivity, but also allows the freedom to be compassionate.

One of the wonderful things about art is that it affords us so many opportunities for self-inquiry beyond the “simple” making of the art itself.

Don’t Pass Up the Chance


liquid gold, photograph

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and will be lost.”

– Martha Graham

I don’t think I’ve heard or read a better reason than this to pursue one’s art in the face of obstacle, doubt or lack of motivation. What Graham says is surely true.

Because we are all unique, each piece of art we create could not have come from anywhere or anyone else and any choice we make to not create it means it is lost forever.

I believe, in fact, that at any given moment, our choice to not express ourselves means that, even for us, that piece is lost forever. Tomorrow or the next day our attitude, our spirit, our intent will be different and what we create will also be different. Any opportunity to express ourselves by creating art is precious because it exists in a singular confluence of time, place and identity.

Just think what you might have made. Don’t hesitate – create!

Out with the Old and In with the New


The Weary Traveller, photograph

“People are very open-minded about new things – as long as they’re exactly like the old ones.”

– Charles F. Kettering

There is a new wave of innovation going on in the photography world known as HDR – stands for High Dynamic Range. I won’t bore you with the technical details. The reason I bring it up is that the resulting photographs often have a “unusual” look to them. Sometimes they don’t look like traditional photographs. This has caused concern and even anger among many in the photography world. HDR images are decried as an abomination, an evil which undermines the world of photography.

I wonder at this – why do people hang on so desperately to how things have been done in the past when it comes to art. I would think that art by it’s very essence is all about new ways of seeing things. But history has shown that this “re-visioning” takes time and comes at a cost to those promoting it – consider the impressionist and cubist painters of the late 19th, early 20th century. The establishment didn’t welcome their innovations.

I am part of a photography “salon” (a group of serious photographers) which meets monthly – each month we decide on an assignment which we’ll all shoot and then share our results. This month the assignment is HDR. One of our members predicted that even though today these images can seem a little otherworldly, in 5-10 years most photography will look this way. We’ll retrain our visual systems to view this as normal. This has happened before in the history of painting and photography.

I think it’s an exciting process to be part of. Of course, one never knows which innovations will stick and which won’t. Only the timid wait to see who the winners are before trying them out for themselves.

Needless to say, the above image was shot using HDR. The lighting conditions were such that HDR was about the only way to get an image at all, much less one with the atmosphere seen here.

Choose Your Weapon


Enflamed, photograph

“If Velasquez were born today, he would be a photographer and not a painter.”

– George Bernard Shaw

I wonder whether painters from long ago would have chosen different, not-then-available art mediums. It’s curious to contemplate what kind of photographs Rembrandt or Vermeer might have taken had the camera rather than the brush been their chosen instrument. Both were masters of light so I’m sure they would have created rich and compelling work.

It’s interesting to me why more painters do not become better photographers. It’s very common for painters over time to tackle different mediums – watercolor, oil, collage, pastel, etc. Few in my experience become equally interested in the camera. Of course, everyone takes pictures – but I’m talking about practicing fine art photography where the photograph is a work of art in itself. Equally puzzling is why more photographers don’t also take up painting at some point as a way to expand their expressive arsenal.

Perhaps the disciplines are too different. I suppose it’s equally true that not many painters (or photographers) become sculptors, writers, actors, dancers, musicians, etc. For some reason I have found painting and photography to share more in common with each other than with these other artistic mediums. But perhaps to others, picking up the camera feels as foreign to them as would sitting down at a piano or playing Hamlet.

What draws one to choose painting or photography to begin with? Both produce visual images depicting our world. Both allow for a wide range of creativity and expression. Both are considered valid art forms. Have you ever asked yourself this question? Have you ever contemplated getting serious about painting or photography, whichever you don’t do now? If so, why have you chosen to do so or not?



Visiting Old Friends


Shadowed, photograph

“No story is the same to us after a lapse of time; or rather we who read it are no longer the same interpreters.”

– George Eliot

I’m very aware of this statement with regard to literature – books I found compelling, even life changing, 30 years ago when I first read them can seem curiously bland now.

The same is also true for all visual arts. Each time we see a piece of art, it is with new eyes since we are no longer the same person we were the last time we viewed it. If it’s a work hanging on your wall that you see everyday, you may not be aware of this changing perception as it occurs so incrementally. But going to a museum and seeing works that you haven’t seen for years can be a startling experience – it can be either disappointing (why did I think this work was so wonderful before?) or unexpectedly exciting (I don’t remember this work being so powerful!). Of course, the work hasn’t changed – it is we who have. Even the artists themselves will have different feelings about their own previous work – they’ve changed both as an artist and as an observer.

This ever-changing experience of art ensures a continued vitality in the dynamics between artist, artwork and audience. The art world would be rich enough based solely on the wealth of new work constantly being created by talented artists – the fact that each time we return to a piece it is a potentially new experience for us adds an opportunity to appreciate art that is almost inexhaustible.