Letting Your Imagination Speak

rooftops, photograph

“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.’

Vincent van Gogh

As an artist I have a double-edged relationship with my subjects.

On the one hand, I look to them for inspiration. On the other hand, I make them yield to my imagination. This give and take exchange should permeate the entire creative process, from the moment a piece is started until the finishing touches are applied.

I pay special attention to van Gogh’s admonition to not become the slave of my model. As a photographer it is all too easy to find an interesting subject, capture it’s image and consider it done. Doing so tips the scales in favor of the subject (model) at the expense of the imagination.

A subject with no imagination is boring, imagination without a subject is too personal. A balance is needed. Sometimes a subject that is too impressive on it’s own can dominate the conversation – consider how many wonderful paintings have been made of very mundane subjects or how uninteresting cliched photographs of Yosemite have become.

Once I’ve captured an image, the give and take begins, the dialogue with the subject starts and the imagination must be given its voice. I try to make sure it is heard.

A Picture is Worth How Many Words??

you go first, photograph

“I have been urged … to write about my paintings… Why? Haven’t I, in a way, painted them?”

Charles Demuth

This quote is referenced in a wonderful short essay (Writing) by Robert Adams in his book, Why People Photograph. Adams discusses the topic of artists writing about their own work and makes some interesting observations.

As you might expect form the quote, Adams concludes that photographers (and artists in general) are not good at describing their own work and, in fact, do not want to do it anyway. Artists feel their work should speak for itself, be self-sufficient, and having to talk about it admits a modicum of artistic failure. Too much talk also risks the kind of over-analysis that can get in the way of spontaneous creativity. Since photography by its nature is often more representational and less subjective than painting, the public often feels more need to have the photographer describe their work to get at what they were feeling inside.

I know as one who has had to try to write about specific work in the past, it is extremely difficult and makes me feel very self-conscious. I usually feel that I’m tacking on these descriptions after the fact and that they were not really present at the time of artmaking or prior to it. Much of what I read from critics or other artists about their work gives me the same feeling.

What value is this post-analysis? Is there real benefit to oneself or others in attempting to truly describe one’s work from a sincere perspective. Can it provide insight into the creative process that allows others a deeper appreciation of your work? Can this effort force you to contemplate your own work in a way that might prove beneficial?

Ultimately I think that words are inherently insufficient to describe what is going on in the art as well as is the art itself. Words themselves are an art form. I’ve seen wonderful art which combines painting or photography with words, where both are equal partners in the product. Neither tries to explain the other. Can you imagine someone trying to explain a symphony by painting it? My wife, Susan’s, art journals are a great example of the power of combining words with visual art, rather than trying to use one to explain the other. I think it is useful to contemplate our own work but the effort to translate those ruminations into words useful to others seems doomed to failure.

Adams recommends that if we want to understand an artists work, the best strategy may be to look at the work of other artists that they like. The reflected light from that art may illuminate their work more than any direct explanation could possibly do.

By the way, I’d also like to announce the launch of my new website, www.bobcornelis.com, which replaces my old site (cornelisarts.com). I recommend taking advantage of the full screen mode in the galleries to see the best view of the work. Enjoy!

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Here’s the Thing of it…

cirque du soleil, photograph

“Whereas the experiential focus of the sculpture, […] the collage, or the performance is the here and now, the experiential focus of the photograph is the there and then.”

Brooks Jensen

Another insightful contrast between photography and other art forms by Brooks Jensen. Maybe one reason I like him so much is that he spends a lot of time comparing and contrasting photography with other mediums in order to tease out the unique qualities, good or bad, of photography. I find myself doing the same, because I feel there are a lot of unique characteristics of photographs that make them occupy a singular place in the art world.

Jensen makes the point that when observing most art forms our main perceptive experience is the piece itself – we look at the painting, the sculpture, the dancer. With a photograph we tend to look through the actual physical artifact (such as a print) to the scene it depicts. He says the photograph acts as a window in ways other art forms generally do not.

One result is that the image we create as photographers can play a secondary role to the viewers experience. Jensen talks about ways photographers attempt to turn their work into an artifact rather than a window. Having spent a number of years painting, I often find myself missing something in my photographs that I found in my paintings. I think it is in part that the paintings were things that had a life of their own, that could exist independent of anything in the external world. My photographs have a more ephemeral existence, one that is derivative of what it is a picture of. Compared to my paintings, they lack a, existential thing-ness that is somehow satisfying, both to the artist and the observer.

So this could be thought of as a downside of photography and one may ask, why do that instead of paint (or something else)? I think each of us has a medium that matches our talents, aesthetics and interests best. I read an interesting explanation of this by fellow photographer (and painter) Diane Miller that I completely related to – she said that she was more pleased with the results of her photography, though perhaps less please with the process itself. I think I’m in this camp as well and feel that the results of my photography express my persona best.

But I’m sure at some point I’ll dip back into the paints, just to get my hands on all that thing-ness.

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Different Strokes

euphorbia, photograph

“It is good to be humbled by seeing someone’s work that is both very accomplished and very different than our own. Who knows, it may open a door creatively for you.”

– Brooks Jensen

How much time do you spend looking at work that is “very different” than your own? I think this is an important question. I suspect many of us would have to answer, ‘not much’. Why is this?

It is so easy to surround ourselves with artists whose work is similar to our own and there are many reasons for this. We may be trying to develop a style or technique similar to theirs. We understand their work and it feels familiar to us. We know where to go to see it. Our friends share our appreciation of the work. The list goes on. Behind all of these reasons is a desire to feel comfortable. It’s reassuring to see other artists, especially good ones, going down the same path that we see ourselves on.

But inevitably we encounter dry spells, periods where our creative juices have deserted us. We need to prime the creative pump again. Everyone has strategies to get themselves on track again, excited about what they’re doing. One strategy that works for me is to look at all sorts of art, and particularly the work of photographers who do really different things than I do. I may not “like” their work, I may not be motivated to try what they do myself. But sometimes these angular departures from the path are what we need to kick start our imaginations. Occasionally you will get an idea that you can incorporate into your own work and sometimes you might even be motivated to actually spend a little time on this new path you’ve encountered. These little temporary excursions down artistic branch roads can be invigorating.

In fact, I enjoy this activity so much, I recommend that you don’t limit it to times you feel you need inspiration or a jump start. After all, we all would benefit from this all the time. Make it a frequent practice to seek out work that is different than what you think your interests are limited to.
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Now You See It, Now You Don’t

dripping with color, photograph

“A great photograph is a distillation, a reduction of the chaos of our wider experience to a visually satisfying essence where what is excluded is as important as what is included.”

David Ward

A characteristic of photography that makes it such a unique art form is that it starts by confronting what is essentially complete and continues by carefully choosing what to eliminate. The scene in front of you, whether a landscape, portrait or abstract, has all of the basic elements needed for your creation already there. What you need to do to get started is to decide what not to include in the final work.

The closest thing to this I can think of in other art forms is in sculpture, which often proceeds through a process of elimination. The stone is gradually chipped away, and what is left is the finished  art. But what is removed is nothing more than unrealized potential – simple stone. In photography what we eliminate is realized potential – it is real stuff that might be interesting to leave in. This makes it harder to get rid of because its presence often tempts us by its color, its interesting shape or some other unusual quality it possesses. We have to overcome the tendency to leave well enough alone.

It’s best to be ruthless when considering what shall remain. What is the picture about? Why are you taking it? What compelled you to stop and consider whether there was something worthwhile there? Anything that isn’t part of the answer must go.

And since these things are there to start with, it is a conscious decision to remove them rather than the quite different decision to simply not create them to begin with, as in painting, writing, music, etc. I don’t think one type of decision is any easier or harder than the other. I suspect that some people are more comfortable with one or the other and that may be what draws them to their artistic path.

I just bought my son his first camera and he asked me for advice about taking pictures. My first suggestion was “get closer and then get closer still”….

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The New Medium for Art

Weight of Time Passed, photograph

“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”

– Stewart Brand

I spend most of my day looking at paintings and photography on a computer monitor and have been researching various aspects of publishing artwork, both online and in more traditional mediums.

It has struck me that the computer monitor is becoming (or has already become) the most common medium by which we view art. It’s not galleries and museums, and perhaps not even books anymore. Our common visual reference is the monitor.

This has some potentially far reaching consequences. Monitors (assuming it’s a good one, which is becoming more common) display images with a dynamic range and quality that reproductions cannot match. Viewing a piece of art on a large, good monitor has become a really nice experience. Because light is streaming through the image instead of reflecting off of it, their is a luminosity to images viewed this way that cannot be matched when the image is on paper or canvas.

I suspect many will agree that the images on a monitor beat images in a book or a print. Now for the controversial part of my post…

How does this experience compare to seeing the original piece of art? I’m wondering if our visual taste buds are becoming accustomed to seeing art with the luminosity and quality of a monitor band whether we will become “disappointed” when we see originals. I know that I’ve already had this experience in certain museums, where my first impression of certain paintings or photographs has been one of great disappointment. Perhaps a copy I saw on a poster or in a book had been somehow more vivid and the real thing is a letdown.

I know that there are definite tactile qualities that a piece of original art has that a display cannot reproduce. This is more true of paintings than of photographs, which have no three dimensional character and are all, after all, reproductions. But I wonder how the increased use and quality of monitors and the resulting experience of viewing art might subtly influence how painters paint and how viewers react to original work?

I can’t imagine monitors will ever replace original art, but I also can’t imagine that how we see original art hasn’t been affected by this relatively new way of experiencing it.

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.

What is Real?


The Ivy League

“A good artist can make you forget the medium, like a magician not showing the wires.”

– Robert Levers

When I show my photography I occasionally get the comment – “that looks like a painting”. Or sometimes a photographer will tell me that when they print their image on watercolor paper, it looks “painterly”.

What do they mean? I think people associate photography with a realistic, hard edged, non-interpretive representation – almost an editorial statement. Painting is associated with personal expression and interpretation, something that gives an illusion of reality (as opposed to photography’s stark portrayal of reality). Of course, both mediums allow the artist to play in the other’s sandbox.

To me, the more interesting photography out there is that which departs from reality. No doubt photography can excel in depicting just what was there. Often, that is as much a matter of being in the right place at the right time as it is any technical skill (though that’s required, too!). Making a photograph that is more than that takes a creative vision, a personal twist. You experience more of the artist themselves. I try to blur the lines between the photograph and other mediums and, in doing so, offer some insight into my creative process.

On the other hand, for my personal taste, I’m not too moved by photorealistic painting. It seems to all boil down to technique with this approach. Any of the artist’s personality, perspective or creative vision is left out. You experience less of the artist with this work.

I wonder if you ever run across an extrovert who paints photorealistically?

Curioser and curioser…


Unraveling, 15 x 15″ Acrylic on Illustration Board

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

– Albert Einstein

I suspect that while we can find all degrees of talent among great beings or great actions, at the heart of each of them is this same passionate curiosity. It’s certainly at the root of all great art.

It’s what makes us continue to try new things, to do better, to explore different approaches, to come up with new ideas about what to paint and how to paint.

If we were not passionately curious, we would be satisfied with good, but never seek great. Curiosity is the fuel – passion is the spark that turns the fuel into energy. Have you ever met a good artist who wasn’t curious about, not just art, but most things in life? And isn’t their curiosity always a passionate one? I think this is one of the qualities that most attracts people to artists – they get to feel the wash of this energy fueled by curiosity as it emanates from the artist in pursuit of their work.

So nurture and develop your curiosity – keep an open mind and don’t label things too quickly, ask questions, enjoy not knowing rather than viewing it as a handicap.

Inner Moonlight


Whorlds, 15 x 15″ Acrylic on Illustration Board

“Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.”

-Allen Ginsberg

I love the thought of our “inner moonlight” – usually we think of a brighter, sunnier source of illumination for our creativity. But the cool and uniquely intimate way in which moonlight reveals is a nice counterpoint to contemplate. Perhaps it is a better way to expose our madness.

Of course, there is that association between madness and artists. I think this madness exists along a spectrum, from the truly insane to the mildly eccentric.

Can one be a really great artist and not fit somewhere along that line? Can one be completely normal, sane, even boring and still produce art that is rich and exciting? Or maybe no one is really normal, sane or boring – what their inner moonlight reveals is always a bit twisted, no matter the external appearance.

At least with art we have a way to share our madness with others in a fairly harmless way!