The Effort of Craft and Vision

transits 37, photograph


“Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.”

– Gene Fowler

I had to laugh when I read this quote which is the intro to one of my favorite art books that I’m currently re-reading, Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It captures so wryly the contrast between the seeming simplicity of artmaking and the difficulty of it’s actual achievement.

But it made me think about the various people I know and their approach to making art. Is it a struggle for everyone? I can think of two distinct ways in which it can be.

First is that of craft – all of us must learn the techniques required by our chosen medium, and inherent in this process is challenge and frustration. Some continue the learning process their whole lives, others reach a stage where they are satisfied with what they know. The second is that of vision – trying to figure out the meaning of what we’re creating and how to express it effectively to others. This issue is of paramount importance to some, of little interest to others, with most of us somewhere in between. How often do you ask yourself about your vision?

People make art for many reasons. Some do it for their own enjoyment, as an escape, while others pursue a more complex purpose. Even those who choose the latter path will find themselves sometimes making art just for fun, or as diversion. These aims are all perfectly legitimate.

But making art is like most other things we do – the wider the scope of our aspirations, the more we extend our reach, the more we will be rewarded. Those drops of blood will eventually fall, filling the page with our words, words which will resonate more for all the effort behind them.

The Artist as Mad Scientist

self portrait #23, photograph

“Life is ‘trying things to see if they work.'”

– Ray Bradbury

An equally apt definition of artistic creativity. Experimenting with your art is essential to keeping it alive and interesting, to yourself and others.

Some people are relentless experimenters – they’ll try anything and everything. Others seem reluctant to venture too far from their familiar path. Sometimes I have to force myself to go ahead and attempt some new idea. The potential for failure serves as a deterrent, but invariably when I make the effort I am rewarded with a strong rush of liberation. And, of course, there is no need to share those experiments that fail with anyone else. Even if the experiment fails, perhaps I learn something new that I can use elsewhere.

One of the most profound consequences of digital photography has been in the realm of experimentation. When shooting film, you had to consider the cost of buying the film and getting it processed – even 35mm film might cost on the order of 50 cents a shot. That might make you think twice about trying some hair-brained new idea. Also, you had to wait to get the film back before knowing what the results of the experiment were. Now, you can get a fair amount of immediate feedback that helps you make useful course corrections. In fact, there is almost no excuse left now to not try all sorts of crazy things. I’m finding it easier to talk myself into various experiments with so little to lose.

How much time do you spend experimenting, trying something which you have no idea will work at all? I’m talking about radical experiments, not minor adjustments to what you’ve been doing. How often do they end up in public view? Are there specific methods you have to force yourself to experiment? How does radical experimentation make you feel?

BTW, the above is another in my new series of self-portraits. It’s all about experimenting in this project!

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I, Myself and Me

self portrait #14, photograph

“Self-portraiture is a singular in-turned art. Something eerie lurks in its fingering of the edge between seer and seen.”

– Julian Bell

I have begun a series of self-portraits which is a new endeavor for me. I must admit it’s one I have mixed feelings about already…

Certainly there is a long tradition in most art forms of doing self-portraiture. I’m sure some of it comes from the ready availability of the subject. And they are certainly willing to do what they’re told. On the other hand, it feels sort of self-indulgent to think that anyone else would be interested in looking at a picture of you. And many of us (particularly those of my age!) don’t find it as rewarding to look at our physical selves with such scrutiny anymore.

It’s been said by many artists in many ways that every image we make is in some sense a self-portrait. They all reveal something about ourselves. I’m sure that how we represent ourselves directly in a self-portrait reveals even more. To be subject and object, seer and seen at the same time presents a unique opportunity to contemplate how we feel about ourselves and how we wish to be seen by others. By objectifying the self, we give it shape and allow it to be observed analyzed in new ways.

What have your experiences been with self-portraits? If you have avoided them, why? What have you learned from doing them?