Artistic Grammar

transits 36, photograph

“Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending.”

– David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art and Fear

Whether it’s making the first few marks with the brush on the canvas, or snapping the picture and hoping that the camera captured something like what inspired you to take it, when we start our artistic utterance, rarely do we know how it will turn out. It’s not a happy environment for control freaks.

As art viewers, when we see the final piece we don’t know its genesis. As the authors point out, any given masterpiece might have been moments away from abandonment before some inspiration struck and the artist found the right way to complete the work. That’s how fragile the process of getting from the beginning of the sentence to the end can be.

And I would add to their point by saying that a good piece of art is like a sentence that ends in time. How many pieces of art have you made that remind you of a run-on sentence, one that you didn’t know how and when to appropriately end?

No art will get made if we don’t start speaking, and our best pieces will get made when we know when to shut up.

Remembrance of Things Past

into the light, photograph

“The best part is: I’m never finished! There are always new angles, new shadows, new lights…”

– Paula Bachtiger Kling

One thing I love about photography is that the same image can be reworked in so many different ways.

For several years now I have been photographing the female figure, typically in motion. That work has evolved over time and, while each “generation” involves new photographs, often they really represent a new style or interpretation. I can go back and apply that style to older photographs, either shots I’ve already printed or shots that only work now, given whatever my new style is. The photographs are the raw material, awaiting the shape and form I give them, which can change over time.

Not only am I looking for new photographs to make, but I’m always considering new ways to interpret older work. I think this deepens my relationship with the work, because I spend so much time over the years with the same images, revisiting them to see if new life can be breathed into them.

So often as artists we work on a piece, finish it and never really think about it again – we’re eager to move on to the next piece. With my photography I am able to reacquaint myself with previous work, to remember what I liked or didn’t like about it and try to improve upon it. Reunions like this always teach us something of value.

How much time do you spend with past work? What do you gain from it?

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!