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.

Productive Patterns

transits 39, photograph

“A piece of art is the surface expression of a life lived within productive patterns.”

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Do you have productive patterns in your life that enable you to more produce art more easily?

The authors emphasize the importance of making a lot of art, quantity breeds quality and perfection is an aim that gets in the way. This is certainly true in photography – good photographers shoot all the time. Your own work teaches you what you need to do next, that’s it’s main purpose in fact.

So it’s a good idea to figure out what strategies, techniques, tricks, habits and rituals facilitate you making more art. It might be something very idiosynchratic that seems a little obsessive-compulsive. It might be a particular form that is the gateway for you to make art. The authors cite Chopin’s fascination with Mazurkas – some might have advised him to try something else, but the consistency of the form allowed him freedom to roam creatively and prodigiously. Making a series, photographing the same subject over and over in different ways, is another method of expediting production.

Constraint can be an impetus to creativity. You don’t have to reinvent yourself with each piece, you can narrow the focus of your imagination, honing it’s edge so it cuts through the inevitable impediments that arise in the face of artmaking.

Of course, just making a lot of art, while necessary, isn’t sufficient. You have to examine what you create, look for what has worked and what hasn’t. Everything you need to know to make your next piece of art is contained in all the art you’ve made so far. No one else can teach you more than is there.

The World is Not Yet Done

rose 38, photograph

“And so you make your place in the world by making part of it – by contributing some new part to the set… Each new piece of your art enlarges our reality. The world is not yet done.”

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Many years ago I studied philosophy, actually got my college degree in that discipline. At some point I came to feel that something essential was missing from this pursuit – it was too involved with analyzing the world and too little with being in it.

My odd life trajectory next found me writing software for a living and, for the first time, I felt that I was making part of the world. I had to sit in front of a (metaphorical) blank piece of paper and compose. This felt better, I was more involved.

Then I moved into management and, oops, found myself once again more involved in talking about doing rather than actually doing. I learned again how empty that could be, so I walked away.

Then I became a photographer. Now I get to add my individual parts to the set, and each day I am reminded that the world is not yet done. Makes you want to get up each day, knowing there’s work to be done.

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.

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.

Stairway to Heaven

cityscape 1, photograph

“Vision is not enough – it must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs.”

– Vaclav Havel

How many times have you found yourself staring up those steps? I consider myself most fortunate when I find myself  in that position.

It is not easy to have vision, to know where you are trying to go with your work. More often it feels a bit like I’m trying this, then trying that. Sort of a random gathering of images. I feel more like a collector than a creator. I have to remind myself to focus on developing a vision from which the images flow. Hard sledding, for sure.

But sometimes we find ourselves at the bottom of the steps. It can be exciting but also daunting. We know that by taking the first step we are committing to either successfully realizing our vision, validating it to the world, or to failing to make it manifest or perhaps realizing the vision is flawed. But until we step up those stairs, we will never know. Our vision will remain embryonic, undeveloped. Adding venture to vision creates reality from potential.

So should you find yourself fortunate enough to be confronted by that stairwell, by all means do not squander  the opportunity. Step up those stairs!

Bored No More

Amidst the Vines, photograph

“Artists never seem to get bored with life.”

– John Kurtz

For the first 40 years or so of my life I was not a creative sort. I certainly was not practicing any form of art. When I look back on that time I now wonder how I filled the enormous void that is now occupied by my creative pursuits.

As an artist, there is always something new to do. It’s impossible to perfect our practice of art and the array of opportunity for improvement and exploration is limitless. How can we get bored with all that potential staring us in the face? What did I do in the past that was this exciting?

It is a tremendous gift to be an artist. We constantly play by the shore of the ocean of creativity. So many people I know feel they can’t make art, believe there is some gene they’re lacking. I know this is not true in the least. It only takes a willingness to take the first few steps, to let the ocean’s waves begin to lap at our ankles, to experience the vast realm of what could be.

I guarantee you, you’ll never be bored again…


The One and Only

calla trio, photograph

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

Tallulah Bankhead

I struggle all the time with who I am as an artist. Not only have I done many different types of photography (landscape, figures, still life, floral, etc) but I also have done several types of painting mediums. On the surface, there has been little consistency in my output – lots of different stuff done different ways.

Is there something that runs through all this work that makes it uniquely mine? Is this even possible given that I am not (hopefully) the same person I was 10 or 15 years ago? Is it something that guides me or something that is discovered after the fact? Is such a thread of cohesion even a desirable thing or does it limit us in some way from new creation?

For me part of the excitement of creating art is the opportunity it gives me to do new things, to explore new ideas and new forms of expression. When I start a new project, I am motivated to not approach it as I have in the past. Most (not all) of the time I am hoping to become a different artist than I’ve been before. Without that possibility I would be weighed down by Sisyphus-ian angst.

Of course, after the art has been created and I consider whether I achieved my objective of transcending myself, most of the time I do see something familiar there. I may have put a new spin on things but it’s rare, if ever, that I can’t see myself after all. Contrary to the quote above, I find I have trouble not being exactly, or at least, somewhat, like me.

But while it may not be possible to reinvent our artistic identity completely, the attempt to do so keeps our work alive, so I’ll keep trying to be not exactly like me.

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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.

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…