Craft Completes Magic

Moody, mysterious Aspen grove; a created image

Craft completes magic. I read this in a book on writing poetry by Robert Wallace. This was a new thought to me. It is unusual in my world for a random phrase to seem to crystalize immediately as truth. This did. I have often written about the 2 sides of art as being the creative, the magic, and the technical, the craft. I love the way this brings them together and completes the whole.

The magic

Oftentimes we artists focus almost exclusively on the creative aspects of what we do. After all, we think this is what separated us from other artists. And to a large degree, it is true.

So we look at the work of others we admire. We plan or write or set projects to focus our thoughts. We look for the new and different. The driving challenge is how can we bring a unique perspective to the things we see in the world.

Sometimes the muse visits us and we feel we have truly made magic. It is a great feeling. Creativity breeds creativity. We try to go on to leverage this new stage into even more.

But, have you ever had a guilty feeling, looking at your new creative work, that it could have been executed better? Not necessarily more creatively, but with better craftsmanship? Sometimes we don’t know how to make our great idea into a finished work of art. Concentrating too much on just one aspect can throw us off balance.

The craft

I believe our craftsmanship is as important as our creativity. Not a replacement, but to balance and complete our work. It’s this completion I want to emphasize.

There are 2 tendencies I see in a lot of photographers that disturb me. Some seem to feel that a technically perfect image is a good image. Some others take the attitude that “I’m a creative, I don’t know the ‘techie’ stuff”. I believe that either of these, if they drive your behavior too much, lead to bad ends.

Ansel Adams famously said “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” This, to me, is the danger of overemphasizing technical perfection. I see this a lot in online critiques where the objections are things like not enough depth of field or that the color correction may not be completely true to the original scene. The reality in many cases is that no amount of technical improvement is going to give this image life.

If you don’t have an emotional connection with the scene and a definite point of view to share, then it isn’t going to get great by technical skill.

On the other hand, it frustrates me to hear even professional photographers dismissively say they don’t do “tech”. Sorry, but photography is a uniquely technical art form. If you don’t understand and appreciate and know how to control the technical aspects you are at a severe disadvantage. You can end up with images that show a great idea but you were unable to produce a gallery-worthy image.

The whole

There is a symbiotic relationship between the creative and the craft. Mr. Wallace, who I quoted at the start, related it to the two legs of a runner. The creative leg propels you forward. Then the craft leg helps you bring it into being, which also thrusts you forward to another level. These work together, alternating, each with strengths to add. Neither is complete without the other.

A comedian doesn’t just walk out on stage and think up funny things. He spends many hours on each skit, refining and rehearsing and tuning it before you ever hear it. Likewise, a magician spends countless hours working on an illusion to make it smooth and believable, to make the magic happen. A musician practices day in and day out for years to get and stay good. Yes, famous musicians still practice scales. It trains their technique.

Art is hard work. It is hard to do creative things and it requires great skill to make it real. No one can tell you what you can or can’t do, or how you should do your art. But I believe that if we don’t put in as much work on the craft side of our art as on the creative we will never achieve what we could.

A boring image will never be great because it was technically perfect. On the other hand, you don’t get a free pass to ignore the craft because you are a “creative”. As the initial quote says, craft completes the magic.

It’s Not Necessarily About the Outcome

The emotion of a fall scene

Sometimes the muse abandons us or conditions conspire against us or we get interrupted by something urgent. This can make us create pictures that do not live up to our expectations. But unless we are shooting for a client, we probably should not worry so much about the results we get, the outcome. We should remember to enjoy the creative exercise and have fun.

We all want great images

I assume that creating exceptional images is a goal for most of us. I know my expectations are high. We study technique and browse images by great artists we appreciate. We spend a lot of time getting to a location, exploring, setting up, composing. But it doesn’t always work.

Despite our best efforts, we are often disappointed. What we get may not be great. It may not even be very good. This can be very disappointing if we only judge our self by the outcome.

They won’t all be great

It is not uncommon for me to go out for a day of shooting and end up throwing most of them away, with none to add to my portfolio. Does this make me a failure? I try to see it differently.

I hope we can be philosophical about it. Sometimes all we seem to get from our effort is experience. Hopefully we learn from our experiences and improve our craft. That’s a bittersweet benefit. But the reality is we will learn more from a failed shoot than a successful one.

I’m coming to see that I am evaluating it wrong. My attitude was that I failed unless I got a number of great images. I concentrated on the outcome. There are greater goals.

The process may be as important

Sure, it is disappointing to not have captured those scenes that called to us at the time. But it is an opportunity for self-examination. What caused them to be unspectacular? Was there something we could have done different?

The editing process is a mirror where we can see how our mind worked and even see our soul to some degree. The images are captured. For better or worse, the bits are there on the computer. Now we have to deal with them. We can process them, but we cannot change them substantively – well, usually not.

I actually see something cathartic in deleting bad images. I have evaluated them and analyzed the problems and learned what I can. Now I have no more need of them. Remove them from my world. It’s a purging. In most cases I actually have an informal goal of throwing a certain percentage of my images away in the early stages of editing. The thought process is that I should be experimenting and working at the edge of my comfort zone. This causes a lot of failures. Failure is just part of learning.

Enjoy your art

Maybe I’m weird, but I see art as a work of joy. We should love what we do. Loving what we do is not the same as creating great work. They may be related, but they are not the same.

There are times when I go out and don’t end up with anything to keep except the memory of the great scene and the feelings I had. That is enough. Good art should be based on the feelings we are trying to convey. If I had the feelings but couldn’t realize them in the image, that means I am on the right track but I have to learn more. That is a challenge for artistic growth. I have seen too much art that is technically perfect but seems to me devoid of feeling.

There is a lot of talk about “flow” in the artistic process. Have you really experienced it? Not the fake stuff that is hyped by a lot of self-help gurus. There is no “hack” or shortcut to get there.

I developed the ability in my previous professional career, before I ever heard the term defined. There was a “place” I could easily drop into, a creative mode where I did great work and would be completely unaware of time for hours.

I can occasionally find the same place in my art, both when shooting and when processing. This is a reveling in the work regardless of the outcome. Yes, true flow is independent of what we might or might not produce. It is the joy of creation.

Let’s learn to revel in the process, the flow. We will create great things, but that is not the goal in itself. The joy of creation will carry us to become greater. Look at what you are becoming, not just what you are producing.

Cooking

Very experienced cook.

No, you’re not in the wrong place. I have not suddenly changed from writing about art and photography to giving cooking lessons. I am exploring an idea that occurred to me recently. I think our cooking style reflects our photographic style, and maybe vise versa.

Weird, but stay with me for a minute.

Cooking styles

Do you cook? I hope so. It is rewarding and satisfying. A kind of art in itself.

What kind of cook are you? Do you follow the “rules” (e.g. follow the recipes) or do you “wing it”? Is your pantry and refrigerator well stocked so you can always come up with something? Or do you take your recipe to the store and buy what you need for it? Is your goal to exactly recreate the dish as specified in the recipe or do you apply creative license? Do you plan our the week or months meal list ahead of time or do you come home and try to decide what is for dinner that night?

We are all in different situations and make different tradeoffs. For instance, if you are cooking for a large family you tend to do things different than if you are cooking for one or two. If you are cooking for someone with food restrictions you may have to plan more carefully.

I’m intrigued by the idea that how we cook gives some insight on us as an artist. I think you will see where I lean in my thinking.

Recipe follower

Some people follow recipes exactly. They will not even try it unless they have all the ingredients and equipment necessary before starting.

If you exactly follow the recipe I think that says something about your style. Could it mean you are likely to follow influential artists and try to create in their style? Do you enjoy going to workshops where a leader will guide you to locations and help you compose shots to get similar results as theirs?

Maybe this means you also browse social media and photo sites looking for images you like to give yourself ideas for your work. Is your reaction “I wish I had shot that; I’ll try to do it”? Then research the location so you can plan to go there and capture something similar.

Recipe is a suggestion

Another approach I observe is the cook who looks at recipes, but mostly for motivation and ideas. They will freely substitute ingredients and end up with something substantially different from the recipe. Good, but not the same.

This cook, I believe, has greater confidence and experience. They know they can cook. That is not the issue. What I want to make tonight and how do I like it seems to be the basis of their decisions. A recipe, to them, is a kind of general guide. Descriptive, not prescriptive, to get sociological.

The recipe calls for an ingredient they don’t care for, so they substitute something else. It calls for something they don’t have, so they use something they have on hand. Not random substitutions, but based on knowledge of the ingredients and their effect on the dish. All the while, they know they will create something good, regardless of how close to the recipe it is.

Artistically, it seems this person is more likely to say yes, thanks, but I see it a little different. I’m going to shoot this other view. They have the confidence to follow their own vision, even if an instructor is trying to lead them in a different way.

What recipe?

Another cooking style I see is someone who seldom if ever consults a recipe. After all, most cuisine styles are fairly simple. There are general principle about how to combine things and what things go together to create certain flavors. Italian food has certain patterns based on certain ingredients, as does Mexican or Chinese or most any other recognizable type. When you learn the patterns almost any dish can be created. Most dishes are variations on the pattern. No recipe needed.

This person is experienced and confident. They can go into their pantry and quickly envision a dish based on what is there. If they served it to you, you would probably say “that is very good. What is it?”. And they would just say it is an Italian inspired dish they made up.

As an artist, they probably would not be in the instructor led workshop. They would just be out on their own, following their own muse, confident in their own decisions and style. Their attitude would be that they may not be as good as that instructor, but they would rather make their own decisions and go their own way.

The best style

Which of these styles is best? I think it is impossible to say. What you are is what is best for you.

But I wonder if there is a progression? When we start don’t we strictly follow recipes? As we get more confidence and experience perhaps we learn to be more free with the recipe. Eventually we learn the principles well enough that we give ourselves wide latitude in creating according to our own tastes.

I will admit that, in cooking, I am somewhere between the “recipe is a suggestion” and “what recipe?”. I have extensive files of recipes and cook books that I used to follow. If I have something in mind to fix I may still consult a recipe, but more for inspiration and to get an idea of what ingredients the recipe designer used. When the cooking starts I am likely to set the recipe aside and “wing it”. What I serve may only slightly resemble the original, but it will be good. πŸ™‚

No one told me how

This comes around to a fundamental truth of being an artist: you are on your own. You are solely responsible for your art. No one can make the artistic decisions for you. It is a lonely but empowering place.

You can either spend your time copying your favorite teacher or develop the skill and confidence to go your own way. Until you find your own way it is not really your art yet.

Even when you are determined to be your own person, it doesn’t come with instructions. It can be very difficult and unsettling: this or that subject, what treatment or color palette, reject what I used to do and go a different direction? No one is there to guide you. It really is a “the buck stops here” situation.

Hence, the idea that the person who can endure, even thrive, in this situation probably also expresses himself in his cooking. I believe the artist is often comfortable also making creative decisions in the kitchen. Recipes become unnecessarily restrictive – just another set of rules.

Unscientific

If you haven’t thought it already, let me be the first to say this is totally unscientific. It is my hypothesis. My own idea. I do not intend to do a scientific study to prove or disprove it. I just put this out here to help us understand ourselves better as artists. Let’s just think about it and kick it around.

I don’t want you to perceive this as a black & white, all or nothing proposition. It is more a metaphor of art. For instance, if I am trying a new recipe for a dish I am unfamiliar with, I usually follow a recipe. Once. πŸ™‚

What do you think? Is there any correlation between artists and their cooking style? Let’s discuss it! I want to hear from you!

Excuse me for now, though. I have to go home and figure out what is for dinner.

Beautiful Chaos

Mountain stream, s-curve, texture

I am thinking about some words by William Neill in his book Light on the Landscape, combined with an old country song by Diamond Rio named Beautiful Mess. I’m referring to the visual chaos of the normal world around us. Managing this chaos is one of the great challenges and rewards of outdoor photography.

Visual chaos

Alas, the world outside is a chaotic place visually. Things just aren’t naturally arranged to make it convenient for us poor outdoor photographers. Plants are in the way. Trees aren’t in the right place for the best design. Rivers bend the wrong way. Clouds are too much or not enough or arranged wrong. Weather doesn’t cooperate. Sigh.

I say that facetiously, of course. That chaos and the difficulty of making something pleasing out of a cluttered scene is one of the unique and challenging parts of photography. If it was too easy it would be difficult to create outstanding images.

Bringing order

I love this challenge. The inner designer in me rises to it. It is a very satisfying mental exercise to try to mold a chaotic scene into a clean and appealing image. This is one of the defining characteristics of photography. Painters start with a blank canvas and selectively add only the elements they want for their scene. But photographers must start with an existing, disordered scene and simplify it.

We have many techniques to apply to do this. Lens selection will widen or narrow our field of view. We can change our point of view to include significant parts or exclude distracting elements. Selective focus can emphasize the areas of attention. Exposure can be used to darken or blow out parts of the frame where you don’t want any detail. Long exposure can change moving elements into a different graphical design. These and other techniques give us great control over the arrangements of the parts.

But above all, it is a design challenge. We have to decide what is key to the scene and how to emphasize that and minimize distractions. Is it the S curve of a river or the graphical arrangement of branches? Is it the forms or the leading lines that draw the eye a certain way? Most scenes can be arranged to bring an interesting view. Some more than others, but most can be improved.

Refine

Following on from a previous post, we need to very consciously work to refine our design after we set it up. This is a weakness of mine that I plan to improve. I have long training in composition. When I walk up to a scene I tend to do a tremendous amount of subconscious evaluation to select a composition. My natural tendency is to set up and shoot what I visualized as I came on the scene and stop without taking it further.

But I know that many designs can be enhanced by exploring variations. I will try to discipline myself to do this more diligently. Move – left, right, up, down – look for improvements in the composition with slight shifts. Look closely at the entire frame to make sure there are no distracting elements that could be eliminated by in-camera techniques. Walk more to see if a more dramatic change of viewpoint could help.

Most of all, I need to make sure I look and think. What I have is good, but can I make it better?

Don’t over analyze

A caution, though. Don’t over analyze the situation. Design and creation should be an act of joy. When you are learning new techniques it is normal to have to concentrate a lot on what you are doing. But try to get to the point where it flows naturally. To where you move with it and follow your instincts. Trust your instincts.

Shooting in the outdoors should be energizing. We should feel excited about what we are seeing and capturing. Don’t let the joy get sucked out for you. Creativity is exciting and invigorating. Most of us aren’t going to get rich at this. We should at least have fun and feel satisfied.

This is a journey of discovery. Enjoy the journey and have fun!

Note on the image

The image in this article is personally satisfying to me. It is a location that brings me joy and that i return to as often as possible. Despite wading through mud, swatting mosquitoes and trying not to slip in and get swept downstream, I loved the scene. I did follow my advice in 2 significant ways: I worked it until I got to a composition I loved, and I had a great time.

I hope you will find scenes that bring you such joy.