What Excites You?

Pictures of pictures

I believe artists are passionate people. We do our best work when we are excited about it. Have you considered what excites you? Do you seek the excitement?

Do you get excited when you are shooting?

I try to have that level of excitement. Of course, we are just human and it will not be there in full strength all the time. Like everything in life it ebbs and flows with our mood or circumstances.

I find that I have different grades of excitement about the things I shoot. It can range from “I really should shoot this; it is kind of interesting; I might can make a decent image out of it” to “Wow! I’m so excited right now I can hardly be still enough to expose a frame properly”.

I don’t consider anywhere along that continuum to be “wrong”. But the high excitement side is definitely more fun and easier to get, well, excited about.

Not all scenes are great

What makes the difference in the excitement level? One is probably the inherent quality of the scene or subject. When I say inherent quality this is a subjective measure, as is almost everything in art. It can only be evaluated by you for you. I think it is a function of the scene itself and how it interacts with our values and our mood. Sometimes we just don’t feel it, even though the artist right next to you thinks it is spectacular.

It may not be what you wanted or hoped for, but it is what it is. Work with it.

Another difference is our perception of the scene. The reality is that most of us are not surrounded by world-class, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities everyday. Most of what we see is rather average. An average scene offers the opportunity to exercise our creativity by making it interesting. We have to work hard to make something of it. This is valuable exercise. It is not a bad thing.

As a matter of fact I will assert that the rare, unique, wonderful scene may not be that much of a creative opportunity. If the scene is amazing in itself, we may only have to record it. Yes, it lets us use the technical and compositional skills we have spent a long time developing to capture it well, but we actually don’t have to do much. Just don’t screw it up. It can be exciting to know we captured a rare and great moment, but it may leave us a little unsatisfied because we did not contribute much to it.

Dealing with the average

Mostly we encounter more mundane, average, day-to-day scenes. How can we build or keep our excitement going when surrounded by ordinary?

I have stated before that I like to go out empty and let myself be drawn to subjects. Still, just in wandering around randomly I mostly encounter pretty average things. If I think there is something there, the exercise is to be able to make it above average. Can I see it differently? Is there a better angle or lens choice that would bring it out to advantage? Does it need to be simplified? Or juxtaposed with another element to make a different statement? Does it need different light or even a different season?

My friend Cole Thompson says “I believe the real test of creating isn’t cherry-picking great images from great locations, but rather to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. To be able to find something remarkable in my everyday surroundings.” Very wise.

When I am able to take an ordinary subject that I am drawn to and make it into something special it builds excitement in me. It gets my energy flowing. I become more conscious of other things around me and more empowered to go after them. It is a reinforcing cycle. It helps me see other things as well.

Ideas to being back excitement

Working with the ordinary is one process that is very important to get me excited. Each of us is different. We have different values and expectations and points of view. So there is no simple list of “hacks” that will work for everyone. But let me give some suggestions to try:

  • Set yourself projects to work on. The thought process of concentrating on a fixed subject causes us to focus and think different. It can be energizing.
  • Travel. A change of scenery can help to change our perspective.
  • Shoot with someone. The interactions and discussions can be stimulating and refreshing.
  • Take on a new style or technique. It doesn’t have to be a permanent change, just something to shake up the norm.
  • Make it look strange or absurd. It helps you see it fresh. This is the Russian Formalism technique called “ostranenie”. It is interesting. More on this another time.
  • Go to a museum. Not just a photography museum. Studying works by masters can never hurt.
  • Look at other work. Read blogs and other artist’s web sites. Get books of art. Get more familiar with the way other artists see the world. Do not copy them, but feel free to steal. 🙂
  • Find what gives you joy. A sense of joy is an important driver for excitement. Know what works for you.
  • Get out and do it. Really. Just making yourself do it can lift you from a funk and get you going.

Shoot for yourself

One of the most powerful motivators is reserved for a select few.

Do you consider yourself a “fine artist”? One of the definitions of that is that we create work for ourselves. If you are in the enviable position of creating art to please yourself, take maximum advantage of it. Follow your instincts. Don’t worry about what you see other artists doing.

When you get excited about a subject or a location or a technique follow your feelings. Work it to see what develops. It may be something entirely new that you become extremely excited about and that changes you. Or it may end up not being interesting to you and abandoned. Either way, you followed your artistic instinct. This builds excitement.

You don’t get a hit every time your swing, but it is important to keep swinging.

Is it work?

What is the difference between work and art? Maybe nothing. Please don’t read this blog as saying we should sit around waiting for the muse to visit us. Or to think you shouldn’t go out today because you just don’t feel any excitement.

Most of the things I describe or suggest are active. Based on taking positive steps toward creating something. We have to work at it. Action leads to feeling.

So whatever inspires you and creates excitement for you, don’t just think about it. Get out of the chair or up from the couch and go do something about it.

Finally, here are some quotes to reinforce that concept:

Motivation exists, but it has to find you working. – Pablo Picasso

Hard work will outperform talent any day of the week. – Joel Grimes

Inspiration is for amateurs. Us professionals just go to work in the morning. – Chuck Close

Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn. – John Wesley

Being Different Is Hard

Find your own path

Yes, being different can be hard, especially for some of us. Some of us seek affirmation from other people. Some of us are sensitive and bruise easily when we are criticized. But when we put ourselves forward as an artist we accept the cost of being different.

Better to be the same?

If you are not different, you are – the same. Is that what you want? Do you want to be the same as everyone else? To me that sounds like a horrible thing.

But think about it. For you it might seem a good choice. If you are same your work is safe, inoffensive, comfortable. There will be less criticism if you follow the established norms and are recognizably like some popular artists. If your goal is to maximize “Likes” a quick route is to copy a popular style.

When you are starting out this might not be wrong. As a student you spend a lot of time studying from a teacher or learning about famous artist’s styles. Your work will be more imitative than original. I won’t tell you that is a bad thing. Sometimes we have to try out a lot of styles before we decide what is right for us.

My personal opinion is that if I stay there I have ceased growing as an artist.

You’re unique

Most of us are raised to believe we are special and unique. That we have a special point of view and creativity. As a general rule I believe this. Everyone is as unique as our fingerprints.

Most people, though, are afraid to step out of the pack, to express our uniqueness if it is different from our peers. Take almost any teenager. They are defiantly expressing their individuality and rebellion – by looking and acting exactly like their peers. Only a very small percentage of them have the courage to dress or act different.

I’m not picking on teenagers. Take any working professional or really, most adults. They follow the office dress code. They adapt to the culture of their group to blend in. If they deviate they will quickly be shamed back into conformity.

Some psychologists say as children we learn to be human by mirroring behavior we observe around us. But as we mature we are supposed to become independent. To think for ourselves and trust our judgment. But psychological studies for decades have shown that most people conform to their peer group, even when they know the group is wrong. Still, it is safer and more comfortable to most people to suppress their beliefs and go along with their group.

Different or dead

But readers of this blog are mostly people who consider themselves to be artists. We are using our inherent creativity to produce work in a hugely overcrowded marketplace. If we are the same as most other people we have no reason for viewers or clients to consider our work.

Now to some people this becomes a mandate to be as different as possible just for the sake of being different. I disagree with this. We’re not, or at least I’m not, going for shock value. I believe we should be trying to create the best art we know how to make – our own personal art. If we do that it will be our own unique style.

I’ve said before that your viewers will only look at your image for a few seconds. Our screen-oriented generation has trained us that images are ephemeral, transient, low value flickers going across the screen. We quickly pass on to the next one without much consideration. Except in 2 general cases: it is a great print or it is a unique, attention grabbing image. But I’m not discussing prints here.

When people see one of your images it needs to grab them, stop them from scrolling to the next. It needs to offer them something fresh that intrigues them. It will create value in their minds by being different. Maybe it it too obvious, but you won’t be different if you spend your energy trying to be like everyone else.

It takes courage

Being different can be lonely and depressing. We get criticism, or worse, we are ignored. We are often shunned by the critics and the gatekeepers. These gatekeepers are usually not looking for real creativity. They are looking at a minor variations to whatever established school of thought they follow.

Being an artist takes courage and an independent streak. And the ability to shake off the criticism and rejection and keep going. It doesn’t stop hurting when we are rejected. But as we grow, we develop more confidence in our ability and worth.

When we are criticized we need to ask our self if there is validity to the objection. If so, we can process it try to learn something. Either way, we go on. If we are rejected try to look at the context. Maybe our work doesn’t fit the venue or the taste of the curator. That doesn’t mean we are bad or our work is worthless. Keep going.

Being a creative is a path that requires true courage. Courage is firmness of the mind or will. We can’t let the yapping dogs sidetrack us.

It’s the crazy ones who are remembered

Monet, Picasso, Dalí, Dorothea Lange, Stieglitz, the list goes on and on. The ones who were different but who pushed away the criticism and kept going. We remember them. We do not remember the critics or many of the established figures who these artists were told they should be like.

If we are criticized that doesn’t mean we have greatness in us. We may be fooling ourselves. That question is up to us to decide. Us personally, not the critics. If we decide they are wrong and we are right it seems we owe it to ourselves to keep going. To push through. Otherwise whatever we have within us will never be seen.

I’ll end with a quote from Steve Jobs. This was the voice-over for a famous Apple commercial.

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

A Balance

Airplane landing over water, moon

Being an artist is a balancing act. There are many dimensions that must balance against each other. Get too far off in the weeds in any dimension and you risk losing the path you are seeking. This time I will discuss the balance between egotism and self doubt.

Egotism

Egotism is the sense of being self-important. It is arrogance. It is being focused on yourself and thinking, for instance, that your opinion is more important than others.

Who would want to be such a person? Well, an artist does.

He doesn’t seek to be arrogant, but it is a necessary component of the creative struggle. An artist has to feel he has something to say. That he has a point of view that is unique and worthwhile. And you feel compelled to share your vision with other people.

You have to believe you have the right, even duty, to grab people and say “look at this!” Because you are bringing something fresh and new into the world that people should see. If you are not bringing something new, then why are you wasting your time? But you are, so you should shout about it.

Your art is the best art you know how to make. You believe it is worthwhile. Therefore you should be a little pushy and arrogant. Egotistical, within bounds..

Self doubt

On the other hand, most artists are plagued with self doubt. There is always the voice whispering (shouting?) in our ear. Telling us we are not good enough. We aren’t doing anything new or creative. No one would want to see our work. What the critics say is right – we’re not really an artist.

Because of that self doubt we shrink back. We don’t shoot those extreme or controversial images. We don’t push our work to galleries or contests. Aren’t we quick to believe the worst about ourselves and equally quick to believe that everyone else knows more than us?

That little voice thinks it is doing us a favor by trying to keep us from making a fool of ourselves. To keep us from being hurt. But the reality is we can’t be an artist unless we are willing to be a fool. We will be hurt and rejected and told by the “experts” that we are not good enough.

It is up to our egotism to balance that and help us push on despite criticism and disappointment.

The intersection

Where egotism and self doubt balance is where I believe most artists live. You need both.

Egotism gives us the confidence to believe in ourselves. Self doubt makes us evaluate ourselves more objectively and see if we need to improve. We need both.

If they are not in a healthy tension we can go off track. Unchecked egotism can be self destructive. We can delude ourselves into believing everything we conceive is wonderful and a benefit to the world. Unchecked self doubt will cripple us and shut us down from ever risking anything.

On the other hand, a healthy amount of egotism keeps us moving forward, creating new work, experimenting, believing that we are doing something useful. Balancing that with a certain amount of self doubt will temper us. It will make us question and evaluate things but not be enough to paralyze us.

Like many things in life, being mature and creative means being able to manage the tension of competing and contradictory ideas. We have to use our core values and faith and life experience to understand the inherent contradictions and still deal with them. Without going crazy.

It’s about balance.

Spring

As I write this spring is fully come to Colorado where I live. This is a favorite time for most people. The hard winter is mostly over. The world is waking up. Spring is joy and refreshing and newness.

Too bad I’m not appreciating it as much as most people do.

New life

New life is breaking out all over. On a walk today I saw the first fuzzy goslings being coaxed into the lake by their anxious parents. Flowers are budding. Trees are leafing out. Grass is green (and I hear lawn mowers). Baby bunnies are running all around.

It is a time of beauty and peace, especially after a long winter. What is not to like?

What kind of curmudgeon wouldn’t be thrilled with it?

Uninspired

Me.

I went on a 4+ mile walk today and didn’t even take my camera. I never go out without my camera. But I knew I would not find shots to excite me. And I was right.

It is hard sometimes when you are so different from most other people.

Unfortunately for me, spring seems boring and predictable. At least when it first comes. Everywhere I look I see what most people would consider pretty pictures. Flowers, grass, new leaves on trees – these things hold little interest for me. Even though I will shoot a beautiful landscape when I find it, my interests are not in “pretty pictures”.

What calls to me

I am drawn to scenes with graphic interest, with stark lines or motion or drama. It is harder for me to find this in the spring. I could be out all day in a blizzard or a really cold winter day, but give me flowers and fluffy clouds and i am at a loss. I’ll take a bare tree against a snowy field. When the leaves come out the graphic structure of the tree is hidden. The tree becomes a green blob (to me).

Give me a frozen lake instead of, well, just a plain lake. A frozen lake may have interesting abstract patterns in it. A regular lake, to me, is just wet. It is very hard for me to do anything useful with it unless there are some good storms around to give nice reflections.

A freshly plowed field brings promise of things to come. But right now it is about as interesting to me as a painted wall. When the corn or wheat gets high things get more visual.

Finding lemonade

I don’t mean to whine. It is not really all lemons. There is lemonade. Spring also brings good things. I really enjoy being out without a coat. And not having to scrape ice off my car windows is great.

Spring also brings back more color. I love color, so when I get back in the mood I start seeking that. The image with this post is an example. Reflections on the river in Cincinnati are always lovely.

And hiking is opening back up without needing snowshoes. It will be refreshing to be back on trails in the mountains. Free to wander with less restrictions.

Spring kicks off the best travel time, too. It is tricky trying to do a trip in Winter. I have had interesting experiences doing that. Interesting = near death experiences.

And thunderstorms. I love them. I like the power and the awesome size and structure of them. I’m drawn to them like a moth to a flame. Winter storms can be great, but not like a good roaring thunderstorm. I am lucky to live at the edge of the Great Plains. I can pop out on them and follow some thunderstorms often. Maybe even without getting my car pounded by hail.

I don’t mean to imply it is all bad.

Learning to appreciate it

It is just harder for me to get into it when the season changes to spring. I love shooting in winter. Interesting subjects seem to present themselves to me more frequently. Spring is something I have to relearn every year. But I do. Once I get into it it is great.

Each season has its own drama and characteristic subjects. For me, spring just happens to be the hardest transition. Fall to winter seems a gradual transition here where I live. I ease into the hard season over time. Spring seems to just pop up.

But I go out shooting all the time. I force myself to find subjects. Eventually I warm up to spring and learn to appreciate it.

I’m still trying this year. It will come.

Improve Your Portfolio

An image most people would keep in their portfolio

If you are an artist, you probably have a portfolio. This is simply a collection of your best work. One important thing I have discovered is that when you pull a portfolio together, you are not done. It is not done. Your portfolio selections can probably be improved. The portfolio improvement process is a critical skill to work on.

Have you had a relative or friend who wanted to show you “a few” pictures of their vacation? You know, they took 1200 pictures and they want to show you every one of them. Eventually your eyes bleed and you want to strangle them.

Some portfolios are like this. We like almost every one of our images so other people need to see them. Don’t be that one.

Less is more

Here was a hard lesson for me to learn: every image you take out of your portfolio makes the collection stronger. On the surface it doesn’t make sense and it hurts a lot to do, but it is true.

It has been said your portfolio is only as strong as your weakest image. Therefore, every weak image you take out makes the remaining ones stronger overall. If you actually take out the weakest one. Therein lies the hard part.

How do you take out that image you love or represents a great memory for you or was a once-in-a-lifetime location? You do it brutally and without mercy. Sorry. That’s the way it is.

The viewers of your portfolio don’t care. They weren’t there with you to share the experience. Any image you show needs to be near perfect technically, compositionally, conceptually. This is representing who you are.

Portfolio improvement process

I recently watched a video by Ramit Sethi. He is a well known writer on finance and business. Something he talks about a lot is copy writing. Copy, technically, is any written communication you get from a business. It can be ads or email or brochures or anything else. Ramit is persuasive in showing that great copy is far more effective than weak copy.

In this valuable video he made 3 points about improving copy, but I was impressed that the idea applies to other things, too. Paraphrasing him, the points were

  1. Know if something is good or bad
  2. Know why it is good or bad
  3. Know how to improve it

I believe this same process can apply to building a stronger portfolio. It is a model for a vary mature and knowledgeable way to approach improving something.

Recognize good

Do we really recognize the good? Without letting our emotions get in the way? Do we have a base of knowledge to compare our work to?

We can educate ourselves to improve our recognition of good vs. bad. One easy thing is to look at a lot of good examples. Spend time in museums and galleries. This work has been vetted by curators. That doesn’t mean much in reality, but at least you know someone consciously chose the work there.

Books of images are useful, too. Most contain carefully chosen collections of the artist’s best work. Again, we don’t really know who did the choosing or by what criteria, but if the work is being presented as art it is often quite good.

Finally, cultivate a collection of artists you admire. Browse their web galleries regularly. They also often have very good blogs. But of the many thousands of photo web sites, probably only a small fraction is worth bookmarking.

Exercises like this will help build a base of knowledge. It gets us familiar with the look of good work. I can’t recommend that you will get better by looking at bad art.

Articulate good

Recognizing good is an excellent start. It probably puts you ahead of most people. But we also need to be able to describe the reason for our evaluation. It is not enough for us, like Justice Stewart to just say “I know it when I see it”.

There is an old saying that if you want to understand a new subject, explain it to someone else. It helps you understanding it yourself. This works kind of like that. When you can clearly explain to yourself or someone else why an image is good or bad (in your opinion), you have a clear understanding of your judgement.

Getting to this point is harder. You can build a mental model of what you think certain art critics would say. You might have taken some lessons in art appreciation. If you are very lucky you may even have a good mentor who can coach you and help develop your conscious evaluation.

Your standards

Better is to train yourself. Study composition. Know the “rules” of photography. Study technique and use of light. In other words become enough of an expert to have a solid and well reasoned opinion about your craft. And don’t forget that, as you grow, your style becomes more and more different from your peers.

When you evaluate an image it is from multiple viewpoints. You have to consider what the artist intended. Determining if you have ever seen anything else kind of like it gives a point of comparison. Applying conventional composition norms to it helps to set an evaluation framework. It is tricky, but fair, to consider what you would have done in the same situation.

But at the base of it all, pretend you are explaining to someone why it is good or bad. Really go through the dialog. Be honest. Don’t skip over the hard parts.

Improve

Then there is the improve part. I hope we all are consciously trying to improve our work all the time. If you think you have arrived at the peak and can’t go any higher, you are fooling yourself. As an artist you have to have a lot of confidence but at the same time be humble enough to realize you are a work in progress.

Ask yourself what could be different, what variations on this could you think of? What part or this image is weak? Can you move your location? Should you wait for better light? Maybe a smaller part of the scene is a better image. Some of these questions may lead to a different way to approach the subject.

Your portfolio

These 3 questions from Ramit could lead most of us to becoming better artists. But let me relate it back to improving our portfolio.

As I am going through my portfolio I need to be brutally honest. For each image in your portfolio ask: is this a great image? If not, it shouldn’t be here. Can I explain why it is good? Clearly? Finally, can I envision a way to improve it and replace it with a stronger image?

The survivors should be strong images. There is no hard rule of how many images you should have. A number I hear a lot is 20. That seems insane. I have to boil my thousands of great images down to 20? Crazy. Impossible. Have you tried? It is quite a revealing exercise.

There are some attitudes I have to take when I am doing it. First, I must really believe that taking out a marginal image makes the set stronger. Second, I can’t keep an image in just because I love it. It has to be able to stand on its own. Third, I make myself believe that taking out a favorite image is not like throwing it away. It could be used somewhere else, like if a gallery requests a certain subject that it fits.

Lastly, I have to understand that the viewers will only see what I show them. They will never see the ones that almost worked. They will not see the ones that were bumped by stronger images. What they do see determines their evaluation of me as an artist. Better to lose some of my favorites if they are not to the level of craftsmanship and creativity I want to portray. I have done it and lived through it.

A living thing

Your portfolio is a living thing. It should change as you do better and better work. Go back periodically and test some of your new images against your portfolio. Hopefully you will sometimes reluctantly take out some of the old favorites in favor of the new works.

This is sad, but it should also be exciting. If you are growing as an artist you new work should be even better than the best of the past. It is a way to see your progress. And your portfolio gets stronger. You are growing.

To see a snapshot of my current portfolio broken down by several genres, check it out at:

photos.schlotzcreate.com