Invest in Yourself

Obscure found image. Track to nowhere

You are your best asset. As a matter of fact, you are your only asset. Invest in yourself to develop your skills and abilities.

Professional

I am primarily talking about our skills as an artist. We need to invest in our self to grow and get better professionally. It is a life-long process.

Time

Do you invest enough time in your art? Many of us have a “real” job to pay the bills. And we have families and other obligations. It stretches us pretty thin at times.

But we cannot grow as an artist unless we put in the time to do the work. Practice, practice, practice. Repetition. Experiment. These things make us more skilled and more mature in our craft.

I have heard of a gallery saying they are not interested in an artist until they have painted 10,000 pictures. Of course, that is a silly metric. There is no arbitrary number to reach your peak. I do believe, though, as Linus Pauling said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas and throw away the bad ones.” Same with our art. We get better with practice as we learn to recognize the bad stuff and throw it away.

We have to put in the reps.

Training

I don’t know about you, but before becoming an artist, my professional life involved constant learning. I seldom did things I learned in college. One of the great benefits of my previous career was that I had to learn to learn. My life as an artist is the same.

My friend Ramit Sethi makes a point of how much he spends on personal development, from courses to books to a personal trainer. He has a much larger budget to play with than I do. Even so, in proportion to where I’m at I may rival him. No personal trainer though. I have to be content with getting out almost every day and walking about 5 miles with my camera. His advice is good. I do like and generally follow his book buying rule: “If you see a book you like, just buy it”. As I write this I’m waiting for a new one to show up.

It’s not the amount you spend on training that matters, it’s the results. I have occasionally spent hundreds of dollars on classes that were a marginal benefit, but gotten a lot of good from a free online class. It is a matter of what speaks to you at the time. And the fact that you’re doing it regularly. I probably watch 10-15 hours of videos a week on art, marketing, sales, general business, and selected other subjects of interest. No, no funny cat videos.

The point, though, is that we must constantly invest in our self. When you say you already know everything you need, you start to stagnate. You can always learn something new and improve your artistic skills and yourself personally. You have to.

Marketing

Now it starts to hurt, at least for me. I don’t like marketing. I would rather just do art.

But I have been told over and over and I now believe I have to invest at least 20% of my time marketing. The reality is probably more like 30-40%. I have a lot of catching up to do.

Unless we are doing our art as a hobby, and are content to just show our work to friends, we have to market ourselves. “Build it and they will come” is a great line for a movie, but is not true in real life.

Art is a very competitive world. Galleries don’t want to hear from you. They have too many artists already. Selling online? So is everyone else. So what can we do? We build a distinct brand and be very persistent and professional in our outreach.

Several marketing gurus have made a point that we will never get anywhere if we do something a couple of times then get discouraged and move on to something else. Persistent, repetitive, sustained marketing is required to “break in” to the world we want. I don’t like it, but that is life.

Personal

As important as it is to grow and take care of our self professionally, I believe it is equally important to take care of our personal life. I hope your vision for your life is about more than just professional achievement. Do not neglect your health and fitness and your mental and spiritual development.

The training I advocated above also helps you mentally. Keeping your brain active and learning new things has a lot of long term benefits. A substantial part of the training should be targeted at things that do not seem directly related to your art. Read biographies, history, science, psychology, and even fiction. It is amazing what seemingly unrelated things can spark a creative idea.

A key word there is “read”. You are a professional. You cannot just watch videos. Reading has a greater benefit than watching a screen. Try it. It is good for your mind.

Mindful

A common thread to all of this is mindfulness. This is just a fancy psychological term for being deliberate and conscious in what we do and very aware of what is going on around us. I am studying this now and I am sure I will be writing more on it later. But for now, pay attention to what you do and be very aware of your choices.

The picture

I love this picture with the article. It is one of the greatest train tracks I have ever seen. Look closer if nothing jumped out at you when you first saw it.

I can take it as metaphors for a lot of things. For this article, I will use it to make the point that there are many paths we can chose. But they do not all lead to the outcome we want. Choose wisely and deliberately. The path you want is usually not the easy one. You are your best asset. Take care of yourself. Work at it.

That’s Not What I Was Taught

Organic flow. Creative expression. Fall in love.

We all learned our craft somehow. And if we develop as artists there comes a point where we have to stop relying on what we were taught and make our own way, maybe in a different direction. At that point we are going beyond what we were taught.

Instruction

Unless you were raised by wolves and picked up the concept of making art through a mystical infusion, you were taught somehow. For many that means formal art school or classes and workshops with leading artists.

Even though I consider myself self-taught, I had thousands of hours of instruction in the form of books, videos, self-evaluation, looking at art, visiting museums, etc.

Somehow, we got trained. The “muscle memory” was built. We learned the basic techniques and technology. The history and design and composition and color theory and the dozens of other layers of information we need to create art are introduced to us. We build on what has come before.

It’s like shooting thousands of baskets until you are completely comfortable with the feel and weight of the ball, until you start the have the “touch” to put it where you want from all different angles and distances. This isn’t playing basketball, it’s just getting prepared to play basketball.

Apprentice

When the basics are laid down, most of us go through a long “apprenticeship”. It may not be formal and we may not call it that, but that is what it is.

By apprenticeship I mean we are practicing the basics until they are smooth and natural. At this point we are probably listening to or watching a mentor and trying to create work like theirs. Nothing wrong with this. It is part of the learning process. But we are still creating someone else’s art. This is practice, training.

To continue the basketball analogy, now we start to practice with the team. We become comfortable passing and catching and playing positions and working smoothly with the others. The coach is yelling at us and making us do drills and repetitive work that seems boring and useless. Maybe we mostly sit on the bench in games and only rotate in occasionally. The reality is that we are probably not as good yet as we think. The coach knows that. That is why we aren’t playing much right now.

As artists, maybe we go out shooting or painting a lot with our mentor. They direct us to locations and talk through how they see the image. It is helping us learn to create a decent image. It may not be how we see it, but at this point we are trying to produce results that match theirs.

Independence

Ah… someday. The longer we go through our training and apprenticeship, the more we begin to chafe under the restrictions. As we develop our own style and vision some of us yearn to break away and do what we think we need to do.

One of the things Jesus said to his disciples was interesting (well, a lot were): “Students are not greater than their teacher.” That’s true, as long as there is a teacher/student relationship. As long as the teacher has something to teach you. But he goes on to say “But the student who is fully trained will become like the teacher.”

There comes a point where there are diminishing returns from studying from a teacher. If the student comes to a parity level with the teacher, they become the teacher.

That is the thing. At some point, we become our own teachers. Not that we know everything, but that no one else does either, so we have to guide our self.

Where do you go then?

What I observe, unscientifically, is 3 paths at this point:

  • Continue doing what you were taught
  • Enhance it a little and go slightly beyond
  • Figure out that there is something different

It seems to me that most artists proudly continue doing work like they were taught. They go on to get better and better at the same things. I’m not criticizing them. This seems to be the best path for many people. I can’t understand it myself, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

Another group pushes a little beyond what they were taught. They enhance the techniques, maybe modernize them with new materials or processes. Maybe introduce a little fusion from another school. The result is a natural evolution of what they learned. Again, no criticism. But again, I can’t understand staying so close to home.

It would seem obvious that I must be in the last group, since I don’t fit anywhere else. 🙂 We sincerely thank our instructors for the training they gave us. But we realize we have a different vision and will be creating a completely different form of art. This is not a rejection of our instructors, just a growth stage.

Our own body of work

My view is that at some point, we have to let our own vision and style emerge and take the lead in our work. This is not something that happens automatically as soon as we leave the umbrella of our instructor. It happens over some period of time. The time is completely personal and dependent only on ourselves.

Hopefully at this point we can trust our judgment to recognize and follow the path we are being drawn to. We are creating our own body of work, in our own style, following our own vision. Now we are really an independent artist. We have no more need for a teacher. Confidants, advisors, mentors, critics even, but not teachers.

What we are doing is not what we were taught. It is what we have transformed that teaching to that works for us.

Take It Out

Near minimalist image. All distracting elements removed.

A lot of times, our image can be improved by taking out some of what’s there. This point of view tends to come with experience. When we start photographing the tendency is to go wide and try to get “everything” in the frame. It is a learned discipline to restrict our view and take out distracting elements.

A subtractive art

One way that photography is fundamentally different from most other arts is that the sensor in our camera automatically records everything it sees. Other arts construct an image by consciously selecting and adding elements to the frame. If you don’t like something in the scene you are painting, don’t include it.

This creates a very different workflow and thought process for photographers. I have to be aware of everything in the frame in real time. That is, I don’t have the luxury of easily picking and choosing what I will include. Unless I am very careful everything the camera is pointed at will be recorded. Yes, I could spend many hours in Photoshop removing the things that distract, but I don’t like doing it like that. Besides taking a lot of time, I believe it is better to be careful when composing the image capture. I feel better as an artist to get the captured image as close to the desired result as I can get it.

It takes lot of discipline to make myself aware of every bit of the frame. Even those far away corners where distractions seem to lurk. And those mysterious things poking in from the edges must be seen and dealt with. And that trash in view. Being aware is crucial. I must move or reframe to eliminate distractions.

You are responsible for every part of your image, even the parts you’re not interested in. – Jay Maisel

Elimination

Photography is much more about elimination than inclusion – John Paul Caponigro

Mr. Caponigro is on to a great truth here. I find when I am composing a shot that I’m caught in a strong tension. “What should I include?” fighting with “what should I exclude?”. Usually this battle plays out quickly in my subconscious. I have a lot of experience. But even so, I sometimes find myself blindsided. I look at an image and think “what is that doing here?” when I was blind to a distracting element.

I find that the decisions to eliminate things often are more taxing that the ones to go ahead and include them. When you are unsure it seems safer to include it, just in case. This is usually the wrong attitude. If you are not sure it should be there eliminate it. Taking things out, to some limit, usually makes for more clear images. Anything that competes with the main subject and composition should be very suspect.

Minimalism

Does the desire to take out distracting elements lead to minimalist images? Maybe. Not necessarily.

Minimalism tends to be an extreme. To me it can be a bleak and harsh discipline. My work is not minimalist. I love the richness of excellent textures and compositions that may include a lot of elements. Simplicity and reduction of distraction are different from minimalism.

I would characterize minimalism as a mind set. The process is to take out absolutely everything that is not completely required for the image. My attitude is to strongly consider eliminating everything that seems to be distracting. I allow for occasional riots of seemingly useless complexity when I thing it adds to the image.

The image with this post is borderline minimalist. If I had removed the grass and the hints of field it probably would qualify for minimalist in my mind. I don’t care. I don’t like labels.

Ambiguity

Less information often leads to more interpretation. – John Paul Caponigro

Have you noticed in some paintings or songs or stories that less is actually more? Less complete information leads to some ambiguity. It allows space for the viewer to fill in what’s missing. Viewers like to be challenged a little, to have to work some to figure out an image. It is engaging and stimulating. It also allows for their private interpretation to be applied. They may well create a story that is different from what the artist envisioned. That is wonderful. It means the image is big enough to encompass multiple points of view.

Enjoy the creative stimulation of the frame. Deciding what’s in the frame is composition. Where you put the frame is cropping. Keeping things out of the frame is selection, selectivity, defining the subject. Less is often more. Use your judgment and don’t be afraid to take it out.

Improvement

Results of an experiment

In a recent post I quoted Todd Vorenkamp saying “Search yourself for improvement, not your gear”. I believe that our improvement needs to come from within us, not from better gear. What is your plan to make yourself a better artist? Do you have one? I am an Engineer. I know that nothing gets better by accident. We all need a plan and strategies to improve ourselves. I am not saying we need a 5 year plan or a 10 step process. But we need to consciously strive for improvement.

Study

Whatever you believe in and value and spend your life doing, you should be a lifelong student of. We are lucky to live at a time when we have so many channels for learning available to us.

If you were an aspiring artist in the 16th century you would have to apprentice to a master. There you would spend several years doing grunt work and menial tasks while studying the basics of drawing. Eventually you might advance to a stage where you were trusted to add some parts to a painting the master started. Someday you might be trusted to make copies of the master’s work. Now after 10-15 years you could be deemed ready to go out on your own. Of course, all you know is your master’s style. You don’t really know what you want to be yet. A pretty poor system in my opinion.

Now, though, there are an abundance of schools and online classes. There are books and magazines. There are mentors available and unlimited examples to view online. Most of us are reasonably close to good museums where we can examine great art at will. We could spend all our time studying and never make an image if we are not disciplined.

Online classes

I have gotten lots of good information from classes at CreativeLive and Kelby One. B&H Explora has a great free library to view, among all the sales stuff. Anything by Julieanne Kost is extremely worthwhile. Some other great instructors are Dave Cross and Ben Willmore. I do not receive any compensation for these plugs. Many of these things require subscription. It is worth paying for good instruction. For free stuff, there is more on YouTube than you could ever watch. Be careful. Be wary in deciding who you are going to listen to, especially on YouTube. It’s the wild west.

One reason I love Julianne Kost, besides that there may not be anyone on the planet who knows more about Photoshop, is that she said “I don’t want a recipe, I want to learn to cook.” This is wise advice. A lot of training presents recipes to do exactly what the instructor did. I don’t want that. I want to know how to fix my own dishes, to create my own recipes. She is good at presenting her training from that point of view.

The real thing is to do it continually. Learning should be a habit we cultivate for our whole life. We never know all of everything. It might be harder to find new and deeper things to learn, but it is there. I suggest you commit to study as an ongoing process, not an event.

Critique

I will put this here, even though I am very bad at it. It has been a long time since I went for a formal critique of my work.

I know it can be valuable. I remember years ago when I was in a camera club the critique was good discipline. As I matured, I also learned that you had to carefully evaluate it, because most critique was normative. It was trying to mold me to fit the biases of the group or the evaluator. Use at your own risk. Be smart about it.

I hear there are some good critique sessions you can submit your work to for evaluation. I have not done it, but I would if I found one I trust.

Possibly the most valuable thing about critiques is that they get you used to hearing negative comments about your work. This, in itself, is good training.

Experiment

There is a big difference between 20 years of experience and 1 year of experience repeated 20 times. A lot of people get trapped by their success. They become known for a style and feel they have to keep doing it for fear they may lose their audience.

I believe an artist grows and evolves throughout their career. Your interests change, your style may change, certainly your point of view changes. How will you follow these changes unless you give yourself permission to experiment some?

That doesn’t mean you have to suddenly make an abrupt 90 degree turn and go a completely new direction. Experiments may be personal. Most of them will fail. Some, though, will have a glimmer of a new idea, a new viewpoint. Follow up on them. Keep pushing.

A willingness to experiment and play is healthy. It will keep us fresh and creative as an artist. Evaluate what you have learned about yourself from the experiments and decide what to keep and build on.

A note about the image with this article: this was the result of an experiment. I liked it. Other people seemed to agree, since it went into a gallery and sold.

Be open and flexible

Are you willing to entertain new ideas? New technology and techniques? New points of view that are alien to your normal thoughts? You don’t have to buy in to them. You don’t have to adopt them.

Stretching yourself with new ideas is kind of like yoga for the mind. You stay flexible. When a mind becomes rigid and inflexible it shuns new ideas, new thoughts. The creative place within us requires fuel, new possibilities, new ways of looking at things. Otherwise we stay in our comfortable rut.

Creativity is like anything else with our bodies. We have to work at it to develop. If we don’t exercise we lose the ability to move and we get unhealthy. Likewise, being open to new things is an attitude, a habit. We can work to get better at it.

Think about it

We should be our own best critic and our own best evaluator. If you’re an artist, how can you not obsess about your art? It is a major part of your life. It should occupy a lot of your thought.

I am an introvert and an Engineer. That gives me an ability to look at my work fairly objectively. I know that will not be the same for everyone. We are all different.

But whatever talents we have, we need to learn to be able to evaluate our work fairly. You see what other artists do. You know your own work. What you do has to stack up against your own expectations and your evaluation. We never think we have arrived at the pinnacle. And we shouldn’t. Hopefully we will always be growing.

Thinking about where we are and where we need to go will help us plot our course. Being realistic will help keep us from deluding our self and also keep us from beating our self up. Don’t be negative. Improvement is a lifestyle. Look for new ideas. Embrace new points of view. Experiment with things that are very different that what we normally do. Grow.

What’s not here?

Your equipment is probably not holding you back significantly. Learn to think. Creatively visualize new things. Try new techniques. Grow into the artist you want to be. Then you will do wonders with that expensive new camera. 🙂