Becoming an Artist

A Creative view of a common occurance

I consider myself an artist. I would like to share what I see as my journey to this state. Becoming an artist is not something I decided to do. Looking back, I see it was a journey I was on for a long time. Let me explain.

Early camera days

I first picked up a camera when I was in college. I wish I could tell a moving story of a valued mentor who inspired me and set me on the path. No. No one encouraged me or gave me an example. I just did it, probably on a whim. Or maybe even then there was a creative urge that needed an outlet.

Like most people I just took shots of family and friends, pretty scenes, you know, the conventional stuff. Occasionally an image stood out to me, but in general they were definitely not memorable.

Balancing the left brain

I had a long and rewarding career as an engineer. I loved it. In many ways it was perfect for me. I could burrow in on problems and devise solutions. It required constant learning, which led me to learning how to learn and self-pursuing the equivalent of several masters degrees. I was having fun.

But subconsciously I also knew I was spending too much time on left-brain activities. You know, the logical, analytical, quantitative processing that we all do, but some people do a lot more. I was drawn to balancing myself more with visual and intuitive activities.

I was lucky to live in Colorado. My wife and I would often head out for a long weekend, or even a week, of hiking, jeeping, and photography. We didn’t leave Colorado all that much for many years.

Even so, my photographic work was uninspired and uninspiring. I shot untold thousands of slides (pre-digital days). I still have most of them. The times I have looked back on some of them, I’m embarrassed to say they were technically competent, decently composed, but lacking in much feeling or excitement. Very few are worth spending time to bring them forward into my current portfolio.

I have stacks of record shots of beautiful places. But something was missing and I couldn’t place it.

Software architect

Later in my career I taught myself software architecture. Wow. I didn’t know there could be such rewarding creativity in engineering. I had the privilege to design a few relatively large software systems and direct the work of excellent developers. It was a joy.

A strange unintended consequence happened, though, The more creative experiences I had in my work, the more I sought and wanted. Design in all forms had me addicted. I was no longer content to just develop software, I wanted to be more involved in the design of things. Studying design became a hobby and obsession.

I still had not expanded my view to realize the design I concentrated on was just a small part of the world of creative endeavors. My photography continued, but it was still a background activity. There was lots less jeeping and outings since the kids were growing up.

My photography continued. That is a thread running through my story. I moved to digital somewhere along the way and had no nostalgia for the loss of film. I was improving. Sometimes I liked the images I shot. But not that often.

User experience

Somewhere later in my career I expanded my interests to embrace the new field of user experience design. This was much larger than user interface design or human factors. It dealt with feelings, emotions, likes and dislikes. Those are uncomfortable subjects for a hard-core engineer!

But it was a revelation. People don’t buy or use something because of a logical evaluation of pros and cons. They buy it because they like it. It makes them feel good.

Most of those years as an engineer I pushed difficult to use things on people and assumed they would spend lots of time learning to use them. That works if their company is paying them to suffer through it, but in general it is not a good strategy. Engineers design things for engineers and assume everyone will learn the technology and lingo.

Now there was a whole new view. Feelings were real. Emotion was something that could consciously be designed for. You could actually determine what people had trouble with and intentionally design the product to make it pleasing to use.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the beginning of the end of my engineering career. The creativity I saw here and the embrace of feelings took me away from normal engineering. I did finally realize this new creativity was directly applicable to my art. It was a clear step toward me becoming an artist.

My photography became much more than recording scenes of places I have been. I was conscious of feelings. I wasn’t as interested in making a record of something as I was of surprising, of revealing something different or interesting.

Artist using photography

I finally resigned my engineering career and declared myself an artist. That was hard, but exciting and empowering. I no longer worked for anyone. I could pursue my own interests. I could create according to my own vision. Even if that meant sitting out on the limb while I’m sawing it off.

I am unapologetic that my art is based on photography. Photography as an artistic medium has important benefits, even if it is abused by many.

All digital images need work on the computer. Sometimes I am able to capture an image whole. It is almost ready when it comes out of the camera. All it needs is minor color and tone correction and some “punch”. But sometimes an image is just a sketch. It is a starting point that needs a lot of work to develop it into the image I want to show to people.

Either way, or any other way, this is art. This is creative. I love it. I feel fulfilled.

Can’t not do it

I can’t not do it. For you non-US readers, please forgive the terrible grammar. This is a popular catchphrase that refers to something you are so passionate about you are unable to avoid doing it. My art is a can’t not do.

It is not just something I want to do. It is not even just something I do. It is something I have to do. I am compelled. I do it all the time, unconsciously, even if I don’t have a camera in my hand. It is the way I see the world now.

I”m grateful for the life experiences I have had. I suspect I needed those years of discipline to get to where I am now. I could not have jumped directly to this point because I needed to mature and refine a lot of viewpoints and thought processes. Your mileage may vary. I hope you are able to find the best path for you. “How artists get there is as important as how they arrive.” – John Paul Caponigro

If you consider yourself to be an artist, or if that is your goal, I hope you are able to become obsessive in your work. A lot of people view artists as a little crazy. Maybe they’re right.

Controlled Abandon

Beauty in age

Practice controlled abandon.John Paul Caponigro

Different people have different styles of working. I don’t think there is a one size fits all approach. Some people seem to need a very detailed, planned shoot. That is not best for me. I find out more and more that throwing out most structure is what works. Mr Caponigro calls it “controlled abandon”. Not a bad description.

When I get into it, it is instinctual, reactive, “shooting from the hip”. My subconscious recognizes scenes I would like and guides me to frame them best. I trust the process because my mind knows what I like and I have trained it to recognize interesting opportunities.

In a workshop one time Bob Rozinski, who was, among other things, winner of International Nature’s Best photography contest, told me “you think too much”. Well, I think I have solved that problem. Maybe it’s time for someone to tell me I should slow down and think more. 🙂


I like to be surprised by scenes I find. If things turn out to be exactly what I anticipated, it is usually fairly boring. I don’t like to be bored by my art.

It is far preferable to me to find something that gives me a shiver of excitement. That awakes a sense of wonder. If that is my reaction maybe I can convey it to my viewers. When I’m editing a set of images I can definitely tell the ones I was bored with. They may be perfectly exposed and well composed, but there is no thrill there.

Surprises often become the start of something new. A surprise may being a new insight on how to see something. It may open up some possibilities I had not recognized. I view a surprise as being a potential growth opportunity. Being stopped by a surprise makes you ask questions of yourself. That is always good.


Time, or at least its perception, is a variable. It seems to flow at different rates for different activities. Remember those classes you could swear lasted for hours, even if the clock said they were only 45 minutes long? On the other hand, think of times you’ve been out with good friends and you discover you have occupied 3 hours, and you were surprised because you thought it had only been about an hour.

We can have the same distorted sense of time when making images, or editing. If you’re lucky you will learn how to get into a “flow” state. Mihály CsĂ­kszentmihályi, who popularized the term describes it as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Have you experienced it? I have, many times. I got practiced at it in my Engineering career. When caught up in an interesting problem there were times I realized it was 6pm and I forgot to have lunch and hadn’t even been to the bathroom for hours. It was wonderfully satisfying, and productive, addictive, even.

The same can happen in a creative, immersive activity like art. Approaching it with controlled abandon helps. In another quote Mr. Caponigro says: “Time did not seem to move as it ordinarily did. The world grew quiet. I was absorbed by beauty. I had no idea what I was going to do with the images. I simply made exposures as a sign of recognition, recognition of beauty. 

Critical thinking

Is there a place for critical thinking? Of course. The mind is marvelously complex and multi-layered. We are always processing from several perspectives. If you are a responsible adult you are aware of many factors, even in a “flow” state: don’t step off that cliff beside you, don’t put your hand there without checking for rattlesnakes, get off the road there’s a car I hear coming behind me.

Many of us, though, let the critical thinking control too much of our creative life. It is easy to come up with good reasons to not take a picture. Sometimes to our detriment. Or to analyze a scene too long and miss the moment. Over thinking can be worse than under thinking.

French photographer Alain Briot, who lives and works in the Southwest US deserts, described an ideal shoot as “shooting fast and leaving critical thinking aside were critical to get the shot. It was all about getting immersed in the subject, shooting away and not seeking perfection.

Don’t see, FEEL

This brings me to what I believe is critically important to good creative expression, at least for me. Trust your feelings before your head. Your head, the critical thinking aspect, will try to talk you into safe, logical, not very creative choices. Your feelings may pull you to discover something different.

I love the part of the previous quote by Mr. Caponigro where he says “I had no idea what I was going to do with the images. I simply made exposures as a sign of recognition, recognition of beauty..” Seeking beauty for it’s own sake as opposed to only shooting for a definite commercial interest. We don’t all have the freedom to do this, but I strongly recommend you do it some. It’s good for the soul.

It is best to go out empty, the great Jay Maisel says. By avoiding preconceived notions of what we intend to find we are more open to seeing and reacting to what is really there. It is the learning to see that is difficult for many. By “see” I don’t mean just having the visual acuity to be able to resolve the details of a scene before you. I mean we actually consider each element and what it looks like and how it could be photographed. How do the things around us cause us to react? Do you feel something for that old rusty car hidden in the bushes that nobody else pays any attention to as they go by? Maybe, at just the right moment, in the right light, from the right angle it is beautiful.

Channel your creativity

So to me, I interpret “controlled abandon” as a type of channeled creativity. The channeling is the control. We focus our consciousness on being open to perceive our environment. The abandon is to put aside preconceived notions and logical processes and get down to our feelings and instinct. We allow ourselves to just react to what we find.

Instinct is a fuzzy term I use, because I don’t know a better description without writing a book. I believe our creative instinct is a combination of inherent vision and years of training to refine that vision to a set of decisions that happen below the conscious level.

Get out and let yourself go. React. Follow the beauty. Controlled abandon. You might discover a new side to you that you didn’t realize was there.


Blurred but sharp

We have or experience boundaries in all aspects of our lives. Some boundaries are essential. Boundaries set limits to define acceptable behavior to allow society to function. But the boundaries I am talking about here are the ones we accept or even impose on ourselves in our creative world.

What is it that bounds you?

Most of us are limited by the beliefs we have accepted or been taught. Beliefs are not at all bad. They are necessary. It is when they limit you into a box you can’t break out of that they become a burden. Beliefs should be carefully examined and modified or discarded as we progress through life. Sometimes our beliefs become outdated because we grow to a new level of understanding.

That is pretty philosophical. Let me take a simple example of a landscape shot. We know what it looked like and we believe it should look like that. But why? Why is it only allowed to look like the exact reality that was there? What is reality? What if you want it to be different? It is probably only your beliefs that prevent you from experimenting with something else and maybe ending up at a completely different place.

Who sets your boundaries?

Most of us learned photography from educators or mentors or tutorials. This is great. All are good ways to build skills and learn the craft.

Many of us, though, simply accept and follow the instruction we were given. We might even proudly tell people “I learned the style of [____] from [____ ]” (fill in your favorites). Congratulations. But so what?

The great artist you learned from has developed a set of values and skills over the years. They are based on their perceptions, the way they see the world. Their art reflects themselves and their experience. As it should. When they teach a student they are training them to think or view things like themselves.

Why should you follow their precepts? Doing so limits you to being an inferior clone of the instructor. When we develop our own vision and become confident in the worth of our creativity we will have to uproot some of those fences our instructors put in place to help guide us.

All the education you have received is good, in that it makes you what you are today. Learn all you can from all sources but reserve the right to form your own opinions. Don’t be complacent. Follow your own path.

Technical boundaries

All artistic medium have their own boundaries. Whether it is material properties or technology or physics, everything we use has limits.

The wonderful cameras I use have hard technical limits. For instance, even though they have excellent dynamic range (the range of dark to light they can capture) it is not as great as some subjects I want to photograph. I have to learn techniques to deal with the limit, like HDR. Or I have to learn to make art that exploits those limits to create something new.

Great artists tend to push the envelope of their medium. They discover ways to use the limits to express themselves in new ways. Don’t be afraid to push the limits.

Mental limitations

For most of us, though, our values and beliefs define our boundaries, not the medium. We hold ourselves back. We avoid pushing past or even seriously questioning the fences we have set up in our minds. Worse, we don’t usually even realize these limitations.

A lifetime of criticism and training gets deeply embedded. You have to do this. Never do that. Always compose like this. Avoid doing this in post processing. Repetition leads to acceptance and eventually we become blind to alternatives. Fearful, even of trying anything outside the norm as we know it.

Do you remember the famous Apple 1984 ad? You should watch it. It is a great classic and it has a very important message. Group think and indoctrination prevails in any group. It doesn’t change until someone stands up to it and says “I don’t think so”.

Overcoming boundaries

Your biggest creative boundaries are deeply held within you. You have to accept that they are there and learn to take them out and examine them and decide if they should stay or go.

I recognize that this advice will only be useful to about half the population. The ones who are introverted enough to have the gift of introspection. I know enough extroverts to realize that they don’t think this way. I’m not saying that is good or bad, but since I don’t understand you I can’t offer much advice for you. Personally I observe that a disproportionate percentage of artists I know are introverts.

I believe the first step to becoming our own is to ask “why”? Ask it of ourselves when we turn back at a “don’t go there” point. Ask it of other people who tell you you shouldn’t do something. Listen to the answers. Be honest with yourself.

If you find the answer is because somebody you respect told you that is not the way to do it, maybe it is time to experiment. Maybe doing it is right for you even if not for them.

Asking “why” puts you in a somewhat of a confrontation position. I don’t like that, but I realize it is necessary sometimes. You may get scorn or criticism. You may get evasive answers. But ask, at least ask yourself. Remember, as far as your creative direction, you are the only one who can answer.

Permission to color outside the lines

In a previous post I referenced a Calvin and Hobbs cartoon that is very meaningful to me. If you remember, Calvin was doing a paint by number but he wasn’t using the color codes or painting in the lines. When it was pointed out to him, it seemed a bizarre concept to want to paint their picture rather than his own.

That is perfect! If we accede to other people’s boundaries, we create their art, not our own.

I have been following this path for years but I still find myself stopped by boundaries I had not consciously acknowledged. I have to constantly give myself permission to go further, do it different, don’t worry about whether or not it looks like the original. It is important to remind myself that if I feel it I can try it. If I can express a reason that makes sense to me, that is good enough. I may not like it after I try it but it is very important and healthy to try something different.

It is hard to truly give yourself permission to color outside the lines.

But learn to do it. Make yourself do it. It is worth it. You start to discover what you really see and feel. It becomes your art.

Behind the Curtain

Sunset on Trail Ridge Road

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” is one of the classic lines from movie history. It is brilliant and captures a universal truth.

If you don’t remember, or if you’re young enough to never have seen The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends are terrified and fascinated by the projected image of an imposing wizard with his booming voice. But her dog Toto pulls a curtain aside and reveals an old man who is controlling things through levers and buttons. He tells them to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain to try to deflect attention from what is really happening.

Once revealed, the magic is not intimidating anymore. This is very true in most things. Even the Wizard of Oz turns out to be a nice guy.


The famous science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is also very true and we are effectively surrounded by magic all the time. For most of us, the internet is magic, making a phone call is magic, even getting in our car and driving it is magic. These and many others around us everyday are marvelously advanced technology products that few people really understand. We use them but don’t understand how they work.

But everyone who uses a tool or product forms a mental model to help us understand how it works. Some of the models we make are wild hallucinations with no basis in fact. These incorrect models quickly break down when we venture into new or advanced territory. They no longer allow us to predict behavior, which is the purpose of the model.

The way to counter this is to learn more accurate models of what is really happening. Learning the reality in effect lifts the curtain and lets us see how the thing really works.

Maybe it is not as romantic and fanciful to learn the reality, but it lets us become more expert in the thing we are using. The magic becomes just technology that now serves us well.


I want to use Photoshop as today’s example of magic. I’m afraid that to many artists Photoshop appears to be magic. This is an invitation to get over that by starting to peak behind some of the curtains.

I will not downplay it or dumb it down. That would not be treating you like an adult. Photoshop is very complicated. At first it seems like looking in the cockpit of a jet aircraft. I have been at it since about Photoshop 4 (it’s on version 21 now) and I have been fortunate to have the benefit of live and video instruction from some master teachers such as Ben Willmore, Dave Cross, and John Paul Caponigro. But every week I study it more and learn new abilities and ways of combining things.

But there is a good side to all this complexity, too. All that capability to learn means all that capability that can be used creatively for your art. I rate Photoshop as one of the finest software products ever created, and I have used a lot and I developed software for many years.

It is almost true that Photoshop is not magic. Content Aware Fill and Content Aware Move and a few other features may actually be magic. But for the most part it is just a collection of relatively simple tools that can be combined together to create artistic results.


Demystifying is what happened with the curtain. It will happen for you with Photoshop if you burrow into it and get past the fear factor. You will eventually have a moment when the mists lift and you understand how people create with tools like this and how you can use the tools to realize your own vision. This is a moment of enlightenment. There is no right or wrong way.

If you just try to memorize all the tools and settings and features you will go crazy. There are an unimaginable number of combinations. It is important to first learn the principles of how to work in it. I’m just going to discuss the Photoshop features that are most important to photographers.


I can’t teach you to be a Photoshop expert here, but maybe I can help point out some important concepts. There are basically 2 things you can do: transform pixels or blend and combine them.


One of the most important capabilities you will use is layers. Get very comfortable with them. A layer is just what it says. Think of it as a perfectly clear sheet of plastic. You create stacks of layers and each one can contain pixels or mathematical operations on pixels. A layer can be an image from your camera or things you have drawn or painted or many other things, including all or parts of other images. You can add or delete or rearrange layers at will. The image you see in the main window is the view looking down through all the layers. You can never see layers. You just see the pixels on the layers.

Pixels on a layer can just hide ones below or they can be combined with pixels below using what are called blend modes. Blend modes can cause the pixels of a layer to lighten or darken or influence just the color or luminosity or contrast of pixels below.

In addition, a layer can have a mask. The mask can block parts of the layer from view. A phrase you will hear often is “black conceals; white reveals”. The black areas of a mask prevent the pixels of this layer from being seen in the stack. This lets us be very precise in making changes to select parts.


Operating across all the layers and masks you have a large set of tools. These are like paint brushes or erasers or means to select certain areas to operate on. The tools let you manipulate the layers and masks to work some of the magic.

While layers hold pixels, tools allow us to do things to the pixels. Pixels on any layer can be added or removed or colored or sharpened or blurred or moved around to almost any level. Same with masks, which are also just pixels but just function differently.


Focus on these concepts. They are some of the powerful principles that make Photoshop such a marvelous tool for manipulating pixels. When you get comfortable with these basic things you will be surprised how much you can do in Photoshop and how simple it starts to seem.

So the reality is that Photoshop is “just” a large collection of fairly simple tools. The beauty of this is that these tools can be used and combined in near infinite ways to modify or create digital art. Each user has complete ability to express his vision without being constrained by the tools to look all the same.

There is no lack of training available in books or on the internet. Look around and find some that work for you. I recommend Ben Willmore and Dave Cross as excellent instructors to start with. They can present powerful concepts simply and make all this wondrous capability accessible to you. Buying some courses on CreativeLive is one way to get their training.

Living without magic

The adult world has less magic than you had when you were a kid. A side effect of growing up is there is less magic in your world. In a sense this is good. The tools we use to create our art should be just tools. No matter how powerful they are, they are just things to be wielded in our creative process.

Save the magic for your creative vision and spirit of adventure. Keep a sense of wonder as you go through the world. You are surrounded my magic. Don’t make it less important by viewing your tools as part of the magic.

What you see and perceive and create is the magic.