Whose Art?

Extreme lens flare as art

Who do you make your art for? No, really. It’s a serious question. A recent post discussed Finding Beauty. I think it is important to follow that by asking who determines the beauty and worth of our art. Whose art are we making? Who for?

For the whole world

If you are making your art for everyone, time to rethink your plan. Not everybody is going to like what you make. Sorry, that is the truth. And if your “style” is determined by what gets likes on Instagram or Facebook you are just chasing popularity.

You have your own style and you should stick to it. You may not recognize your style or know how to express it yet, but you do have one if you are authentically trying to express your values.

I don’t care much for a lot of images I see. I won’t say they are not art, just that they do not appeal to me. My style and values are different. The same with you. What you make will resonate with some people and not with others. Even if you become very popular I guarantee not everybody will love them. Accept that. Not everyone gets a ribbon for participating.

Be honest and do the work that appeals to you. Be genuine. If you spend your time trying to make images that “everybody” likes, you are chasing a false and impossible goal. You are not doing your own work.

It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not. – Andre Gide

Why did you shoot that?

Why will I/did I shoot it? That is a question we all should consider and answer every time we take a picture. If it has meaning for us on a personal level it is probably worth taking the time to capture it and process it. If it is to duplicate something that got a lot of Facebook likes, forget it.

You have probably figured out I like to use quotes to reinforce ideas. And to let you know that greater minds than mine have expressed some of the same ideas before. Here are 2:

If you shoot for the love of it, you know why you shot it. Jay Maisel

There is no way to know what others want as well as we know what we want, so trying to please them instead of ourselves is a mistake.David Vestal

As usual, I am only talking about the realm loosely called “fine art”. I wish we had a better term. In order to create our own art, we first and foremost have to please ourselves. If this image doesn’t blow us away, why waste time on it? Whose art is it? It has to be our own. If we get to where we can make images that make us very happy we will find a core of other people who share the same viewpoint.

Your style

Is it your style? Are you developing a style? Is your style acceptable to your peers? How do you know your style?

These questions can cause a lot of angst for artists. I say stop worrying about it. Your style is a result of who you are, not a skill you develop or an affectation you present.

Someone said to go through your portfolio and pick out your 20 best images. Lay them all out and examine them. This defines your style right now. This is what appeals to you and how you make your images. It will show the types of subjects you prefer, the lighting you like, the composition you tend to use, how you like to post process them, etc. This is you. You are not what someone else wants you to be.

Can a style be consciously changed? Yes, some people are able to do it. I’m thinking of Picasso as he went through several distinct periods. Or Joel Grimes who has redefined his signature look at least a couple of times. This is unusual. But even for the rest of us, our style evolves with time. We change and adapt as we mature and get more knowledge and experience. I know that the images I make now are very different from the ones I made a few years ago.

The point is, we each have a style and it comes from within. Don’t worry about what is in vogue today or what you see on social media. Be you.

What critic do you listen to?

But I posted an image I liked on Instagram and it didn’t get many likes. Or the judges in my camera club competition told me my treatment of the subject was not going to win any awards. Or a gallery I applied to rejected me because my images did not fit their needs.

There are critics all around. That doesn’t mean they should dictate our values. To paraphrase the famous George Bernard Shaw quote “those who can, do; those who can’t, become critics”. It is a lot easier and safer to criticize from the sidelines than to be in the battle trying to do something no one else does.

No critic can define your values, your vision, your art. If you have done your job well so that your image is technically correct as far as you want and composed the way you want and pleasing to you then it is nobody else’s business to tell you it should be different. They will try, but don’t listen to them. Maybe they are an artist, too, and have some good suggestions. Fine. Listen to them, but take it in and process it through your own values and style. Keep what feels right to you and discard the rest. No one is qualified to tell you what you have to do artistically. Notice in my description above what kept coming through was “the way you want”.

Your inner critic

If you’re not your own severest critic, you are your own worst enemy. – Jay Maisel

The great Jay Maisel is right. You have to decide what is right for you. Only you can truly criticize your work. You owe it to yourself to be hard on yourself. Be brutally honest. Throw away most of what you do.

You might feel that you need to get a lot of images to fill out a portfolio. No. You need some great images for your portfolio. If 5 is what you have then that is what is in your portfolio. Anything that is not a stand-on-its-own, awesome image you would be proud to show to anyone detracts from the collection. Weed out everything that does not show your best work

Let me give an example. I recently went on a car trip. I allowed plenty of time for slow travel with side trips and stops for pictures whenever I wanted. This is how I like to travel. I shot over 300 images during the trip. My editing workflow is a multi-stage culling process for selecting images. Just in the first stage I eliminated all but about 45 to be further considered and processed. I am still in process, but I expect that maybe 4-6 will make it into my final select group.

That seems fairly severe. Less than 2% of the images I shot will make it. But actually it is probably not severe enough. Realistically 2-3 of these would actually add value to my portfolio. I’m still in love with some that should be cut. That hurts. But I have really come to understand that a single weak image can bring down the level of an entire portfolio.

The only critic

So the only critic you should listen closely to is yourself. Only you are fully qualified to judge your work. Look at a lot of images from a variety of artists with different styles and interests. Get feedback from other people. Take what you can learn from everyone but stay true to your own vision.

Whose art are you trying to make? I hope it is your own. Then you have earned the right to be very proud of your art.

Indoor Time

Heavy Snowfall

During the times when going out to shoot is difficult or impossible, you can still use your indoor time to develop your creativity and refine some critical skills for your photography practice. Just being indoors should not mean we are shut down. We can claim this indoor time as a opportunity to build ourselves up.

Forced indoor time

A reality today is than many are locked indoors with few opportunities to get outside. What are you doing with this new found time? When this virus started nearly a year ago I bet most of us had all kinds of upbeat plans for self-improvement activities. We could make a significant dent on our reading list, learn a new language, catch up on years of photo filing, use that rusting exercise bike, etc. How’s that working out for you?

After we got bored and depression set in we have probably gained a few pounds, played too many hours of video games, and binged on Amazon Prime. Time to make a New Year resolution to take back control of our attitude and refocus on our art.

It’s not too late. The opportunities are still there. Get off the couch and start working that list again. Remember your earlier resolve. Just because you’re indoors doesn’t mean you brain is shut off.

Bad weather

Weather is another factor that shuts some of us indoors. I live in Colorado. Winters here can get rather cold and snowy. But that is cyclic. It happens every year. I plan it into my week. I may get out and walk less, but I get out. Maybe I don’t travel as much, but I still do some.

A reality for me is that bad weather creates opportunity for some of the types of images I really like. Things on the edge or extreme: the edge of a storm, a raging blizzard, ominous clouds. These are things most sane people do not go out to see. I do. What does that say?

It’s cold at times, but I can dress for it. There might be some pain, but that is life. If a certain amount of pain is a cost of getting images that please me. I’m willing. And I find that when I come back in, with my fingers aching and my beard covered over with ice, I am happy. I am proud that I made myself do it. I feel better about myself and invigorated. There is the satisfaction that I went out and tried instead of sitting at home telling myself the weather was too bad to get out.

Let me disclaim that I have many years of experience doing this, I get pretty good clothes for the climate, I have a good 4 wheel drive, and I carry proper emergency equipment. Don’t jump off a cliff without looking.

Seek ideas

OK, you’re stuck inside. How can you pursue your art? Maybe you can’t be making your images right now, but you can be getting ready to hit it strong when you can. Browse other artist’s sites. (Sorry, blatant plug.) Be amazed at their work and gather inspiration to weave into your style. Not to copy but to motivate new ideas.

Look, too, for interviews and discussions with artists. These are more prevalent these days because so many of us are feeling very isolated. Artists, among others, are are starting to reach out more to build community. Some are inspiring and motivating.

Seriously consider online training, like KelbyOne or Creative Live. It costs a few bucks, but really, less than a Netflix subscription. And they are more valuable to your career. Or there are many sources of free videos, such as B&H Explora. The Learn Photography section has an amazing amount of material. Their series on Understanding Exposure is very good.

And of course You Tube has more photography videos than you could watch in a lifetime. For free. There are valuable ones if you can find them. Your mileage may vary.

Focus on skill building

A specific suggestion is to focus on improving your post processing skills during this time. Most of us could use more depth in Lightroom or Photoshop or your tool of choice. This is a great opportunity.

“For photographers, Adobe Photoshop is still the gold standard of editing applications, and the one to which all others are compared. And even if you’re not a Photoshop user, its omnipresence almost acts like the foundation of a communal language from which to talk about editing photos in general.” – Bjorn Petersen

Yes, love them or hate them, Lightroom and Photoshop are the basis of a shared cultural experience for photographers worldwide. It is useful to know whether or not you use it.

The sources I mention above have a lot of good training for this. And you have extra time now for practice and experimentation. That is a great benefit. This new information should be used to build competence. A lot of repetition is necessary before they are ready to be incorporated into your workflow.

It is not a skill until you can actually do it. The more familiar and experienced you are with your craft, the easier and more fun it becomes. It can be a valuable goal to decide to come out of this with an improved workflow and ability to better craft your art.


Opportunity is there. It is always there. My glass has been half empty for too long. I am trying to re-frame my viewpoint. I’m done with the “poor me” attitude.

The same opportunities are still there. Turn off the TV and Facebook and remember what your creativity is pushing you to do. Start with one little thing. Something you would enjoy and can do in an hour or less. Do it. Now you have accomplished something. Celebrate! Use that to build momentum. Keep going.

This indoor time is too valuable to waste. Use it wisely.

Some photographers who inspire me (in random order):

Cole Thompson

Fran Forman

John Paul Caponigro

Julieanne Kost


John Shaw

Ben Willmore (Ben is also a master Photoshop and Lightroom trainer)

Lorri Freedman

Karen Hutton

Jay Maisel

Found along the way

Out of the way find

One axis of photographic method is the spontaneity of the image making. That is, some artists carefully design and pre-plan every image and some live in the moment and eagerly take what they find. I cannot say one method is inherently superior, but I am strongly on the “found along the way” side. Nearly all my images are found accidentally. Well, accidental but I was deliberately looking.

In the moment

My photography is almost exclusively “in the moment”. I am a hunter-gatherer. Planning usually does not go farther than “it should be stormy tomorrow. Maybe I’ll head east to see if I can find some good shots without getting caught in a tornado.” Literally, being aware of tornadoes, hail, or serious thunderstorms is a primary consideration where I live. But that makes for some great images.

Why do I do this? The simple answer is “it works for me.” I am generally happy with the results I get, even if I sometimes come back with nothing. The thrill of the hunt is reward enough. It is a percentage game. Win a few, lose a few. I try not to be impatient. I love the quote from Ansel Adams that “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.

Perhaps I’m an endorphin junky. If I’m out and about my subconscious may recognize something, even if it it just a potential to be worked. It alerts me to it and this creates a burst of light/energy/warmth whatever. It is difficult to describe. But is is a joy and excitement of discovery. Each find creates a kind of high.

I’ve written about this before, but I still do not have good words to describe it. Luckily, I don’t have to understand it in order to be able to use it. It is the way I’m wired.


Wandering is a key part of my process. I never scout locations in any detail. I never go to famous, popular places to recreate a copy of someone else’s shot.

Instead, I meander through out of the way places. Places that would not be written up in any tourist guide. Ideally, places I have never even heard of. Most people would cringe at the idea, but it energizes me.

A problem with most of us is we have limited time and a tight agenda of places to go and things to see. Four countries in 3 days. This puts us in blinders. We get so busy working the plan that we do not have time for happy accidents.

Wandering training

The best training I had was when we owned a timeshare. Yes, I know, horror stories abound and most are true. I don’t recommend buying a timeshare. But ours had a wonderful effect on me. Trading for our slot gave us a week in a fixed location somewhere in the world. And our timeshares were generally in very out of the way places.

So we’re stuck in these weird places for a whole week. After a day or 2 to get familiar with the area we were bored and had to fill up time. So I learned to wander. To find the tiniest back roads we could (I won’t tell the rental companies about…). To head off, destination unknown and no goal in mind.

The benefits were incalculable. I learned that the more comfortable I got with a place the more new discoveries there were to uncover. A beautiful little country church, a tiny fishing village, rocky shores, lovingly tended farms, people in a obscure village, forest trails, and on and on.

We don’t have the timeshare any more, but I kept the lifelong learning of being able to find interesting, out of the way places.

Go out empty

I keep coming back to this quote from the great Jay Maisel: “Try to go out empty and let your images fill you up.

This is gold. It is hard for most of us because we are brainwashed to believe we have to plan everything and know exactly what we want. Maybe that works for you. It does not work for me. I suspect it does not work in general for those wanting to make art instead of record shots.

Don’t have a preconceived idea of what you expect to shoot. Don’t spend your time at the landmarks where all the other photographers gather. Be on your own journey. Shoot what you are drawn to., not what someone else expects you to do. If you are looking for something you will probably find it, but you will miss so much else along the way.

It is an easy tradeoff for me. I have proven to myself that going out empty is my best plan. The images I find fill me up.

Journey of discovery

It sounds like I do a lot of aimless wandering around. That is true. It is a joy to me and it’s how I do my art.

I am energized by finding new places, out of the way discoveries, things few other people photograph. These call me and make my photography worthwhile.

It is said that life is a journey, not a destination. Wise words. It is how we journey through life that makes the difference. Are we head down, staring at our phone as we pass through beauty and wonder, or do we look around and appreciate it? Even stop and walk through it and really take it in?

If we learn to be open to really see the things around us, and if we get off the beaten path and break new ground, we can have a wonderful journey of discovery through our whole life. Do you want to just get to the end or do you want to enjoy the journey and feel rewarded? I have discovered that the things found along the way add a lot of joy.

Finding Beauty

Huge smoke plume from Colorado wildfire

Face it, 2020 has been a bleak and trying year for most of us. Perhaps it would seem like talking about beauty is irrelevant at this point. I disagree. I believe beauty is more important than ever. Finding beauty around us will help to elevate our viewpoint to get through this.

Beautiful fire

Let me give one personal example. I live in the Colorado front range area. This was a year of wildfires. From mid summer on over 500,000 acres of forest burned in our area, some coming as close as 5 miles to my house.

This is a great tragedy for me, since I am in the forests every month of the year. This is one of the main places where I do my art and it was a great place for peace and rejuvenation. Much of the area I knew and loved is forever changed (forever being in my lifetime). And not changed for the better.

I’m trying to take an attitude of seeing what is there instead of moaning about what is not there. The image at the top of this post is an example. It was taken at the height of the fires and the massive smoke that blanketed our area. Just behind this ridge a 200,000 acre wildfire is roaring down toward my town. A terrible situation, but an interesting image.


This illustrates my point that beauty is based on attitude. Appreciation of beauty can also lead to a change of attitude. If I can look at something I think is terrible and worthless and still find beauty, I believe it is healthy for me.

That is not the same as saying that everything is beautiful. The fires I mentioned are terrible, but there is beauty in places. Cancer is terrible and ugly, but sometimes a person’s character and coping skill is beautiful. Covid is terrible but… Well, I haven’t found it yet, but I’m still looking.

I have to believe that beauty is there if I learn to see it. That is not ignoring things or burying my head in the sand. Instead, I believe it is an important coping skill and a sign of good mental health. All around us is ugliness. Sifting through that and finding beauty is a worthy skill.

I will be transparent with you and say I am a Christian. I believe there is a creator who is in charge of everything and has promised us a great eternal future if we believe in him. That faith makes it much easier to look past the problems I am dealing with today and look forward with hope.

I would never tell you you cannot seek beauty unless you are a Christian, just that I would have a hard time of it. You are completely free to follow your own guide.

Beauty isn’t kitsch

People through history have sought beauty. Even if we cannot define it, we can recognize our own values of it when we see it. Whether it is sculptures or paintings of the human form or landscapes or wildlife or still life, or if it is expressed in music, or writing, or dance, the medium does not matter. Humans have expressed ideas of beauty as long as we have had conscious thought.

Today, though, we are in a time where the idea of beauty is dismissed by the art elite. It is termed kitsch or banal or cliche. Much contemporary art is dark or formless or focused on pain or loss or emptiness.

I’m sorry to sound critical, but that sounds like artists who are empty. Who are disillusioned or who have no core beliefs in something uplifting. I am sorry for them. Maybe I just don’t understand as fully as they do, but I have to look to things that are encouraging. Or at least things you will look at and say “wow, I didn’t see that”.

It is human nature, unless art school has trained it out of you, to pause to appreciate a great sunset. Or to linger over a vast landscape or a waterfall or a flower or a face. Different things will appeal to us individually, but almost all of us will call something beautiful.

Beauty is uplifting. It energizes our spirit and makes us happy for a few moments. How can this be bad?

If not beauty then…

If you do not acknowledge beauty in your life, what do you have? What replaces it? Ugliness, darkness, hurt, cruelty? Why would you seek those things?

You can say “that is reality“, but so what? Why should the negative things be glorified? It has never really been the purpose of art to just depict reality. I want my art to make people feel better, not worse. If you want to feel bad, listen to the news.

It’s there to be found

Beauty is still there. It is all around waiting for us to open our perception and appreciate it. I want to be an artist who recognizes that and helps other people to see the beauty, or at least the unique, that I do. I don’t want to make ugly, depressing images because too much of the world is like that already.

We all need to step back, take a deep breath, and start trying to see the positive aspects of life and our world. Not to ignore problems but to give ourselves the strength to look for solutions. We all need to be uplifted in our spirits. Seek beauty and do not be ashamed to call it beautiful.

Filling the Frame

Frame adds energy to the composition

A unique characteristic of flat (2D) art is that it lives within a frame. That is mostly what I do right now – 2D art – so this interests me a lot. All 2D art is about how we choose to fill the frame. The process is very different between camera-based art and paint-based art


Composition is the art of filling the frame. This is one of the holy grail topics of art. Theories, opinions, and good and bad advice abounds everywhere you look.

It is easy to get inundated: rule of thirds, golden ratios, leading lines, diagonals, eye lines, visual flow through the image, contrasts, etc. All of these things are real; all are important; none make a great image. At least, not by themselves.

That is the thing, Composition “rules” are the basics that everyone needs to study, but they are not what actually makes art. Pick one for example: the golden ratio (or golden mean, or Fibonacci ratio). The principle was worked out by the ancient Greeks or earlier and is still taught today. It is still a valid principle to create pleasing constructions. An attempt to simplify it has led us to the famous and often abused “rule of thirds”. Most of us are aware of this guideline and think about it when composing a scene.

Composition rules are just a catalog of things discovered over the ages as ways to achieve good effects. They do not mean much in themselves. Following all the rules does not mean you have a good image and ”’breaking” the rules does not mean you have a bad image. I recommend you learn and follow the rules, unless you decide not to.

Regardless, the principles of composition are equally applicable to all forms of 2D art.

The frame

One of the less discussed elements of composition is the reality of the frame, the border, the edge of the image. Strange and wonderful things can happen as you create within this constraint.

I think we often just disregard it as just the fence we can’t go outside of; the crop rectangle that determines the aspect ratio of the image. While this is true, it can be more.

We need to be very aware and careful of things entering or leaving the frame. And we must consider how compositional elements like diagonals interact with the frame boundary. And extraneous bits of stuff along the edge can be very distracting. Making clever use of the frame can add energy and interest to an image.

I believe these things are more important in photography than in painting. But that’s just my opinion.

A blank canvas

We are to one of the most fundamental differences between painting and photography, which is what the artist starts with. In general, a painter selects every element for inclusion in his frame. A photographer consciously decides what to exclude from his frame.

The painter starts with a blank canvas. Nothing exists there unless he chooses to put it there. All aspects of the composition are completely controlled and deliberate. He is not constrained by the reality of the real scene, if there even was one. He has no excuse for distracting elements or poor composition.

A full canvas.

A photographer, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. When the shutter opens, everything within the field of view of the lens is immediately recorded by the sensor. The artist here has to do most of his work before recording the image.

Photography is the unique art of taking out what we don’t want. We do this by where we place ourselves, lens choice, shutter speed, and mostly, looking through the viewfinder to see what the image will look like and making adjustments. All the while tuning and enhancing the overall composition. This takes a lot of practice.

The great Jay Maisel said “You are responsible for every part of your image, even the parts you’re not interested in.”. We have to learn to really see what is in our frame and recognize and eliminate distracting parts. The natural tendency is to fix our attention on the subject and not see the bad bits. This awareness has to be learned.

It is true that we can do a lot of housekeeping in Photoshop, but a good craftsman only uses that as a last resort. It is much better to eliminate the problems up front if possible. Plus, capturing what you want saves a lot of post processing time. Just my opinion, but “no problem, I can fix that in Photoshop” is a lazy and sloppy attitude. I assume if you read this you don’t mind me expressing my opinion. 🙂

The artist selects

Filling the frame is a process of selection. Painters decide what they are putting in. Photographers decide what they are taking out. Either way, the artist must become skilled in being aware of the composition and how all the elements of the image work together to support it. This is design. It is what we do.

The frame gives an image space to live in. It can support the composition. It may enhance the drama or sense of space. All in all, the frame is a very important part of the creativity of image making. Never overlook it as you are planning your art.