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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

The Making of “Nothing Is Quite What It Seems”

surreal landscape

Today I’m going to discuss the making of this image. I created this abstract image titled “Nothing Is Quite What It Seems” from disparate elements put together to achieve the surreal landscape effect I wanted.

But as the title suggests, nothing is what it seems to be.

Base, Idea

When i saw the thing creating the basic silhouette shapes I knew it needed to be a scene of dead trees in a barren landscape. In reality, though, these shapes are actually cracks in ice on a frozen lake in Colorado.

I framed the scene up to isolate these 2 cracks that looked the most to me like dead trees. The “brush” in the foreground is the near edge of the ice, looking through to some rocks close under the surface.

The processing required some touch-up editing and some dodge and burn and contrast enhancement. There was a little hue-saturation enhancement to bring out more of the yellow rocks.

All of this was done as a smart object in Photoshop. Because I wanted to keep my options open I use smart objects a lot. They give me the freedom to come back and continue editing later. I don’t like to commit permanent changes.


With the basic form set, I started building texture. Tone adjustments in the smart object of the base layer helped. Bringing up the contrast brought forward more of the texture of the ice. This is the dimples and spots all over the image.

To abstract it a little more I used the oil paint filter in Photoshop to soften the edges and give it a more painterly and abstract look.

Color treatment

I knew I wanted to change the color palette and make it look like it could be in an abandoned homestead on the Colorado plains. But I also wanted to layer on more interesting texture. After trying many overlays I settled on a beautiful rusty truck panel. The image I used is part of a 1948 Coleman Truck. Pretty rare, and it was aging beautifully.

The truck had large rust patterns and also areas of old yellow and green paint. Using this to establish the colors across the image worked for me. This truck overlay is also handled as a smart object. Careful blending achieved the look I wanted without it looking like a rusty truck.


The final polishing and tweaking takes a lot of time, even though it doesn’t make sweeping changes. As we used to say in software development, the first 90% of the project takes 100% of the schedule. The last 10% takes the other 100% of the schedule.

There was final dodging and burning to do, bits of masking and retouching. Of course, there was a little bit of final color tweaking to my satisfaction. One of the reasons I use a flexible workflow is that I am prone to tweak things after I have looked at them a while.


A comment on my workflow. Although this is a fairly complex image, nothing is permanently locked down or committed. While writing this I was able to open up all the layers and smart objects and see everything about how they were processed. I could still go in and change or modify anything in the image. And I did make some tweaks. I told you I can’t leave images alone.

And as a very experienced Photoshop user I know new tools will be developed and I will learn new ways of doing things. These will lead to new ways to process images that I will want to take advantage of in the future.

This is the way I choose to work this way on most of my images. It doesn’t take longer and it preserves total flexibility. I need that. I change my mind often!


I like the finished image. It seems to be a surreal Colorado landscape of dead trees, but it contains no trees or plains or anything else that it appears to be. It is truly not quite what it seems. Is this more interesting than a straight shot of the ice?

Lightroom and Photoshop are powerful and addictive tools. Know when to use them and know when to stop. Otherwise you may never stop. It’s a great time to be doing imaging.

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.


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.


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.


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.

Lucky, or Good?

Lucky ice on winter lake

You’ve heard the phrase “it’s better to be lucky than good”. Some people will claim this is terrible advice. But I think there is enough truth in the phrase to merit some thought. Strive to be as good as possible, but welcome and embrace luck when it happens.

Not the way to plan

We can’t schedule or control luck. It is an external thing that happens, or it doesn’t. Since we can’t control luck, we better work on the things we can control. This is just pragmatic.

The context here is art, but it really applies to most areas of our life. Work hard. Develop all the skill you are capable of. It is a life-long quest of continual improvement.

When we are good at what we do we have more control of the outcomes. Another old saying you’ve heard is “the race doesn’t always go to the swiftest, but that’s the way to bet.” In this case, bet on skill. Our skill is a huge determinant of what we will achieve,

Art, though, like many important things, is not completely predictable and deterministic. Unexpected or unforeseen things can happen and that can be good.

Luck happens

When the unforeseen happens we tend to call it luck. No matter how great our skill or how much we plan, sometimes something happens that just makes us say “wow.”

If this event takes us away from our desired goal we tend to call it unfortunate – bad luck. If it sparks a new idea or gives a new insight or makes some problems go away we call it good luck.

In either case this event was unplanned, unexpected, unanticipated. That is part of the beauty of it. Or it can be, depending on what we do with it.

Be open and receptive

Luck can be received as a gift. We should be flexible enough to re-evaluate our plans and goals in the moment to consider what we have seen or learned. Psychologically healthy people tend to have an attitude of gratitude. This luck could be pure gold. We should consider ourselves fortunate.

It can trigger the creation of a great image or even bring us to a new place in our art. Even what we at first consider to be bad luck can have good outcomes. There have been times when I had been working on an image or even a project and a piece of bad luck causes me to reevaluate what I am planning on doing. Sometimes I conclude I was going down a dead end. The bad luck sent me to a different and better place.

This cannot happen unless we are open. I could not possibly list all the times some lucky accident caused me to change my plan. Or the number of times I have learned something new to eagerly apply in my work.

This image

Let me talk a little more about this image than I usually do in these articles. I try to get out all year in all weather. In the winter I try be aware of good ice patterns, because I sometimes like the patterns and textures. Usually, here, there is enough snow to make the ice cloudy and less interesting. Nice, but kind of all the same.

This day, though, I hit a brief window where the lakes had partially thawed. Then a hard freeze, with no snow, and calm conditions, had led to the formation of beautiful ice crystals. In addition, the edges of the lakes I was at had good rock just under the surface to give more pattern and color.

I abandoned everything else I was planning to do and nearly froze to death shooting this ice. It was very cold.

I love this image. It has not been altered substantially. Just some color boost and correction. I haven’t seen these conditions before or since. It was a happy accident – good luck.

Lucky or good?

So, is it better to be lucky or good? I will let you answer that for yourself. For me, I believe we need to work very hard on our skill and our vision. We have to be able to produce the work we want to create at the quality level we want. But I also believe we should be receptive to the happy accidents that bring joy and freshness to our life and vision. They seem to go together.

Maybe Samuel Goldwin was right when he said “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”