Starting fear in the eye

Why is it that we feel like we are in competition with other artists? Maybe, at its root, it is envy or insecurity. I don’t like to live in a competition. My desire is to make art and share my vision with other people. I believe that feeling we are in competition with other artists leads to problems for ourselves and can be a malignant stress eating away at us.

Not competing until…

Most people merrily go through their lives enjoying art without feeling any sense of competition. But for those of us who become artists, unfortunately, we tend to become critical and competitive.

Once we are in the game we tend to look at other artist’s work more critically. It is hard to not think we could do better. Or think that our image that was similar was better composed and executed. Maybe we are right. Often, though, it is our ego or fear talking.

Theodore Roosevelt (may have) once said “Comparison is the thief of joy”. Regardless of who said it, it is true that comparing ourselves to others is seldom beneficial and uplifting.


Why should we fear looking at someone else’s work? I think a lot of us are insecure. We aren’t secure in our conviction about the adequacy of our artistic skills. We have to boost our confidence by convincing our self that we are as good as them. Perhaps we fear failure and are unwilling to put our work out in the world publicly and face the potential criticism and rejection.

It is not really a zero sum game – one winner and everybody else looses. When we see someone’s work that is good and excites us, we should be happy. It was a great achievement by them and it can inspire us to rise to greater levels in our own work.

But doesn’t their achievement strike fear into us? Oh no, we aren’t any good, why am I calling myself an artist, how can I ever compete with them? This is our insecurity turned to fear. We try to compensate by criticizing the other artist’s work. Maybe it will make us feel better. If we believe our self.


Another negative feeling we may get is jealousy. We may not like to admit it, but think about it. Other people are getting praise and attention. They are selling well and making a lot of money. I should be in this gallery instead of them.

We wish we were them. So we resent them. We look for ways to tear them down and to prove, even just to ourselves, that they are not so great. To believe that we are just as good.

But don’t forget, you are jealous of them because you recognize their talent. That should be sobering.

Become a critic

Even if we don’t have full on, green-eyed jealousy, we may become a critic. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t become critics.”

We can get to this point through festering fear or envy or jealousy. We try to put ourselves above the other artist. To give ourselves credentials to label them, to minimize their achievements, even to just nit-pick (the top left corner is not in perfect focus).

Let me be very controversial and say I don’t think there are many critics who are worth listening to. Unless a critic has demonstrated history of creativity and success in similar art forms, they should be just another voice of someone entitled to their personal opinion.

If George Lepp or John Paul Canponigro gave me a critique I would listen closely and thank them for their opinion. I would carefully consider it and may or may not act on it. If I decided to critique George Lepp, he probably wouldn’t listen to me at all. As he should. I have little experience in his genre and zero track record compared to him.

Competitive market

It is unavoidable a highly competitive market. We are always being compared to other artists. Fairly or unfairly, there will be winners and losers. The best don’t always win. “If you make it they will come” is ridiculous. There are biases and vested interests and politics at play everywhere.

When we compete – and we always compete – we need to avoid the attitude that we are competing against “all those other artists”. That is turning our view out to worry about forces we cannot control. Instead, do your best and make work you are proud of.

Sure, for a particular contest, we could research the judges and their styles and biases and research the audience and what usually sells and create work designed to score well here. It might work. But whose art are you creating? Is your work going to be dictated by other people’s attitudes?


Fear, jealousy, envy, and being critical are self-destructive attitudes. Look at other artist’s work and admire the ones you like. Go to them and sincerely congratulate them. It will have rewards for both of you. You will reclaim your self confidence and creativity. Getting over the competition and fear and jealousy will free up your emotional energy to create art.

The reality is that we have our own unique vision, our own style and viewpoint. We are best off when we try to be the best version of our self we can be and create our own art. Even is nobody appreciates it. (cue a vanGogh discussion here 🙂 ) Unless you are starving and view your art as a job to earn money, it is better to follow your own vision. It would feel good to win that contest, but wouldn’t it be more rewarding to feel very proud of what we created?

Art is an intensely personal internal journey. Hence the tag line for my blog: An artist’s journey.

Reality is Overrated

Realistic, but not real

Is this controversial for a photographer to say? I hope so. 🙂 Photography used to be the land of total realism. Not so any more. Photography for me is purely artistic expression, with little concern for reality. That’s because reality is overrated.

Reality – the good

There is a long and honored tradition of highly realistic landscape and street photography. When you think of landscapes, you might think of John Fielder or Art Wolf or Ansel Adams. For street photography maybe it is Henri Cartier-Bresson or Jay Maisel or Elliott Erwitt.

All of these artists were true to the reality of the scenes they found. Of course they looked for the best composition or the right light or the dramatic expression – that is why they are recognized artists. But the photographs they took were not modified at all, other than routine spotting or color corrections.

Is their work good because they only shot reality? No, their work is good because they are great artists. I could walk outside and shoot a picture looking down my suburban street and publish it. It would be absolutely real and unmodified. Would it be good art because of that? Not to me.

Reality – the bad

Following up on the point about shooting down the street, a picture isn’t good just because it is reality. Reality can be boring. It can be depressing. It can be dreary and banal. While there may be a time and place for these things, they are not where I want to spend much time.

I am not a critic or authority. I would never say such subjects do not constitute art. But don’t get caught up in the post-modernism depression where you don’t view art as worthwhile unless it is depressing or banal. That is just one passing movement led by some people with a very dark world view.

Be yourself. Express your own values. Like, and buy, what you like.

Assume no reality

Photography has become much wider and more diverse than it was a few decades ago. It used to indeed be true that “a photograph didn’t lie”. You could believe what you saw. Not anymore. Photojournalism may be an exception, but in today’s climate, I wouldn’t rush to ascribe too much credence to any particular image you see on the news unless you know the circumstances. News has become just a business, not a guardian of truth.

A lot of artists, including myself, no longer consider it necessary to represent reality. Now, some of my work is extremely detailed, with sharp, crunchy texture and edges. I actually like doing these sometimes. It is almost reveling in the detail that can be captured by my sensor and lenses. Quite the opposite of some of my blurred, low texture images.

But if you see one of my images with super sharp detail, don’t necessarily assume it is reality. Even when I am going for crisp and detailed, I am not at the same time representing to you that it is reality. It could be manufactured. Even if I know that it is real, it could look so abstract to you that you could not describe exactly what it is.

It is art, not a documentary

My point being that I am making art. I think most “artists” are making art. Enjoy it as art. Don’t be disappointed if you find out it is not reality. I’m not sure there is much overlap between art and reality.

Art may speak to universal truths and bring deep insights into our lives, but it does it through its metaphors and imagery. It does it by touching something within us. In the same way that Shakespear gives us a lot of insights about life, even though his stories are fiction.

So don’t assume photography has to depict reality while painting does not. Both are art.

It is art, not reality

I will go out on a limb and state that art is not reality and it cannot be. Art might show a representation of reality. Even a very realistic representation. But the art is not the reality. Art is a 2 or 3 dimensional object you look at.

To take an example that may be easier to comprehend, it is like a book. An excellent work of fiction may create a reality in our mind, but that reality is what we interpret from what the book describes. The places may seem real. The characters may seem real and alive to us. But they are feelings the author has communicated to us through the words. Not reality itself.

I am drawn to joy

On a personal note, I am drawn to joy and things that are uplifting. Even when my images are dark or showing bleak mid winter scenes, they are not depressing. At least, not to me. I try to find a hopeful angle on my art.

For instance, I love finding certain types of old rusty trucks and cars. After surviving for 50 to 90 years, it seems these relics have something to tell me. They have resisted the elements far longer than most things. They may be beat up and rusty and out of service, but they are still there defiantly. That is the joy to me in old things like this. They are still standing and making a statement; they are not junk. There seems to be something significant about that generation. Some quality that makes people want to keep them. A 1952 truck is often still around in 60 years. I don’t expect that many 2022 trucks will still be in as good a shape after 60 years.

The picture with this article is composited from shots of some old vehicles. It is detailed and sharp, but it is not “real”. No object I know of in the world actually looks exactly like this. That doesn’t keep me from creating it. I could even represent it as something that could be, even if it does not currently exist. But realism or potential realism is not an important consideration for me. I only care about if I like it. I do.

What do you think?

Raw Material

Heavily post processed image

I have come to consider many of the images I shoot to be raw material. They don’t become a finished picture until I have worked the raw material in post processing.


Today’s cameras are great generators of data. Every time I press the shutter I am sending around 50-60 MBytes of data to my memory card. And that is using a compressed RAW format.

A funny thing happens, though. The more data there is, the less the importance of each bit. For instance, even though my camera has great metering and a live histogram, I may shoot several frames of the same subject. This will allow for minimizing motion or camera shake. Or, if I am intentionally moving the camera (intentional camera motion) I will shoot many frames to up my chance of getting a keeper.

I never would have been so “wasteful” with film. It was too expensive. But digital images seem free. The perceived value of any frame is smaller.

But a side effect of this commodity view leads to a different relationship with the image data. It is no longer necessarily a “picture” as an indivisible unit. It is data. I feel more free to repurpose any of the picture data for other uses.


So now I have new ways to look at an image. Maybe I like its texture and want to apply it to another image. Maybe there are one or more elements in the picture that I think would be good included in another image. There could be a form structure that could be used to build another image.

I have moved from a “take it or leave it” judgement of an image as a whole to a sense of “parting out” a picture to harvest the good parts. That is so much easier now than it ever was in the past. The tools are there, it is a matter of adjusting the mindset.

Post processing

In today’s world, post processing is where a lot of the magic happens. Photoshop and Lightroom and some of the other editing programs have developed marvelous feature sets. They can handle large files and 16 bit depth and work comfortably in good image spaces like ProPhotoRGB, Photoshop is the choice (IMHO) for heavy duty pixel pushing.

It is almost (not quite) true that is you can think it, you can do it. The tools are not perfect, but they are so good that, for the most part, they stay out of the way and let us create fluently with them.

A lot of us have come to believe that a picture does not become a picture until we have spent some serious time in post processing. There is no reason anymore to be limited to what we originally captured, unless it turned out to be exactly what we want.


We artists are no longer “stuck” with what we captured at the moment we pressed the shutter. We have huge latitude for changing the look, the content, the color, and the whole feeling of the image.

Some people are threatened by this, but I see it as an opportunity to realize my vision. There are few excuses any more. Photography is very different from painting, but we have one new similarity: if we can think it we can create it.


To bring you a good image, I have to show not only what I saw but how I felt about it. Revealing the emotion behind it is easier now. Because we do not have to take the original bits of the image as fixed and unchangeable, we can add or subtract as necessary to achieve the effect we desire.

This can be a very freeing and empowering realization. Those of us who have done photography for a long time have to re-learn how to approach image making. We have to give ourselves permission to do any amount of modification, even to the point of completely creating a new work out of raw material from others. But it gives us a medium for expressing ourselves more fully.

This image

The image with this article is an example. That is not what the original scene looked like. No in-camera technique could have given the resulting image. A lot of Photoshop time was spent in blurring the image except for the evergreens. It is not what I saw when I was there. I did not even envision this at the time. I spent time thinking about surreal variations and eventually visualized this.


This is not dishonest. It is the same thing as a painter painting in what he likes and leaving out what he doesn’t like. The end result is art, not documentation.

Art is neither honest or dishonest. It is art. It means what the viewer takes it to mean. We are long past the time when we assume a photograph is “truth”. We should assume that every image is altered, composited, tweaked, and blended. That’s not just OK, it is healthy.

Evolution of an Image

Very abstract created image. Representa the evolution of an image.

Not all images follow the same life cycle. Sometimes it is pretty straightforward. See a scene; click; some post processing; done. Other times the path is winding, even circular. It is impossible for an image to be ready for a final print right out of the camera. Sometimes that shows an evolution of the artists perception of an image.

Of something

A lot of very good pictures are simply images of something. We find a lovely or interesting scene and we take a picture. Yes, we work the scene, find a good position to make a good composition. Wait for great light. Then make the shot.

It represents something real and concrete. It is what it is. There is nothing abstract or surreal about it. No hidden meaning. As I write this I am on a trip going through a part of the country that has lots of beautiful trees. I am shooting a lot of pictures of trees. Just because I like them. And they’re all around.

Most of these images, though, are ending up being just pictures of trees or fields. That doesn’t mean I don’t like them, but they are straight forward record shots of a scene I saw. It is the rare one that seems to actually have something deeper to offer.

About something

A goal is to bring something more than just a “here is what I saw”. I hope to occasionally make a statement or observation that will be helpful or insightful. Hopefully, I can bring you something more than just a pretty picture. I can only reveal to you what I emotionally reacted to at the time. It is up to me to react to the scene and be able to bring some of that to you.

This is a wide grey area. One person’s “depth” may be another person’s “duh”. My perception of the significance of something may be different from yours. All I can do is to say what I think. I cannot control how you receive it.

And the degree of depth or insight will vary all over the place. An image may have insight on something of human nature, or it may be humorous, or it may be ironic, or it may make a statement about the march of time or environmental issues. Good images do not have to be deeply serious. Few of mine are heavy commentary on social issues. My reaction to the world is governed more by joy and gratitude.

So when you see my images, assume they probably have some insight I have perceived about the scene or subject. It may not be dark and depressing, but that does not take away from my intent to say something.

A life of its own

Sometimes, though, an image takes on another direction, a new life. I occasionally recognize that the original image is not complete or fully formed. It may need to be combined with other images or heavily worked to change it into something different.

Take the image with this article for example. It started out a fairly interesting shot out of a favorite restaurant window. This particular window had 100+ year old glass that was wavy and distorted. Blurred in the background were some downtown buildings, trees, awnings, etc. I liked the scene and shot it repeatedly until I captured the impression I wanted (many lunches there!).

But I was not happy with it as it was. It was an abstract view of downtown, but it was too abstract to be an effective representation of a downtown street, but not abstract enough to become something completely different and interesting in it’s own right. So I decided to go much further.

Ah, the joys of Photoshop. It is fun to play sometimes. I added textures and played with colors and saturation and hues. Some overlay patterns gave it more definition and shape. Pretty soon it had nothing to do with the downtown scene I originally liked. If you sat where I shot the picture and looked out the same window, you would not recognize it.

The image now has a life of its own, completely independent of the original scene. I like it. It is a fun creative exercise. But I have to find the right base images to work with. And I have to form a vision of where I want to go. Only a few images are good subjects for such a treatment.

It means what it means

Coming to this point requires me to address the question of what does an image “mean”? Can a picture have a meaning? Does it have to?

There seems to be at least 2 opposing groups. Some say a picture is worthless unless it means something. The other says very few pictures can have an actual meaning, except for some photojournalism. As in most things in life, I range somewhere in the middle. Generally I say don’t take yourself so serious. A good picture can just be a nice, pleasing picture. If I have the opportunity to make images with meaning I usually will, but I don’t want the meaning to get in the way of the quality of the image.

I get frustrated with people who are so sincere and focused on something that is important to them that they feel everyone must share their angst. Lighten up. First make art.

I do make images with meaning, especially if I am shooting a project that is fairly serious. When I have the filter of a project in mind my focus tends to narrow to the subject. But unless it is a particularly dark and depressing subject, I want to concentrate first on making art. I tend to avoid the really dark and depressing projects. That is just not me and I don’t think they would make your life better.


The vast majority of the billions of photographs shot each year are record shots of something. They serve to capture a memory or mark an occasion. This was their intent and the work for that.

A small percentage of photos and paintings go further and reveal something interesting. Maybe it is a new insight on a subject. Maybe it is just the artist’s emotional reaction at the time. But we look at them and often agree that they bring something deeper than just a snapshot.

Or sometimes a picture becomes a thing in itself. Not a representation or even an interpretation. It just exists as a new creation. A lot of abstract and surreal art is like this.

In my case, I am a lens-based artist. That means I start from something concrete – an image – rather than a blank canvas. Sometimes as I live with an image and think about what it could be, I morph it into something new. That is the case for the image with this article.

I’m not saying this is a desired evolutionary path for an artist or that some steps are better than others. But artists tend to evolve their skills and viewpoints as they mature. I have observed myself moving through a progression. More and more of the images I like are abstract.


Tree and trail. A radical departure from straight representation.

Sometimes things are right there staring us in the face. But we don’t or can’t see it. We fail to see what should be obvious. This in an internal problem. We don’t get to blame anyone else. Don’t go through life with unrecognized interest all around.

Unrecognized artist

“Unrecognized” is a fairly ambiguous word. Well, not really ambiguous, it is just that it can be applied so many ways. One of the first things that comes to mind when I hear the phrase is my sadness at being an “unrecognized” artist.

Even though I have sales and good gallery representation and I get exhibited, it feels like nothing. Failure. I seek to be more widely known. A goal is to share my vision with many more people.

But this aspect of “unrecognized” is not what I am discussing in this article.

Unrecognized beauty

Most people I know sort of drift through life in a daze. We follow our normal paths, doing basically the same thing all the time without really seeing things around us.

If we recognize the rut we are in, we can climb out. At least enough to make a difference. Just deciding that we are going to pay more attention to things around us will go a long way.

There is beauty all around us, even if you live in a city. Disappointed that you don’t live in Yosemite? Get over it. Learn to appreciate where you are. Even if you are not thrilled with your environment, by learning to look more closely we can usually find things, even little things, to brighten our day. Is there a flower, or a tree, or a pattern of light and shadow on a building that catches your eye? Look at it. Stop and take a moment to appreciate it.

This will grow a habit of mindfulness. It will help us become more aware of what is there and more grateful of the little scenes that brighten out day, make us feel more alive.

Unrecognized self

Many of us, I’m pointing to myself, too, have trouble recognizing where our creative instincts are leading us. We change all the time. It can be hard if we feel like we are starting to be recognized for a certain style or subject. We fear that changing would lose our market. But at least that person is aware of what is going on. Most of us, I feel, one day realize that what we are drawn to is different from what we have been practicing for a long time. This can shake us to our bones. But it can also be refreshing and invigorating to re-align with where our subconscious is directing us.

I think this quote from a very good photographer from the past, David Vestal. is enlightening.

As we work, we come to know more and become more patient and less inclined to rush past our own work that we don’t yet recognize. Now I am quicker to see in my own new work the “accidental” good photos that I used to ignore.

Mr. Vestal points out 3 key things that are common and key to our artistic growth.

Know more

As we practice our art we learn. Our technical abilities grow and our creative capabilities are stretched. The more we learn the deeper vocabulary we have to express what we see and feel. We also have more ability to examine our art and critique it.

If we’re lucky, we even get to a point where we know what we don’t know. But the path of knowing more sometimes means we grow away from the positions we held in the past.

More patient

Mr. Vestal describes part of the growth process as becoming more patient. With ourselves. I know for myself, I feel less need now to shoot quantities of images. I used to be in a frenzied rush to capture everything that was the least bit interesting. These days I will usually come back with fewer images. I can see something nice and not feel the need to take a picture. Sometimes it is sufficient to just acknowledge it and appreciate it. I would rather have a few images that excite me rather than a whole pile of “OK” pictures.

I think this also applies to our results and growth as an artist. Have you ever found yourself trying to “force” a great image. I do. Maybe less than I used to. As I grow I am more interested in trying to see more clearly what is there and understand how I perceive it, what I want to do with it. Sometimes it doesn’t come. Rather than be a big frustration, it is an opportunity to try to figure out why.

Have you ever come upon what would be one of your “standard” images, one you would always shoot, and said, “no, that doesn’t interest me today”? Something is speaking to you to tell you you have grown to a new position.


To me, the phrase in his quote “less inclined to rush past our own work that we don’t yet recognize” is brilliant. I sometimes run across something while I am looking for a particular image. Something I didn’t think was very good, but for some reason I kept it. Looking at it some time later I liked it much better. Sometimes I realize that if far more representative of my current vision that things I used to shoot.

He describes them as accidentally good shots. I believe these accidental shots are sometimes our subconscious trying to show us something we don’t recognize yet. As we grow in our artistic concept, we have to leave the past behind. We become bored with what we used to proudly do. Recognize that feeling. Learn from it. It is time to move on.

I have described before that I tend to be fairly brutal about culling out bad or uninteresting shots. Sometimes, though, I am compelled to keep an image that I don’t think I like. Sometimes I find, later, that this image is significant to me. It may even be a pivot to a new direction in my journey. I did not recognize it at the time, but I did perceive that there was something there that made me keep the image and come back to it later.

Be receptive

I believe we should learn to be more receptive to these signals our subconscious is sending us. The subconscious mind is more powerful than the conscious mind. It understands us better. It is not deluded by ego or financial considerations or social media followers.

I have heard it said that this message from our subconscious is usually not a light bulb going on, it is more like a tickle on the back of our neck. That little feeling that there is something here we are missing or need to figure out. Maturity is learning to be aware of this hint and follow it to see where it leads us.

How about you? Have you ever puzzled over an image you couldn’t figure out, only to recognize later that it was a harbinger of a new direction for your creative work? The way to a new creative plateau? Did you trust your instincts and embrace the new direction? What was the result?

I would like to know! Leave a comment or email me.