Am I Creative?

intentional camera movement creates a unique view of fall colors

Am I creative? I wonder this a lot. Especially when I look at a lot of other people’s art. Surprisingly, it is not that I think the other work is better, it is that I look at most of it and think: that’s not very creative. I must not understand.

Is everyone else creative except me?

When you seem to be going in a different direction from everybody else, you have to think either they’re wrong or I’m wrong. It is hard to tell, because there are no anchors, no fixed points of reference, no authority to judge. So in a sense, it seems to be entirely subjective.

If there are no absolute standards, I guess I can’t look at other art and think it is not creative. It might be very creative, I just don’t see it. Or maybe I am jaded from making images too long. Maybe I am burnt out or I have set my standards too high.

Been there, done that

It is hard for me to look at art with the wonder and joy I want to. Too often my reaction is “been there, done that; seen it before, and better”.

Is it true that everything has been done? That there are no more new images to make, no new songs, no new novels to write? I hope not. That would be very depressing. It seems like fresh, new, creative things happen. I’m just not seeing it too much in photography.

What is creativity?

It has been said that creativity is your capacity to make innovative connections and free associations that others don’t do the way you do. So apparently there is something unique about our particular makeup and viewpoint of the world. I see things different from everyone else. You do too. So, if we can execute on our ideas, we should be able to bring forth unique and creative things that other people would not do.

But if I create something, does that make it creative? Most of us love to create. The joy and personal satisfaction of bringing something into being that would not have existed without us is extremely satisfying. Those of us who have learned that we can do this become addicted to it.

I hear people equate the concepts, though. I create therefore I am creative. This seems to be at the heart of the issue for me. Creating vs. creative.

Here is one of the places I get stuck. I see a lot of people go to extremes, to the bizarre or ridiculous just for the sake of being different. Is being different sufficient to be creative? By my standards, not every creation I see seems to me to be creative. I can relate to this somewhat satirical quote by Banksy: “Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.

On the other hand, even if it is not bizarre, much of what I see labeled as “creative” leaves me puzzled. I look at it and think “how can that be creative? I’ve seen images like that lots of times.”

Buzz word

Has “creative” become just a required buzz word that everybody uses? Like “story telling” It seems like today everybody is story telling with their art. No, most of what I see has no story. It is just art that may or may not invoke some feeling or imagery in you. It may just be a pretty picture.

I guess “creative” has become like that. It would be an insult these days to say that someone’s art is not creative or not telling a story. Even when it is not.

Does an image have to be truly original?

It seems to me that there are 3 general classes of creativity: imitative, derivative, and unique. In my opinion, most art is in the first 2 categories. A few works are truly unique.

In imitative art, we see something we like and file it away so we can do something kind of like it later. We may create a very pleasing image, but it has not added anything new to our understanding. Maybe your goal was only to create a nice image. That’s OK, but it will not take you to the level of great art. It is not creativity.

In derivative art, something we have seen someone else do connects with some other ideas in our experience and inspires us to visualize something a little different. To me this is a valid type of creativity. We are building on other ideas and adding to the dialog. We have created fresh new art.

Occasionally, rarely, we or someone come up with something that is a leap from the mainstream. Something that is unique, that truly did not exist before. But even that is kind of an overstatement. There are stepping stones that lead even the greats to where they end up. Andy Warhol couldn’t have gotten to where he went without Picasso, Duchamp, even DC Comics. It is just that some artists seem to leap further and get there ahead of the rest of us. And we envy them.

But maybe I am arguing myself into the position that there is little wild, radical creativity. Most things progress in small steps.

Maybe it just needs to be our own?

With no scientific data, I am guessing that the majority of artists are imitative, and that most of the rest are derivative, as far as their creativity goes. A very few are truly, uniquely creative. Maybe that is good. If there were more creativity then the art world would be yanked in too many directions at the same time.

Even the art world, that thinks it is always looking for something new, resists change. Every major trend, like impressionism, modernism, realism, etc, was resisted by the critics and the entrenched leaders of the current movement. People actually don’t like wild leaps.

Maybe the best we can hope for is to look for derivative opportunities. Try to connect disparate ideas to synthesize something fresh and “creative”. Take risks, but not just for the sake of being different. This will help us rise above conventional ways of viewing things. It will let us contribute new ideas into the discussion and help people take their own steps to new ideas. Maybe the best view of creativity is that we make associations our own unique way to create things different from other people.

This is probably the level of creativity most of us can achieve. Maybe that is all that is required.

For me, I guess I will try to stop worrying about it so much. It shouldn’t matter to me whether or not I think other people’s work is creative. I will focus on making my own work creative in my estimation. I’m the one who has to be satisfied with my work.

How Big Can I Print It?

A VERY low resolution image (3 MPix) that would print surprisingly well

One of the things we have to wrestle with when we want to make a print is how big can I print this image and get good results? And how large should I print it? There is a lot of advice out there. Some of it is good.

Film vs. Digital

Virtually all images have to be scaled up for printing. The print you want to hang on your wall is many times larger than the sensor or piece of film you start from. Hardly any of us are shooting 8×10 negatives these days. Even if we are, we still usually want to make larger prints.

The technology has changed completely from the film days. Enlargement used to be optical. By adjusting the enlarger lens and the distance from the film carrier to the print surface, the image was blown up to the desired size. If the lens is good, it faithfully magnifies everything, including grain and defects. If the lens is cheap, it enlarges and introduces distortion and blurring.

Digital enlarging is a totally different process. A digital image is an array of pixels. My little printer at my studio likes to have 300 pixels/inch for optimum quality. So if I want to make an 8×10 print and I have at least 2400×3000 pixels, it will print at its best quality without changing a thing. Digital enlarging is a matter of changing the number of pixels.

Digital enlarging

But usually I want to print a larger size than the number of pixels I have. Here the digital technology gets interesting. And wonderful. Going back to my example, if I want to make a 16×20 print and maintain best quality, I would have to double the pixels in each dimension. It would have to go to 4800×6000 pixels.

Photoshop has the ability to scale the number of pixels in your image. There are several algorithms, but the default, just called “Automatic”, usually does a great job. Here is the difference from film: software algorithms are used to intelligently “stretch” the pixels, preserving detail as much as possible and keeping smooth transitions looking good. Lightroom Classic has similar scaling for making a print, but it is automatically applied behind the scenes. Smoke and mirrors.

The result is the ability to scale the image larger with good quality.

Print technology

In a recent article I discussed a little of how an inkjet printer makes great looking prints using discrete dots of ink. There are other technologies, such as dye sublimation or laser writing on photosensitive paper, but they are far less used these days.

It should be obvious, but to make a really big print, you need a really big printer, at least in the short dimension of the print. Really big printers are really expensive and tricky to set up and use. That is why most of us send large prints out to a business that does this professionally.

Why do I say the printer has to be big in the short dimension of the print? Past a certain size, most prints are done on roll feed printers. They have a large roll of paper in them. Say you have a printer that prints 44″ wide. The roll of paper is 44 inches wide and many feet long.

We want to take our same 8×10 aspect ratio image and make a 44×55 inch print. If it was film, we would require an enlarger with at least a 44×55 inch bed and a cut sheet of paper that is 44×55 inch. But an inkjet printer prints a narrow strip at a time across the paper. The heads move across and print a narrow 44 inch long strip of the image, the printer moves the paper a little bit, and it prints another narrow strip. Continuing until it has printed the entire 55 inch length. Then the printer automatically cuts off the print.

But if we naively follow the recommendations for optimum quality, we have to scale our poor little 2400×3000 pixel image up to 13200×16500 pixels. Even the best software algorithms may introduce objectionable artifacts at that magnification.

Viewing distance

Maybe we don’t have to blindly scale everything to 300 (or 360) pixels/inch.

A key question is: at what distance will the image be viewed? Years of studies and observation led to the conclusion that people are most comfortable viewing an image at about 1.5 to 2 times the image diagonal length. This lets the natural angle of the human eye take in the whole image easily. For the example we have been using of the very large print, people would naturally choose to view it from about 105 to 140 inches.

Along with the natural viewing distance there is the acuity of the human eye. I won’t get into detail, but the eye can resolve detail at about 1 arc minute of resolution (0.000290888 radians for the nerds). Simply, the further away something is, the less detail we can see.

Going through the calculations, if our audience is viewing the large print from 1.5 times the diagonal, it only has to be printed at 33 ppi! Finer detail than that cannot be seen from that viewing distance.

I have heard photographers who have images printed for billboards or the sides of a large building talk about inches/pixel. It would look like Lego blocks up close, but it looks sharp from where the viewer is.

Nature of the image

This is true unless the audience is photographers. They are going to get right up to the print, as close as their nose will allow, to see every blemish and defect. 🙂 But normal humans will view it from a distance.

There are modifications to the pixels vs. viewing distance calculations depending on the nature of the image. If the image contains highly detailed structure it will encourage viewers to come closer to examine it. If the image is very low contrast, smooth gradations, it could be even lower resolution.

Printing at the highest possible resolution that you can for the data you have is always a good idea.

Your mileage may vary

How big of a print can you make? It depends – don’t you get tired of hearing that? It is true, though. The real world is messy and simplistic “hacks” often don’t work well. It is better to understand things and know how to make a decision.

When it comes down to it, these are great times for making prints, even large ones. My normal print service lists prints as large as 54×108 inches on their price list. I know even larger ones are possible.

How big should you print? How big can you print?

Conventional wisdom is that scaling the pixels 2x each dimension should usually be safe. My camera’s native size is 8256×5504 pixels. Scaling an image 2x would be 16512×11008 pixels. This would be a “perfect” quality print of 55×36 inches on a Canon printer. I have yet to need to print larger than that.

Given the perceptive effects of visual acuity, I am confident I could create much larger prints. Larger than is even possible by current printers. And they would look good at a reasonable distance.

A key question is who are you printing for? A photographer or engineer will be right up to the print with a magnifying glass looking at each pixel. Most reasonable people will want to stand back at a comfortable distance and appreciate the image as a whole. Who is your audience?

Learn how to scale your image without artifacts and how to use print shapening to correct for problems. Know the perceptual effects of human visual acuity. This is part of the craftsmanship we have to learn in our trade. Given those tools, the rest is artistic judgment. With today’s equipment and careful technique and craftsmanship we can create wonderful results.

Your mileage may vary.

The image with this article is very small – 3 MPix. I would not have a problem making a 13×19 print of it. I doubt you could see the pixels.

Have you tried to make large prints? How did it go? Let me know!

Secret Revealed: The Meaning of Art

Contemplating the power and vastness

I may be expelled from the artist guild for revealing a closely guarded secret. I want to talk about the meaning of art. Maybe it is not actually a secret. Maybe I just don’t understand.

Objective meaning

Without getting pedantic, we have to talk a little about meaning. This is a deep study in itself that we can only shine a little light on here.

Something has objective meaning if it creates the same idea in your head that it does in mine. A stop sign has meaning for most of us, but only because of training and convention. A user manual describing a feature of a product has meaning – or it should; many are poorly written.

The famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung said:

No individual symbolic image can be said to have a dogmatically fixed generalized meaning.”

I think he was saying that we all see something different when we look at an image.

Pictures consist of marks on a 2D surface, such as canvas. We see the marks as lines, shapes, forms, and colors. How we perceive these marks determine the meaning we get from it. Two people viewing the same image: one dismisses it as uninteresting, the other breaks down in tears because it invoked a deep symbolism or meaning or memory for them.

Some things, like documentary photography or photo journalism, seem to have meaning. They at least motivate a certain response fairly consistently. Even so, the meaning is often not exactly what the creators meant, because everyone is in a different place. So I have to wonder if the work truly has meaning. Another question is whether it is really art. If the focus is meaning, is that at odds with art? Just asking.


I spent most of my career as an engineer. Talking about and dealing with feelings is pretty alien to me. But I have discovered that art is all about feelings. I would go so far as to say that if art doesn’t invoke an emotional response in the viewer, it is probably a failure.

For decades I took technically good, well composed pictures of the natural world. Mostly landscapes. When I look back at them now I see most of them as completely boring. There was little discernible emotion there. I just showed what it was, I did not attempt to give a glimpse of how I felt about it. I was making documentary images, not art. Today, in the same situation, I would strive to bring you my interpretation of the scene, with my feelings prominent. Or if I can’t figure out how to do that, I might take an image for a record of it, but I would never show it to you.

The left brain/right brain model is useful for describing the logical vs. creative sides of our nature. I don’t want to imply that I have or believe we should switch totally to the right brain creativity. Life works best in balance. We have both natures for a reason. I strive to develop my creative side to an equal level with the logical, analytic side I have emphasized most of my life. But at times I also just let my right brain side run free to see what it creates.

Where does meaning come from?

Artists react to and bring out things we may not consciously be aware of. Creativity is a strange and murky process.

John McGlade, an artist and free thinker from Australia, expressed it very well in a Quora answer to a question: Does art have a meaning that only the artist knows? Please pardon the long quote, but this is good stuff.

NO! A piece of visual art may have meaning for the artist who made it or not. If you mean meaning statable in words then artists and the public may have no clue, of an artworks meaning. The visual arts are done precisely because words are insufficient to hold the concepts alluded to in the visual arts like painting, sculpture, photography, plays and film. The artist may say or discover or may have no idea of the meaning in their work just by doing it. (Some artists, contrary to popular belief, may have no idea of why they do their work or what it means, nor do they care!) But the moment other minds see the work, because of their individual and unique thinking and perceptual patterns, they will bring their own impression of what the work may mean to them. As an artist, at every stage of my creativity, I will try to put into some words that hunt around what my work may be about. That’s the exciting thing about doing art, I am groping around in the darkness of my mind and it’s ideas, to discover what my mind is trying to tell me. It’s the same for the public, the artist is highlighting some aspect of their experience, but there’s no guarantee that other people will see it the same way as the artist. Meaning, for our complex human minds, is more than just words, it’s a whole conglomeration of words, images, feelings, impressions, prejudices and perceptual biases into one gigantic scrambled omelette of being; and every omelette is unique. Artists may not be as smart as you or they think they are. They are just highlighting what they have noticed and we are free to take our perception on what they present.

Do I know what it means?

Like Mr. McGlade highlights, in the art I am currently doing I often have no idea when I am working on a piece where I am going with it or what it means. I just follow my feelings at the time and see where it leads. Even when I get done I may not know what it “means”.

After I set it aside for a while and think about it I might be able to figure out why it moves me. Maybe even what it seems to be about. Sometimes I can state a meaning – for me.

I have said before that for art, I am not much of a planner. I react and trust my intuition. So I often do not have a crisp understanding of what I have created.


But maybe that is not enough. Maybe I owe it to myself and my audience to ask “why”. If I am caught up in a creative mood and making something I really don’t understand, I wouldn’t interrupt the process. But maybe later.

If a gallery requires an artist statement describing a work, I confess that I sometimes have to make up something. Because I honestly may not have words to describe what I meant. Sometimes, though, being forced to write it makes me examine myself and my work . It can be a good exercise to try to express our feelings and intent. Our meaning for a work may emerge over time. It is sometimes hard to force ourselves to go through the introspection required to dig it out.


Perhaps one of the purposes of art is to make us ask questions. Could that be the meaning of some art? Maybe we should not look at an image and quickly say “I don’t like it”. A better response may be to ask our self why we feel like we do on viewing it.

Great art, art that stays with us, leaves us feeling like we are on the brink of discovery. That if we keep pushing and examining ourselves we might reveal a great truth. It could be that the unanswered questions are one of the reasons for art. I like William Neill’s quote:

I would rather make an image that asks a question than one that answers one.

Make art

We have enough people going around wringing their hands, promoting their own causes, and painting the world as bleak and depressing and hopeless. I believe art should generally be a positive force in the world. Art to bring us joy, to encourage us to reflect and be mindful, even to aspire to greater things.

That is the direction I will take with my art. You can accuse me of having blinders on, of having my head in the sand. Maybe. But it is easy to point out suffering and ugliness. It is harder to bring joy and encouragement. That is my goal. So I would say my art has meaning, but it may only make sense to me. That is OK. I hope it has some meaning to you, but it will be a different meaning, because you are a different person with different values and experiences. If I can raise some interesting questions I will have achieved something.

I apologize to the galleries that require artist statements full of deep thoughts and meaning behind my images: sometimes I just make something up. There is a meaning to me, but it might not seem significant to state it. It might not even be possible right now. But I will keep thinking. Some emotional or intuitive things can be destroyed by trying to precisely describe them.

I like what E. B. White said about analyzing humor. Paraphrasing it:

Analyzing art is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.

Art is a conduit for feelings and emotions and understanding that cannot actually be expressed in words. So, does art have meaning? It is meaningful. It is powerful. Art moves us in different ways. Art can even change our lives. But it may mean one thing to me and something completely different to you. Perhaps it is better to say art creates meaning.

Pixels, PPI, DPI

Intentional pixelation

Pardon me, but sometimes the Engineer in me has to rant. I see so much confusion about pixels and how to scale them to an output size. Pixels are just an RGB dot. How they are presented is up to the output driver. It is complicated at a technical level, but it does not have to be complicated to us poor users. So let’s see what pixels and PPI (pixels per inch) and DPI (dots per inch) really mean mean.

What are pixels?

A digital file is just a rectangular array of pixels. The term “pixel” is a contraction of “picture element”. It is the smallest dot the sensor can resolve or the smallest point of light a display can produce.

Getting to the array of pixels is complicated, since camera sensors don’t read them directly. See my article “How We Get Color Images“. Regardless of what magic actually happens, by the time you view an image on your computer monitor, it is an array of pixels. Conceptually each pixel is represented as a triplet of (Red value, Green value, Blue value). Each of the values is a number from 8 to 16 bits in size. So each value has a magnitude of 0 to 255 or 0 to 65536. What sizes you actually have is determined by the capability of your sensor (the dynamic range) and camera and the color space you are using.

Pixels have no physical meaning. In the main camera I use, the array is 8256 x 5504 pixels. Again, it is just a number. It has no physical meaning. It has no relation by itself to a print size or the size of the image on screen.

What PPI should I use for display?

This is the thing that annoys me the most. I constantly see museum and gallery directors put out requirement that we have to send in electronic samples sized to 72 PPI. PPI stands for pixels per inch.

Way back in the dim distant past, computers only did text. Then Apple came along and wanted to do graphics. They did research and decided 72 PPI looked good on screen. This set the standard, but hasn’t been the case for eons of computer age. The display on my fairly old iMac is about 218 PPI, physically. But the magic 72 PPI stuck with a lot of people.

The increases in PPI density and bit depth and speed of monitors is one of the great technological advances of computers in recent years. All those pixels on screen makes for very sharp and smooth images. We can see so much more.

Worse, many people have been led to believe that the PPI sizing of the image files means something. It doesn’t anymore. Actually, it never did for images displayed on screen. The PPI setting has little or no meaning for an image displayed on screen.

Try it

Try an experiment: take an arbitrary, fairly large jpg file of your choosing. Let’s say the filename is MyFile.jpg. Load it into Photoshop and resize, WITHOUT RESCALING, to 72 PPI. Save it as MyFile-72.jpg. Now reload the original file.jpg and size it to 360 PPI. Again without rescaling. Save it as MyFile-360.jpg. Rescaling changes the number of pixels in the file. We just want to change the PPI setting. These 2 files now have the same number of pixels but different ppi scaling.

Now use whatever image preview application you like and view the 2 sized files. Is one of them 5 times larger than the other? On my system, they are exactly the same size on screen. Even though one is set to be 72 PPI and one is 360 PPI. They are displayed as the same size and the same resolution.

Why is this? Because the file PPI setting means nothing. The display app just looks at the number of pixels and decides how large it is going to make it. If it is a tiny image, say 300×200 pixels, it will probably make it very small to avoid pixelization artifacts when an image is enlarged too much. It it is a reasonable sized file, it will just pick a good output size. It makes these choices based on the number of pixels. If the image is in a web page, the web page code determines the size the image will be.

What PPI should I use for print?

Now we head into an even more confusing area, and here the confusion is somewhat justified. Printing is it’s own special world. The technology and perception is very different from displays. Displays emit light. Prints reflect light. The effect to the viewer is very different.

Printers don’t have pixels. Instead, we refer to the output scaling as DPI – dots per inch. This recognizes that we are now talking about physical marks on paper (or your substrate of choice).

The printer manufacturers have created tremendous confusion in customer’s minds because they overload terms. The Canon Pro-1000 printer I have at my studio has a specified print resolution of 2400 DPI horizontally and 1200 DPI vertically. Yet the optimum print resolution is 300 DPI. That is, when I am creating a print, I should try to set the output resolution to 300 DPI. This is bound to confuse most people. Why not set the output to 2400 dpi for maximum resolution?

How inkjet printers make nice prints

We come to one of the secrets of printers. We customers want prints with crisp lines and smooth gradations of color and tone. As natural as film used to be, or as smooth as the original artwork we are copying. An inkjet printer sprays dots of ink onto the paper. A dot or no dot. At the level of a single dot, this is not smooth. Inkjet inks do not “mix” to create new colors.

So take my Canon printer as an example. Each “dot” (at 300 per inch) is actually subdivided into an 8×4 grid – 8*300 is 2400 dots per inch horizontally. Any position in this 8×4 sub-grid can contain any combination of printer dots of any of the 12 colors. The print driver uses a magical algorithm called “error diffusion” to cover the sub-grid with a blend of printer dots of the available colors that simulate the color and intensity of the pixel to be printed there.

It is mind bending in it’s complexity. One reason they don’t talk about it much is that it is proprietary for each manufacturer and printer, a closely kept trade secret. The good news is that they take over this complexity so we don’t have to. And they do a very good job. So I set my image to print at 300 DPI and magic happens.

It usually doesn’t matter

In summary, PPI settings do not matter for images displayed on your monitor or on the web or sent to your social media account. If someone tells you they need their images scaled to 72 PPI, just smile and do it, but secretly know they do not know what they are talking about. Only the total number of pixels affects the size of the image. And without going into mind numbing detail, I hope this takes a little mystery out of the way printing works.

I feel better now. 🙂 How about you? Are you more or less confused?