Becoming an Artist

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

Early camera days

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

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

Balancing the left brain

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

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

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

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

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

Software architect

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

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

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

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

User experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artist using photography

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

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

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

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

Can’t not do it

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

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

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

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

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