We have or experience boundaries in all aspects of our lives. Some boundaries are essential. Boundaries set limits to define acceptable behavior to allow society to function. But the boundaries I am talking about here are the ones we accept or even impose on ourselves in our creative world.

What is it that bounds you?

Most of us are limited by the beliefs we have accepted or been taught. Beliefs are not at all bad. They are necessary. It is when they limit you into a box you can’t break out of that they become a burden. Beliefs should be carefully examined and modified or discarded as we progress through life. Sometimes our beliefs become outdated because we grow to a new level of understanding.

That is pretty philosophical. Let me take a simple example of a landscape shot. We know what it looked like and we believe it should look like that. But why? Why is it only allowed to look like the exact reality that was there? What is reality? What if you want it to be different? It is probably only your beliefs that prevent you from experimenting with something else and maybe ending up at a completely different place.

Who sets your boundaries?

Most of us learned photography from educators or mentors or tutorials. This is great. All are good ways to build skills and learn the craft.

Many of us, though, simply accept and follow the instruction we were given. We might even proudly tell people “I learned the style of [____] from [____ ]” (fill in your favorites). Congratulations. But so what?

The great artist you learned from has developed a set of values and skills over the years. They are based on their perceptions, the way they see the world. Their art reflects themselves and their experience. As it should. When they teach a student they are training them to think or view things like themselves.

Why should you follow their precepts? Doing so limits you to being an inferior clone of the instructor. When we develop our own vision and become confident in the worth of our creativity we will have to uproot some of those fences our instructors put in place to help guide us.

All the education you have received is good, in that it makes you what you are today. Learn all you can from all sources but reserve the right to form your own opinions. Don’t be complacent. Follow your own path.

Technical boundaries

All artistic medium have their own boundaries. Whether it is material properties or technology or physics, everything we use has limits.

The wonderful cameras I use have hard technical limits. For instance, even though they have excellent dynamic range (the range of dark to light they can capture) it is not as great as some subjects I want to photograph. I have to learn techniques to deal with the limit, like HDR. Or I have to learn to make art that exploits those limits to create something new.

Great artists tend to push the envelope of their medium. They discover ways to use the limits to express themselves in new ways. Don’t be afraid to push the limits.

Mental limitations

For most of us, though, our values and beliefs define our boundaries, not the medium. We hold ourselves back. We avoid pushing past or even seriously questioning the fences we have set up in our minds. Worse, we don’t usually even realize these limitations.

A lifetime of criticism and training gets deeply embedded. You have to do this. Never do that. Always compose like this. Avoid doing this in post processing. Repetition leads to acceptance and eventually we become blind to alternatives. Fearful, even of trying anything outside the norm as we know it.

Do you remember the famous Apple 1984 ad? You should watch it. It is a great classic and it has a very important message. Group think and indoctrination prevails in any group. It doesn’t change until someone stands up to it and says “I don’t think so”.

Overcoming boundaries

Your biggest creative boundaries are deeply held within you. You have to accept that they are there and learn to take them out and examine them and decide if they should stay or go.

I recognize that this advice will only be useful to about half the population. The ones who are introverted enough to have the gift of introspection. I know enough extroverts to realize that they don’t think this way. I’m not saying that is good or bad, but since I don’t understand you I can’t offer much advice for you. Personally I observe that a disproportionate percentage of artists I know are introverts.

I believe the first step to becoming our own is to ask “why”? Ask it of ourselves when we turn back at a “don’t go there” point. Ask it of other people who tell you you shouldn’t do something. Listen to the answers. Be honest with yourself.

If you find the answer is because somebody you respect told you that is not the way to do it, maybe it is time to experiment. Maybe doing it is right for you even if not for them.

Asking “why” puts you in a somewhat of a confrontation position. I don’t like that, but I realize it is necessary sometimes. You may get scorn or criticism. You may get evasive answers. But ask, at least ask yourself. Remember, as far as your creative direction, you are the only one who can answer.

Permission to color outside the lines

In a previous post I referenced a Calvin and Hobbs cartoon that is very meaningful to me. If you remember, Calvin was doing a paint by number but he wasn’t using the color codes or painting in the lines. When it was pointed out to him, it seemed a bizarre concept to want to paint their picture rather than his own.

That is perfect! If we accede to other people’s boundaries, we create their art, not our own.

I have been following this path for years but I still find myself stopped by boundaries I had not consciously acknowledged. I have to constantly give myself permission to go further, do it different, don’t worry about whether or not it looks like the original. It is important to remind myself that if I feel it I can try it. If I can express a reason that makes sense to me, that is good enough. I may not like it after I try it but it is very important and healthy to try something different.

It is hard to truly give yourself permission to color outside the lines.

But learn to do it. Make yourself do it. It is worth it. You start to discover what you really see and feel. It becomes your art.

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