Improvement

Results of an experiment

In a recent post I quoted Todd Vorenkamp saying “Search yourself for improvement, not your gear”. I believe that our improvement needs to come from within us, not from better gear. What is your plan to make yourself a better artist? Do you have one? I am an Engineer. I know that nothing gets better by accident. We all need a plan and strategies to improve ourselves. I am not saying we need a 5 year plan or a 10 step process. But we need to consciously strive for improvement.

Study

Whatever you believe in and value and spend your life doing, you should be a lifelong student of. We are lucky to live at a time when we have so many channels for learning available to us.

If you were an aspiring artist in the 16th century you would have to apprentice to a master. There you would spend several years doing grunt work and menial tasks while studying the basics of drawing. Eventually you might advance to a stage where you were trusted to add some parts to a painting the master started. Someday you might be trusted to make copies of the master’s work. Now after 10-15 years you could be deemed ready to go out on your own. Of course, all you know is your master’s style. You don’t really know what you want to be yet. A pretty poor system in my opinion.

Now, though, there are an abundance of schools and online classes. There are books and magazines. There are mentors available and unlimited examples to view online. Most of us are reasonably close to good museums where we can examine great art at will. We could spend all our time studying and never make an image if we are not disciplined.

Online classes

I have gotten lots of good information from classes at CreativeLive and Kelby One. B&H Explora has a great free library to view, among all the sales stuff. Anything by Julieanne Kost is extremely worthwhile. Some other great instructors are Dave Cross and Ben Willmore. I do not receive any compensation for these plugs. Many of these things require subscription. It is worth paying for good instruction. For free stuff, there is more on YouTube than you could ever watch. Be careful. Be wary in deciding who you are going to listen to, especially on YouTube. It’s the wild west.

One reason I love Julianne Kost, besides that there may not be anyone on the planet who knows more about Photoshop, is that she said “I don’t want a recipe, I want to learn to cook.” This is wise advice. A lot of training presents recipes to do exactly what the instructor did. I don’t want that. I want to know how to fix my own dishes, to create my own recipes. She is good at presenting her training from that point of view.

The real thing is to do it continually. Learning should be a habit we cultivate for our whole life. We never know all of everything. It might be harder to find new and deeper things to learn, but it is there. I suggest you commit to study as an ongoing process, not an event.

Critique

I will put this here, even though I am very bad at it. It has been a long time since I went for a formal critique of my work.

I know it can be valuable. I remember years ago when I was in a camera club the critique was good discipline. As I matured, I also learned that you had to carefully evaluate it, because most critique was normative. It was trying to mold me to fit the biases of the group or the evaluator. Use at your own risk. Be smart about it.

I hear there are some good critique sessions you can submit your work to for evaluation. I have not done it, but I would if I found one I trust.

Possibly the most valuable thing about critiques is that they get you used to hearing negative comments about your work. This, in itself, is good training.

Experiment

There is a big difference between 20 years of experience and 1 year of experience repeated 20 times. A lot of people get trapped by their success. They become known for a style and feel they have to keep doing it for fear they may lose their audience.

I believe an artist grows and evolves throughout their career. Your interests change, your style may change, certainly your point of view changes. How will you follow these changes unless you give yourself permission to experiment some?

That doesn’t mean you have to suddenly make an abrupt 90 degree turn and go a completely new direction. Experiments may be personal. Most of them will fail. Some, though, will have a glimmer of a new idea, a new viewpoint. Follow up on them. Keep pushing.

A willingness to experiment and play is healthy. It will keep us fresh and creative as an artist. Evaluate what you have learned about yourself from the experiments and decide what to keep and build on.

A note about the image with this article: this was the result of an experiment. I liked it. Other people seemed to agree, since it went into a gallery and sold.

Be open and flexible

Are you willing to entertain new ideas? New technology and techniques? New points of view that are alien to your normal thoughts? You don’t have to buy in to them. You don’t have to adopt them.

Stretching yourself with new ideas is kind of like yoga for the mind. You stay flexible. When a mind becomes rigid and inflexible it shuns new ideas, new thoughts. The creative place within us requires fuel, new possibilities, new ways of looking at things. Otherwise we stay in our comfortable rut.

Creativity is like anything else with our bodies. We have to work at it to develop. If we don’t exercise we lose the ability to move and we get unhealthy. Likewise, being open to new things is an attitude, a habit. We can work to get better at it.

Think about it

We should be our own best critic and our own best evaluator. If you’re an artist, how can you not obsess about your art? It is a major part of your life. It should occupy a lot of your thought.

I am an introvert and an Engineer. That gives me an ability to look at my work fairly objectively. I know that will not be the same for everyone. We are all different.

But whatever talents we have, we need to learn to be able to evaluate our work fairly. You see what other artists do. You know your own work. What you do has to stack up against your own expectations and your evaluation. We never think we have arrived at the pinnacle. And we shouldn’t. Hopefully we will always be growing.

Thinking about where we are and where we need to go will help us plot our course. Being realistic will help keep us from deluding our self and also keep us from beating our self up. Don’t be negative. Improvement is a lifestyle. Look for new ideas. Embrace new points of view. Experiment with things that are very different that what we normally do. Grow.

What’s not here?

Your equipment is probably not holding you back significantly. Learn to think. Creatively visualize new things. Try new techniques. Grow into the artist you want to be. Then you will do wonders with that expensive new camera. 🙂

Talent

Different view of aspen forest

Not everyone can do everything. When your parents told you you can be anything you want to be, they weren’t being entirely honest. Each of us is suited for some things and not for others. We each have certain gifts and talents. It is wired in to us.

I could never have been an NBA basketball player or an NFL football player. I don’t have the strength or physical traits or athletic skill – or the killer drive to succeed in sports – that is required. No amount of work on my part would have overcome the deficiencies i have.

Some things come easy

How do you know what your talents are? One way is to look around at your peers. You will probably find that some people struggle with things that seem easy to you. Many of us have trouble recognizing this. We think if we can do it then everybody else can, too.

Let me give one example. I am OK with math. I don’t love it, but I do it comfortably. A career in Engineering helped a lot, but there was also a natural inclination. They are related. You wouldn’t succeed in Engineering without being comfortable with math. It is frustrating to me to see people struggling to figure out simple things when it should be easy for them to calculate or even estimate an answer. I have trouble understanding that inability because I don’t have it.

But this is supposed to be about art. I find that composition and exposure come easy to me. Yes, I have studied for a very long time, but it always felt like it wasn’t a problem. I still enjoy reading about principles of perception, and leading lines, and contrast and using the frame, and exposing to the right and all the other “theory”. It is comfortable and familiar and valuable. I do not struggle a lot with this. When I see someone who seems unable to get it together, and who worries way too much about what camera settings to use, I’m afraid I just have to walk away. I can’t relate to their mystery.

Some things come hard

Being easy is not the measure of your talents, though. Some things we are capable of doing come hard. It can take a lot of work to develop the ability. I would go so far as saying that if it took hard work to develop that talent, that is better. You will appreciate it and value it more when you succeed. You will probably know it better because you had to work at it. Things that are easy are not very personally rewarding.

If you feel you have a talent for something, don’t give up. Not until you have spent a great deal of time and effort on it. Sometimes talent isn’t recognized until we reach a certain stage of life. Perhaps it has to build on other things or we have to get to a point of maturity to appreciate it.

One thing that came hard for me is giving myself permission to really experiment. To play far outside the norms and the conventional rules. I am getting better now. Hopefully I will continue to grow in that creative direction. I feel a pull that makes me think I should.

My background was very literal and hyper realistic. It was a struggle to break out of that. But I discovered I like the other side as well. Maybe more. Now I am comfortable with intentionally blurring things. I can composite images and play with more extreme colors. It seems the further I go off the normal path of photography the more I like it. Is this a talent? Hard to say. Maybe it is just a preference. I’m not sure where the line it.

At some point, though, we sometimes have to decide we were wishing for a talent we don’t really have. If we have done an honest job of trying and it is just not working, time to change direction. In the process we have learned something new about ourselves. I’ll mention this later, but I found that I have very little talent for drawing or painting. I had to abandon that.

Do you need talent?

Do you need talent to be an artist? A sensitive topic, and I will probably offend someone. My feeling is yes, you do. The mechanics, the rules and patterns can be learned by almost anyone. What is the difference between someone who can barely take a usable selfie and another person who makes what people recognize as very good art? I don’t know. It could be creativity, or knowing how to use the tools better, or natural skill. For lack of a better term I will call it talent. Something separates the very good from the rest.

But, and this is significant, I believe most people can learn to do a lot. You don’t have to be the best in the world to enjoy doing something. Get over thinking everything is a competition with 1 winner and everyone else a loser. Do what you can. Relax. Enjoy what you can do.

Study yourself

To grow, it is necessary to curate our talents like we would our art. We should evaluate and refine and seek to understand. It is a life-long process.

I see it as a past/present/future sequence. We must honestly evaluate where we have been and what talents we have discovered. We also need to realistically assess where we are now. Are we content with what we are doing? Do we feel we are making the most of what we have? And looking to the future helps us plan a path forward. Where do we want to go? What talents will it require? This obviously is wider in scope than just art. We are evaluating our life.

To be realistic, I’m not talking about forcing myself into a lotus position and doing navel-gazing for days. I would probably need the rescue services to pry me out if I ever got folded up that way. The idea is that we need to be self-aware. We are the only one who really understands what we feel and like and what our goals actually are. I believe we should be intentional about our life.

Optimize your strengths

One of the big disservices of the corporate world is the annual review. We and our manager and maybe our peers are supposed to review what we have accomplished and assess our strengths and weaknesses. A lot of focus is on coming up with a plan to improve our weaknesses.

Sounds good, right? Sounds like the self-evaluation I recommended. What I finally figured out over the years is that it is a normalization process. The corporation is trying to make us interchangeable parts they can move around at will. This optimizes their goals, not mine.

It finally was clear that, if you are a top performer, you get rewarded for what you do excellently. You very seldom get down graded for your weaknesses. It became my goal to optimize my strengths. When my weaknesses were pointed out I could say, yep, that is a weakness, and be confident that it will not hold me back.

Relating this to art, it became clear to me early on that I had so little talent for drawing or painting that I would never be happy pursuing that. Also, I have a relatively short attention span for working on an image. I want to see results quickly. I did not want to spend weeks working on a single painting. But I was compelled to create art. Finding photography worked for me as the outlet that I needed . That became a whole world that was creatively satisfying and challenging. By following my strengths I can honestly consider myself an artist.

Our talents are our strengths. They make us unique. We should try to be very aware of them. We should cultivate them and be looking to develop new ones. I believe we all have a lot of potential. No one but you can really know you. Keep pushing yourself. Learn new things. Try new directions. Find those buried talents and bring them out. Be all you can be.

Teamwork

A crowd of trees. Working together or independently?

Teamwork can be a great thing. In my professional life I have been on excellent teams and worked with talented people to achieve amazing results. Different people can bring varied background and experiences to the mix and blend them to achieve good results.

Art, though, is a different thing. We are basically not trying to create a good result or a solid product, we are creating a work of art. Art is inherently not a team sport. It is a creation from one head – the artist’s. Some artists use a team, but they supplement the effort of the artist. The creativity and decisions come from one head.

Teamwork does not lead to creativity

I am going to have to say some controversial things. Things that go against the conventional wisdom you hear everyday. But all “conventional wisdom” should be challenged sometimes.

Collaboration is not creativity. It sounds like I am dismissing collaboration as useless. Not so. There are good times for it. Collaboration can let us overcome obstacles and come up with solutions to hard problems.

Working collaboratively is all the buzz in the corporate world. Schools have picked it up as the great thing for doing projects. I was there for years and my experience was that collaboration is a leveling process. It lets a group create at around the average of their capabilities. It is like the Olympic scoring where they throw out the high and low scores and average the rest.

This may be decent insurance for a company. It ensures that they will probably get OK work not poor work, but it is not creativity. I have not seen these efforts lead to actual original, creative solutions. And I have been through lots of creativity exercises with very capable teams. Even sessions facilitated by top consultants.

Let me concede for the moment that a team effort may lead to a creative solution. Whose creativity is that? Can I call this my creative work? Other people directly contributed to it. Is it really mine?

A lonesome sport

For an artist, the buck stops here. The artist has no one else to blame or defer to. No one else is responsible for coming up with the ideas and making the decisions. Right or wrong, it is his call.

Think what goes through your mind when you see an art piece: what was the artist thinking? Why did the artist make these decisions? Why even choose that subject? You don’t wonder if the artist’s team did mind mapping or used a focus group to select and refine the ideas and style. No, you assume the art is the work of a singular artist.

It can be lonesome and terrifying. As an artist you are sometimes almost paralyzed with fear and uncertainty. There is the terror of the blank canvas, when you don’t seem able to come up with ideas. There is the embarrassment of riches, where you have several images you like a lot but are unable to select the one to present. A certain subject is calling to you. Should you pursue that, even though it is different from your normal work? Should you go with the creativity you feel or play it safe and stick to producing work that is safe and mainstream?

Only you as the artist can solve these problems and answer these questions. That is, only you can answer them for you. Your answers are part of what make your art your art.

Teamwork examples

OK, to answer your objection that teamwork can work sometimes. Yes, it can, in certain ways. There are husband and wife teams like Wendy Shattil and Bob Rozinski or Sarah Marino and Ron Coscorrosa that work together very closely. And there are great friends who collaborate closely, like Tony Hewitt and Peter Eastman. These are very healthy, symbiotic relationships.

From what I’ve seen, these teams work closely on idea generation and location scouting. They give each other very candid and honest critique. They encourage each other and honestly want the other to succeed. But at the end of the day, they are in competition. Only one name goes on the print. They collaborate, but the final art is one person’s work.

If it was not one person’s work it would be a corporate product, not art.

A land of introverts

It has been said that a disproportionate number of artists are introverts. I believe that is true. We tend to enjoy working alone without having to negotiate with anyone to get something done. We are OK being in our heads without needing the validation of other people’s opinions. And many of us are shy. It is easier to create in silence than to ask other people for help or critique.

We may get completely caught up in our work, almost as a way to hide from the world. It is safe – until we have to exhibit it or sell it. We can let our inner self be expressed through our art rather than have to interact with people.

I disagree, though, that it is disproportionate. Who says what the right proportion is? Given the descriptions above it seems natural that introverts would gravitate to art. That is like saying a disproportionate number of talk show hosts are extroverts. No, the introverts run away from that and say “you can have it”.

Teamwork is not the natural style for us introverts. We tend to be very independent and self reliant. Not to say we are immune to fear and self doubt. If anything we are more susceptible to it. But good or bad, we want it to be our own work.

A circular argument

Since this is based on my first person experience, it is somewhat of a circular argument. The thesis is that artists are generally introverts and don’t do teamwork. This is true of my experience in my world. That is all I can really speak for.

There certainly are many successful extrovert artists. These people would need lots of interaction with other people and need to bounce ideas off other people. But even so, who creates the art?

Let me come back to the original thought. Introvert or extrovert, the art is almost always the creative expression from one head. It is not a team sport. We can get inspired and motivated by talking to other people. People can stimulate us or give us feedback to help point us in a slightly different direction. But in the end, no one but me is responsible for what I create. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Projects Give Focus

Airplane taking off. A short project.

Sometimes when we feel burnt out or empty and aren’t finding anything exciting to shoot, setting ourselves a project to do can help to focus our creative energy and invigorate us. For some of us, the projects become the core of our work.

Focus

I tend to be an omnivore photographically. I look for interesting scenes, almost regardless of what the subject is. So, in other words, I shoot everything. Sometimes that leads to my attention being stretched too thin.

Temporarily selecting a particular subject for a project focuses my attention and energy down to a narrow point. Rather than finding any interesting subject I spend some time tuned up to only a certain subject.

I find that this period of focus can be refreshing. I would not want to permanently exclude a broader viewpoint. That would become boring and it is not my style. But doing it for a short time is a good creative exercise.

Creative channel

Creativity is an ephemeral thing. It seems to come and go. Once we have developed it, I don’t really believe it ever goes away, but I do see it get stronger and weaker at times. When we cannot feel the pull of our creativity, it is scary. We doubt ourselves. We fear that we are a fraud.

At these times taking on a project can often be a great refresher for me. Picking out something that interests us and is very narrow and specific presents a new challenge. Just the slight seeming reframing from “go be creative” to “find a creative approach to this subject” creates a very different exercise.

I’m fairly competitive and like solving problems. A project is a challenge and a problem solving opportunity.

For a short time I get to narrow my focus down to just the project subject. It fills my thoughts. My creativity has a clear goal. It becomes a problem to solve.

I find that good things come out of this.

Body of work

A lot is said about having a well curated body of work. Projects can add greatly to this. When done, the project may only be 10-20 carefully selected images. But hopefully, they have a theme, a consistent style, and they tell a story. This helps build your body of work.

Several projects in your portfolio are like boulders in a stream. They stand out as the rest of the collection flows around them. They are solid cores that the rest build on.

Ansel Adams famously said “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” I would say that, in the digital world, we shoot a lot more and probably our standards have relaxed from Ansel’s. Still, shooting projects increases our probability of good images. We have most of our creativity focused on a certain theme for a period of time. That has to help. These great images build our portfolio.

Doing good?

The process of selecting a project is subjective. Some people feel they can and should contribute to a cause. Whether that is wilderness preservation or global warming or human trafficking or any other large important cause, that can be great. You can feel like you are making a difference in the world. And maybe you are. I would not discourage you. Wanting to do good is a great human trait.

But a project does not have to be grand in scale or in impact. It only has to be focused in scope and interesting to you. Remember, first, the project is for your benefit. It can be as small or large, as local or global as you want. The purpose of the projects I am talking about is to energize you. To get you through a creative slump.

For instance, I am doing a project on speeding trains. Sounds dumb. Maybe it is. But I see something in these that inspires me to work it. I like what I am seeing so far. As a matter of fact, I dropped this blog for a few minutes to go out and capture one going by. I hope you don’t mind the interruption. 🙂

Only projects?

If projects are so good, why not only do that? A valid question. Some artists only do projects, like Brooke Shaden or Jennifer Thoreson. It works for them. It is aligned with their creativity and the way they see the world.

A project-only world doesn’t work for me. As I said before, my interests are wide ranging. I like to go out empty and be inspired by what I find. That is just me. I find that contrasting this with occasional projects gives me a good balance and it keeps me sharp and energized.

I will certainly not try to tell you you have to do it like me. Your mileage may vary.

Remember, we are discussing art, not brick laying. Art is a purely creative process. There is no one way or objective right or wrong. If anyone tells you it has to be done a certain way, run. Fast. Don’t look back.

Try assigning yourself projects occasionally. They do not have to be big or long or hugely involved. Pick something of interest that you would seldom work on. This gives yourself permission to spend time on it. Let your creativity focus on the project and see what you come up with. Hang your 10 best images from the project on your wall and consider them. It might become a habit.

Failing

Walking in the rain

Most of us fear failing. We often avoid taking a risk because we don’t want to fail and feel bad about ourselves. This is a deep seated behavior that is hard for most of us to overcome. Fear of failing can paralyze us.

But I feel that, if you are an artist, you do not have the luxury of always playing it so safe you can never fail.

Fear failure?

Most of us fear failure in most things. Maybe almost as much as we fear public speaking.

Are you a perfectionist? Are your expectations so high that you cannot try new things for fear that you might not do a good job? Does even thinking about the possibility of failing give you rapid heart rate, chest tightness, trembling, dizziness, lightheadedness, sweating?

Or, sorry I’m getting very personal with myself now, are you afraid you are a fake? That you are not good enough or able to do what you profess to do?

Do not believe the labels other people want to put on you. They are quick to want to do it. Did you get rejected for that exhibit you applied for? It doesn’t mean you are a failure. Did a gallery reject you? They were just looking for something else. You can’t really be a failure unless you accept that you are.

Accept disappointment

Not getting the recognition or sales we are seeking hurts. Being rejected by the ones we seek approval from is painful and discouraging.

We have to have a core of confidence in our ability that will keep us going. Our belief in our self must be stronger that the negative messages we get from the outside. Otherwise we will either give up or we will believe that our art is not worthwhile the way we want to do it and we will change to try to become someone else’s idea of an artist. That is living a lie.

We must persist. There are very few true “overnight successes”. Here are some examples from authors. They seem to keep score more.

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers.

John Grisham’s A Time to Kill was rejected by 16 publishers before he decided to get an agent. The agent eventually rejected him as well.

Chicken Soup for the Soul, by Jack Canfeld and Mark Victor Hansen, was rejected 140 times.

Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times.

These are just anecdotes, data points. Your mileage will vary. But isn’t it great that these people persisted despite what must have seemed like overwhelming failure?

Redefine

Perhaps your expectations are wrong. Maybe you won’t be the next Joe McNally. There are very few of them.

It could be time to change your metrics. Are you defining success as huge sales? Is success for you to be rock star-famous or published in National Geographic? Try looking at it in terms of the satisfaction you get from what you create. Whether you get fame or rejection, the inner evaluation of your art is your own.

Maybe the failures are a necessary part of our growth and maturing. They can reinforce our will to succeed and our belief in our self. It is part of growing up as an artist.

Seek failure

I’m kidding, right? Who in their right mind would seek failure?

Well, when we put ourself out there, that is giving the world an opportunity to reject us. To consider us a failure. We have to do it, to persist, to accept that the rejection will come because we need to have our art seen.

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” – Sylvia Plath

We should embrace the rejections and failures as steps along the way. It is never fun or easy, but we need to get used to it. Keeping on trying even after rejections helps us overcome fear of failure. If we retreat into our shell and refuse to try anymore we will consider ourselves failures. We will believe that self-talk.

Plus, we learn from the experience.

Learn from failure

Whenever we are learning something challenging there is a time of testing ourselves to see if we are getting it. If we are studying math, we solve problems and take tests. If we are learning Karate we spar and go through testing to measure our proficiency. When we are learning music we are asked to do recitals to demonstrate our capability. The exercises develop our skill and the tests not only prove our ability, they develop our mental toughness.

If we never confront our fears we will never know what we are and what we are capable of. This is easier for some of us than others. It is pretty hard for me. I don’t like it. But I force myself to keep on. I may grumble and be in a bad mood for a while after getting a rejection, but I know I have to keep on.

Perhaps the real thing we are learning is how much we believe in our self. Do we consider our art worthwhile and worth the pain?