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.


Trying - and succeeding

Excuses, we have them for every occasion. There’s nothing interesting here. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. I’m too busy. The weather is not right. I don’t like this light. I’m not good enough. I’m shy. It could go on for a page or more. Excuses are our way of letting ourselves off the hook when we are scared or don’t want to do something.

As a heads up, this is about the dreaded topic of marketing. In case you want to stop reading now. 🙂

Why make excuses

Excuses are a way of absolving ourselves of responsibility. We shift the blame to someone or something else. It lets us off the hook. We didn’t fail, it was “their” fault we couldn’t do it.

Have you done that? I sure have. We don’t want to feel bad about ourselves. After all, we have a self image to nurture. The problem is when we rely on excuses to not do anything.


A lot of times we make excuses because we are afraid of doing something. Contact that gallery? No, they wouldn’t want my work. Submit for that show? No, I’m not good enough.

Fear of failure keeps us trapped in our own prison. We build a cage of excuses around us to protect ourselves from failing. But we can become trapped in a cage of our own making.

But we’re thinking about it wrong. What we fear almost never happens and not achieving our objective is not the same as failing.

What we fear

I believe a lot of us artists are introverts. We shun confrontation and don’t like to be criticized. Even if we are not introverts most of us do not like these things. So we fear that if we put our self forward we might be rejected. People might even think bad of us.

Here’s what I am learning: we will be rejected, again and again, and no one really knows who you are or cares enough to think bad of you. That sounds harsh, but it should actually be somewhat comforting.

I apply for a show and my submissions are rejected. I don’t know why. They do not give a critique. Perhaps what I entered doesn’t appeal to the juror. Perhaps they had different styles in mind. Maybe the juror was in a bad mood at the time. I cannot know. But what they didn’t say was “you are a failure; I hate your work; you are not worthy of being an artist; don’t ever enter this event again”. No, it was just a rejection. Get over it and go on.


You know the old Yoda line “Do or do not. There is no try“. It is a great line, but kind of misleading. Like Luke in the scene with Yoda, if we do not believe we can do it, we are probably right. The reality is that for most things, trying is all we can do. We cannot always create the outcome we want as long as we are dependent on other people’s decisions.

Trying does not mean we doubt ourselves. It means we recognize that many of the attempts we make will not succeed. And we’re willing to live with that.

It’s the trying that we fall short on. We’re afraid so we never try. We get a rejection so we stop trying. Persistence is required in order to succeed.

As I have said before, “build it and they will come” doesn’t work. We have to let people know about ourselves and our work. This is called promotion. It is called marketing. That is not a bad word. It is what makes us recognized and successful.

Just do it

For years I had the attitude that I love doing art but I hate marketing. I am shy so I am not good at it. People will eventually recognize the worth of what I do.

Ain’t going to happen.

People are not out there waiting anxiously to “discover” me. They do not know I exist and don’t really care. I have to take definite and active steps to make them aware of me. It may take many attempts before they will take a serious look at my work and see something they like. This is called “marketing”. I now see it in a different light. Rather than being a distasteful thing I should do, but don’t, I see it as an exciting opportunity to promote myself and be recognized.

No more excuses.

The great Wayne Gretzky famously observed “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” You cannot succeed unless you try. I have finally internalized that. Just coming to believe that made it far less distasteful. Starting to do it and discovering that a rejection is not fatal and no one blacklists me for trying has made it far easier as I go along.

Try something. Act quick. Learn from your mistakes. Keep trying. Believe in yourself and never give up.

You haven’t failed unless you don’t try. Stop making excuses. Just do it.

Invest in Yourself

Obscure found image. Track to nowhere

You are your best asset. As a matter of fact, you are your only asset. Invest in yourself to develop your skills and abilities.


I am primarily talking about our skills as an artist. We need to invest in our self to grow and get better professionally. It is a life-long process.


Do you invest enough time in your art? Many of us have a “real” job to pay the bills. And we have families and other obligations. It stretches us pretty thin at times.

But we cannot grow as an artist unless we put in the time to do the work. Practice, practice, practice. Repetition. Experiment. These things make us more skilled and more mature in our craft.

I have heard of a gallery saying they are not interested in an artist until they have painted 10,000 pictures. Of course, that is a silly metric. There is no arbitrary number to reach your peak. I do believe, though, as Linus Pauling said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas and throw away the bad ones.” Same with our art. We get better with practice as we learn to recognize the bad stuff and throw it away.

We have to put in the reps.


I don’t know about you, but before becoming an artist, my professional life involved constant learning. I seldom did things I learned in college. One of the great benefits of my previous career was that I had to learn to learn. My life as an artist is the same.

My friend Ramit Sethi makes a point of how much he spends on personal development, from courses to books to a personal trainer. He has a much larger budget to play with than I do. Even so, in proportion to where I’m at I may rival him. No personal trainer though. I have to be content with getting out almost every day and walking about 5 miles with my camera. His advice is good. I do like and generally follow his book buying rule: “If you see a book you like, just buy it”. As I write this I’m waiting for a new one to show up.

It’s not the amount you spend on training that matters, it’s the results. I have occasionally spent hundreds of dollars on classes that were a marginal benefit, but gotten a lot of good from a free online class. It is a matter of what speaks to you at the time. And the fact that you’re doing it regularly. I probably watch 10-15 hours of videos a week on art, marketing, sales, general business, and selected other subjects of interest. No, no funny cat videos.

The point, though, is that we must constantly invest in our self. When you say you already know everything you need, you start to stagnate. You can always learn something new and improve your artistic skills and yourself personally. You have to.


Now it starts to hurt, at least for me. I don’t like marketing. I would rather just do art.

But I have been told over and over and I now believe I have to invest at least 20% of my time marketing. The reality is probably more like 30-40%. I have a lot of catching up to do.

Unless we are doing our art as a hobby, and are content to just show our work to friends, we have to market ourselves. “Build it and they will come” is a great line for a movie, but is not true in real life.

Art is a very competitive world. Galleries don’t want to hear from you. They have too many artists already. Selling online? So is everyone else. So what can we do? We build a distinct brand and be very persistent and professional in our outreach.

Several marketing gurus have made a point that we will never get anywhere if we do something a couple of times then get discouraged and move on to something else. Persistent, repetitive, sustained marketing is required to “break in” to the world we want. I don’t like it, but that is life.


As important as it is to grow and take care of our self professionally, I believe it is equally important to take care of our personal life. I hope your vision for your life is about more than just professional achievement. Do not neglect your health and fitness and your mental and spiritual development.

The training I advocated above also helps you mentally. Keeping your brain active and learning new things has a lot of long term benefits. A substantial part of the training should be targeted at things that do not seem directly related to your art. Read biographies, history, science, psychology, and even fiction. It is amazing what seemingly unrelated things can spark a creative idea.

A key word there is “read”. You are a professional. You cannot just watch videos. Reading has a greater benefit than watching a screen. Try it. It is good for your mind.


A common thread to all of this is mindfulness. This is just a fancy psychological term for being deliberate and conscious in what we do and very aware of what is going on around us. I am studying this now and I am sure I will be writing more on it later. But for now, pay attention to what you do and be very aware of your choices.

The picture

I love this picture with the article. It is one of the greatest train tracks I have ever seen. Look closer if nothing jumped out at you when you first saw it.

I can take it as metaphors for a lot of things. For this article, I will use it to make the point that there are many paths we can chose. But they do not all lead to the outcome we want. Choose wisely and deliberately. The path you want is usually not the easy one. You are your best asset. Take care of yourself. Work at it.

Creativity is a Process

More than a rock - seeing it different.

Is creativity something that just happens when the “muse” takes you over and directs you? I want to challenge that. I believe creativity is a process that we can follow almost anytime, not just when we are “inspired”. I hope this will seem inspiring, because it means we can create great work any time we decide to.

The myth of the muse

Ah, if only the inspiration would come! I guess I will sit and drink wine and read poetry while I wait for the muse to visit. That sounds like a pleasant way to spend a rainy day, but not a way to create art.

The concept of muses comes from Greek and Roman mythology. They were 9 goddesses who controlled the arts and sciences and inspired artists. It is amazing how the concept has stuck. The idea of muses makes a good metaphor. We all know that our creativity seems to increase or decrease at unpredictable times. None of us understand the reasons why. But I will not believe my life and psyche is at the whim of Greek goddesses.

I don’t feel like it

If you believe some external influence controls you then it is easy to say “I’m not feeling it today, so I’m not going to do any art.” Maybe you can do that. I can only behave that way for very short periods of time.

My art is something I have to do. Not doing it is worse than feeling like I am not inspired. I would make “bad” art rather than no art at all. I don’t have to show it to anybody.

I find that when I assign myself a project to focus my creativity or just pick up my camera and get outside looking around I start to feel and see possibilities. Something magical happens to me when I hear the shutter click that first time. Now I am drawn into creative mode. My camera, like many new ones, has a fully silent mode. I don’t use it. I want to hear that shutter slap. It activates decades of muscle memory and discipline. I have made an image. Now I can go on.

Hard work

The bad news (for some of us) is that art is hard work. We cannot always sit around waiting for “inspiration”. We have to make our own inspiration.

Inspiration is for amateurs. Us professionals just go to work in the morning.” – Chuck Close

Hard work will outperform talent any day of the week.” – Joel Grimes

Motivation exists, but it has to find you working.” – Pablo Picasso

A professional is someone who can do his best work when he doesn’t feel like it.” – Alistair Cooke

Sorry for the blizzard of quotes, but I find encouragement in the experience of others who have been there before. I could have found a lot more quotes on the subject.

So, if you just dabble in art and it is not a driving passion, it is OK to wait for inspiration. But if you are serious about your art you have to just do it. Create your own inspiration. Work. Push on. Get moving to get the juices flowing.

The process

I said creativity is a process. What is the process? As Fast Company magazine said: “stop your whining and sit your ass in the chair.” Sorry to be crude, but it is true. They were referring to book authors, but the same principle applies to other creative efforts.

It doesn’t do much good to complain about lack of inspiration. Do something. Taking positive action will lead to the work flowing. Eventually. It is hard at first, but it is a learned process. “Professional” creatives, like screen writers, copywriters, commercial artists, illustrators, wedding photographers – people who must deliver work to clients on a schedule – just have to get it done. Whether or not they feel like it. The rest of us can, too.

Assign yourself a deadline. Define a project and a timetable. Go out and say you won’t come in until you have shot a certain number of images. Re-evaluate and re-organize your portfolio. Take some action to get some momentum going. It will overcome the barriers in your mind and get ideas flowing. The work you do right then may not be great, but it will get you going.

Projects focus us

I have said that projects are a good way to get ourselves going when we don’t feel like it. Actually, I am coming to believe it is one of the best tools we have. What is a project and why does it work?

A project as I describe it is shooting and editing a collection of images that center on a theme or subject. I believe it helps focus us to write an artist statement before starting the project. This collects our thoughts on the purpose of the project, its scope, its meaning, and what your interest or motivation is.

Write something? You’ve got to be kidding! No, I’ve come to believe writing is just another part of the creative process. It is organizing a linear series of words to communicate rather than communicating solely visually. Both are forms of expressing our thoughts. Both, I believe, are complimentary creative processes.

The artist statement does not have to be long, maybe 200-300 words. It will serve as the guide to focus us and give unity to the project. So be clear to yourself.

Maybe I’m just weird, but putting the blinders on and restricting my thoughts to a project gives me a huge boost of creativity. Rather than my thoughts being diffuse and wandering all over the place, they are focused on one thing. My creativity and energy have something to work on. Throwing myself into coming up with diverse ways to express a single subject is a challenge and, actually, fun.

Get going

Whether you challenge yourself with projects, go to museums, read books, write, finger paint, whatever, do something. Do not fall into the trap of feeling depressed and uninspired and, therefore, not doing art. Get moving to get your mind working. Doing creative things breeds creativity.

Let me know what you do to get your creativity going,


Ambiguous abstyract image

Keywording is a pretty mundane subject. But I recommend not ignoring it. It is valuable to you and good discipline. I have tried to ignore keywords at times but I have always changed my mind.


The photo filing software you use probably has provisions for adding keywords to your images. It probably also has ways to add a lot of other meta data, like location or client or your copyright information. Use this other information, too. I use Lightroom Classic for my organization and keywording.

Keywords are simply arbitrary tags that add words or phrases to help you locate or identify your image later. This is important, the keywords are completely chosen by you and for your use, unless you work for an organization that enforces standardized keywords. I will assume here that that does not apply to you.

So they are only meant to be useful information for you. They may tag location or subject or color or mood or anything that seems relevant to you. You can add as many keywords to an image as you want. Perhaps there is an upper limit, but I have never found it or read about it. Again, let me emphasize that you decide what they are.


Why go to this trouble? Because one of the problems with digital images is that we tend to collect a lot of them. And since they are “hidden” on your computer and not nice physical prints you can flip through, you need extra help finding things. Someday you will want to find a particular image or images of a certain subject or those pictures of a red cardinal in a winter snowstorm you took a few years ago. Keywords are one of the means of locating or grouping your pictures.

One of the challenges of keywording is to Goldilocks it: not too much, not too little, but just right. How do you know what is just right? That’s the challenge. Partly it has to be sort of backward looking. That is, when you find you can use your keywords to locate the images you want and it did not seem too much trouble to have added them, it may be just right. Sorry, not a really helpful description. The trouble is, your mileage may vary.


Most photographers eventually determine a strategy for keywording that works for them. I have seen people who do a lot of wildlife photography who tag images with the common and scientific name of their subjects. That is too much work for me. Since I don’t shoot much wildlife I may only tag the occasional one with “elk”, or “deer”, or “pronghorn”. Or a very generic thing like “bird”.

Works for me. Would not work for some people I know. Choose an approach that is right for your needs.

There are places on the internet where you can find lists of keywords. I have looked at some of them, but they tend to be too detailed for me. Plus, since I did not create them, I have trouble thinking of the words the author chose. So I make up my own keywords as needed. A quick export of my keywords shows that I have nearly 2200 unique keywords in my main catalog. I am completely sure many people have far more.

For the most part, I use keywords to identify subjects, attributes of the image, and “housekeeping” information.


Let me give a simple example. This is a somewhat randomly chosen image that seemed fairly typical of my keywording.

Sunset, wide open spaces

This image has 14 keywords currently. For the subject ones, it is identified as a cabin on the eastern plains of Colorado with interesting clouds. For the attributes that seemed important to me, it is a landscape, it is abandoned, it is made of wood, a sunset image, taken in summer, and showing an expanse of distance.

The potentially most interesting are what I term housekeeping keywords. I use these to track important information that often has nothing directly to do with the image. An example for this one is that it is copyrighted. Yes, all of my images are copyrighted technically at the moment I take them, but this extra level signifies that the image has been filed and accepted for copyright by the United States Copyright Office. In addition it has keywords indicating the copyright registration number and date of grant. Other example housekeeping tags are that it is in my Select5 group, one of my highest ratings, and it is used in this blog.

Why do it this way? Because I developed a system over time that works for me and is based on real needs that needed to be solved. I do not claim it is the only way to do things or that it is the best way. It is just the workflow I use. I encourage you to also adapt your tools and process to meet your needs rather than bending your needs to match the tools, or what someone has told you you should do – including me.

Worth it?

It is solely up to you to decide if it is worth it to you. It is to me. I often do searches to locate a particular image or a certain type of scene. The more identifying information I have, up to a point, the better. I also use smart collections sometimes to group together all images of a certain criteria. For example, I mentioned using a keyword for my selection level. I have smart collections that will show me, for instance, everything at select level 3 that has not yet been evaluated for possible promotion to level 4. This is a key part of my workflow.

I always keep in mind what I termed the Goldilock effect. If my keywords are not adding value for me I will modify or abandon the process.

These are your images and your process. Do what works best for you. But it is good discipline to enforce on yourself. I can say that if you go a long time ignoring something like keywording and decide later you should do it, it is a lot of boring work for a while.

The tradeoff for me is that keywords are valuable for my work and useful for my processes. I will put in the effort to do it. Taking a little time to think about an image from several aspects like subject and attributes and housekeeping has benefits for me. It is one of the steps that ensures I am curating my valuable assets rather than just accumulating a big bag of pictures.


A growing trend is software that attempts to analyze your images and automatically generate keywords. One new one I’ve seen is Excire. Another system I have seen described is fotoKeyword Harvester. I’m sure there are more. Lightroom itself agressively tries to get me to let it scan to identify people. It’s little brother, now named just “Lightroom” also automatically tries to keyword images. All this comes with the increasing penetration of so called AI technology.

I don’t use these tools. As a matter of fact, I don’t trust them. All that I’ve seen will suck your images into “the cloud” for analysis. I have no sure way of knowing what will happen to them then. I am very protective of my rights and possession of my images.

Yes, I may be a Luddite, but it is not entirely out of ignorance. I am a Software Architect who had done AI work and even developed practical applications based on some of its research. I have some idea of the downsides of using it.

Besides, as I indicated above, my system is based on a network of keywords I have grown organically over a long time. I am not interested in some software system deciding to re-describe and re-interpret my image data.

So for the foreseeable future, I will continue doing my keywording manually.