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. πŸ™‚

A Sense of Wonder

A result of following curiosity

Remember wonder? Most of us came with a sense of wonder. Think of a kid at Disneyworld. Or that kid with a brush or a pencil or sidewalk chalk drawing their creations. Or just playing with toys.

Somewhere along the way this sense of wonder is squeezed out of most of us. We “grow up” and see everything coldly and analytically, or we live in fear of everything that could happen to us. Of course we have to grow up, but losing our joy and wonder of the world is a tragedy.

My point of view here is mainly that of an artist, but the comments generally apply in a much broader scope. In a sense this article is a followup to a previous one on learning what excites us.

Wonder drives us

As artists (or well-balanced people) wonder is what makes us take a fresh look at everything around us. It propels us forward to discover and explore. Wonder lets us walk around the block and see something we have never noticed before that interests us or leads us to make a connection with something else.

Wonder is the “what if?” that leads us to see new things or try new things. Without it we tend to do the same things over and over mechanically, routine. As artists we can easily get in a rut. We always produce similar work, because that is what we do. Maybe that is what we became known for.

A rut is stagnant. It always goes the same places. We don’t grow. Eventually we get bored with what we are producing and it shows.

Wonder feeds our curiosity

One of the greatest benefits we have as humans is curiosity. Most of us are not grubbing around to look for our next meal or to simply survive. We want to create, to make our mark. We know there is something more than the day to day activities that occupy us. Questions intrigue us and we want answers. Or at least, we want to try to figure them out.

I believe, and this is totally non-scientific, that wonder leads and drives our curiosity. If you don’t wonder at something why would you be curious? Wonder sparks the “how?”, “why?”, “what if?”, “could I?” side of us. It shows us there are new dimensions to explore, new sights we have not found yet.

Being open and receptive to wonder makes us take a fresh look at the world around us.

Permission

Are you looking around you and really seeing things? Or are you moving through life in a fog, with your headphones on and buried in your phone?

Not to sound judgmental, but that is what I observe of most people around me. The reality is that wonder is a still, small voice that needs quiet to be heard. It is easily drowned out by noise. The world around us inundates us with a constant stream of media designed to keep us captive and tuned in to their stream. I know from my own experiments that I have to unplug to activate my wonder and curiosity.

Try it. Go out sometime without a camera or sketch book, just you. Leave your phone in your pocket. Put away the headphones. Just wander. It will seem very strange at first. Disconcerting. But keep at it.

After a while I predict you will start to look around more. You will start to actually see things, maybe for the first time. Let your curiosity feed on it. What is that? Was this always here? That’s interesting, but I’ve never noticed it.

It basically comes down to giving your self permission to slow down and explore. This is a hard step for some of us. Practice it. It is kind of like meditation. It may seem strange at first, but it gets easier and more beneficial with practice.

And in my experience, it works the same driving in a car. That is, turn off the radio and just look around (as much as you safely can). Give your self permission to take side trips, to stop and look at anything that catches your eye. Let those cars pass you. Try it. It feeds your mind and it gets easier with practice.

Play

I started off talking about the natural wonder we had as children. To some extent we can recapture it. We just have to un-learn some of our adult traits. A good path is to learn to play again.

As kids we played a lot. BTW, I hope you let your kids have lots of unstructured time for play. Not with socially relevant or educational toys, but with a box or some paper or string or … Anyway, adults can play, too. It is good for us. Very good.

Follow your curiosity. Pursue goals that probably won’t lead to a profitable outcome, but that you are interested in. Learn something new.

As an artist, assign yourself a strange project. One you have never done before and aren’t likely to put in your portfolio. Explore the dark recesses of your tools, like Photoshop blending modes for example. Not to create something great, but to explore and find out what might happen.

That’s one of the things about play, it is usually unstructured and just for you. There is no intent to produce something for other people. The benefits are indirect and very personal.

Be different

I highly recommend you redevelop a child-like wonder for your work and the world around you. Give your self permission to be unconventional. You will start to see more. You will become more curious about things. Hopefully you will act on your curiosity. Observe, experiment, plan to throw your experiments away. The joy and learning is in the doing or the seeing.

In my art I have followed my curiosity and am starting to see beyond the traditional limits of my media. I push past the conventional views I have long held and try to re-imagine the normal. I am doing whole new views of common everyday scenes. You may not like it. Nobody has to other than me. But it renews me. I feel like I am opening up new doors.

Please try to renew your art and your life. It is the only life we have.

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. πŸ™‚

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.

To Be

High alpine valley

No, I’m not addressing the existential “or not to be” question. I was triggered by reading questions from photographers about planning photo trips. There were lots of concerns about locations and what lenses to take and time of day or even time of year, but it seems to me they are missing a fundamental point. You are an artist. You are going out to be, to create, to be inspired. Collecting a stack of the same standard pictures everyone else takes is not the goal.

Being the same

I have written on this before. I hope you believe your task as an artist is to create new work, your own work, not imitate what has already been done. Yes, Yosemite is full of iconic locations. If I was there I’m sure I would shoot at some of them. The difference is these shots would be just for me, to remember being there. I would not be shooting for my portfolio unless I encountered exceptional and unique circumstances at one of these overshot scenes.

I see a lot of photographers actively planning trips to these locations to intentionally try to duplicate these iconic shots. It makes no sense to me. If that is what you like, have fun. Each of us is motivated by different things. But if you were starting out as a writer would you write a knock-off of Moby Dick just so you could have a copy of it you could say you made? I hope not. Write your own book.

Maybe you don’t really know who you are as an artist yet. I understand. I’m still trying to figure it out for myself. I decided long ago, though, that imitating other people will not help me create my own work.

Letting go

If you are not going to imitate other work then you are put in a potentially scary place: you have to create on your own. But what if I can’t? What if I’m not really creative? Maybe I don’t have anything to say? These are all normal and valid concerns.

You will never know until you try. And guess what, when you try you will probably fail. How’s that for encouragement?

I want it to be encouraging, though. When you start doing anything new you are not good at it at first until you try and fail and practice – a lot. As a matter of fact, if it is too easy you are either not challenging yourself enough or you have picked something that will not keep your interest for long. If it is too easy it becomes boring.

Let go and start doing your own art. Follow your own vision, not someone else’s. Don’t visit all the iconic locations to recreate someone else’s art. Focus on your own ideas.

Sometimes you will be left high and dry creatively. That’s OK and normal. Push on. Don’t fear that. Use that time to start understanding what interests you. Believe that you have a creative voice. Keep digging and you will find it.

Put yourself in a different place

One strategy I like to use is to intentionally ignore the popular, iconic locations. I like to seek out little known things that most people have never seen. I love the challenge of finding something in nothing.

I’m lucky in that from my house I can be in the Colorado mountains in 30 minutes or far out on the eastern plains in less than an hour. I go to these places a lot and enjoy them immensely.

But I also wrote recently about driving through the heartland and finding interesting things to photograph. That takes a special discipline and mindset. It is fun for me after long practice. I have come to firmly believe there are interesting scenes almost anywhere.

This brings up a special point. There are interesting scenes all around. You don’t have to go to mountains or national parks or famous locations to do your art. You don’t have to take off for 2 weeks to travel to exotic locations. Beauty and interest is everywhere. Most of it is ignored by everyone around you. Learning to see what is there is a skill that can be learned.

React, create

Learn to be open to what is there around you. Accept it and embrace it as creative possibility. What can you do with it? Just “be”.

You have seen people who thinks selfies or family shots mean lining everyone up in front of a location and giving big fake smiles for the camera. I’m not criticizing them because that makes them happy. I want to encourage you not to try to manage your shots like that. Accept what is there and work with it. Use your creativity to isolate it, to make it interesting for other people, to point out this interesting thing they probably didn’t see.

A photographer friend wrote this in a private newsletter:

“To just be. That is what it is all about. When I find a high place with views all around, every sense just soaks it up into my pores. It is subtle; the opposite of the raucous and titillating world in which we normally live. … These sounds mean vast open spaces and pure freedom. I can peer into this space, keeping my gaze wide. At first I see the far-off trees and rocks and snowfields. Each thing has meaning. …

But after a while my gaze becomes soft, and I focus on the air between myself and the distant ridges. Everything becomes a soft palette of shape and color, devoid of meaning or expectation. The world just is. My experience of sound, sight, and senses just are. If I look for myself I fail. I literally can’t see β€œme” without a mirror – not my face or head, the features we most often associate with identity. It’s times like these that I can look for myself and just see the beautiful world. It is in this place where I can be exactly what I was designed to be. Just me. And for a brief moment, I am a bird sweeping into the storm.”

When we can learn to experience places or events in this manner we can just be and flow with them and into them. Even if it happened on a walk in our neighborhood. The experience becomes part of us and we reflect it back out in our work. What we produce is something from deep within. It is honest. It may even surprise us.

Heartland – Spring, Redux

Kansas cliffs, heartland surprise.

Three weeks ago I wrote an article about reasons I don’t like spring. I thought I should update it and discuss my progression of getting comfortable with spring artistically. It happened via a driving trip through some of the heartland of America.

Heartland

You know, the flyover country. The middle section of the US that most of you have not been through, or at least, haven’t paid attention to. Most people try to avoid this area. There are long distances to drive and seemingly little to see. Unless you learn to appreciate what is there.

I just got back from driving over 2000 miles without getting on a freeway at all. That was by choice. I love back roads and little towns. I believe driving on a freeway is a type of narcotic. Your senses blur and you get tunnel vision just looking at the road ahead. You become desensitized to the view or the geography or great scenes. And if you have expended effort to pass some slow trucks or campers you certainly can’t entertain the notion of stopping to take a picture. They would get ahead of you again.

So I was making my way through eastern Colorado and Nebraska and Kansas and Ohlahoma. Like I said, most people would pay to fly to avoid these areas. Not me. I would pay more to drive it. A lot of it, not all of it, is very good country.

This is true rural America. Not in a fake dude ranch type of tourist trap, but a land of farmers and ranchers. Hardworking people who earn an honest living and feed most of the rest of us in the process. Generally they are good people.

Great year for it

A few weeks ago I wrote a post talking about it being hard for me to get into spring. Coincidentally, this has been one of the prettiest springs in years. Where I live and most of the area I drove through had near record moisture this spring. Everything is exceptionally green. The grass and hay and crops are tall and healthy. The trees are very green and full.

It became hard for me to not be seduced by the look of this year.

Going for this long trip forced me to be immersed in it. I was there, I wanted to make good pictures, so I began to loosen up and find interesting subjects and compositions. I gave myself permission to stop whenever I wanted to look at things. Pretty soon I found myself liking more and more. Subjects became more frequent.

Some of these things required miles of driving down dirt roads, even 2-track lanes. But there were usually rewards of things I have never seen of even imagined were there. Would you guess the image at the top of this blog is from Kansas? Even if you’ve been through Kansas 100 times, I bet you haven’t seen this.

So now I feel I am fully “into” spring. I see it’s beauty and don’t currently waste my time and creativity longing for fall and winter. I am completely in the moment

Wide open spaces

This trip also steeped me in one of my favorite themes, wide open spaces. I saw a lot of them. There is something both compelling and a little frightening to me about a view with only the road and the horizon in the distance. It draws me to it while repelling me a little.

There are occasional weathered abandoned houses and barns that add to the bleak beauty. I love composing these into scenes that portray the vast distances or bounty of crops.

In a lot of these areas I just park my car in the middle of the road while I’m taking pictures. And I’m talking about setting up my tripod, composing perhaps several shots, maybe shooting HDR brackets or several long exposures to capture motion of the grass. Only 2 or 3 pickup trucks seem to come by a day, so I almost never inconvenience the locals.

Jump into summer

To be honest, this trip almost jumped me over spring into summer too quickly. I talked about the extraordinary moisture that made the vegetation very lush. But in the course of the trip we were hit with an abnormal heat wave that made things seems more like summer.

In some parts of the trip the temperature was 108F. Add a 30-40 mph dry wind and conditions were not fun. That is good for showing the dynamics of the grass or wheat rippling furiously, but not pleasant to be out in.

Amazing country

I have made this journey before. I have family at the destination, so it was not just a random selection. Each time I go I try to take a different route, always avoiding freeways.

Like almost every time I make it, I come back with a renewed love for this heartland area and the people there. It is a good place. Good country. It makes me feel better about America.

At one point I stood at the exact geographic center of the contiguous 48 states. The point where a map of the 48 states would balance exactly. I couldn’t help thinking that I hope America can stay balanced. Revisiting the heartland would help.