License to See

Car wash abstract

I have written before on learning to see. This is a follow on to that and talks about a psychological tool that works for me to see more and move to actually making images. When I pick up a camera, that is a license to see.

We forget to see

I have made the point many times that as adults, we become so busy and caught up in daily life that we protect ourselves by closing our world down around us. Our interest and curiosity doesn’t extend much beyond our immediate problems of every day life. Job, kids, kids activities, paying bills, maintaining the house and car. It seems like there is not much room for anything else.

Yet every day as we go to work or kids activities or shopping, we pass through a beautiful and interesting world. But mostly we don’t pay much attention to it. It just doesn’t seem important because we are focused inward.

We are robbing ourselves of a lot of joy and good mental health. Learning to see more of what is around us is great for our head and our attitude.

We have to relearn to see

I hate to repeat myself, but I think this is important. Seeing more of what is around us is a learned skill. One that can be developed with practice.

We used to do it. As kids we were interested in everything around us. This gets beaten out of us as we grow up. But the fact that you used to do it means you still could. It’s a matter of relearning and practicing.

It’s also a matter of valuing it and increasing its importance. If you are an artist, I believe it is a vital skill. Isn’t that one of the important things that distinguishes us from non-artists? We observe, we see things, we see things different. To see things different, we have to first see things.

Awareness comes first

Seeing, in my view, starts with 2 things. First is curiosity. Curiosity helps us eagerly seek to find out about things. It gives us the motivation to see. Second is awareness. Curiosity is necessary, but it can be directed inward. We can get lost in our head and not do anything external. Awareness helps get us in touch with the world around us.

In more flowery language than I usually use, Eden Maxwell says: “To be aware is the prerequisite for experiencing life beyond illusion, your own, or the cumulative self-consciousness amassed by society.”

Awareness requires us to be, well, aware. Sorry. It seems too simple and obvious, but do you actually practice it? We can practice doing it. Driving to work tomorrow, after you pass a car ask yourself: what color was it? What make was the car? What color shirt was the driver wearing? When you go for a walk stop and look at a tree you pass all the time. Did you ever really notice the pattern of the branches and the shape of the leaves? Did you see that bird’s nest? Pay attention to the reflections in windows you go by.

All these things add to your awareness of things around you.

My hacks

But these things require work, or worse, thinking. It seems most people don’t want to do those things anymore. Everyone wants a quick hack to make it seem like they can do something.

So let me present 2 tools that work for me. I will call them “hacks”. For me they are a license to see. They trigger action.

The first is picking up a camera. Yes, that simple. With a camera in hand I become immediately focused on making images. It amazes me how this works, but it usually does. I may think I am being aware and thinking like an artist, but a camera in hand focuses me. Most often I fall into the zone and flow and move toward actually making images instead of just thinking about doing it. The camera is compelling. This usually works even with an iPhone in hand.

There are times, though, when my head just doesn’t seem to be in it. Then I have to go to the next hack: take a picture. Something happens to me mentally when the shutter clicks. The sound triggers years of muscle memory and behavior. It breaks the fear of not being able to find a subject. I am in motion now. The mental block is removed and I can go on creating images. This first frame may be intentionally a throw-away. It doesn’t matter how good it is. Now I am across the barrier and actively making images.


As artists, we have to be more aware of the world around us. We have to see better to help interpret life and the world to other people. Seeing is a learned skill that can be practiced and improved.

I hope these simple “hacks” – picking up a camera and taking a picture – work for you. They are tools I use all the time in my own life, especially when I am not feeling motivated. It gets me out of my head and actually moving and doing something. Once in motion things seem to roll along better.

Today’s image

Following my own advice, one day sitting, bored, in a car wash, I decided to pick up my camera and see what I could do. I am happy with the result. It was not planned, it happened because I held my camera and looked around. The world is rich in images and interest. We just have to see.

Learning to See

A scene found walking through an airport

Learning to see is something we all need to constantly practice. Seeing is actually a learned process. Yes, we can image scenes on our retina, but that is not what I mean. With practice we can learn to see more of what is around us, to be more aware and mindful.

We learn to not see

Children seem filled with a sense of wonder at everything around them. It all seems exciting and amazing. But somewhere along the path to becoming an adult, this excitement is squeezed out of us.

In school our peers pressure us to look down on everything with disdain. Being excited about things is “not cool”. In our work life we have to learn to develop a single-minded focus on the tasks of the job. Non-essentials get pushed away. We may get married and have a family. This is great, but it focuses us even more on the day-to-day activities we have to do to earn a living and keep the household going.

Eventually we no longer really see anything except the immediate problem that seems important. To some extent, we have to do this. It is a survival technique. But it takes away so much potential joy and beauty from our life.

It takes an effort to start to see

Are you at a point in your life now where you realize there is more going on around you that you are not perceiving? You look at other people’s art and become aware that it is not just about great iconic locations. They seem able to find beauty and interest in all kinds of places. They are attuned to their surroundings and open to more.

Practice seeing. No, really. That sounds silly, but maybe it is time to re-learn how to see. That vision that came so easily and naturally when we were a child can be regained to a great extent.

You know that it takes practice to develop any skill. Why does it seem strange to practice seeing? Isn’t seeing a critical first step in making art?

Does it seem unlikely that seeing is something that can be learned? We just do it. I believe it is a skill that can be improved. The fact that we used to do it easily but forget how over time means we have the inherent ability to see better. Sharpening that skill can make a huge improvement in our art.

Overcome lazy habits

As I mentioned before, we tend to narrow our circle of interest as we “grow up”. Part of this is a coping skill, but some of it is just laziness. We’ve seen it all. We’re bored with it. It is all the same, so why pay attention?

You would be surprised at the interest all around if you were just looking. Seeing more is rewarding in itself. It brings more interest to our life.

Like developing most new habits, a key first step is awareness. When you are out walking or driving or riding your bike, make a habit of reminding yourself to look around. Changing any habit takes time and you will need to remind yourself over and over to do it.

Pay more attention to where you are and what is going on. Even if you do not improve your art, improving your situational awareness will keep you safer.

Try to become more curious about what is around. Where does that road go? Those tree branches make an interesting shape. I’ve never noticed that this little stream is quite lovely at certain times. Look at the great reflections in that glass.

Curiosity is the magnet that helps pull us to look more. It is also a trait that can be developed. If you re-awaken your curiosity you will find it almost impossible to keep from seeing more interesting things around you.

Becoming mindful

I almost hesitate to say we need to become more mindful. The concept is great and true and is a good description of what we need to be able to see more. The problem is that too many people go overboard with it. It gets all wrapped up in transcendental meditation and eastern religious practices. You do not have to be a yogi to be mindful.

As the link above states, “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing”. That is harder than it sounds. Consequently, many say “we don’t want to spend time to learn what this means. Give us a quick hack that will let us do it in 10 minutes”. So it becomes a program someone is selling. Or a mystical incantation. Or something you wedge into a daily meditation regime.

Instead of all that, just pick out a certain time and place and practice for a little while clearing your head of the normal clutter that vies for our attention. When you go out for a walk, whether or not you bring your camera, forget about the project that is due tomorrow or tonight’s game, or what you will fix for dinner – and especially Facebook or your personal social media addiction. Instead, try to be fully aware of just the moment. Where you are, what you feel, what sensations you are experiencing. Look around with curiosity. Try to see things you have never seen before.

It may be hard or even frustrating at first. Push on. It gets easier.

The more you see

When you really get in to it, you will find this exercise relaxing. Getting out of the normal grind for a few minutes is refreshing. It is a vacation for your head. And you start to see more things. Interesting things you never noticed before. Even right there in your neighborhood. You will probably find the experience to be invigorating and something you want more of.

As a matter of fact, it is a feedback process. The more you begin to see, the more you see, the more you like to see, the more you want to see. Each outing, it becomes easier to see new things. You find it easier to focus you attention on the external things in your environment. Things that you used to pass by with no recognition start to become very interesting in themselves. It is a mental game that sparks new interest and awareness. You come back from an outing refreshed instead of tired.


Start slow. You will “fail” a lot at first. That’s OK. As long as you keep trying, you will get there. Just commit to doing it.

Don’t think you have to go out for 3 hours with a totally clear head, completely open to new sights and sounds. Maybe someday, but don’t frustrate yourself with setting a goal like that initially. Start with 10 minutes. Just walk around and note a couple of things you haven’t seen or haven’t paid much attention to. Then celebrate by rewarding your self with a coffee – or your preferred beverage or treat.

It is a cause for celebrating. It is a step toward re-awakening your awareness of the world around you. Dare I say, you are becoming “mindful”?

Today’s image

The image with this article is an example of what I suggest for your exercise. I was stuck in the Orlando airport. Everything was shutdown temporarily by a thunderstorm. I got bored reading and walked around to stretch a little.

Then I noticed the trains coming in from the terminal. This one was mostly empty because no flights were going. It was beautiful. I shot several images and this one captured the spirit of the occasion.It brings me joy. I am glad I noticed 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.

That’s Not What I Was Taught

Organic flow. Creative expression. Fall in love.

We all learned our craft somehow. And if we develop as artists there comes a point where we have to stop relying on what we were taught and make our own way, maybe in a different direction. At that point we are going beyond what we were taught.


Unless you were raised by wolves and picked up the concept of making art through a mystical infusion, you were taught somehow. For many that means formal art school or classes and workshops with leading artists.

Even though I consider myself self-taught, I had thousands of hours of instruction in the form of books, videos, self-evaluation, looking at art, visiting museums, etc.

Somehow, we got trained. The “muscle memory” was built. We learned the basic techniques and technology. The history and design and composition and color theory and the dozens of other layers of information we need to create art are introduced to us. We build on what has come before.

It’s like shooting thousands of baskets until you are completely comfortable with the feel and weight of the ball, until you start the have the “touch” to put it where you want from all different angles and distances. This isn’t playing basketball, it’s just getting prepared to play basketball.


When the basics are laid down, most of us go through a long “apprenticeship”. It may not be formal and we may not call it that, but that is what it is.

By apprenticeship I mean we are practicing the basics until they are smooth and natural. At this point we are probably listening to or watching a mentor and trying to create work like theirs. Nothing wrong with this. It is part of the learning process. But we are still creating someone else’s art. This is practice, training.

To continue the basketball analogy, now we start to practice with the team. We become comfortable passing and catching and playing positions and working smoothly with the others. The coach is yelling at us and making us do drills and repetitive work that seems boring and useless. Maybe we mostly sit on the bench in games and only rotate in occasionally. The reality is that we are probably not as good yet as we think. The coach knows that. That is why we aren’t playing much right now.

As artists, maybe we go out shooting or painting a lot with our mentor. They direct us to locations and talk through how they see the image. It is helping us learn to create a decent image. It may not be how we see it, but at this point we are trying to produce results that match theirs.


Ah… someday. The longer we go through our training and apprenticeship, the more we begin to chafe under the restrictions. As we develop our own style and vision some of us yearn to break away and do what we think we need to do.

One of the things Jesus said to his disciples was interesting (well, a lot were): “Students are not greater than their teacher.” That’s true, as long as there is a teacher/student relationship. As long as the teacher has something to teach you. But he goes on to say “But the student who is fully trained will become like the teacher.”

There comes a point where there are diminishing returns from studying from a teacher. If the student comes to a parity level with the teacher, they become the teacher.

That is the thing. At some point, we become our own teachers. Not that we know everything, but that no one else does either, so we have to guide our self.

Where do you go then?

What I observe, unscientifically, is 3 paths at this point:

  • Continue doing what you were taught
  • Enhance it a little and go slightly beyond
  • Figure out that there is something different

It seems to me that most artists proudly continue doing work like they were taught. They go on to get better and better at the same things. I’m not criticizing them. This seems to be the best path for many people. I can’t understand it myself, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

Another group pushes a little beyond what they were taught. They enhance the techniques, maybe modernize them with new materials or processes. Maybe introduce a little fusion from another school. The result is a natural evolution of what they learned. Again, no criticism. But again, I can’t understand staying so close to home.

It would seem obvious that I must be in the last group, since I don’t fit anywhere else. 🙂 We sincerely thank our instructors for the training they gave us. But we realize we have a different vision and will be creating a completely different form of art. This is not a rejection of our instructors, just a growth stage.

Our own body of work

My view is that at some point, we have to let our own vision and style emerge and take the lead in our work. This is not something that happens automatically as soon as we leave the umbrella of our instructor. It happens over some period of time. The time is completely personal and dependent only on ourselves.

Hopefully at this point we can trust our judgment to recognize and follow the path we are being drawn to. We are creating our own body of work, in our own style, following our own vision. Now we are really an independent artist. We have no more need for a teacher. Confidants, advisors, mentors, critics even, but not teachers.

What we are doing is not what we were taught. It is what we have transformed that teaching to that works for us.

Take It Out

Near minimalist image. All distracting elements removed.

A lot of times, our image can be improved by taking out some of what’s there. This point of view tends to come with experience. When we start photographing the tendency is to go wide and try to get “everything” in the frame. It is a learned discipline to restrict our view and take out distracting elements.

A subtractive art

One way that photography is fundamentally different from most other arts is that the sensor in our camera automatically records everything it sees. Other arts construct an image by consciously selecting and adding elements to the frame. If you don’t like something in the scene you are painting, don’t include it.

This creates a very different workflow and thought process for photographers. I have to be aware of everything in the frame in real time. That is, I don’t have the luxury of easily picking and choosing what I will include. Unless I am very careful everything the camera is pointed at will be recorded. Yes, I could spend many hours in Photoshop removing the things that distract, but I don’t like doing it like that. Besides taking a lot of time, I believe it is better to be careful when composing the image capture. I feel better as an artist to get the captured image as close to the desired result as I can get it.

It takes lot of discipline to make myself aware of every bit of the frame. Even those far away corners where distractions seem to lurk. And those mysterious things poking in from the edges must be seen and dealt with. And that trash in view. Being aware is crucial. I must move or reframe to eliminate distractions.

You are responsible for every part of your image, even the parts you’re not interested in. – Jay Maisel


Photography is much more about elimination than inclusion – John Paul Caponigro

Mr. Caponigro is on to a great truth here. I find when I am composing a shot that I’m caught in a strong tension. “What should I include?” fighting with “what should I exclude?”. Usually this battle plays out quickly in my subconscious. I have a lot of experience. But even so, I sometimes find myself blindsided. I look at an image and think “what is that doing here?” when I was blind to a distracting element.

I find that the decisions to eliminate things often are more taxing that the ones to go ahead and include them. When you are unsure it seems safer to include it, just in case. This is usually the wrong attitude. If you are not sure it should be there eliminate it. Taking things out, to some limit, usually makes for more clear images. Anything that competes with the main subject and composition should be very suspect.


Does the desire to take out distracting elements lead to minimalist images? Maybe. Not necessarily.

Minimalism tends to be an extreme. To me it can be a bleak and harsh discipline. My work is not minimalist. I love the richness of excellent textures and compositions that may include a lot of elements. Simplicity and reduction of distraction are different from minimalism.

I would characterize minimalism as a mind set. The process is to take out absolutely everything that is not completely required for the image. My attitude is to strongly consider eliminating everything that seems to be distracting. I allow for occasional riots of seemingly useless complexity when I thing it adds to the image.

The image with this post is borderline minimalist. If I had removed the grass and the hints of field it probably would qualify for minimalist in my mind. I don’t care. I don’t like labels.


Less information often leads to more interpretation. – John Paul Caponigro

Have you noticed in some paintings or songs or stories that less is actually more? Less complete information leads to some ambiguity. It allows space for the viewer to fill in what’s missing. Viewers like to be challenged a little, to have to work some to figure out an image. It is engaging and stimulating. It also allows for their private interpretation to be applied. They may well create a story that is different from what the artist envisioned. That is wonderful. It means the image is big enough to encompass multiple points of view.

Enjoy the creative stimulation of the frame. Deciding what’s in the frame is composition. Where you put the frame is cropping. Keeping things out of the frame is selection, selectivity, defining the subject. Less is often more. Use your judgment and don’t be afraid to take it out.