Craft Completes Magic

Craft completes magic. I read this in a book on writing poetry by Robert Wallace. This was a new thought to me. It is unusual in my world for a random phrase to seem to crystalize immediately as truth. This did. I have often written about the 2 sides of art as being the creative, the magic, and the technical, the craft. I love the way this brings them together and completes the whole.

The magic

Oftentimes we artists focus almost exclusively on the creative aspects of what we do. After all, we think this is what separated us from other artists. And to a large degree, it is true.

So we look at the work of others we admire. We plan or write or set projects to focus our thoughts. We look for the new and different. The driving challenge is how can we bring a unique perspective to the things we see in the world.

Sometimes the muse visits us and we feel we have truly made magic. It is a great feeling. Creativity breeds creativity. We try to go on to leverage this new stage into even more.

But, have you ever had a guilty feeling, looking at your new creative work, that it could have been executed better? Not necessarily more creatively, but with better craftsmanship? Sometimes we don’t know how to make our great idea into a finished work of art. Concentrating too much on just one aspect can throw us off balance.

The craft

I believe our craftsmanship is as important as our creativity. Not a replacement, but to balance and complete our work. It’s this completion I want to emphasize.

There are 2 tendencies I see in a lot of photographers that disturb me. Some seem to feel that a technically perfect image is a good image. Some others take the attitude that “I’m a creative, I don’t know the ‘techie’ stuff”. I believe that either of these, if they drive your behavior too much, lead to bad ends.

Ansel Adams famously said “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” This, to me, is the danger of overemphasizing technical perfection. I see this a lot in online critiques where the objections are things like not enough depth of field or that the color correction may not be completely true to the original scene. The reality in many cases is that no amount of technical improvement is going to give this image life.

If you don’t have an emotional connection with the scene and a definite point of view to share, then it isn’t going to get great by technical skill.

On the other hand, it frustrates me to hear even professional photographers dismissively say they don’t do “tech”. Sorry, but photography is a uniquely technical art form. If you don’t understand and appreciate and know how to control the technical aspects you are at a severe disadvantage. You can end up with images that show a great idea but you were unable to produce a gallery-worthy image.

The whole

There is a symbiotic relationship between the creative and the craft. Mr. Wallace, who I quoted at the start, related it to the two legs of a runner. The creative leg propels you forward. Then the craft leg helps you bring it into being, which also thrusts you forward to another level. These work together, alternating, each with strengths to add. Neither is complete without the other.

A comedian doesn’t just walk out on stage and think up funny things. He spends many hours on each skit, refining and rehearsing and tuning it before you ever hear it. Likewise, a magician spends countless hours working on an illusion to make it smooth and believable, to make the magic happen. A musician practices day in and day out for years to get and stay good. Yes, famous musicians still practice scales. It trains their technique.

Art is hard work. It is hard to do creative things and it requires great skill to make it real. No one can tell you what you can or can’t do, or how you should do your art. But I believe that if we don’t put in as much work on the craft side of our art as on the creative we will never achieve what we could.

A boring image will never be great because it was technically perfect. On the other hand, you don’t get a free pass to ignore the craft because you are a “creative”. As the initial quote says, craft completes the magic.

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