It’s Messy

Despite the image some artists try to present, the artistic process is messy. At least, for me. It is not a clear, linear path from inspiration to end result. Sometimes things don’t work. We hit dead ends. We change our minds. Even after arriving at what I thought was the end product, I may decide I don’t like it. When people look at the result, they cannot see the messy way we got there.

Vague goals

I can’t speak for other artists, only myself. Most of the time I only have a vague notion of what I intend to achieve when I start an image. Sure, I may have a general idea, or a theme, or I may be thinking of a project I am working on. But that is a kind of an idea, not a plan. It is definitely not precise.

I hear artists describe having a definite plan from the beginning, with everything sketched out in detail. I sometimes envy them. But most of the time I think that sounds like a boring process. There is no room for inspiration on the spot. When I start pulling a final image together I often let what I see on the screen guide and inspire me to the end. I am glad I work in a medium that is very malleable.

So I guess I’m a bad artist because I don’t know for sure where I am going when I start a work. Or maybe this is the process that works for me. I like to be flexible and adaptive.

Evolving ideas

Another side of my adaptive process is that I am open to exploring new ideas as I go. Ideas tend to build on each other, spawning new ones or modifying what I was thinking. I often end up seeing an image in a completely different way from where I started.

For this to happen, I have to be open and receptive. Being locked into a rigid plan blocks this exploration and learning. I seldom hesitate to change my vision part way through the process. Even to discard an image because it no longer is shaping up the way I now see it.

You could argue that I would be more efficient to do my experimenting and work out my vision before starting to refine an image. Perhaps you are right, but that is what I had to do when I was designing major software projects as an Engineer. The reality is that I am too visual to do that now as an artist. I have to see it, then make modifications.


I freely admit I make mistakes. I don’t plan them, but I don’t necessarily see them as failures.

An “oops” is often followed by a “huh, that’s interesting; I wonder if I could use that?” Sometimes a mistake will open up a new view or thought process. It can make me see new possibilities.

These are often happy accidents. They can lead to a creative new end and maybe even a modification of my “style”. The result of a mistake is often a realization of something I could do but I’ve never thought of it before. It is unlikely the mistake creates a finished work that I love, but it informs a new direction I could explore. It is a growth opportunity.

Seeing new opportunities

Opportunity is a key word in this process. My background is a long history of realism. So it can be hard for me to “loosen up” and take an image in an unexpected direction.

To counter that, I often force myself to spend some time considering unusual processing or unlikely seeming combinations of images. Most of these experiments are failures, in the sense that they seldom make it to the final image. However, they can inform my vision. There may be some aspect of the processing that I like and work in to future images. Or it may encourage me to try something else along the same line that I do end up liking.

We live in great times for exploration. Our image processing tools are the best anyone has ever had. Our high quality digital images have the most detail and potential for post processing that has ever existed. The barriers to our vision are mostly internal. We just can’t see it or give our self permission to go there.

Failure to recognize

Have you ever viewed an image in your editing software and been really undecided about it? It is not what you wanted. Your instinct is to delete it. But something way in the back of your mind says to keep it for a while.

That happens to me. I have said before there is something cathartic about deleting images I don’t want to have around. But sometimes I need to keep them. To let them age a while. Or maybe to let my subconscious work on them a while.

Now realistically, most of the time, when I look at them later, I know there wasn’t really anything of interest there. But sometimes… That is the joy of this. Sometimes there is an undiscovered gem. Very rarely I look at one of these saved images and realize my subconscious was trying to show me something I did not perceive at the time. This particular image may not be great, but there is a realization there that can inform my work going forward.

That is an a-ha moment. A growth opportunity. After I get over beating myself up for not realizing the potential at the time I can add it to my repertoire of situations and patterns to look for. I have grown as an artist. Maybe it can even help me be more receptive while I am shooting.

The image with this article is one of those slow to recognize ones. Look it over and see how many pairs of things you can find. It amazes me. I did not consciously recognize that when I shot it, but I think that is what was drawing me to it.

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