Craft Completes Magic

Moody, mysterious Aspen grove; a created image

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.

A Balance

Airplane landing over water, moon

Being an artist is a balancing act. There are many dimensions that must balance against each other. Get too far off in the weeds in any dimension and you risk losing the path you are seeking. This time I will discuss the balance between egotism and self doubt.


Egotism is the sense of being self-important. It is arrogance. It is being focused on yourself and thinking, for instance, that your opinion is more important than others.

Who would want to be such a person? Well, an artist does.

He doesn’t seek to be arrogant, but it is a necessary component of the creative struggle. An artist has to feel he has something to say. That he has a point of view that is unique and worthwhile. And you feel compelled to share your vision with other people.

You have to believe you have the right, even duty, to grab people and say “look at this!” Because you are bringing something fresh and new into the world that people should see. If you are not bringing something new, then why are you wasting your time? But you are, so you should shout about it.

Your art is the best art you know how to make. You believe it is worthwhile. Therefore you should be a little pushy and arrogant. Egotistical, within bounds..

Self doubt

On the other hand, most artists are plagued with self doubt. There is always the voice whispering (shouting?) in our ear. Telling us we are not good enough. We aren’t doing anything new or creative. No one would want to see our work. What the critics say is right – we’re not really an artist.

Because of that self doubt we shrink back. We don’t shoot those extreme or controversial images. We don’t push our work to galleries or contests. Aren’t we quick to believe the worst about ourselves and equally quick to believe that everyone else knows more than us?

That little voice thinks it is doing us a favor by trying to keep us from making a fool of ourselves. To keep us from being hurt. But the reality is we can’t be an artist unless we are willing to be a fool. We will be hurt and rejected and told by the “experts” that we are not good enough.

It is up to our egotism to balance that and help us push on despite criticism and disappointment.

The intersection

Where egotism and self doubt balance is where I believe most artists live. You need both.

Egotism gives us the confidence to believe in ourselves. Self doubt makes us evaluate ourselves more objectively and see if we need to improve. We need both.

If they are not in a healthy tension we can go off track. Unchecked egotism can be self destructive. We can delude ourselves into believing everything we conceive is wonderful and a benefit to the world. Unchecked self doubt will cripple us and shut us down from ever risking anything.

On the other hand, a healthy amount of egotism keeps us moving forward, creating new work, experimenting, believing that we are doing something useful. Balancing that with a certain amount of self doubt will temper us. It will make us question and evaluate things but not be enough to paralyze us.

Like many things in life, being mature and creative means being able to manage the tension of competing and contradictory ideas. We have to use our core values and faith and life experience to understand the inherent contradictions and still deal with them. Without going crazy.

It’s about balance.