What You See

A different view of some wine glasses

An amazing artist, Karen Hutton, said “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” This is very wise. We cannot always control our environment. We cannot always surround ourselves with astounding subjects and grand scenes. Our environment should not control our art. Even when we are looking at a grand scene we should see it differently than others.

We can’t always control what is around us

It is easy to say to ourselves “poor me, I’m stuck in [fill in the blank]; I can’t take time off to go to the Grand Tetons to shoot amazing landscapes, so I guess I can’t do anything.” Get over it. An artist explores the subjects he can find around him.

Adapt. Reframe the possibilities. What you see should be a trigger. Your surroundings are a canvas you can create on.

Get excited about the environment around you rather than disappointed about where you are not. It is hard to put me someplace where I can’t find great images. That is not bragging. I’m curious about everything I see. That leads me to explore with a good attitude. My curiosity helps me seek out visually interesting things.

That is not to say we should be equally excited about everything. Each of us is called to by different types of subjects and situations. Flowers, for instance, do not excite me to do much. I know they are a great subject for many people, but you will very seldom see me present a flower image.. Unless I figure out something to do with it that I consider “interesting”.

You don’t require an amazing subject to make art

I am the artist. I can’t not look for image possibilities wherever I am. It is not my subject’s job to be so dramatic and interesting that I can just lazily point my camera in its direction and make a great image. I might even say that the more difficult a subject is to “capture” the more it excites me. I have to work at it.

The image is created in my mind. It is my reaction to the subject that forms the picture. Artists over the centuries have made wonderful pictures of bowls of fruit or fields of wheat or city streets.

Monet is a good example. Except for some time in the Netherlands and England, he found most of his scenes in a small area of northern France. He could take something I would walk by without noticing and make a great picture of it. That is making art, not just finding it.

And isn’t that what we should be doing? Shouldn’t an artist make art out of what is around?

What can you do with what you see?

Using Monet as an example again, he narrowed and narrowed his focus down to the point where he spent the later part of his career almost exclusively painting scenes of the lily pond in his garden. But he perceived art and drama in the intricacies of the color shifts and light at different times and different seasons. His images of this are amazing.

That subject doesn’t really excite me. I would love to see his gardens, but if I went there I would shoot some images to record his famous garden, maybe try to do a study of the shapes and colors, but it is unlikely I would create any real art there. He has already done it and that is not where I should spend my time.

But some things jump out to me that escape most other people. And they do not have to be grand scenes.

Nearly every day I wander around my little town. Of necessity, this is where I spend most of my time. I try to keep my eyes open and attentive for things that interest me. I’m not always successful, but a day seldom goes by without taking some pictures.

When you are “stuck” in one fairly boring location, you learn to scale your perception accordingly. I learn to be aware of smaller, more subtle things. After seeing the same scene a hundred times I sometimes suddenly perceive it differently. Maybe this is kind of what Monet did.

Everyone sees different

As Karen Hutton said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” We all see differently, or at least we should. If we train ourselves to understand and express our vision and feelings for the subject then our artistic interpretation will be unique.

Do we want to make images that are simply a record of a location or would we prefer to show the way we perceive it? One of the problems that de-values photography for many people is that much photography is it is just a camera pointed at a scene. If we cannot reveal our emotions or our beliefs or our point of view then there is seldom anything special about it.

Do you want to be one of the photographers fighting for tripod space to record a famous scene at the perfect time of day with the perfect lighting? Or would you rather turn around and find something interesting the other direction? Something they would not see because they were fixated on the iconic scene?

Maybe that is a foolish question, since so many people are intent on shooting the same image over and over. But for me, I would rather be the one seeing something different. As Apple said in their famous ad campaign, Think Different.

What do you see?

Being There

What does it mean to “be there”? How do we be in the moment so well that we are receptive to the inspiration all around us? In today’s world, how can we push out the distractions and noise to find creative space?

This is just a quick fly-by of a deep subject. That’s because: I’m not smart or wise enough to do it justice, I’m not a philosopher – I can’t drop enough cow pies in the text to speak that language, and you don’t want to go there. Going too deep in the concepts will suck the life out of a potentially rewarding idea. But let’s try.

The philosopher Heidegger articulated this idea of being there (German word “dasein”). I”m not going to step into it, but it involved coming to grips with what it means for a person to “be”. The realization that we are self-aware, we are an individual, that we have a limited life span, that we must make our own choices, discover our own truth. The opposite state is to give up this responsibility. To escape into the world and lose our identity into the general “them”. Sounds like the Matrix, right?


I want to push on this idea of losing our identity in the noise of the world. Look at your own life. Think back to just a few years ago. Are more sources of distraction claiming a larger portion of your time now? Not just your job, but social media, entertainment, communication. Look around at any public place, from an airport to a restaurant, and you will see most people with their face buried in a screen. Their attention is given to something artificial. They are being controlled by something outside of themselves.

Are you defined by your number of Friends or followers? What happens if you miss the latest episode of The Bachelor? Do all messages or emails need to be responded to within 1 minute? Do you message someone sitting next to you because it is more comfortable than actually talking to them?

Not one of these things is inherently evil. The problem is the cumulative effects of them dominating your life. One writer likened it to being in a bubble. You tend to become self-focused and unconcerned with the people and the world outside of your bubble.

And those bubbles sometimes look like a comfortable place since most of us live in cities and something like 93% of a typical American’s day is spent indoors or in vehicles. Who wouldn’t want to retreat into a place where we seem to have some control?

Down time

But there is a dangerous by product of all of this noise and activity. The human mind needs a certain amount of down time to rest, to make connections, to figure things out. In addition to sleep (which many of us don’t get enough of) we need to take time to just be in our head. Shut off the noise and stimulus. Stop the flow of new information. Be in the moment for a while.

We need time like that to “catch up”, to think and analyze, to sift through the clutter.

This is not wasted time. Even if you sit and stare at a wall for 15 minutes, that is healthy. Shut off the outside world, including music. As a matter of fact noise canceling headphones can be a good idea.

At first it will be uncomfortable. You will feel like you are missing out on something. That’s OK, it will wait. You will feel restless because you are not used to going even a few minutes without external stimulation. You will get over it and start to eagerly look forward to the brief captured solitude. Best of all, though, you will start to take back control of your thoughts.


What was all of that? This is supposed to be about the creative life. How did I veer off into philosophy and self-help kinds of things?

I believe we creatives are especially vulnerable to the effects of too much noise in our heads.

I can only speak for myself, but I can’t create anything useful when there is too much noise and distraction in my head. To do my work I have to unplug and find quiet to hear the small voice within me that will help me find the resources I need. For some parts of my art it can be an isolated indoor environment, e.g. at my computer. But for most of my image making, it will have to be outside.

I know from experience that I have to be quiet in my head, which means no internet or email or videos or even music. This is an internal peace. I can find images with a train roaring by next to me. That is just the outside environment. But I have to clear my head and open my eyes to be receptive. I know from experience that if there is noise in my head I will just not see the same images I would if my head were calm. I will miss many things that I would pick up on without the noise.

If you are a wedding or commercial artist your needs and/or approach will be different. But if you are doing non-commissioned fine art I suspect you may share a lot of similarities with me.

Feed your head

For all of us, please, practice taking some time for your head. Unplug for serious time. Get your mind off the drugs of our fast paced, high tech culture. Give yourself some time to think and regroup. Unplug from the Matrix. Take time to reflect on who you are and what it means to be a person. Feed your head, which sometimes involves giving it a rest. Maybe Jefferson Airplane was right about something all those years ago.

I will follow up more in a future article. I might even get into forest bathing. 🙂