The Paint is Never Dry

"Almost" overprocessed

I find there are 2 categories of images in my library: ones I am “done” with and ones I want to tweak each time I open the file. Furthermore, it seems the ones I want to do something to each time I see them are the ones I like best. I refer to this as the paint being never dry.

A significant advantage of digital image manipulation is that it is so easy to make changes. This can also be a problem.

Wet paint

Modern technology gives us great freedom to edit and express ourselves. It is so easy to make some changes every time we open the file. Oh, I didn’t see that little flaw. I really don’t like the relation of these tones now that I look at it again. Maybe it would have more punch if I pumped some of these colors some.

But this is a subtle trap. A trap of time, because this is a never ending treadmill of editing, and of lack of confidence. I will write about this confidence problem in the future. Basically, it has been hard to accept that, as an artist, no one can tell me what is “right” or when I am “done”. I am the only one who can decide.


I wrote once about prints being a frozen moment in time. This is one of the great things about prints. They are not changeable.

A print represents my interpretation of the image at one moment in time. It is very tempting for me to modify it a little every time I print it. But now that I do editions of prints, I have to discipline myself to create exact duplicates for each print in the edition. It would be dishonest and a disservice to the purchasers if each one was different.

Part of the process of growth is deciding that an image is “done” and is ready to be shown and purchased . And I have to be able to stand proudly and represent it as my art, that I am proud of, even if I see opportunities for improvement.

Creative vision

But my creative vision is evolving all the time. It is frustrating to be locked in to printing a series a certain way when I may see it different now. I am resolved, though, that that is the requirement. I will have to exercise my creativity on new images.

The images are my children, in a sense. But any parent finds out that after they grow up, you have to let them go. Send them on their way to be independent. I can no longer control them or manage them. Kind of the same with my images. When one is sold, the whole edition is frozen, out of my control.

Oh, but the new images, the ones that haven’t sold yet. They are free to be interpreted and re-interpreted at will. I love to do this, but I recognize the need to let the paint dry at some point.

As the artist, all my images are resources to me to use any way I wish. Even the editioned ones can be recycled by compositing, over-painting, or radical cropping. Anything that makes it into a whole new work of art. My creative vision can best be applied to new work rather than reworking old things.


I don’t believe doing a great image “uses me up”. I have to believe I have a boundless well of creativity. It is better to go out and create new work. Learn what I can from the best of what I have done and go on from there. Explore a theme and do variations. Discover new themes.

My curiosity will lead me to new subjects, new visions for old ones, new points of view. I will learn new techniques for shooting and processing.

It would be devastating to feel that my best work is already done. I would have to quit if that were the case. I feel sorry for the old rock bands who still tour. No one wants to hear their new work. They only want to hear the hits of 40 years ago. They are trapped. I couldn’t do it.

So, yes, my tendency is to want to constantly rework and tweak everything. I often see things I would change in my work. But discipline has to be applied. Most old work should be left as a memory and a signpost along the way of my journey. Apply the creativity to the new images. Let the paint dry.

A confession: even after writing all this about letting the paint dry, I went back and did some minor edits on the image with this article. This is an old image, scanned from film. The quality is not up to today’s standards. But I really like the feeling of the image and the memories it brings back of Chartres Cathedral in France. So I indulged myself in one more little tweak. Do what I say, not what I do.

Is It Interesting, Part 2

An interpretation of my feelings for Trail Ridge Road

In the first part of this I made a point I learned from a book on poetry, that if it isn’t interesting, no one will read it. It doesn’t matter how formally structured or well composed it is. More and more I am coming to believe this is true for most art, too. But how do we get from boring to interesting?


It is conventional wisdom that you do your best work in an area you are familiar with. I sort of believe this, but I violate it all the time. Being an explorer nature I get a lot of energy out of photographing in new areas. Things seem fresh and waiting to be discovered. I get really psyched in interesting new places.

I am getting enough experience to see the other side, too. Yes, having familiar places can help us to make more interesting images. We learn the range of possibilities. We see the variations with seasons and weather and light. Familiar subjects give us an opportunity to pick and choose. To wait for the best conditions without having to feel rushed because this is the only time we will see this location.

Once we become well acquainted with an area we can develop a more sophisticated view of it. We won’t waste our time on shots that have little hope of being good. This is a progression to shooting more interesting images.

I do not feel this is an absolute. That is, it is incorrect to take it to the extreme and sat you will only get interesting images of areas you are familiar with. But I do agree that familiarity probably makes it easier.


Most of us have a progression we go through. We start out making record shots of places we visit. Of the billions of photos taken every day most are record shots or selfies. Have you ever gotten stuck being forced to watch 2000 pictures of someone’s trip to Disney World? Just shoot me.

I call this taking pictures “of” something. We are recording the superficial. We have not formed a refined artistic opinion of the subject. This is still operating at the “oooh, pretty; I will take a picture of it” level.

If you follow this blog you probably do a much better job than average. Our record shots can be well composed and exposed. They are decent images. But mostly they are there to record an event that will trigger a memory for us. That doesn’t make them very interesting to other people.

I’m not being critical, really. We all react this way when we see a new thing that captures our interest.


After we get over the initial excitement of a great new location, we can start to examine what we are being drawn to. We become more aware of our feelings and perceptions. Now we can peel back some of the superficial and uncover deeper aspects of the subject.

I call this taking pictures “about” something. It reveals to our viewers a new side of the subject or our emotional reaction to it. We are giving an interpretation of what we see. These images are probably more appealing than simple record shots.

Being intimately familiar with a location or a subject does make this easier. Take trees as an example. I have aspen trees where I live. If I didn’t know them well, the first time I saw them I would get a “wow, an aspen tree” shot. After having seen thousands of them in all conditions I have a much more focused appreciation of them. There are far fewer situations where I will capture an image, because I look for certain compositions that appeal to me.

Hopefully I now make images about aspens, not just of them. Because I appreciate them more, I shoot them more selectively.

Saying something

At this point, we have figured out what attracts us about the subject. We have refined our emotional attraction to the subject to the point we know what we want to represent to viewers. Now we can bring our creativity in to allow us to synthesize an interesting image based on our vision. This is above and beyond just our emotional reaction.

To continue the aspen example, it is the difference between “I like aspen trees because” and “here is a fresh and interesting image; it happens to be of an aspen”.

Unfortunately, I have to give up the description of what makes an interesting image. I don’t have the knowledge or the vocabulary to be able to quantify it. Actually, I don’t think it is possible to do it.

Thousands of tutorials and books are out there to teach us how to become better photographers. They can help boost us from the taking pictures “of” to taking pictures “about”. We can study vast amounts of description about composition and gestalt psychology and eye movement and contrast and lighting and color harmony and art history and … All of this is extremely valuable and should be studied.

I don’t think it is possible for any of the training to give us the secret of making an interesting image. It is too complex and subjective and personal. I sincerely hope it cannot be quantified. If it is ever reduced to a formula then there will be no room left for artistic vision.


At the end, artistic vision is the secret ingredient that creates interesting images. You develop it through your training and experience and self examination. It is unique to an individual. No two of us will have the exact same vision.

People may not like your vision. It may not be popular – remember, van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime. But what emerges is your vision. Embrace it and develop it. Use it to make unique and wonderful images.

Familiarity with an area or a subject probably helps speed the process. I do not believe it is a requirement. If it were, it would be foolish for me to go to any new locations to try to make images. I do not believe that. Once we have developed our artistic vision I believe we can quickly apply it it new situations.


Since I do not know how to describe the details of what happens, I will give some examples. I love the Trail Ridge Road area in Rocky Mountain National Park. I am a frequent visitor there. It resonates with me and I have refined my view of it a lot over the years.

I give 3 examples here of that progression. The first was taken many years ago. It is a picture “of” Trail Ridge Road.

Image “of” Trail Ridge Road

This next image was shot years later. I have a much different feel for Trail Ridge Road. This captures much more of my emotional reaction to it. Notice that here the road is less visible and important than the setting.

Image “about” Trail Ridge Road

Finally, the image at the head of this article is a very recent interpretation. I feel I am getting down to the essence of Trail Ridge Road and, I hope, it is interesting also.

The first time, I usually skim off the outer layer and end up with photographs that are fairly obvious. The second time, I have to look a little deeper. The images get more interesting. The third time it is even more challenging and on each subsequent occasion, the images should get stronger, but it takes more effort to get them.” – Michael Kenna


Sometimes the effect of time is significant

Time is common to all of us. We are all given the same amount of time each day. Most of us are not as aware of time flowing by as we are of the events we have scheduled at certain times. Rather than moaning about how busy we all are or talking about productivity, I would like to discuss time as a creative element.

What is time?

Time is the continued sequence of existence and events that occurs in an apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present, into the future.” Deep, but it helps frame the problem.

We all “know” what time is, but we would probably have a difficult time describing or defining it. Yet it is what we live in. It controls almost every aspect of our lives. We all experience it constantly. We can’t control it or buy or sell it or save it. It flows on by with no regard to our desires.

It may be a cliche that we all have the same amount of time each day, but like most cliches, it is very true. We can’t control it, we just decide what we are going to do with it.

Most art deals with moments

Most art, and most photography, captures discrete moments in time. This is the conventional view of the world. It is what we think we see all the time. Don’t take it as me sounding critical of capturing moments. I do it all the time, too. It records an event or a place or a person at a certain moment, and that matches and triggers our memories.

In a sense, it is our way of freezing and controlling time. As photographers we usually think in terms of the best shutter speed to use to stop the action, to minimize blur. This is the right thing to do for normal image captures. We, and our viewers, expect the moment to be recorded in sharp detail with no distractions like blurred movement.

Photography is unique

Photography is unique in it’s ability to represent time in varying ways. Time is one of the variables of the photographic process.

If you are painting or sculpting you usually represent what you can see or imagine. We seem to see things still, not moving or traveling through time. And it is very hard to imagine what the movement of time looks like. We may be able to see the effects of years or centuries on something, but even then it is impossible to visualize what it looks like as it is happening.

But photography has time built in as one of the parameters being controlled. We balance aperture, shutter speed, and sensitivity (ISO) to determine an exposure. Think about that for a moment: we can adjust aperture and sensitivity to set the time window of an image to whatever we want. Within limits.

Yes, we usually use this to set the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the motion. But that is just the normal convention. We could just as well make the shutter speed very long to observe motion over time. Some photographers do this regularly to feather moving water. It is almost a convention of landscape images, sadly.

I know my friend Cole Thompson gravitates to very long exposures to give a different view of the world. Many of his images create very interesting effects.


I have recently found myself drawn to visualizing the passage of tiime.. More and more I tend to use relatively long exposures, often hand holding the camera, to examine the effects of movement over time. Some of my images done this way do not have a single sharp edge in them.

This may seem controversial to many photographers. We are trained to maximize sharpness. We buy very high resolution sensors and ultra sharp lenses to record the sharpest detail possible. But I use those great sensors and sharp lenses to record – blur. A waste? That is an artistic judgment.

One of the things I am trying to capture is the unseen way things move over time. We know they move. We can point to it and say “that is moving”. But it is nearly impossible to visualize what it really looks like as it moves. That is what I am exploring.

The image with this article sort of illustrated this idea. This is an event called Cowboy Mounted Shooting. It is a speed and shooting event at some of our local rodeos. I believe the blur and slow shutter speed capture the speed and dramatic action of the event better than a crisp, frozen frame. The sharpest focus is on the face of the horse. That seemed appropriate to me because one of the things I wondered about is how the horse felt about guns going off over his head.

A new viewpoint

This concept is a new viewpoint for me. Time exposures are certainly not new and I have done a lot of them over my career. Now, though, I am more consciously using time as a creative element. Instead of a limitation of low light I now see it an an opportunity to show a new view on the world. I am working on a series that emphasizes this. Maybe more on that later.

Time is too much of a subject to cover in depth in a blog post. It is a theme I will probably return to in the future.


Eerie headstones

As an artist, is reality our goal? Should we focus on depicting reality perfectly? Is art just a representation of reality, or is it something more?

Reality leaves a lot to the imagination. – John Lennon

Can a great image be “real”?

To be honest, no. A 2 dimensional image expressed using pigments or pixels is not the same as a real scene. But you say, “yes, but the image ‘looks just like’ the original”. Actually, in most cases it looks either the way the artist remembered it or how they wanted it to look or how they wanted you to think of it looking.

All photographs must be processed a lot to be presentable. Even Ansel Adam’s famous prints are based on many hours of darkroom work for each one. And for Ansel or any of us, the prints produced of an image change over time. So either reality changes with time or art is not reality. That is, as the artist’s vision and taste changes, the processing of an image changes to reflect it. This represents the artist’s interpretation, not reality.

Is reality the goal?

I don’t know of any genre of art where reality is the actual goal. Let’s say you are shooting images of birds for a birding book. Is reality the goal? I would say no, you want images that allow the reader to see the important characteristics of the bird. If that means distracting elements must be removed or colors enhanced or “corrected”, then these will be done for the sake of clear communication.

The beautiful landscape print you bought to hang on your wall because it reminds you of a favorite place is not “reality”. Colors are enhanced, contrast is boosted to make it more dramatic, even mountains may be “stretched” some to make them more pronounced. None of this makes it a fake. It resonates with you as the way you remember it.

This article will use a lot of quotes. I want to make the point that this idea is not just my ravings.

“My goal as an artist is not to try and replicate reality , but to cross into the world of fantasy. This is a much easier sell because reality is what we see every day. The world of fantasy is a way of escape.” Joel Grimes

“Fine art photography should be an escape from reality.”  Joel Grimes

“A photograph is not reality, it is at best, a representation or illusion of reality.” Joel Grimes

One reason Joel Grimes has credibility with me on this topic is because he is color blind. Yes, a color blind photographer. And he is famous and well respected. Rather than considering it a handicap he uses his color blindness to further his artistic vision. He is obviously not trying to duplicate reality when he does not even see the same reality most of us do.

I’m not suggesting we all try to copy Joel Grimes’ work. I will not. It is very good, but it is not me. My hope is that you will see that reality can be a false goal.

Did it really look like that?

I get asked this a lot and I often struggle to answer. The obvious answer is “no, of course not”. But I have to try to read the questioner to try to determine what they mean by the question. Is the questioner just naive because they do not understand the process of art? Do they really believe that the picture should look like the reality? Are they wistfully hoping there is a place that really looks like that? Or are they trying to “trap” me into admitting that I “faked” the image?

Usually I reply with a fairly generic answer like “that’s the way I saw it.” When the question is asked like this it is probably not the time to get into a long discussion of art vs. reality.

But you probably understand that reality is not my goal and that all images are heavily processed. Never accept a picture as truth.


What, then, is the purpose of an image? In a way this is another way of asking what is real. I will go out on a limb and say that the artist helps bring reality to an image by their interpretation. The great Australian photographer Tony Hewitt says to “Look at the everyday ‘real’ in an entirely different way.” And he does this very successfully. His images are “of” real scenes, but they don’t look like what you would have seen standing there with him. They are more.

A photograph is more than its subject. The real challenge is to make something out of nothing. Geoffrey James

It is my responsibility as an artist to try to make you feel what I felt about the subject. If you see an image that is just a factual portrayal of a scene it will not hold your interest for long. But if I can give you an emotional connection it will have lasting power.


Let me introduce the concept of resonance. In physics it is sound emitted from an object based on its vibration. That’s precise, but cold.

Think of a bell. Strike it and it rings with a certain sound and it continues ringing for seconds. That is the bell’s response to the energy you gave it with the strike.

In an artistic sense, I see resonance as the thought or feeling or memory invoked by a piece of art. Something about the work “resonates” with you – it, in effect, makes you vibrate or tingle. This resonance can happen when I am able to convey to you the emotion I felt when I discovered this scene and captured it.

A resonance like this goes beyond the surface image. You feel a connection or it produces an emotion in you that makes you keep coming back to look at it. This is what I seek to do.

This resonance is different than just “reality”. It is more important than the reality. What you feel is what you will remember. This is the significance of the image.


So, perhaps the “reality” of an image is the way it made you feel. This was your subjective reaction to what the artist gave you. It is your interpretation, your internal processing that lets you buy in to it and embrace it. It becomes reality through your personal response.

Do not confuse what is visible with what is real: despite a degree of overlap, they are not the same thing. What’s real about an expressive image is never its objectivity, but how it is subjectively perceived.  – Guy Tal

It may be a misconception to talk about art as “real” or not. Art cannot, of itself, be reality. The reality is what you create for yourself based on your emotional reaction to the work that the artist put his effort into.

So, the “Real World”, what is it? Where is it? I believe that for art, the “real world” is our personal reaction to the piece. Was the artist successful in making you feel what he felt? Did you feel something completely different but meaningful to you? If you didn’t feel anything, you won’t remember it or have any attachment to it. We create our own artistic reality through our personal reaction.

I believe it is my duty as an artist to help you feel my emotional connection to an image. If I can do that the image will become reality to you in a whole new way. If I cannot do that, I have failed and the image will be unimportant to you.

So in a sense, reality is my goal. But it is not the reality of a faithful rendering of what was in front of the camera. It is the reality of trying to have you share my emotional reaction to the scene, and having you reawaken this feeling whenever you see the picture.

Far Enough


“You don’t know you’ve gone far enough until you’ve gone too far.”John Paul Caponigro

This very insightful quote by Mr. Caponigro has become important to me. But before getting too far into it, I need to deal with a basic assumption it is based on. It assumes that you will be processing your images heavily. Not everyone believes or practices this. I didn’t either for a long time

Do I need to process images?

Yes is the basic answer. The bits that come out of the sensor that you load into Lightroom or whatever you use to process your images are not just RAW, they are “raw”. It is a faithful data capture but it is not what you remembered or want to see.

Any image needs basic sharpening, contrast adjustment, color correction, and usually tone mapping. In addition there are esthetic changes like removing distractions, cropping, vignetting, etc. All this is usually necessary just to create a “straight” version of the image that faithfully matches the scene you saw.

Once you have bought in to the need for processing, now the question becomes “how much?”

What is the picture?

Every artist must be able to answer for themselves what their goal is for an image. Is it a faithful rendering of the scene as they remembered it? Or is it to create an interesting piece of art?

The answer has a lot to do with the type and amount of processing they will allow themselves. The answer is a personal and artistic decision. There is no right or wrong.

For me personally, the further I go as an artist, not just a photographer, the more tolerant I become of serious modifications.

On the other hand, in an article in the September 2019 issue of Photoshop User Magazine, Ramtin Kazemi states “I will never change the permanent subject matter of a scene”. His self imposed limit is that he will not move a tree or remove a boulder, although he may make dramatic changes in lighting and color. He will also change “impermanent” things like clouds. This is his decision as an artist. I will not criticize his choice. That does not mean it binds any boundaries on my artistic vision.

How far is enough?

When you give yourself permission to dramatically alter the basic image it opens up significant artistic opportunities. The digital tools we have today are marvelous. Artists today can do far more post processing than ever before; vastly more than chemical darkroom users ever could.

We have such an embarrassment of riches that it can be a challenge to know when to stop. This is part of what Mr. Caponigro was talking about. How do you know you have taken your artistic vision to its limit?

You do it by taking it beyond your limit and them backing off. I believe you will only know what your personal limit is in any dimension by going to the point where you say “too much”. Now you have found a limit for this image for where you are right now. In other words, the limits are moving targets and you need to keep pushing to find where they are today.

And that is just talking about post processing. The same applies to how we approach all of our art. Push the boundaries. Keep trying new things.

Use the tools

The marvelous tools we have usually allow non-destructive editing. Most of the tools have a workflow that can be adopted to allow us to remove or modify changes and make different decisions in the future.

For instance, Smart Objects in Photoshop allow most adjustments to be edited at a later time. Using new layers and adjustment layers prevents making permanent changes in the basic image information. Lightroom is inherently non-destructive for al its adjustments.

So assume you do your basic image correction in Lightroom. Push all the adjustment to the point where you say “I don’t think so”, then back them off to the point that seems best. This works for all the controls in Lightroom. You can come back to an image months later and visualize it differently. You can re-process it with no loss of fidelity. I do this often.

I occasionally see artists doing tutorials who still do destructive editing. That is, they do things like making a couple of adjustments in Photoshop and then merging them down. This commits them as a permanent, uneditable part of the image. Their work is beautiful. They must have such confidence in their artistic vision that they know they will never change their mind.

I admire them, but that doesn’t work for me. I am forever learning and seeing differently. I like doing “what if” exercises, where I take an old image and try new things with it. I am sometimes amazed at what I discover.

Is there a “too far”?

If there a “too far” point, it can only be decided by each individual artist. I know I lean towards a lot more processing of my images now than I did a few years ago. I also realize it is a moving target for me.

On any individual adjustment I can usually find a “too far” point. But in the larger sense, I do not believe there is a fixed point beyond which we should not go. There is no edge of the earth point where we fall off into chaos. The limit for any image is determined by my current artistic vision and my intent for the image. It is fair game to use any and all of the tools available to create the art I visualize. Ultimately, the far enough point is a personal judgment.

Your mileage may vary.