Being Different Is Hard

Find your own path

Yes, being different can be hard, especially for some of us. Some of us seek affirmation from other people. Some of us are sensitive and bruise easily when we are criticized. But when we put ourselves forward as an artist we accept the cost of being different.

Better to be the same?

If you are not different, you are – the same. Is that what you want? Do you want to be the same as everyone else? To me that sounds like a horrible thing.

But think about it. For you it might seem a good choice. If you are same your work is safe, inoffensive, comfortable. There will be less criticism if you follow the established norms and are recognizably like some popular artists. If your goal is to maximize “Likes” a quick route is to copy a popular style.

When you are starting out this might not be wrong. As a student you spend a lot of time studying from a teacher or learning about famous artist’s styles. Your work will be more imitative than original. I won’t tell you that is a bad thing. Sometimes we have to try out a lot of styles before we decide what is right for us.

My personal opinion is that if I stay there I have ceased growing as an artist.

You’re unique

Most of us are raised to believe we are special and unique. That we have a special point of view and creativity. As a general rule I believe this. Everyone is as unique as our fingerprints.

Most people, though, are afraid to step out of the pack, to express our uniqueness if it is different from our peers. Take almost any teenager. They are defiantly expressing their individuality and rebellion – by looking and acting exactly like their peers. Only a very small percentage of them have the courage to dress or act different.

I’m not picking on teenagers. Take any working professional or really, most adults. They follow the office dress code. They adapt to the culture of their group to blend in. If they deviate they will quickly be shamed back into conformity.

Some psychologists say as children we learn to be human by mirroring behavior we observe around us. But as we mature we are supposed to become independent. To think for ourselves and trust our judgment. But psychological studies for decades have shown that most people conform to their peer group, even when they know the group is wrong. Still, it is safer and more comfortable to most people to suppress their beliefs and go along with their group.

Different or dead

But readers of this blog are mostly people who consider themselves to be artists. We are using our inherent creativity to produce work in a hugely overcrowded marketplace. If we are the same as most other people we have no reason for viewers or clients to consider our work.

Now to some people this becomes a mandate to be as different as possible just for the sake of being different. I disagree with this. We’re not, or at least I’m not, going for shock value. I believe we should be trying to create the best art we know how to make – our own personal art. If we do that it will be our own unique style.

I’ve said before that your viewers will only look at your image for a few seconds. Our screen-oriented generation has trained us that images are ephemeral, transient, low value flickers going across the screen. We quickly pass on to the next one without much consideration. Except in 2 general cases: it is a great print or it is a unique, attention grabbing image. But I’m not discussing prints here.

When people see one of your images it needs to grab them, stop them from scrolling to the next. It needs to offer them something fresh that intrigues them. It will create value in their minds by being different. Maybe it it too obvious, but you won’t be different if you spend your energy trying to be like everyone else.

It takes courage

Being different can be lonely and depressing. We get criticism, or worse, we are ignored. We are often shunned by the critics and the gatekeepers. These gatekeepers are usually not looking for real creativity. They are looking at a minor variations to whatever established school of thought they follow.

Being an artist takes courage and an independent streak. And the ability to shake off the criticism and rejection and keep going. It doesn’t stop hurting when we are rejected. But as we grow, we develop more confidence in our ability and worth.

When we are criticized we need to ask our self if there is validity to the objection. If so, we can process it try to learn something. Either way, we go on. If we are rejected try to look at the context. Maybe our work doesn’t fit the venue or the taste of the curator. That doesn’t mean we are bad or our work is worthless. Keep going.

Being a creative is a path that requires true courage. Courage is firmness of the mind or will. We can’t let the yapping dogs sidetrack us.

It’s the crazy ones who are remembered

Monet, Picasso, Dalí, Dorothea Lange, Stieglitz, the list goes on and on. The ones who were different but who pushed away the criticism and kept going. We remember them. We do not remember the critics or many of the established figures who these artists were told they should be like.

If we are criticized that doesn’t mean we have greatness in us. We may be fooling ourselves. That question is up to us to decide. Us personally, not the critics. If we decide they are wrong and we are right it seems we owe it to ourselves to keep going. To push through. Otherwise whatever we have within us will never be seen.

I’ll end with a quote from Steve Jobs. This was the voice-over for a famous Apple commercial.

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Whose Art?

Extreme lens flare as art

Who do you make your art for? No, really. It’s a serious question. A recent post discussed Finding Beauty. I think it is important to follow that by asking who determines the beauty and worth of our art. Whose art are we making? Who for?

For the whole world

If you are making your art for everyone, time to rethink your plan. Not everybody is going to like what you make. Sorry, that is the truth. And if your “style” is determined by what gets likes on Instagram or Facebook you are just chasing popularity.

You have your own style and you should stick to it. You may not recognize your style or know how to express it yet, but you do have one if you are authentically trying to express your values.

I don’t care much for a lot of images I see. I won’t say they are not art, just that they do not appeal to me. My style and values are different. The same with you. What you make will resonate with some people and not with others. Even if you become very popular I guarantee not everybody will love them. Accept that. Not everyone gets a ribbon for participating.

Be honest and do the work that appeals to you. Be genuine. If you spend your time trying to make images that “everybody” likes, you are chasing a false and impossible goal. You are not doing your own work.

It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not. – Andre Gide

Why did you shoot that?

Why will I/did I shoot it? That is a question we all should consider and answer every time we take a picture. If it has meaning for us on a personal level it is probably worth taking the time to capture it and process it. If it is to duplicate something that got a lot of Facebook likes, forget it.

You have probably figured out I like to use quotes to reinforce ideas. And to let you know that greater minds than mine have expressed some of the same ideas before. Here are 2:

If you shoot for the love of it, you know why you shot it. Jay Maisel

There is no way to know what others want as well as we know what we want, so trying to please them instead of ourselves is a mistake.David Vestal

As usual, I am only talking about the realm loosely called “fine art”. I wish we had a better term. In order to create our own art, we first and foremost have to please ourselves. If this image doesn’t blow us away, why waste time on it? Whose art is it? It has to be our own. If we get to where we can make images that make us very happy we will find a core of other people who share the same viewpoint.

Your style

Is it your style? Are you developing a style? Is your style acceptable to your peers? How do you know your style?

These questions can cause a lot of angst for artists. I say stop worrying about it. Your style is a result of who you are, not a skill you develop or an affectation you present.

Someone said to go through your portfolio and pick out your 20 best images. Lay them all out and examine them. This defines your style right now. This is what appeals to you and how you make your images. It will show the types of subjects you prefer, the lighting you like, the composition you tend to use, how you like to post process them, etc. This is you. You are not what someone else wants you to be.

Can a style be consciously changed? Yes, some people are able to do it. I’m thinking of Picasso as he went through several distinct periods. Or Joel Grimes who has redefined his signature look at least a couple of times. This is unusual. But even for the rest of us, our style evolves with time. We change and adapt as we mature and get more knowledge and experience. I know that the images I make now are very different from the ones I made a few years ago.

The point is, we each have a style and it comes from within. Don’t worry about what is in vogue today or what you see on social media. Be you.

What critic do you listen to?

But I posted an image I liked on Instagram and it didn’t get many likes. Or the judges in my camera club competition told me my treatment of the subject was not going to win any awards. Or a gallery I applied to rejected me because my images did not fit their needs.

There are critics all around. That doesn’t mean they should dictate our values. To paraphrase the famous George Bernard Shaw quote “those who can, do; those who can’t, become critics”. It is a lot easier and safer to criticize from the sidelines than to be in the battle trying to do something no one else does.

No critic can define your values, your vision, your art. If you have done your job well so that your image is technically correct as far as you want and composed the way you want and pleasing to you then it is nobody else’s business to tell you it should be different. They will try, but don’t listen to them. Maybe they are an artist, too, and have some good suggestions. Fine. Listen to them, but take it in and process it through your own values and style. Keep what feels right to you and discard the rest. No one is qualified to tell you what you have to do artistically. Notice in my description above what kept coming through was “the way you want”.

Your inner critic

If you’re not your own severest critic, you are your own worst enemy. – Jay Maisel

The great Jay Maisel is right. You have to decide what is right for you. Only you can truly criticize your work. You owe it to yourself to be hard on yourself. Be brutally honest. Throw away most of what you do.

You might feel that you need to get a lot of images to fill out a portfolio. No. You need some great images for your portfolio. If 5 is what you have then that is what is in your portfolio. Anything that is not a stand-on-its-own, awesome image you would be proud to show to anyone detracts from the collection. Weed out everything that does not show your best work

Let me give an example. I recently went on a car trip. I allowed plenty of time for slow travel with side trips and stops for pictures whenever I wanted. This is how I like to travel. I shot over 300 images during the trip. My editing workflow is a multi-stage culling process for selecting images. Just in the first stage I eliminated all but about 45 to be further considered and processed. I am still in process, but I expect that maybe 4-6 will make it into my final select group.

That seems fairly severe. Less than 2% of the images I shot will make it. But actually it is probably not severe enough. Realistically 2-3 of these would actually add value to my portfolio. I’m still in love with some that should be cut. That hurts. But I have really come to understand that a single weak image can bring down the level of an entire portfolio.

The only critic

So the only critic you should listen closely to is yourself. Only you are fully qualified to judge your work. Look at a lot of images from a variety of artists with different styles and interests. Get feedback from other people. Take what you can learn from everyone but stay true to your own vision.

Whose art are you trying to make? I hope it is your own. Then you have earned the right to be very proud of your art.

Play by the Rules

Almost symmetrical

OK, I admit it, I don’t do well with rules. I’m a “ask forgiveness, not permission” guy. I don’t cheat and I never take advantage of people, I just don’t necessarily play by the rules. And for context, this discussion is mainly about the world of art, so don’t extrapolate my malady too far.

Even if you don’t read the rest of this post please study this cartoon. A classic Calvin & Hobbs from the great Bill Watterson. This has been on my wall for at least 20 years. It perfectly captures my feelings about rules. 🙂

Whose rules?

Ah, this is a root of the problem. Who has the authority to make up rules I have to follow? Where did they get this power? What governing board set the standards?

Now, I’m not an anarchist in my everyday life. Not entirely. But in my artistic domain I do not give anyone authority to dictate rules about my work.

It seems to be human nature to want to control other people. Perhaps it is a power trip. Perhaps it is financially motivated to protest self interests. Maybe it is insecurity. I am a big believer in the old saying “Those who can, do. Those who can’t become critics”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I have seldom seen successful and respected artists put themselves forward as a critic. They do not see any need to, they are too busy creating. And if someone else wants to go off a different direction, fine.

What rules?

The art world has no shortage of rules to live by. Each little group wants to exclude you if you don’t play by their rules. So my work may be criticized because it it too realistic, too abstract, too colorful, too little color, lacking in social message, too much social message, too sharp, too blurry, too painterly, no people, only people, etc.

Even on a more safe level of visual theory, there is the “rule of thirds”, rules of balance, of leading lines, of framing; there has to be a definite foreground, middle ground, and background; don’t put the subject in the center, expose to the right, the subject has to be sharp, water should be smoothed with long exposure, never shoot in the middle of the day, always shoot on a tripod, …

Being Conventional

None of these so called rules make a work of art. If you are new to the craft these guidelines help you quickly learn to make images that are accepted as “conventional” and inoffensive.

Let me give an anecdote from my own experience. It goes way back, so I’m sure the statute of limitations has expired. I was an early adopter of Photoshop. The excellent camera club I was a member of had monthly competitions. I was the first to enter a “Photoshopped” image. It, of course, won the blue ribbon, because the post processing improved the basic image a lot. When I “confessed” how it had been processed and modified there was a lot of hand wringing and discussion. Some people even wondered if such images should be allowed in their competition. What I did was outside the norm and the expectation, therefore maybe a violation of the rules. At the least it was suspect as not being fair or in the proper spirit of photography. Yet, they chose it as Best of Show.

I have not been associated with that group for a long time, but from what I have seen, it would be almost impossible to win a contest there now without significant Photoshop processing. A new normal. Since it is conventional it is acceptable.

Why have rules?

I think I was on the right track earlier when I said rules create works that are accepted as conventional. Rules are normative, to use the proper term. Accepting a set of rules defines a baseline, a norm, it regularizes things.

There are times to follow the rules exactly. My accountant needs to follow accepted practices. I fully expect my doctor to follow best practices as he has learned them and as his profession requires. If I go to a restaurant I want them to follow all the health and safety and food preparation regulations.

But for artists? Well, yes. This may seem like I’m spinning 180 and shooting down my own arguments, but I believe the widely known rules are valuable for artists. Knowing and following them would protect the world from some of the useless stuff thrown around by people who do not know the history of their medium, its limits, or the social conventions people like to abide by.

I believe all new artists should learn the rules and spend quite a bit of time creating boring and conventional work. It is good practice and it instills some discipline. I’m not saying artists should go to art school. That works for some but not everyone. I don’t believe there are any valid credentials that qualify someone to be an artist.

After the rules are well understood, then comes the time to start exploring the edges. To start experimenting with breaking the rules that are limiting you if that is consistent with your style. Most experiments will be failures and the learning is that the rules are there because they point out something of general truth. But sometimes… Sometimes some new truth is discovered. Sometimes creatively breaking a rule leads to good art.

If I break the rules?

What happens if (when) I break one or more of the rules? Do the art police come and confiscate my computer? Do I go on a secret list shared by galleries and collectors to blacklist my works?

Actually, nothing happens. If I break a rule it is an experiment. The experiment will have one of 3 outcomes:

  • I love it, do more like that;
  • I hate it, don’t do it again;
  • or that’s interesting, it has promise, I need to modify it and try again.

And the people who view and potentially purchase my work will look at it and either say:

  • wow, I love it
  • yech, I hate it
  • or eh, don’t care.

The combination of these 2 sets of votes determines if breaking the rule was a success. And my opinion about what I like is the overriding vote. Note in my value system customers have a vote but people who are just critics do not.

Creating somebody else’s art

Playing by the rules guides us to create art that is acceptable to the largest audience. Like the paint by number cartoon above, we, in effect, create somebody else’s art. Our art follows the pattern that many other people follow. “Wow, it looks like Ansel Adams.” “Wow, it looks like John Shaw.” “Wow, it looks like John Paul Caponigro.”

These are good people to look like, until you develop your own style, your own vision of what you want to say. Then the rules are holding you back. At some point you have to make your own rules. To be you, you have to make something different.

Nothing new is ever created without a painful break from the past. Impressionism would never have been established if Monet, Renoir and the others had listened to conventional wisdom. John Rewald, in History of Impressionism, said The only thing to be learned from the critics was how to suffer the sting of their attacks and carry on just the same, accomplishing a task which more then any other required serenity.

If you play by the rules you will just get better and better at what everybody else does. That is not a waste. But to create something new and creative, rules, like eggs for an omelet, have to be broken.

I’m Not Good Enough

This is the message you will hear from the world around you when you do something, especially if it is something new. You’re not good enough; you don’t have the credentials; you don’t have enough years of experience; other people are better; give it up.

You can choose to listen to them and do nothing or you can listen to that voice inside of you that is whispering “I don’t care what you say, you’re wrong; I can do it.”

My friend Cole Thompson’s recent newsletter had this quote from Georgia O’Keeffe: “I decided to accept as true my own thinking. I have already settled it for myself, so flattery and criticism go down the same drain, and I am quite free.”

Brave, Georgia! I wish I could claim to really behave that way. But criticism still hurts. Rejection still hurts. Being looked down on by the “elite” still hurts.

Ed Morris’ newsletter recently had a link to a commencement speech Denzel Washington gave at the Univ. of Pennsylvania. He talked about pushing on through failure. It was inspiring. I especially liked the part about when he won a Tony award on the same stage he was rejected from 30 years before.

I’m finding that rejection is something you learn to expect and deal with. OK, I was rejected. I didn’t die. None of my loved ones died. The “authorities” did not come confiscate my camera and files. As a matter of fact, nothing bad happened, except for the rejection. I can live with that. Like exercising a muscle, you get better at it over time even though it is painful in the process.

The real challenge is for me to decide if I am a failure or not. No. I’m not willing to accept the label and slink away. I believe in my capabilities. I believe my artistic vision is unique and is worthwhile to show to other people. I want the world to see through my eyes, see my view of our surroundings. The old quote “those who can, do; those who can’t become critics” is becoming much more meaningful to me. If someone is critical of my work I try to examine to see if there is validity in what they say, but my first reaction is to think, yeah, show me your work that is so much better. OK, I’m flawed. But everyone has their own biases and preferences. Being critical of art usually means it does not fit that person’s preferences.

I am coming to accept that putting yourself forward in any way invites rejection and criticism. Brene Brown says ““Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’” That is what I am trying to do with my art. I don’t like disclosing a lot about myself, but that’s what my art does. There is nothing I can do to prevent people from rejecting it or being critical. This is what is in me and I have to speak out. I have no choice.

Who Says?

Who are the arbiters of quality and worth in art? How did they become the gatekeepers? Why do people follow what they say? Or do they?

Art is intensely subjective and personal. Anyone in the role of a critic can only be speaking from the viewpoint of their own likes and dislikes. Who cares? They are welcome to their opinion, but their opinion does not determine whether or not the works an artist creates are “good art”. It does not matter what their education or credentials are, they were not granted a license to be a gatekeeper. But it is a role that many want to play.

In his excellent short book “A Beautiful Anarchy“, David duChemin has a great chapter entitle “Winning at Yoga”. He makes the point that, although humans are very competitive, that isn’t necessarily beneficial when it comes to art (or love or …). The very notion of art competitions seems as out of place as competitive yoga. If you practice yoga you are only “competing” against yourself. Likewise an artist cannot compare himself to any other standard other than his own vision and capability.

An artist can create to win a competition or he can create to satisfy his inner vision. The first may lead to some recognition in the short term. Longer term he will probably realize that that is not his art, it is just a work product. Which is important to you depends on your values and situation. After being in that place, I have chosen to create for myself even if it does not get recognition.

What about the gatekeepers? They can serve a valuable role, but recognize they can only tend their own garden. A gallery or a designer chooses art that generally satisfies their own opinions and values. If you find one who has curated work that you like, too, then use them. They have gone through a lot of work to sift and filter their selections. That is value. But remember, this person cannot really say what is good or bad, only what they value.

I’m an artist. That means I have to let my creations loose into the world. Not everybody will like them. Maybe nobody will like them. They are free to criticize my work from their point of view of perfection or artistic merit. That is part of the game. I have to be able to thank them for their opinion and try to find something to learn from it. The important thing for me is whether or not I like the work and am I growing in the direction that feels right to me. I cannot let gatekeepers determine that for me. I will not settle for living someone else’s opinion of what my life should be.