What Would You Make?

Break all the rules: not sharp, subject centered, subject indistinct, no leading lines, etc.

As creatives, we make things. But are we constrained by sets of rules and conventions? What would you make if those rules weren’t there?

We’re makers

Artists are makers. Maybe that is obvious. We have to be able to realize what we visualize.

It doesn’t do any good to say “I wish you could see what I’m thinking about doing.” It is not real until we do it. But sometimes we are held back by rules that seem to prevent us from doing what we want to do. Sometimes those “rules” are the voice in our head that is trying to keep us out of trouble, since trying something new carries the risk or failure or rejection. That protective voice can’t evaluate the upside of what we do, just the potential downside of loss or embarrassment. That fear can be as debilitating as hard rules someone imposes on us.

Whether it is our inner voice or the things we have been taught, when they prevent us from making what we feel we should, they are in the way.

Follow the rules

Many people seem eager to put rules on us. There is the famous rule of thirds. Then other rules of composition. You must have a foreground, middle ground, and background to have a balanced image. Don’t put the subject in the middle. Watch the edges. You can’t have any clutter or distraction there.

If you make it past all those, there are rules about what a photograph can or can’t be. Have a well defined subject that is in sharp focus. Never shoot in the 4 hours each side of noon because the light is too harsh. Expose (the histogram) to the right, but do not blow out highlights. Always use a tripod. There are many more. You know the routine.

Sometimes it seems impossible just to make an image. It all gets too complicated.

Whose rules?

But as I often ask, where did those rules come from and are they really “rules”?

There is no standards body that certifies artists. No one needs to grant you permission to practice your art, even if you went to art school and they thought they had the right to do that. No one can come and yank your image from the gallery wall because you broke a rule.

Given that, why do we act as if we are bound by rules or conventions? Is it to fit it? To be part of a group? Because we are insecure about our style or ability?

Maybe our favorite artist only does very realistic and dark black & white work, so that is the constraint we put on ourselves. We submitted work for an exhibit and it was rejected. Everything selected was highly abstract, so we think that is what we must do. Our local camera club disallows landscape images that show any sign of man, so that must be a rule for landscapes.

Don’t apply them indiscriminately

All the “rules” may well have been created for good reasons. But they should not be applied indiscriminately. There is a story of the mother teaching her daughter to cook. The mother cuts off the end of a roast before putting it in a pan and cooking it. The daughter asks why she did that. She says she doesn’t know, but that’s what her mother taught her to do. Sometime later the little girl asks her grandmother why she cut off the end off roasts. The grandmother told her it was because when she was young her pan was too short.

The story is probably fake, but it’s point is valid. Even if rules were created for good reason, they may not apply to you in the situation. Always evaluate the reason realistically.

Be yourself and do your own art. Who gets to decide if the work pleases you? Isn’t it only you?

What would you make if there were no rules?

Imagine there were no rules imposed on you. What would you do in that case? What would you create that is different from what you are doing now?

Would you be bold to create fresh new art that may bend genres and go in new directions? Then do it! You do not have to be bound by anybody else’s rules. Set your own values and constraints. That is how creativity happens.

Now, I am not advocating total anarchy. There is enough of that posing as art. It does not have to be disturbing or unrecognizable to be creative. Just make it your own vision.

Learn the history of image making. Study what has been done by masters over time. The things that have been recognized as leading to “good” art. Knowing what has been done will not pollute you.

What will pollute you is taking those things as rules that you must follow. Learn the rules then creatively break them. That is the way to push the boundaries to new limits. Limits you discover and exploit. Be free to take your art in whatever direction feels best to you.

No rules.


I get ideas in a lot of unlikely places. It fascinates me that I got the idea for this article from an interview I heard with Carrie Underwood, the Country singer. A lot of her songs bend and even blur the limits of her genre. She was describing one project she was working on and being frustrated in not being able to come up with the effect she wanted, The patterns and constraints of what makes a typical country song seemed to box her in. Then she asked herself “what would I make if I didn’t have rules?”. After that she felt more free to relax the constraints and take ideas from rock or other sources that she liked. Now she could create her own preferred style.

We can do it, too. What would you make if you didn’t have rules?

How To Be Creative

Keeping Knowledge locked away

Is creativity a talent only certain people have? Is it a process to be learned? Did you ever wonder about how to be creative?

The Muse

People often speak of being visited by the Muse. Or more likely, not being visited recently. The muse seems to be this mysterious, invisible force that comes on us at times and endows us with tremendous creative force. For a while. Until she decides to leave. The muses are almost always described as female.

I can’t deny that sometimes I seem to be filled with creative energy and sometimes I can’t come up with a single good idea. Is that because of muses? I don’t want to jinx myself, but I don’t think so. It is too easy to blame external things. There is an ebb and flow to everything in life. I think creativity is part of that. It is unreasonable to expect to be on a creative high all the time. It would be nice, but we have to recharge sometimes, too. If it was constant, we would appreciate it less.

A talent

OK, so is creativity a talent a few have naturally and most of us don’t? It seems like that sometimes. Have you ever met someone, maybe an artist, maybe someone in your work life who seems to exude a flow of creativity? Someone who seems to get more done than anyone else?

I have. Several times. It can be humbling. It can make you want to change careers because you seem so inferior.

Talent is a real thing. Back in my life as a software developer I did some investigation into this and found evidence that there can be a 20 to 1 difference in productivity between developers. That seems to imply that some have a natural talent for doing the work. But, don’t let this slip by, they evaluated a 20 to 1 difference in productivity. That is not necessarily creativity. Creativity is much harder to measure.

Here is a truth of life that is important to remember: just because something is easier for someone than for you does not mean their work is better. So while there are differences in talent, that does not exclude anyone.

A process

On the other hand, we can demonstrate that creativity is a process. We have to do it, not sit around waiting to be inspired. A couple of quotes from my article I reference above:

Inspiration is for amateurs. Us professionals just go to work in the morning.” – Chuck Close

Hard work will outperform talent any day of the week.” – Joel Grimes

One thing we seldom talk about as an element of creativity is domain skill. That is, to be creative you first need to be good at what you are doing. Whether it is photography or writing or software development, you have to be skilled in your domain to be able to rise above the average.

So a good part of our process is to always be working to improve our skills. When “the muse is gone” and we do not feel inspired, at least be working on our craft. I have often seen in my own life that sometimes just focusing on a technical skill can lead to new thoughts and ideas for new work.

Am I creative?

Ah, the question that haunts most “creatives”. We often doubt ourselves. After all, what we think and do is obvious to us. So it must be obvious to everyone else. Right? Probably not.

Almost everyone is creative is some areas. But I have never met someone who has all their faculties who does not have the ability to create at some level.

But we set a very high standard for ourselves, don’t we? We expect massive, glowing creativity. World changing things. Really? Not many things change the world to any measurable extent. Our insecurity about our creativity is right up there with our imposter syndrome fears.

Try this experiment. Look at a lot of the published work by other artists is your field. There will be some that blow you away. That really impress you and make you feel inferior. But think about 2 things. First, remind yourself that you are only seeing their best of the best. You never see the 99% of the failures. Are you comparing your failures to their best?

Second think about what you consider the fails among that work. Will there be a significant part of it where you will say “Really? I throw away stuff like that.”? This should convince you that you can be just as creative as most of them.

Ebb and flow

Human nature is such that we don’t just go through life at an even level. There are peaks and valleys, ebb and flow. Sometimes we are up and sometimes we are down. Don’t get disappointed when your creativity follows this pattern.

But one of my points above is, get to work. Do something. Don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself and waiting for the muse to come back. Work. Maintain a discipline of doing things anyway. You may throw away most of what you do in this phase, but you can learn and improve your skills and it can be effective at getting you out of the valley more quickly.

One of the self help gurus I for some reason get stuff from recently said “Confidence is a byproduct of action”. I happen to agree with this. And I would add creativity is, too.

Little C or Big C

Notice that I have never defined what creativity is. This is intentional. Don’t most of us say “poor me, I’m not creative” without defining what we mean.

One conventional definition from Psychology research is that creativity is “the production of ideas or outcomes that are both novel and appropriate to some goal” (COMPONENTIAL THEORY OF CREATIVITY, Teresa Amabile, Harvard Business School). The clause about goals is there because the motivation of the research was the corporate environment. Talking solely about art, I would remove that and concentrate on the novelty of a work product.

So, what is novelty and how novel does it have to be to be considered “creative”? Amabile and others say that almost everyone has some degree of creativity. It is expressed in different ways and with different impact.

She uses an example of what she terms little C creativity vs big C creativity. The dentist who came up with the idea of letting kids wear fun sunglasses during exams to protect their eyes from the bright lights is what she calls little C. It is creative but not hugely novel. At the other extreme Schawlow expressed the principles on which all lasers are based. He won a Nobel Prize for that. Definitely big C.

So maybe we ought to give ourselves a little more freedom. Creativity does not have to be Nobel Prize winning. A novel composition or idea in our images is genuinely creative if you have never seen it before.

Novelty for its own sake

So if creativity revolves around the concept of novelty, how novel and new does something have to be? I think many artists are too caught up in this and try to do novel things regardless of their artfulness. Just browse through most contemporary art galleries or The Hand Magazine.

The definition of creative above brings together novel and appropriate. Maybe doing something solely because no one else has ever done it is not good enough. Don’t forget that the idea is to make art while we are doing it.


So maybe we shouldn’t be expecting lightning flashes of brilliance in our daily work. Maybe we should work our craft and perfect our skills to make sure we are about as good as anyone else. Then “connect the dots” as Steve Jobs used to say. If we can be open and receptive to thinking in new ways, we can look for opportunities to apply novelty as an edge to differentiate our self from the pack. Then the novelty is actually a creative enhancement to our work, not just something novel.

Today’s image

I seldom try to create “message” images. When I came across this scene, though, it was too powerful to pass up. It connected several dots with me. I think I have made a creative image that can express a strong idea. Maybe more than one. What do you think?

Don’t Repeat Yourself

Abstract study in texture and shape

Your parents or teachers probably told you this when you were growing up. Generally it’s good advice, but I am going to take it to a different context. In our work as artists, we must be careful to not become complacent and stop trying new things. Don’t repeat yourself artistically.

Stuck in a rut

We’ve all been there, haven’t we. Going over the same ground all the time. Playing it safe, Not trying anything new. It is the easy path. Or, it seems like it for a while.

Sometimes we feel trapped by success. Gallerists are quick to label us as something to make it easier to know who to sell to a client. So we may become known as that flower photographer, or a street photographer, or the guy who does abstract composites.

Whatever our label is, it often serves as a limit on our freedom. If our success is measured in sales then we become reluctant to do anything to jeopardize our supposed success.

Let me use Thomas Kincade as an example. I’m not criticizing him, and besides, he is dead. If you say his name you immediately know what one of his pictures looks like. He was a factory. I never talked to him, but I wonder if he ever wanted to paint something other than the cute little English cottages with dramatic lighting. Some of his work was interesting to me until it became monotonous.

I can’t be critical of you, either. I don’t know your motivation. Perhaps you love a certain subject so much that that is all you want to do. Great. But still look for ways to bring freshness to what you do. Don’t just do the same thing over and over. That is crippling and repetitious.

Challenge yourself

Who are you competing with? Isn’t it yourself? You may have a favorite artist you would like to be like, but you can’t. They are them and you are you. You have your own set of talents and values and perceptions. No one else will see the world quite like you do.

If that is so, then you are your own standard and critic. I better be doing work that matches my standards and interests. I am the one I have to please.

It is apparent to me from my history that without new challenges to excite me I become stale, bored. Once I have done a subject or a theme enough to feel I “got it”, whatever that may mean, I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m done with that. I need continued challenge to keep me fresh.

Some of my students are surprised when they learn that I am still experimenting and trying new things (for instance, I have started only recently to use focus stacking with regularity). They assume that my creativity has fully matured because I am somewhat established (old). But when we experiment — testing not only our tools’ limitations but also our creative sensibilities — we help ourselves to grow creatively and our work to remain fresh.

Chuck Kimmerle in Nature Vision Magazine, #1

Going back over the same ground too many times makes me complacent. No new challenges remain. I have nothing fresh to say about it. And it doesn’t hold any terror for me.

It should be scary

Terror??! Yes. Maybe that is too dramatic, but trying something new is scary. There is a strong fear of failure. The old “imposter syndrome” kicks in big time and makes us doubt our capability.

But for us, the fear is overwhelmed by the knowledge that I have new ideas that I have to try it. It could be a complete failure, but I won’t know unless I try. And I have to try, because it could be the next step in my development as an artist. Without trying this new thing I am cheating myself and letting myself believe I’m not good enough or creative enough to do it.

The fear of the unknown becomes less than the pressure within us to try it. Holding back is the beginning of a death spiral. Fear and inertia sets is and it becomes harder and harder to move on to new experiences.

Doing something new is scary. You are not sure you can do it, you won’t be good at it at first, you are not sure it even works for you. but you won’t know unless you do it. An artist has this drive in him that compels him to push on to new things. To shove aside some of the limits that are around him now and let his creativity flow in a new direction. The challenge of creativity makes the obstacles seem small.

Moving target

I don’t know if it has occurred to you or not, but the line where we move into the challenge area is a moving target. That is, as we confront our fears and push into new areas and become proficient, now we need further challenges. You may, at first, see this as a problem, but actually it is a good thing.

It is a good thing because we will never get stale. There are always new challenges to confront. Your art should excite you. To excite you, you will have to keep it fresh and alive. We can find new limits to push against. So we have a lifelong learning and growth opportunity. It is up to us. It is like a fractal figure. No matter how far we push into it, there is always new shape to discover. Will we accept the challenge to grow or stay in our comfort zone and eventually stagnate?

What limits you?

What limits you? It is easy to blame external things: those judges didn’t appreciate my work, those galleries can’t see what I am trying to do, I can’t “break into the club”. Don’t waste your energy on blaming those things. They are just there, like taxes. Keep trying, but realize you can’t control them.

And remind yourself that the only judge and critic of your work that matters is you. Are you happy with your work? Don’t be complacent. Set your standards high, higher than is reasonable. Exciting work doesn’t come from low goals. They are your standards. This is the bar you have to try to clear. Not something someone else sets for you.

I started with the idea of not repeating yourself. I hope you see it in a higher context of pushing yourself to new levels of vision and technical achievement. It is your art, it is your life. Be the best you can be. If you are happy with your art, that is the audience that counts most.

Don’t repeat yourself means be always growing and finding new ways to express yourself.

Overcoming Cynicism

Intentionally blurred train. A strategy for overcoming cynicism.

Other than doubt and discouragement, cynicism is probably one of my worst traps. Do you ever think there is nothing left to do or no use trying to do it? Overcoming cynicism is a constant battle.

It’s been done

It has been done already. Everything has been photographed. Trillions of photographs are taken every year (“Trillions”, not a misprint). How can I find something new and interesting?

It is hard to look around at all the work that is out there and not be cynical. And depressed.

But occasionally I see something that looks new and fresh to me. That gives me hope that there are still opportunities to be creative. It can be hard to hold on to the hope, though.

Nobody wants it

There are probably millions of people with web sites selling photographs. And there are probably thousands of galleries carrying art, including photography. This is in addition to the limitless supply of photos on social media. It is an over saturated market. What makes me think my work can stand out and be noticed and bought?

It seems like most photographers who have to support themselves with their art do workshops to earn enough money. There seems to be more money in teaching than in sales.

Why try?

Given all this discouraging news, it sometimes seems like none of us should even try to sell photographic art. The probability of success (however you measure it) seems remote.

It appears that an artist needs to become a marketing machine to survive. Marketing has to be an almost full time job. Promoting our self, contacting outlets, getting recognition, talking our self up constantly seems necessary to be noticed. But a lot of us are rather introverted and would almost prefer a root canal to doing these things all the time.

So why bother? It seems useless.


When I am feeling like this, one of the things that will sometimes pull me out of it is going back through my image catalog. When I do, I sometimes decide maybe I do bring something to the market that is useful. Maybe I do have some occasional creativity. My point of view, my vision might be fresh and different enough to be welcome by some people.

I find that reviewing some of my favorite images can, if not cure cynicism, at least diffuse it enough for me to go on. It can reinforce my faith in myself and encourage me to believe I should keep on, because I have something for people to see.

Sure, a lot of my work is mediocre and “me too”, but some, well, seems to me to be extraordinary. When I can get out of my own way, when I can take the pressure off to try to produce great images, I can occasionally create something nice.

I find that feeling like I have to create an outstanding image in a given situation is self defeating. It is like sitting down with the goal to write a world class bestselling novel. Too much pressure.

Instead, my working style is to let it flow. If I can get excited by what I am seeing, it draws me in and inspires me to create. Feeling too much pressure chills that creativity. I am better off to relax and just be me.

For me, that is what art is about. Being myself, expressing my vision, my point of view in my art. If I am doing that, maybe that is enough. Maybe I don’t have to be famous or rich. The first and most important person to please is myself.


Being creative and producing art that pleases me is the reward. That is what I can control. I cannot control how it is received or if galleries are contacting me to get me to exhibit with them. The internal reward of being satisfied with my work is for me to create in myself. No one else can give it to me.

So the way to combat cynicism is the same as the way to combat depression or fear or inertia: get up and get moving. Being in motion – doing something constructive – will help overcome the doubts and negative thoughts. Doing something positive almost always beats sitting and feeling sorry for yourself.

Today’s image

This is a train. An “ordinary” fright train. Actually, they are extraordinary. Have you ever seen one like this? Probably not. You would have to be stupid close to a fast moving train and shoot it with a slow shutter speed a certain way. I think it captures the moment in a creative way. What do you think?


On mountain top looking toward setting sun. Reflecting on life?

At the beginning of a new year, I guess it is natural to reflect back on the one that just ended. To remember our successes and analyze our failures. Reflecting on the past puts us in touch with the flow of time.

A calendar page

Most of us have just “put up a new calendar” – does anyone (except my wife) still use paper calendars? Regardless, the metaphor holds. It is a new year, untracked, fresh with possibility.

For some reason, the act of starting a new year causes us to spend a little time reflecting on the year that has just ended. This can be painful, because most of us did not accomplish all our goals or live up to our dreams. But it is also useful and necessary.

The process of considering what we wanted to accomplish in the past year and making plans for the coming year is very useful. It helps focus our minds on our goals. Without it, we would tend to drift along year to year never going anywhere. Because the reality is, to accomplish our goals requires intense focus and detailed plans to get there.

Limited resource

Time is a reality none of us can escape. We travel along in the stream of time and have no choice but to flow with it. The amount of time we have is unknown, but is ultimately limited.

Let’s put some hypothetical numbers to it. There are 8760 hours in a year (ignoring leap years and leap seconds 🙂 ). Sleeping 8 hours a day, as you should, takes away 2920 hours a year. I assume here you work a “normal” job to support your art habit. So that is 8 hours a day for 50 weeks a year, totalling 2000 hours.

What’s left is 3840 hours, But wait. We can’t use all that. This is ALL the time left over. There is cooking and cleaning and home repair and mowing the yard and picking up the kids and family activities and being with friends and watching TV and … For most people, all of this is used up each year. Our lives are busy and we can’t figure out where the time goes.

But let’s say you are very committed and disciplined and you save 1000 hours a year for creating, producing, and marketing your art. That doesn’t sound like much, but that is 1/2 of a full time job – basically 4 hours a day 5 days a week devoted to your art. Do you set that much aside for something so important to you?

The point is that our time is a limited resource. Every moment we can set aside to spend on our art is precious. We should be disciplined and mindful of what we do. Isn’t this more important to you than following your favorite TV show?

The dream life

Are you living your dream life? Did you know that many people envy you?

People in general look at artists through a romantic lens. It is a life that seems desirable to them, as they go though their day-to-day lives, all the same, no time to do what they think they want to do. The artist seems to have a life of creativity and independence.

Now, you know that is a skewed view. You know that the artistic life is difficult. We deal with rejection all the time. Disappointment is routine. And yet we must push on and rely on our creativity driven by our will power to carry us through. We have to be tough and resilient.

But use this year end time to step back and see it from a larger perspective. Maybe they’re right. Unlike most people, we get to use our creativity. We create things that other people appreciate and probably can’t do. Most people don’t think they are creative and they envy other people who are openly and consistently artistic. To them, what we do is almost magic and must be highly rewarding.

They are right. It is rewarding. We love to exercise and display our creativity. While most people are too afraid or timid to do it, we proclaim our self as an artist. Isn’t that a dream life? Try to look at it the way non-artists do.

New Year’s Resolutions

So here we are now at the start of a new year and it is traditional to make New Year’s Resolutions. I would say, don’t bother. They are ineffective. A resolution is just a suggestion, really a wish. You are just telling yourself “I wish I would do this, but I don’t really hold myself responsible to do it”. Most are totally broken and discarded within a month.

Either commit as a definite goal with plans and determination to make it happen, or don’t bother. Being an artist is hard. You won’t get there by just wishing it would happen. We have to believe in our self and push through the hard times.

How are you going to direct your creativity this year?

Looking back, what have you done well this past year that needs to be built on? What did not work and needs to be changed? Many dream of doing the things you do. Few follow through and actually believe in themselves enough to do it. There is an old saying “whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are probably right.” What do you think?

Those 1000 or so hours we have to devote to our art are precious and valuable. Do you hunger enough to do it? Do you believe you have a gift that needs to be used? Are you willing to put in the hard work? To deal with the rejection and criticism? Are you willing to persevere when people tell you you aren’t good enough?

Don’t have a New Year’s Resolution. Instead be resolute. Nothing but yourself and your fears and doubts can keep you from using your talent and living the artistic life.

Believe in the worth of your talent. Make a plan and believe in yourself. Don’t look back.