What Excites You?

Pictures of pictures

I believe artists are passionate people. We do our best work when we are excited about it. Have you considered what excites you? Do you seek the excitement?

Do you get excited when you are shooting?

I try to have that level of excitement. Of course, we are just human and it will not be there in full strength all the time. Like everything in life it ebbs and flows with our mood or circumstances.

I find that I have different grades of excitement about the things I shoot. It can range from “I really should shoot this; it is kind of interesting; I might can make a decent image out of it” to “Wow! I’m so excited right now I can hardly be still enough to expose a frame properly”.

I don’t consider anywhere along that continuum to be “wrong”. But the high excitement side is definitely more fun and easier to get, well, excited about.

Not all scenes are great

What makes the difference in the excitement level? One is probably the inherent quality of the scene or subject. When I say inherent quality this is a subjective measure, as is almost everything in art. It can only be evaluated by you for you. I think it is a function of the scene itself and how it interacts with our values and our mood. Sometimes we just don’t feel it, even though the artist right next to you thinks it is spectacular.

It may not be what you wanted or hoped for, but it is what it is. Work with it.

Another difference is our perception of the scene. The reality is that most of us are not surrounded by world-class, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities everyday. Most of what we see is rather average. An average scene offers the opportunity to exercise our creativity by making it interesting. We have to work hard to make something of it. This is valuable exercise. It is not a bad thing.

As a matter of fact I will assert that the rare, unique, wonderful scene may not be that much of a creative opportunity. If the scene is amazing in itself, we may only have to record it. Yes, it lets us use the technical and compositional skills we have spent a long time developing to capture it well, but we actually don’t have to do much. Just don’t screw it up. It can be exciting to know we captured a rare and great moment, but it may leave us a little unsatisfied because we did not contribute much to it.

Dealing with the average

Mostly we encounter more mundane, average, day-to-day scenes. How can we build or keep our excitement going when surrounded by ordinary?

I have stated before that I like to go out empty and let myself be drawn to subjects. Still, just in wandering around randomly I mostly encounter pretty average things. If I think there is something there, the exercise is to be able to make it above average. Can I see it differently? Is there a better angle or lens choice that would bring it out to advantage? Does it need to be simplified? Or juxtaposed with another element to make a different statement? Does it need different light or even a different season?

My friend Cole Thompson says “I believe the real test of creating isn’t cherry-picking great images from great locations, but rather to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. To be able to find something remarkable in my everyday surroundings.” Very wise.

When I am able to take an ordinary subject that I am drawn to and make it into something special it builds excitement in me. It gets my energy flowing. I become more conscious of other things around me and more empowered to go after them. It is a reinforcing cycle. It helps me see other things as well.

Ideas to being back excitement

Working with the ordinary is one process that is very important to get me excited. Each of us is different. We have different values and expectations and points of view. So there is no simple list of “hacks” that will work for everyone. But let me give some suggestions to try:

  • Set yourself projects to work on. The thought process of concentrating on a fixed subject causes us to focus and think different. It can be energizing.
  • Travel. A change of scenery can help to change our perspective.
  • Shoot with someone. The interactions and discussions can be stimulating and refreshing.
  • Take on a new style or technique. It doesn’t have to be a permanent change, just something to shake up the norm.
  • Make it look strange or absurd. It helps you see it fresh. This is the Russian Formalism technique called “ostranenie”. It is interesting. More on this another time.
  • Go to a museum. Not just a photography museum. Studying works by masters can never hurt.
  • Look at other work. Read blogs and other artist’s web sites. Get books of art. Get more familiar with the way other artists see the world. Do not copy them, but feel free to steal. 🙂
  • Find what gives you joy. A sense of joy is an important driver for excitement. Know what works for you.
  • Get out and do it. Really. Just making yourself do it can lift you from a funk and get you going.

Shoot for yourself

One of the most powerful motivators is reserved for a select few.

Do you consider yourself a “fine artist”? One of the definitions of that is that we create work for ourselves. If you are in the enviable position of creating art to please yourself, take maximum advantage of it. Follow your instincts. Don’t worry about what you see other artists doing.

When you get excited about a subject or a location or a technique follow your feelings. Work it to see what develops. It may be something entirely new that you become extremely excited about and that changes you. Or it may end up not being interesting to you and abandoned. Either way, you followed your artistic instinct. This builds excitement.

You don’t get a hit every time your swing, but it is important to keep swinging.

Is it work?

What is the difference between work and art? Maybe nothing. Please don’t read this blog as saying we should sit around waiting for the muse to visit us. Or to think you shouldn’t go out today because you just don’t feel any excitement.

Most of the things I describe or suggest are active. Based on taking positive steps toward creating something. We have to work at it. Action leads to feeling.

So whatever inspires you and creates excitement for you, don’t just think about it. Get out of the chair or up from the couch and go do something about it.

Finally, here are some quotes to reinforce that concept:

Motivation exists, but it has to find you working. – Pablo Picasso

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

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

Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn. – John Wesley

Have You Already Done Your Best Work?

Red pepper in blue water

Have you already done your best work? Have you taken your best image or painted your best picture, or sculpted your best piece? In other words, have you peaked and it’s all down hill from here? What a frightening idea.

Yet I believe this is a great fear of many artists. Me, too. You love what you have already created. How can you ever top it?

You have to believe in yourself and in your process.

Your body of work

Does your portfolio define you? Many of us believe it does. I think it would better to look at it as saying your portfolio represents the best of what you have done up to now. You will change and move on and do different things with time. Your portfolio doesn’t define you, it reflects you. Who you were up to today.

If you destroyed your whole library you should be able to go on from here and build a new, better one. Of course, none of us would want to do that. We have done a lot of great work in the past. We have many impossible to recreate scenes. Our library or portfolio represents a huge investment of both time and creative energy. We should embrace that and celebrate it.

But the creator is much more important than the creation. If I go to the Louvre or Orsay (back in the good old days) or another great museum I see people lined up admiring some of the important and enduring works of history. But the focus is on the art. This is only appropriate at these museums because the artist is dead. It is much more interesting to study and appreciate the people who created these pieces. They are the genius. The art is just a reflection of their vision. These famous works came out of their minds and through their skills. What was it about them that allowed them to create and overcome?

In the same way, you are the one who makes images. If you have made great images in the past you almost definitely will in the future unless something changed to take away your skill. This can happen, through life-altering events like a wreck or a stroke. But barring something like that, it should be true that your creativity grows and persists. Very few of us can use this excuse.

An idea

A great image is just an idea you had at a particular time. You will have more. It is your ideas and your vision that creates. Ansel Adams famously said “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!“. In other words, images are made in your head, not in a camera.

The “muse” or our creativity has ups and downs. Sometimes it seems like you are empty. You fear you will never do great work again. Be patient. Keep working at whatever you find while you wait for the spark to return. It will. Always.


Don’t be limited by fear of trying something new. Even if you are famous for one look or style, at some point it limits and boxes you in and you start to become stale. Then it is time to re-invent yourself. Don’t be afraid to make a sharp 90 degree turn and do something completely different. If that is what your creativity is calling you to do, follow. Better to follow it into uncharted territory than to have it leave you behind.

And sometimes we look at the work we have done and think “Wow, I can never do better than that”. This creates fear of failure. We become afraid of creating anything because it might not be as good as what we have already done.

This is because we are trying to do something like a work we did in the past. Don’t worry about trying to recreate an old look. Go with where you are now. It probably won’t be the same as what you did before, but it is you. It represents where you are now in your life. If you are growing as a person and an artist, it will be better.


Always be pushing yourself. You are the only standard of measure that matters to you. Learn, grow, experiment, be open to new thoughts and ideas.

When you don’t feel creative, work anyway. Just doing the work is refreshing and therapeutic. It is like “putting in the reps” that is required to learn and master almost anything. Keep pushing and when the creativity floods back, you have improved and can do even better work. You will be better equipped to keep up with the inspiration.

Keep moving. Don’t ever just sit and feel sorry for yourself. Get out and do something. Don’t try to recreate your best works, do new things that are better.

Prolific Creation


Two schools of thought involve creating fast and frequently vs. being slow and deliberate. I argue that creating prolifically is the best path.

Is creativity a limited resource? Do you have to be concerned about using it up? My belief is, no, it is unlimited, but it is not always ready to flow.

But I have heard about artists who are burnt out, dried up creatively. Doesn’t that argue that creativity is limited? No, an anecdote doesn’t make a proof. I don’t know these people and I can’t and wouldn’t make any judgements about why their creative springs dried up. But I believe that is a personal problem, not the nature of creativity.

Slow and deliberate

Some types of art is slow by its nature. Sculpture is an example. Some painting techniques take weeks to produce a work. Some large installations take months or years to create.

Well, then, these artists have no option except to create on a slow cycle, right? I suspect they do not wait long periods of time. Most artists are sketching and experimenting with ideas all the time. They may spend 6 months working on a sculpture, but many other ideas are bubbling with them at the same time.

My friend Kevin Caron, is an excellent sculptor based in Phoenix. He is a multi-talented 3 dimensional artist. Some of his large sculptures take months to complete. But at the same time he makes jewelry and 3D printed works. I believe these smaller items serve at least 2 purposes: provide works of his at a lower price point that more people can afford, and serve as a creative outlet to help fill in the drought between big projects.


Prolific just means doing a lot. It does not describe the quality or finish of any piece.

Most artists I know are always working. They are sketching, even doodling. I am a photographer, so most (not all) of my sketching is done with a camera or the computer.

Sketch with a camera? Yes. If I see something interesting I may take some frames of it, knowing that these will be thrown away because they are not quality. When looking at them later I may decide there really is something there. I will go back and “work” the scene to develop the real image. This often involves sketches from different angles and at different times. When I figure out the personality or gesture I think is interesting then I go for it.

This is something I have the luxury of doing on my home turf. I can return to a subject at will. It is different when I am traveling. It’s now or never. It is a different creative process to try to sum up a scene and optimize it in a second.

And sketching with a computer? Sure. I often go into Photoshop and play “what if” games. What if I take this subject and this texture and this color palette? What kind of results can I create? I am sometimes pleased with the results.

Why be prolific?

I believe creativity is a combination of the skill to do the work combined with some unidentifiable, unmeasurable thing we usually call the “muse”. This, supposedly, is the spirit of creativity that animates us.

I believe there is a muse. I have no idea what it really is, but I believe creativity ebbs and surges unpredictably. If the muse is gone, you can barely do anything creatively. If the muse is with you it seem. like creative ideas are bubbling all the time.

But I don’t believe we are helpless slaves of this spirit. Creativity is also something we develop as a skill. The more we practice it the more easily we can do it.

Creativity favors the prepared mind. – Roy Rowan

The harder you work, the luckier you get. – Anon

You weren’t any good at driving a car until you put in hundreds of hours behind the wheel. You were not a star at any sport you ever played until you had practiced for hundreds of hours. You couldn’t even write until you had practiced it a lot. And as for people learning to play the violin – well that’s a special subject.

A limited resource?

Is creativity a zero sum game? Once we use it up is it all gone? No, I think that’s the wrong way to look at it.

Creativity is like love: the more you give away the more you have. Don’t worry about running out. Your creativity may wax and wane, but you can’t use it up. I believe the more you use it the easier it flows.


If you want to be creative then practice. If you are a painter, go crazy sketching. Most will be junk. That’s not a problem. Try every way you can think of to put paint on a canvas. You will get more skilled with time. If you are a photographer, always have your camera and give yourself permission to use it. Take a lot of pictures. They don’t cost much to throw away. Make the camera an extension of your eye. Learn to use it without thinking. Make sure you can always get the result you wanted.

Be a prolific creator. Do it more and more. Put in the reps. Practice, practice, practice. Then, when the muse shows up, she will find you prepared. It will make her happy and she will lead you to great things.