Tag archive for » creativity «

Blocked? Make the Problem the Subject

Monday, 13. August 2018 1:53

Blogging and making art are not the same, but they are similar. The core procedures are nearly identical. The artist/blogger has ideas; s/he has to translate those ideas into some communicable form and send it into the world. Sometimes the artist/blogger has a notion as to whether the product is good or not; sometimes s/he doesn’t. The problem is, of course, that the artist/blogger has no idea what the audience is going to see in the product or say about what they see.

When everything is working properly, the artist and blogger have similar processes. S/he gets an idea, develops that idea, communicates the idea, edits the communication, and moves on to the next project. Regardless of how the audience might or might not respond, there is a feeling of accomplishment, of closure that makes moving forward easier.

And when everything is not working properly, the problems are similar. Creative block preys on both the artist and the blogger. There are just times when the painter has no idea what to paint, when no new ideas come to the choreographer, when the playwright stares past the screen, not knowing where the plot is going. The same holds true for bloggers; ideas don’t come, and for most bloggers the problem is exacerbated by deadlines, since bloggers often work on a schedule.

A problem comparable to creative block is the problem of too many ideas at once. Ideas come to the artist/blogger quickly and s/he has no opportunity to develop one fully before another arises and fights for attention. The net result is that no idea gets full development and the artist/blogger feels that s/he is running in circles. And there is no product.

What to do?  There are literally thousands of articles dealing with creative block and how to overcome it. So the how is fairly well documented; all the artist or the blogger needs to do is pick one or more of those methods which s/he thinks will work for him/her.

Dealing with too many ideas or the inability to fully develop ideas is more complex. The first step is to record the ideas as they appear, lest some of them get away. Just because they are recorded does not mean that the artist/blogger has to use them, but it does preserve them. And the act of recording can sometimes suggest a pattern of development or a reason to hold off developing that particular idea at this particular time. After that, it becomes a matter of scanning the recorded ideas to see what engages.

If that doesn’t work, the artist/blogger can always doodle or outline or sketch or involve him/herself in whatever form preliminary development takes. Sometimes that can get the mind working and development can proceed.

And if that doesn’t work, the artist/blogger can always make the project about the problem. Thus we have movies, plays, even musicals about creative block, for example Barton Fink, , and Nine. We have blogs such as this. The problem becomes the subject matter of the piece. It may not be the best solution, but it does break the cycle and allow the artist/blogger to actually create something, to produce, and to move on to the next project.

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Standard Sizes

Sunday, 1. July 2018 23:12

In case you haven’t noticed, the internet is rife with advice for artists. For instance, a Google search yields 71.5 million articles. Some of the articles are nothing more than common sense; others border on the surprising. Some seem useful and others no so much. Occasionally, I will read advice articles, particularly if they have something to do with theatre or photography. One can never have too many insights.

Recently, I ran across one that was purported to be necessary tips for photographers. There was one on this particular list that I had not run across before, so it stuck out: “Make standard size images.” It’s very practical advice, particularly if the photographer is doing commercial work. Off-site printers usually price by standard sizes. In-house printing benefits from standard sizes in that (a) those are the sizes in which paper comes, and (b) printing to those sizes eliminates time-consuming trimming. Image-processing software facilitates cropping to standard sizes. Even mats come precut to standard sizes, as do frames. Printing standard sizes makes everything cheaper and easier.

Standard sizes do, however, introduce a restriction into the creative process. Some artists welcome restrictions and boundaries because they have been shown to enhance the creative process. Some photographers take this into account in their workflow. For example, there are photographers who know when they take the picture what formats the prints will be. Indeed, a number of photographers shoot with specific formats in mind for a series they are developing. Some photographers intend to use 100% of the negative or capture in the print.

My experience, however, has been that no matter how much planning goes into a shoot, there will always be images that cry out for cropping, and that, once done, actually “makes” the image. Conscientious cropping can establish the organic boundaries that allow the image to be all that it can be; such boundaries have little to do with standard formats.

And if the boundaries are organic the image will naturally look better. Why? Because the edges are part of the picture. Where the photographer draws the boundaries defines the image. The distance of elements in the picture from an edge contributes to the composition, modifying the image’s impact, and probably its meaning.

So it turns out that perfect cropping often results in a nonstandard-size print. Sometimes it’s off by a little; sometimes a lot. But it almost certainly will be off. Then the photographer has to decide whether or how to massage this perfectly-cropped image into a standard size. If the photographer decides on standardizing the size, the question becomes how much of a compromise is s/he is willing to make.

One photographer I know has five different scalable “standard sizes,” four of which are based on height-width ratios. The last is a variable size for long, skinny pieces. The rationale is that given that many “standard” possibilities, one would come close enough to the perfect crop that any compromise would be minimal. He says, however, that even with all those choices, he still occasionally has a crop that just won’t work with any of his standard sizes. What does he do? He prints a custom size.

There are circumstances which dictate that standard sizes are the proper choice. My vote, however goes to the photographer mentioned above. Art is not meant to be fitted into standard-size boxes. Think about novelists or poets or composers or choreographers or directors having their work confined to “standard sizes.”

Selecting an artistic form is far more complex than selecting which standard-size box it fits in. One of the goals in creating is, I think, to allow the artifact to reach its full potential. And whatever size that turns out to be is, by definition, the perfect size for the piece, whether it is standard or not. This is true not only for photography, but for all the arts.

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Trust Your Gut

Monday, 4. June 2018 0:15

Photographers spend hours deciding which prints are worth showing and which prints are not. Likewise, artists in all genres try to decide whether this choice or that choice will work the best. Countless hours are devoted to making these decisions. Several artists I know actually agonize over the choices they have to make.

Many thinkers would tell those of us who are fretting and worrying over artistic choices that we are wasting our time. We already know the right choices; we are just hesitant to act on them, and have to go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to come to the same conclusion that we had the first time we looked at the images.

Theories abound about how we are able to make choices so quickly. For example, Author Malcolm Gladwell says that we decide things in an instant through a process that he calls “thin-slicing,” or making a decision based on instantaneously gathered information.  His book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, provides numerous examples and explanation of the process of making snap decisions—that usually turn out to be valid.

Osho, in his book Intuition: Knowing beyond Logic, says that both instinct and intuition work without consciousness or intellect and tell us things that are true without any thought or reasoning.

And now there is scientific evidence that shows that we actually do have a “second brain” in our gut that not only controls digestion but influences our mood and well-being. It’s called the enteric nervous system (ENS) and “goes far beyond just processing the food we eat.” There are evidently significant links between the ENS and the brain.

Even the old folk advice to trust our gut instincts has been proven true. Whether it comes from the “second brain” in the physical gut or the subconscious, the first decision or choice is usually the right one.

The problem then is not in knowing the correct choice; evidently that comes instinctively—regardless of which school of thought we follow. The problem is in accepting that that instinctive choice as valid. It happens too fast. How could we possibly trust it? Is it really the gut or the subconscious or some other mental skill?

Exactly how it happens doesn’t matter. Our body/brain tells us the correct choices—almost instantaneously, and we, for the most part, ignore them. We insist on examining the product for balance, unity, and any other principle we can think of; we apply analysis and logic in extended internal dialogs—when the correct answer has been in our heads from the very beginning.

The problem is that we don’t trust our own instincts. Instead of accepting the answer that came to mind immediately, we argue and apply artistic principles and find rationales and play all sorts of intellectual games rather than accept the answer that we knew all along—the answer we got instinctively, simply by looking at the work.

We waste a lot of time in needlessly justifying our choices. Just think of how much time and aggravation we could save if only we would recognize that our instincts are indeed valid. We need to trust our guts.

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“That Works” Is Insufficient

Monday, 23. April 2018 0:34

Years ago, if memory serves, Jack Lemmon on Inside the Actors Studio expressed an intense dislike for the phrase, “that works.” He did not explain. At the time, I thought it was a curious comment since it’s a phrase that is heard constantly in artistic endeavors. It is applied to not only acting, but also to painting, composition, sculpture, directing, photography, and many other art genres. What could be wrong with that phrase? It indicates when things “click,” when they mesh, when parts come together and make a whole. Generally, the phrase is used to indicate acceptability or success.

In the last post I discussed John Chamberlain’s 1982 artist statement, wherein he says that his artistic decision-making has to do with “primarily sexual and intuitive thinking.”  Chamberlain initially seems to equate intuitive thinking or intuition with editing ability: “I’ve done pieces, for example, on which were piled as many as 40 to 50 parts, but none was totally interlocked, or welded. That is the sexual fit. Intuition, however, may have made me remove some, or many, of the parts.”

But for Chamberlain intuition is more than just editing; he goes on to say, “Intuition will indicate when something is not acceptable, even though it might work. That it works is not necessarily enough. It can be acceptable, but something more is needed. The fine line is that it is either junk, or art materials, or, it is a piece of work. “

So for Chamberlain, and I expect for Lemmon, “that works” is insufficient. It is that something beyond acceptability which makes a piece into a work of art instead of being just materials, or in some cases junk. The problem is that we have no name for that something. It is certainly not perfection. Hardly anyone who is a serious artist expects perfection. If not perfection, then what?

How about excellence? “That works” does imply success or acceptability. However, excellence goes beyond mere success or acceptability. Excellence means “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.” So Chamberlain, and one assumes Lemmon, expected to produce work that was not acceptable, but work that was excellent. That’s a pretty high bar.

And it’s a bar that is being met only part of the time by a portion of artists. If you attend any art show or theatre performance you may see work that is excellent, but you are very likely to see work that is just acceptable. The reasons, I think, are many: a de-emphasis on excellence in artist training, the pressure to put work out in order to be seen and known, the emphasis on showing rather than on working. Chamberlain resisted the impulse to produce work quickly, or at least so he says: “If I were zippy and worked hard all the time, what I’d create would be of little value; I’d make too many mistakes.”

Perhaps we should adopt Chamberlain’s attitude and resist the impulse to “get the work out.” If producing is our goal, we are more likely to create work that is merely acceptable, about which we can say only “that works.” Perhaps instead we should take a little more time and a little more care and refuse to settle for work that is less than excellent.

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Do Your Chores

Monday, 26. March 2018 1:14

Last week a commencement address by Admiral William H. McRaven appeared on my Facebook feed. The sound was off but I did watch the closed captions for a few moments. McRaven suggested that we should begin every day by making our beds. His reasons were many and included accomplishing the first task of the day which sets us up to accomplish even more during the day; he also talked about the feeling of satisfaction when you come back to the made bed at the end of the day.

Some of what McRaven had to say resonated with me; I am a bed-maker, but not necessarily for the same reasons. I have not always been a bed-maker; it is something I evolved into. And certainly I would cast no disrespect on those who are not bed-makers; in fact, some of my best friends are not bed-makers. They just don’t see the importance of it.

For me, it’s just one of the many chores I do during the week. It goes along with vacuuming, and cleaning the kitchen and working in the yard and all those mindless tasks that one does during to week to “keep things up.” Those chores have value, and not just the value of “accomplishing a task” or making the environment a little neater. The value is in the mindlessness of these tasks.

It’s essentially down time, a time when the mind can run free, a time when creativity can happen. Like many who work in the arts, down time is when ideas appear. It’s a time when the conscious mind is occupied on the—usually manual—task at hand; occupied, but not very deeply. It’s a perfect time for the subconscious to whisper ideas and suggestions to that consciousness. The things that get whispered might be solutions to ongoing creative conundrums, or “brand new” ideas, or new approaches to older problems.

And those of us who make no room for down time are likely to find ourselves burned out. Down time is necessary. Every artist needs some down time, usually every day.

Some artists have found a variety of ways to create down time. For example, some artists walk; this is true of Wallace Stevens, Thoreau, Ingmar Bergman, Austin Kleon, just to mention a few. Some artists get their ideas from dreams. Some meditate. Others find that the shower it the place where ideas can be found. The list could go on, but what all of these things have in common is that the artist is occupied doing something, usually physical, and the artist is not actively creating or developing ideas. Given the importance of downtime, many artists try to make such time a part of their daily routine.

But some of us have very little time in our schedules for meditation or walking. But how can we possibly work that into our schedules? Well, there are also showers and dreams, but dreams have proven unreliable and showers don’t work for everyone.

There is yet one other solution: we can do our chores. This (usually) makes our environment just a little more pleasant, and at the same time provides time for our creative minds to idle and listen to what’s going on subconsciously. And if new ideas don’t come every time, we will at least have given our creative minds a little rest, which can only make our work better.

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We’re All Commercial Artists

Monday, 12. February 2018 2:31

In his review of Phillip Boehm’s Alma en venta (Soul on Sale), D. L. Groover proclaims, “I guess Arcadio [the protagonist] never heard of a professional artist. Isn’t that their calling? You paint and people buy. Van Gogh wanted to sell his work, Rembrandt wanted to sell, Picasso wanted to sell. I don’t think they were troubled by their soul being appropriated.” All artists want to sell what they do.

The commercial nature of the practice of making art is not readily apparent. Most of us got into the arts world because it satisfied some need. We did not think about bringing in money when we first picked up a pencil or a paintbrush or a camera or a hammer and chisel. We talk about process and creation; we talk about technique; occasionally we talk about artifact. But we don’t talk about selling.

Except for those of us who choose to study “commercial art,” a specialized field which freely admits that talents and skills can be used to make bespoke art in exchange for money. Other arts that freely admit that a box office is part of the equation are theatre and film, but even then there is the division between art that sells well and readily (musical theatre and adventure films) and “serious art,” which sells far less well and for which there “should” be an audience, but sometimes isn’t. It’s still all about selling.

The only difference is whether an artist is tailoring his/her product [artifact] to a specific audience or whether s/he is making it for other reasons and tailoring it only to artistic and aesthetic needs, hoping that someone will like it enough to pay money for it. The second type of artist would say that the first type is commercial and pandering; the first type would say that the second type is being snobbish and unrealistic. No matter what you call it, the bottom line is that ultimately it’s still all about selling.

And there are, of course, artists who take positions all along the line from one of the above extremes to the other. Some artists take the “fine arts” approach and enter show after show, trying to gain recognition, increase their exposure, find their tribe, and ultimately sell, whether it be to individual or institutional collectors. Some show their work in online arts communities. Some narrow their work to specific niches, trying to find an audience. Some broaden their subject matter, trying for the same thing.

Other artists take a more direct commercial approach. They shift their focus from “fine art” to commodity art, creating wearable art which is often shown and sold at street festivals. Some make their work available in prints, posters and household decorative pieces sold directly to consumers through internet storefronts. Some hang out shingles and do wedding photography or commissioned work. The goal is the same: sell.

We all make art for different reasons, and we all have something to say with our art. And regardless of how significant or trivial our message, we all want our art to communicate, to be accepted, and ultimately to sell. We take many different paths, and money may not be the most important outcome, but it surely is one of the outcomes we seek—either directly or indirectly. At the bottom of it we’re really all commercial artists.

Category:Audience, Creativity, Presentation | Comment (0) | Autor:

Glimpses

Monday, 29. January 2018 2:41

Photographer Sally Mann in her memoir, Hold Still, describes her process in making the controversial pictures of her children that were published in her book Immediate Family. According to Hold Still, she would get a glimpse or even sense of a picture [read “publishable art photograph”] in perhaps a snapshot or in another image that she had produced with her constant companion, an 8×10 view camera, or even in multiple photographs. Then she would attempt to generate that picture with “dogged intent,” which sometimes resulted in shoot after shoot after shoot, occasionally with discomfort for both the model and the photographer. She goes on to talk about the feeling of exultation experienced when all the pieces come together. She likens it to “the one true sentence Hemingway writes about in A Moveable Feast.”

This post was originally intended to talk about Mann’s self-described process in creating those images—from the inspirational glimpse to the finished product, including all the attempts, the multiple failures, the almost-had-its with all the attendant discomforts and disappointments. And then I read more and thought more and decided that there was something more important to be had from this story—the glimpse.

We all have experienced it, I think, at one time or another. We’re reading a book or watching a movie or a play and suddenly there are these words or actions or a combination that resonate with us so strongly that we sometimes characterize it as “a moment of truth” in the work. It will often cause us to underline, or pause/rewind or stop the car and write down a phrase and maybe a time marker so we can go back to this truth we discovered and do something with it.

But we usually do very little with it besides appreciate it. But that, in turn, might cause us to read more by that author, see more films by that director, and I suppose that is doing “something.” If we appreciate, it becomes part of our psyche, which does influence our artistic output, and that certainly qualifies as “something.”

However, it occurs to me that we could do so much more. We could, like Mann, pursue it. We could take that little piece of truth or beauty or the suggestion of a significant image and build on it. Use it. Let it become a springboard toward the development of our own art—if we thought to do that. And there, I expect, is the problem. We seldom think to do it because we don’t see the possibilities. Mann says that she did not see the potential of her family as subject matter for a very long time because she had removed her “photography eyes,” her term for the sensibility that allows the artist “ecstatic vision,” the “intensely seeing eye” that allows the photographer or the painter or the sculptor or the director or the actor to see parts of the world as proper subject matter for art.

My takeaway from all this is twofold: (1) we need to keep our “intensely seeing eyes” open all the time lest we miss a significant opportunity. (2) When we do get a glimpse of truth or beauty we do something with it more than just jot down a note. We can use that glimpse in any number of ways to enhance and develop our own art, and if we do not, we miss the opportunity to make our work all that it could be.

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It’s All in the Details

Sunday, 31. December 2017 19:38

One of the first things that we teach beginning scene painters is that they cannot use the detail that they would if they were painting a canvas for wall display. To begin with, the nearest audience member is likely to be at least 20-30 feet from the scenery while the farthest is likely to be over 100 feet away. This shift in perception is confusing to some new painters until they understand the viewer’s perspective. Once they figure that out, they begin to realize that we are not really asking them to omit detail; rather we are asking them to change the way they think about it.

In acting training we seem to do the opposite. We ask that actors learn everything possible about the characters they are portraying, even though some of the things they learn may not be directly useful in the show. The rationale is that the more the actor knows about the character the more thorough his/her performance is likely to be. One of my acting coaches said, “When you know whether your character likes oatmeal cookies with or without raisins, you know the character well enough. Until then, you do not.” Yes, an extreme statement, but he made the point—again asking students to change the way they think about detail.

Not only is detail important, but knowing how much to apply to any particular artistic creation is critical. Like the well-prepared actor, we may know of lots of details that relate to the subject at hand, and like the well-prepared scene painter, we can then choose whether to incorporate those details directly or hold them back. This is true in every art. Too much detail can clutter the composition and prevent proper focus on the part of the viewer. Too little detail may make the work appear barren and plain or, worse, unfinished.

And it’s not just a matter of quantity. Sometimes the trick is know exactly what detail to include, and to be sure that the included detail has just the right characteristics. I know a fine-art photographer, for example, who will spend significant time and energy modifying the color of a single fingernail. Looking at some of her intermediate proofs, I have been able to see how the color choice impacts the entire image and understand why she goes to such extremes.

And she is not the only one. Both stage and film directors spend enormous time and money on effects or props or sets that are visible to the audience for just minutes (and in some cases seconds). In the minds of these directors, those details add significantly to the meaning of the piece, justifying the expenses.

The argument that a detail is too small to be of concern, especially when it’s a tiny part of a larger, more complex work simply does not hold. The fact is that detail can make or break a work of art.  Too much and the work becomes confusing; too little and the work can be bare and unfocused. In either case, the success or failure of the work depends ultimately on the detail.

We, following the examples of the directors or actors or scene painters noted above, may need to change the way we think about detail. We need to be sure that in every piece of art we produce there exists the precise detail that not only contributes, but makes the piece. I can almost guarantee that the time and effort will be worth it.

Category:Aesthetics, Creativity | Comment (0) | Autor:

Yes, Size…and Shape Matter

Sunday, 19. November 2017 22:45

As many of you know, part of my photographic practice is building grids, which consists of arranging macro-photographic squares of (usually) biological subject matter into abstractions whose forms and lines flow into each other creating a new whole. It’s a matter of seeing and arranging and has been a reasonably successful and satisfying artistic path for me.

A couple of weeks ago when I had just finished two very different grids from the same shoot, one of those freak computer accidents occurred when the file you have been working on disappears and cannot be recovered despite the presence of a recycle bin and good backups. Since I was not completely happy with the grids, I decided to look on the situation as an opportunity to tune my ideas.

So I made a new “basket”—the file in which I put all the images to be arranged and manipulated—and put 67 images in it. Then I set it aside to work on other projects. When I got time again, I opened the basket ready to put the images together and was completely startled to discover that I did not recognize some of the images. Not only that, the relationships that were instantly apparent in the old basket were nowhere to be seen. Instead there was a whole new set of relationships among the images. I was so taken aback that I just stopped and stared at the collection of images.

What had happened, I finally figured out, was that the basket I had built had dimensions radically different from those of the old basket. (There is no set size.) Since the images are set into the basket edge-to-edge, the result was a whole different arrangement of images. Thus the relationship among the images had been altered, so in order to see the relationships that had existed in the old basket, I had to concentrate much harder and keep my mind even more open to possibilities. At the same time, relationships that I had not seen before were suddenly obvious. It was almost like working with an entirely different set of images.

In all reality, I should have expected this. Four years ago, I posted “The Most Beautiful Part of the Picture is the Frame,” an article about how the framework surrounding a work of art influences the work and modifies the experience of the art for the audience. There is certainly no legitimate reason to think an intermediate step would be immune to such influences. So now the frame theory has a corollary: the size and shape of the frame influence the relationship of the internal parts; this corollary also applies to intermediate artifacts.

The implications are enormous. The size and shape of a book may well influence the impact and significance of the contents; the size and shape of the canvas may alter the meaning of a painting as well as its composition. And this seems to apply to intermediate documents as well. The size and shape of the working sketch notepad may impact the final painting or sculpture. The size and shape of the notebook on which a director or actor or choreographer makes notes may influence the nature of the resulting work since words and symbols are likely to gain or lose significance based on their position on the page and their relationship to other words and symbols on the page.

As a photographer, I have probably known this subconsciously; I constantly worry about the size of mats and borders, but the full nature of the impact of size and shape on the work-in-progress had never before been so apparent. Now I think I may have to change my working procedures, particularly as they apply to grid creation. But it also occurs to me that this “discovery” influences almost every aspect of the creative process, regardless of the genre of art, and that we might do well to consider it when we set out to create.

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When is “Good Enough” Good Enough?

Sunday, 5. November 2017 23:20

Many years ago at a theatre festival, I heard the technical director of the host school chew out his crew for improperly setting the masking. The guest director had not specified masking requirements and the crew had done the minimum. The technical director told his crew, “it may be good enough for them, but it’s not good enough for us!” And we all have heard—and probably used the phrase “good enough for government work” even if we don’t work for a governmental agency.

A related phrase is “it works” or “that works.” Tony Randall on a talk show a number of years ago was asked what word or phrase he hated; his answer was “That works.” The implication was that “that works” is the equivalent of “that’s good enough” but certainly not of “that’s excellent” or “that’s perfect.”

Do these statements really suggest a standard lower than excellence? In Randall’s view, yes. (We have no way to know whether Randall was seeking some sort of perfection or just a standard higher than “working.”) In the view of others, no.

“That works” generally means that all the pieces fit together when they have not done so before. I find that it’s used a lot in theatre, where it means, “yes, that is a moment that that is good.” It does not preclude other possibilities, for as we all know, in art, the possibilities are endless. “It works” means that we have found one assemblage of parts that is better than all the alternatives we have considered before. It’s not only “good enough;” it’s very good—maybe the best possible answer—if not, certainly a contender.

“Good enough for government work” does imply a reduced standard: according to this view, government work can be accomplished at a level lower than that demanded by the private sector. Whether this is true is not at issue; what is at issue is whether “good enough” is good enough. Is it, for starters, really equivalent to “it works?” In many cases, it is. In normal use it means virtually the same thing, albeit a bit more understated: the best among available alternatives at the moment.

And, in making art, isn’t that what we are looking for—the best among available alternatives at the moment? Of course it is.

Occasionally you may hear, “that works better,” indicating that although the best among available alternatives had been discovered, in another moment, a new, better solution was found. Again, in art the possibilities are endless, and in this case, the artist, although s/he had found a perfectly acceptable solution continued to search until something better was found. It’s the nature of artists to do that.

It all depends on where our bar is; the technical director in the first paragraph had a substantially higher bar than the director, at least as regards masking. If we hold a very high standard for our work, “good enough” or “it works” may be an understatement, but definitely means that it meets that standard. So when is “good enough” good enough? When we are willing to publish it or ship it or make it available with our name on it. If we are willing to own whatever the artistic decision is, then it is absolutely good enough. In fact, it might even rate a “that’ll do pig,” which, as we all know, is the highest praise that can be offered.

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