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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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Get Out of Your Head

Monday, 16. May 2016 2:59

Actors and directors are taught to analyze characters and plays, then to analyze how the character fits into the play. Photographers are taught to analyze the shooting situation in order to come up with the right combination of lens, shutter speed, aperture, and composition then to master the complexities of post-production whether that be the technicalities of mixing chemicals and using them at the right temperatures or understanding the myriad of controls in Photoshop. Other arts require similar combinations analytical and technical. No wonder artists have a tendency to spend so much time in their heads.

This is all well and good, some would say, because when a person is in his/her head, he/she is in the moment which is right where the artist is supposed to be. Except that’s not quite true. When an actor is analyzing a script or consciously constructing a character, he/she may be now but certainly not here; he/she is in the world of the play, which may well be a universe away. The photographer may be in even worse shape with regard to the here and now: he/she may be analyzing light conditions for tomorrow or even next week in some other location, so he/she is neither here nor now.

The problem can be compounded in that once an artist gets into his/her head, he/she may not voluntarily come out. The analysis function may take over. The results are likely to be processes that are technically correct and not very inspired. And there are other dangers.

The first danger is over-thinking whatever is being created—the analysis never stops and so performance/artifact becomes over-intellectualized and not very interesting. In the worst cases, overthinking can lead the artist not only to a cerebral process, but to confusion as well. It is far too easy to become lost in the labyrinth of conscious metaphors, thought-out connections, intellectual allusions and meaning.

The second phase of overthinking is second-guessing. Was path A the right choice, or should we have taken path B? We have no way to know, and we begin to worry about it. And then we begin to wonder about other choices we have made, and that leads to worry which leads directly to second-guessing every decision we have made during the entire creative process. Doubt reigns; creative progress is stopped.

And a third danger is that in the head of an artist is where the Monitor lives. You know, that voice that keeps telling us that we are not good enough, that our work is somehow lacking, not up to the mark, and certainly not excellent. This is the voice that keeps suggesting that we just might be frauds and because of that will be caught out and called out which will then lead to public or at least semi-public humiliation and why don’t we just quit now and save ourselves all the embarrassment. When we spend too much time in our heads, the voice speaks louder and louder; after all, we are living in his/her domain.

The fact is that art does not depend solely on logical choices. Rather it depends on instinctive, intuitive choices. These are choices that we make with our whole being, not just the rational mind. Not only do such choices have to seem correct intellectually, but they must feel right as well.

So, yes, we must do the analysis and the calculation and make the proper technical choices. But then we need to trust that those choices are the correct ones, set our logic aside, and allow ourselves to operate in flow. We need to stop thinking about our art and just do it. We need to get out of our own heads.

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Addicted to the Creative Process

Monday, 5. October 2015 0:13

Theatre, I often tell students, is a drug. Once you’re addicted, the only choices you have are to keep feeding your habit or go through a very painful and complex withdrawal. Those who succumb often embrace the drug and obsess over it.

This was brought home to me over the last couple of weeks in talking to two different actors about addiction-related matters. One, a method actor, was concerned about a role that he had taken might lead him to a negative mental place. So we spent a couple of hours devising ways to deal with that likelihood, arriving at what I think will be a successful procedure. His vacating the role because it might be unpleasant or even dangerous never occurred to either one of us. One does not simply say “no” to one’s addictions.

The second actor was concerned about how his artistic career decisions, i.e. which roles to go for, which graduate schools to consider might impact his partner, another actor. He said, “I know how I am. Once I start, I won’t stop.” Although momentarily in remission, he’s addicted, and while he might toy with the idea of giving it up, he’s not really serious about it. The relationship will have to accommodate his artistic needs or fail.

There are, of course, other addictions in theatre. There is the fame addiction, which, so far as I can determine has very little to do with anything artistic. There is the “applause addiction.” This is literally the need to hear applause regularly. It has caused some very talented people to break off their formal education and work in the (low or non-paying) semi-professional world instead of forgoing the applause for a time to move into the professional world with a much wider and more discerning audience.

These are not the addictions from which the two actors mentioned are suffering. These actors are addicted to the creative process. They are far less concerned with applause than they are with creating full characters out of a few words in a script and a little direction. Fame is nowhere on their radar. These are people that must do shows to satisfy their creative cravings.

Addiction to the creative process is not unique to actors. All artists seem to have it. Painters have to paint; they will paint with any kind of paint on any surface available. Writers have to write and will scribble on any sort of paper that is about. Photographers will shoot anything any time when the creative fever is on them. Dancers are always moving to whatever music can be heard and sometimes to music that no one else can hear. They’re addicted.

Some will find other things in life to be more important and will go through withdrawal to secure those things. The rest of us, however, will acknowledge our addiction to creativity, recognize that we really have no choice in the matter, and go forward. For many of us that going forward means not only acknowledging our addiction but embracing it. And that means, for some anyway, converting the addiction to an obsession (written about earlier, here and here).

Like most other addictions and obsessions, the need for the creative process will not bring happiness or satisfaction or ease. It will not bring peace of mind. Instead, it will bring a wide range of ever-changing emotions, a constant, sometimes manic, striving, and a sense of purpose. And that’s worth having.

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The Case for Craft

Monday, 4. May 2015 0:44

Every day it seems that there is at least one article in my news feed about creativity; some days there is more than one. And since we in the US are an entrepreneurial society, I find my email full of announcements for this or that seminar or webinar or workshop in creativity—for a small fee. (There’s probably a future post in this.)

Let me be clear: I am certainly not opposed to creativity. I have blogged about it many times and probably will again. But what I’m not seeing in all this talk about creativity is any discussion of craft. In fact, there seem to be very few discussions about craft and the mastery of craft at all. The message is almost that creativity and self-expression are all there is to making art. This, as many of us know, is not the case. If the prospective artist does not have a mastery of the medium, then all the creativity and self-expression in the world are essentially useless.

This is an issue in a number of arts, but is more pronounced in some. For example, there are a number of photographers who use only “canned” effects to achieve their final images. These are likely the same photographers who neglect to learn all of the dials and settings on their cameras. After all, both cameras and software are very smart and can do most of the work so the photographer actually needs to learn very little. However, while images created that way might be technically quite good (exposure, shutter speed, color), they may be very much lacking. Julian Calverley in an interview about professional photographers shooting with iPhones, notes “Just because you own a nice camera, doesn’t mean you can take a great shot. Composition, lighting and understanding a subject are things that will always remain.” Calverley also notes that the photographer needs an eye for a good shot and lots of skills to make that shot possible. Craft.

In another field, actors who achieve some measure of success early on often rely on whatever skills they may have developed or show an extraordinary devotion to one particular school of acting. The result is that their acting quickly goes stale because they are essentially one-trick ponies who demonstrate little inclination to develop their craft in different directions, or sometimes even to try to improve at all. If you talk to seasoned actors, men and women who make their living on the stage or in front of a camera, you will hear them discuss their “tool kit.” If you explore the metaphor further, you discover that those actors have gathered techniques from a variety of schools and sources and use ideas from the entire spectrum of available theory, including personal invention. Moreover, you will find that those actors continue to train, experiment, and hone their craft.

In an earlier post, I posited that great art requires great craft. The gist of that argument was that mastery of craft underlies all great—or even good—art. This is really obvious in arts such as music and ballet, where it is simply understood from the outset that the artist must master his/her instrument before anything approaching art can occur. Artists in other fields where a wrong note or a missed step are not so apparent should take heed. The necessity for mastery of craft is no less necessary—if that artist wants to excel.

We must learn not only to use our tools but to master our craft in every sense of the word, then work to maintain that mastery. Only then can we give full expression to our creativity and perhaps make lasting, meaningful art.

Category:Creativity, Photography, Theatre | Comments (3) | Autor:

A New Take of Refreshing Creativity

Sunday, 15. June 2014 23:34

Almost every expert on creativity will tell you that you have to take time off, probably on a regular basis, to keep your creative batteries recharged. Leisure is so important, at least according to Eric Ravenscraft writing on LIfehacker, that we should put it on our to-do lists rather than waiting until we “earn” it.

Whether it is the leisure itself that is important or the time away from work I cannot say, but every report I have seen stresses taking a break from work to refresh creativity and thus improve your art.

There are, of course, lots of choices of what to do with that break time. Some of us have tried just doing something different: getting up from the computer, easel, workbench and finding something else to fill our time for a while—maybe something as simple as taking a walk. Sometimes that works, but many times we find our minds wandering back to whatever creative problem we just left. Some of us have tried yoga or meditation, and we have discovered the same problem: our minds keep drifting and we have to constantly work on focusing them (although some would argue that focusing attention and concentration is a good skill to have).

A friend of mine who is a photographer and a writer claims that he has found the ultimate creativity-freeing technique. He did not initially set out to do this; rather, he decided that he wanted to learn to play the guitar, and to learn to read music as well. He not only took lessons, but worked with several self-teaching books. He said that while picking out a tune was not too difficult, reading music and associating the notes with the correct string and fret position required intense concentration, as did the scales that came later. Since this man is a bit obsessive, he was practicing at least an hour a day every day.

He says that after a week’s practice, new ideas for photography and writing began to appear. The longer he practiced the more ideas he had. Initially, he thought that it was one of those complimentary activity things: he was working on one art and it spilled over onto another one. Then he realized that with regard to the guitar, he was not making art; rather he was trying to develop a skill, and that what was making the real difference was that he was spending at least an hour a day concentrating on something that was not his not his main area of creativity, and that developing the necessary skill required complete involvement and the exclusion of all else.

Now he maintains that this study is responsible for his new flow of ideas. He is actively concentrating on developing a new skill that is difficult for him so his mind cannot not wander the way it might with other activities. He says the results are much the same as meditating for an hour a day. The complete occupation of his consciousness sixty minutes a day allows his subconscious to create new concepts.

So now his writing is coming more easily and his visual ideas keep flowing, and he is developing beginning guitar skills. He says that he may never “really play” in front of anyone, even friends, but intends to continue studying because he is enjoying the learning experience and really appreciates the ancillary benefits.

So, if you want to freshen you creativity, you may want to learn to play a musical instrument; there are plenty of teachers out there. Or you may want to consider some other skill-based activity, if not a musical instrument perhaps wood-carving, or furniture-making, or gourmet cooking or anything that requires complete concentration to learn the fundamental skills, and that same amount of concentration to master the activity.

My friend’s results have been so impressive that I may try this out myself. Maybe you should too.

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Professionals Practice

Sunday, 21. July 2013 22:09

Being a professional anything requires having reached a certain level of proficiency and having the ability to maintain that proficiency. In order to do that, professionals in all areas have to keep their skills honed. All professionals understand that to stay at the top of their game, to grow, requires constant information-gathering and continuous practice. It is no different for arts professionals.

First, I must clarify what I mean by “professional.” (It’s a topic that has come up before.) Some define a professional artist as one who makes most of his/her income as an artist. I am rather inclined to think that professionalism is about involvement, attitude, approach, and standards. One of the marks of the professional, at least in my mind, is that he/she works at his/her art every day. This is most often expressed as “practicing your craft” or sometimes “practicing your art.” It doesn’t matter where your income comes from; it doesn’t matter that you have a day job; it matters that you make art and that you work at it every day—not play at it, not piddle with it—work at it.

Actors talk about practicing their craft, as do singers—and they do it daily. In fact, every practicing professional performer I know practices daily. World class trumpeter Louis Armstrong said, “Even If I have two three days off, you still have to blow that horn. You have to keep up those chops… I have to warm up every day for at least an hour.” Many, even though they may teach classes themselves, take lessons—it’s another form of practice. And what holds true for performers holds true for other artists as well.

But there is some latitude in what constitutes “practicing your art.” I do not necessarily believe that if you are a photographer, for example, you must take a picture every day. But you must work at seeing every day, and on those days that you do not actually pick up a camera, you can work at a computer, or at tray in the darkroom, or mat an image, or frame a picture.

Some might argue that these last two activities don’t constitute “practicing your art.” Having matted and framed a good number of images, I have found that you can learn something almost every time you go through the process. Those tasks provide a unique opportunity to look at your work in a context very different from the norm. This allows you to see things that you might not ordinarily see, and thus learn and improve your art—which is, after all, one of the goals of practice. Some arts involve many different tasks and processes, and performing those can certainly qualify as “practicing your art” and can contribute to artistic proficiency and growth.

Some will claim not to have enough subject matter or materials to keep them working every day. These artists might consider classes, or exercises. There are painting-a-day challenges; there are photograph-a-day challenges. Both of these keep artists in practice, and occasionally produce some very good work. And they are indeed challenging. (Ask anyone who’s attempted one.)

There are other approaches as well. Renowned poet Wallace Stevens had a day job, but he managed to work at his art every day. “Stevens generally preferred to walk to work alone because he wanted the solitude to compose poetry.

We won’t all get to Carnegie Hall, but we all know the way. The problem is many of us are not sure that we want to work that hard or that unceasingly. But that’s what it takes to maintain our skills and to grow. And that’s what it means to be a professional artist.

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Creating Through Collaboration

Sunday, 5. May 2013 23:42

Although there exist legends about dictatorial theatre directors and outrageous choreographers and tyrannical movie stars, most of us who work in theatre know that the best theatre work is consistently produced by collaboration. Ensemble acting is valued above the star system. Ideas come from everywhere. Even though the director is responsible for putting everything together, musical directors, choreographers, actors, designers, cinematographers, assistant directors also contribute. No one denies the vision of the director or the producer, but there are also views that are presented by others that the wise visionary will consider. Only the foolish refuse to listen.

All photographers who shoot people understand that a really good session is the result of the teamwork between subject and photographer, as well as art director if there is one (and sometimes even the client). But the collaboration of subject and photographer is the core and is undeniable. Shooting someone who has modeling or acting training produces results that are far superior to those involving an unschooled model. It is true that some photographers can get excellent results from the untrained, but the odds are against them, and if the stakes are high, most photographers will choose skilled models every time.

Some artists claim to work completely alone, neither giving nor receiving input from others, no matter how casual. Those people, I think, are rare. We all talk to others, and often we talk to other artists. What is said cannot but influence our work. Even in the arts that appear to be the work of the isolated artist, collaboration can play a very important part. Woody Allen’s movie, Midnight in Paris, makes this point clearly, suggesting that the successes of the many artists living in Paris in the 1920s resulted from their close association and sharing (or stealing) ideas and concepts. Indeed, painters, [still-life] photographers, collagists, sculptors, animators, computer artists, and writers often explore ideas with other artists, or get ideas from conversations with other artists either in their own media or in others.

On several occasions, discussions with other artists have caused me to take a new approach to a piece of work, or consider possibilities that I had not done before. Some would say that this is just stealing an idea, but it is actually more than that. Instead of just an idea put forward, the interchange would actually lead to a different way of thinking and then to the new piece; sometimes, in the process of creating the new piece, other conversations would occur, perhaps the seeking of advice or clarification of the idea or perhaps just exploring the subject that was on my mind. There have also been occasions in working with a model when a suggestion or a particular shot or something in the dialog would lead to an idea, which might then lead to further conversation, which would then lead to scheduling another shoot specifically to explore the new idea.

While these examples bear little resemblance to the production meeting that many theatre people experience on a regular basis, they are still very valid forms of collaboration. Unfortunately, many artists deny such experiences, or do not recognize them as what they are: the sharing and embryonic development of creative ideas—creating through collaboration. If, however, we allow ourselves to recognize what is happening, we can then participate more fully in the process, expand our creative potential, and ultimately profit from it.

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