Creativity grows out of two things: curiosity & imagination. - Benny Goodman
You may wonder why an essay on creativity follows an essay on inspiration. After all, is there really a difference between the two? If you ask yourself this question you are not alone because I wondered about this as well while I was working on this series of essays.
In fact, I originally titled the essay on Inspiration "Creativity and Inspiration." However while I wrote this essay, I found it increasingly difficult to write about both inspiration and creativity at the same time. I found that although these two subjects are usually presented together, there are many things that separate them.
First, being creative is not the same as being inspired. On the one hand, one can be inspired and not exercise his or her creativity. On the other hand, one can be creative without being able to find inspiration. The first situation is comparable to staring at a blank canvas. The desire is there but the implementation is lacking. The second situation results in unsatisfying output, in artwork that goes into all sorts of different directions but lacks a specific and unifying source of inspiration.
Second, inspiration by itself does not necessarily result in the creation of new work. Inspiration is a spark that can potentially lead to a creative fire, metaphorically speaking. However, for the fire to be lit one has to nurse the amber generated by creativity until it becomes a raging fire. If not, this ember may die a quick death, carrying with it the hopes of our newborn inspiration.
Third, creativity carries with it certain risks. The most notable is being creative for creativity’s sake, without following a specific inspiration and without catering to the needs of a specific vision.
In other words, those two terms - inspiration and creativity - are not similar. Although they are commonly used interchangeably, they really address two separate parts of the artistic process. It is for this reason that I decided to devote a separate essay to each of them.
The Difference Between Inspiration and Creativity
The aim of creative photography is to make a visual interpretation of an experience, not just to record an image. - Monte Nagler
Inspiration is the flame that lights our creative fire. How that flame is born is the purpose of my previous essay On Finding Inspiration. What to do once the flame is lit is the purpose of this second essay Exercising Creativity.
Inspiration is the motivating factor that makes an artist want to create new work. By itself, inspiration is just that: a motivating factor, a thought, and a desire. It may be a burning desire, but it is not a physical reality.
What makes inspiration a reality or turns inspiration into a work of art, is creativity. Creativity in this regard is the logical outcome of inspiration. Creativity is what makes inspiration a physical reality. It is therefore through creativity that you will make your inspiration come to life into a work of art.
Creativity may be described as focused freedom. On the one hand, you are free to create. On the other hand, you are focused upon your work and your vision. It is a mix of two opposite directional forces in a way. In that respect, it is a challenging state to find, to experience, and to make happen. However, once you are in this state, magical things can take place that would not otherwise happen to you.
Do Not Delay Creativity
How do you find this state? It is hard to say for sure because we are not fully in control of creativity. In fact, we may not be in control at all. What we are in control of is our openness to taking advantage of the inspiration brought by the muses when they visit us, and the creative urge that follows this visit. The sooner we can give way to this creative urge, the better.
The best is to give way to this urge immediately when it takes a hold of us. To follow upon the example used in my previous essay, with the photographer sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon feeling inspired to create images of the Grand Canyon that represent his personal experience of the chasm, the best is to create these images right away.
Don’t plan to do this on a later trip. Don’t try to think about it too much. Just get to work right there and then and create the images that you have in mind right now. Don’t postpone it until a later and uncertain date. The fact is that there may not be a later time. You may not be able to come back and when you do return the inspiration you feel today may no longer be there. Exercise your creativity now, today, on the spot. Don’t delay. Don’t wait for a "better" time. There wont’ be a better time. Now is the time.
This image was created almost exactly 1 year after Playa Reflections 1 which is featured in the previous essay in this series Finding Inspiration.
When I created Playa Reflections 1, I thought I had gone a little too far in terms of creativity. However, the response to this image proved that I was on to something. This first image quickly became a best seller and was used as the cover image for my first book. It was also widely hot-linked on MySpace, although this is both good and bad.
This motivated me to go further, and one year later I created Playa Reflections 2 as a result. The inspiration for this image is quite similar to Playa Reflections 1. However, I did not want to do a copy of my first image, and thus sought to be creative in different ways. My use of a yellow tone for the foreground sand caused me to, once again, wonder if I had gone too far. However, this image became a best seller, proving that continued creativity as well as going further into my vision was the proper thing to do.
We All Have The Potential of Being Creative
Eventually I discovered for myself the utterly simple prescription for creativity: be intensely yourself. Don't try to be outstanding; don't try to be a success; don't try to do pictures for others to look at- just please yourself. - Ralph Steiner
All of us have within ourselves the resources we need to be creative. In a way, being human means being creative. Why? Because being creative is being able to solve problems in new and unique ways, in creative ways. From the beginning of mankind the ability to solve problems is one of the things that has given man an advantage over other species. I should add the ability to solve problems effectively, so that the problems do not come back. Doing so means finding new solutions to old problems. How do you find new solutions? You find new solutions by being creative and imaginative.
In other words, being creative is not something that is specific to artists or to photographers. It is not something that is used only to create original art. Being creative is something that is used in all walks of life and in all professions, whenever a new solution is necessary. Being creative is being able to bring new solutions to both old and new problems.
Being creative is also being imaginative. It is being able to think ahead, to think into the future, to brainstorm, to imagine what may happen down the road. Scientists, mathematicians, engineers and all other professions need imagination and creativity to continue growing, to push the envelope further, to create new things, to be and to remain competitive, to do better than everybody else, to visualize something that does not exist yet, to imagine this new "thing" from conception to construction and finally to implementation.
Creativity and its sibling, imagination, are all around us. As soon as we seek to create something new, no matter how insignificant it may seem, as soon as we seek to solve a problem effectively and pro-actively, we become creative by using our imagination to find new and effective ways to complete the task we set to achieve.
From there, we only need to take a small step to apply our creative abilities towards the arts and towards photography in particular. We only need to make minor adjustments in order to use our imagination towards creating photographs that are ours only, images that are new, and images that we constructed in our mind and that are the result of our unique personal creative abilities.
Liberating Our Creativity
One does not think during creative work, any more than one thinks when driving a car. But one has a background of years - learning, unlearning, success, failure, dreaming, thinking, experience, all this - then the moment of creation, the focusing of all into the moment. So I can make 'without thought,' fifteen carefully considered negatives, one every fifteen minutes, given material with as many possibilities. But there is all the eyes have seen in this life to influence me. - Edward Weston
Creativity is turning into fire, the amber that was lit by inspiration. As such creativity is fragile and delicate because if handled improperly this amber can turn into ashes rather than into a blazing fire.
A number of things can stifle our creativity and, metaphorically speaking, turn this amber into ashes. When this happens creativity becomes captive of our beliefs, or of what we have been told to believe. To use the full potential of our imaginative skills we must liberate our creativity. In fact, liberating creativity is one of the most important aspects of the creative process. It is the key to being able to exercise our creativity. Why? Because our creativity is too often held back, or "chained" to put it in a more dramatic fashion, and this for different reasons.
This situation may not be the case for everyone. However, I have found it to be the case for a large majority of people in one way or another. It was definitely the case for me. So much so that I had to spend years liberating my own creativity. Today, I credit my personal style to the time I spent and the efforts I made working towards being free to do my own work rather than copy the work of the other photographers who influenced me.
Next, we are going to explore the different reasons why creativity can be held back. We are also going to see how we can liberate our creativity.
Fear Of Failure
One is not really a photographer until preoccupation with learning has been outgrown and the camera in his hands is an extension of himself. This is where creativity begins. - Carl Mydans
To be creative, to use our imagination towards creating original art, we must do something new, something that we have most likely never done before. Doing something we have not done before carries with it the risk of failure because we have to learn how to do this new thing from scratch. For many of us, whenever there is risk, there is fear. Fear of failure is one of the main things that can stifle our creativity.
It is important to understand that there is no such thing as failures, there are only failed attempts. However, a failed attempt does not mean absolute failure. It only means that this one time things did not work.
Examples are best to exemplify this point. For example, Babe Ruth struck out more times than anyone. However, he was also the leader in the number of homeruns for a long time. Thomas Edison failed over 400 times before he found the right way to build a light bulb. When asked about all these apparent failures, Edison said that he had discovered over 400 ways to not create a light bulb. To him, these attempts were not failures. They were successes in the sense that each attempt allowed him to narrow the field of possibilities. Eventually, the one way that worked was the one that was left out of all the others he had tried and that did not work.
Success, eventually, is a state of mind. So is failure, which can be seen as success when you look at it the way Babe Ruth or Thomas Edison looked at it. You can become depressed because of your failures or you can become energized by them because you look at them not as failures but as attempts that are paving the road to success.
As an artist, you will rarely succeed on your first try. This is especially true if you are trying new ways to represent the world and to express your vision. A certain amount of trial and error is necessary, and a certain amount of failure is to be expected. If you let your failures discourage you, you will not maintain your creativity. Instead, you will be creative for some time, and then fall into depression when you fail to be successful at your first attempts.
In a way, if we follow this logic, success is the result of not giving way to failure. Success is continuing to try in the midst of repeated failures because we believe that there is a solution to the problem we are working on and that it is only a matter of time until we find this solution. In this respect failures are nothing else but valid attempts that did not materialize into the outcome we expected.
A failure is certainly a setback. It is a setback that shows the limits of our knowledge. We failed not because we are inept, or lack talent, or are incapable of success. No. We failed because we lack the proper knowledge to succeed. The solution is not to fall into depression or self-pity. The solution is to find ways to acquire the knowledge we need to succeed. The process of acquiring this knowledge is what will enable us to expand our current boundaries. Knowledge is what will make us go beyond our actual limitations.
When looking at failure this way you soon realize that failure is a door that one can decide to push open or not. One can look at the door and say, "This door will never open for me." Or, one can say, "I can open this door. I just need to learn how to do that." Failure, when looked at this way, is the opportunity to open new doors. These doors lead to a greater version of us, a version we currently ignore but whose potential is there. We just need to go and get it.
Taking the risk of stepping into the unknown carries with it the possibility that a reward awaits us once the door is opened. It carries with it the elation of new possibilities that will present themselves later on. In my experience this reward far exceeds the risks that creative endeavors bring with them.
I rarely change colors to the point that they look unlike anything that would be found in a natural setting, which is exactly what I did in this instance. What I often do is make a photograph black and white when the colors just do not work or do not look good at all.
This is what I thought of doing here, when I realized that giving a blue tone to the image would be more interesting. I also thought that the blue tone would suggest that the image depicts a night scene, since we associate night with blue tones, although in reality colors are night are rarely blue.
Moving Out Of Our Comfort Zone
A dream is your creative vision for your life in the future. You must break out of your current comfort zone and become comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown. - Denis Waitley
Your comfort zone is represented by everything that you have achieved so far and by everything that you are comfortable doing. This is your safe zone, a place where you are comfortable, where you are not taking chances and where you are not exposed to the risk of failure, ridicule, or error. All that you have achieved so far, all that you are comfortable doing, is located within this comfort zone. Your comfort zone in a way is your safety zone.
If you continue to stay within your current comfort zone you will remain at your current level of experience, achievement and knowledge. To expand both your knowledge and your achievements, you must leave your comfort zone and take a risk. The size of this risk is to some extent within your control. However, the size of the reward is proportional to the size of the risk. To put it succinctly: the larger the risk the larger the reward.
Liberating your creativity and making images you have not created so far requires leaving your comfort zone. It requires doing things that are new to you. Because you have no previous experience creating or showing these new images, you cannot predict the exact outcome of your creative work and you cannot predict people’s reactions to this new work. As we will see shortly, the most efficient way of addressing this issue is to focus on your work and push all other concerns aside.
Overcoming Creative Fear
Thinking should be done before and after, not during photographing. Success depends on the extent of one's general culture, one's set of values, one's clarity of mind, one's vivacity. The thing to be feared most is the artificially contrived, the contrary to life. - Henri Cartier-Bresson
Being overly focused on an artistic goal can be so frightening as to paralyze the artist. This is, in a sense, what happens when an artist stares at a blank canvas, unable to put paint onto it. This is also what happens when a writer experiences writer’s block and is unable to put words onto paper, or unable to type. In either instance creative fear, which is another term for fear of failure, is dominating these artists to the point that they cannot be creative in any way.
In photography, one doesn’t stare at a blank canvas. Rather, one stares at a viewfinder filled with a scene. In photography taking a photograph can be as simple as pressing the shutter release on a DSLR. However, it is still necessary to go out there in the landscape to create photographs if you are a landscape photographer or to go into the studio if you are a studio photographer. Sometimes, creative fear is so powerful that it prevents the artist even from doing that.
Because photography is a multi-step process, creative fear in photography also takes place after the photograph is taken. For example, I know a photographer who is unable to print any of his work. He is able to create new images in the field, he is able to develop his film (if you shoot digital you can compare this to converting digital captures from raw), but when it comes to printing he draws a blank and cannot do it.
How do you fix this problem? How do you stop creative fear? How do you put an end to being unable to create, print, or show your work? A very effective solution is to focus on the positive rather than the negative aspects of the process. Focus on what you are going to learn from a print review rather than on the criticisms that may come your way. Focus on the print quality you may be able to achieve rather than on the lack of it. Focus on the exciting new photographs you may take rather than on the ones you will have to discard.
In short, stop focusing on negative aspects of the art. All endeavors can potentially result in a negative outcome. However, if we focus on this negative aspect, we will get discouraged and give up even before we try.
Instead, focus on the positive aspects of the process. If you are a painter, focus on the beauty of a single brushstroke onto a white canvas. If you are a photographer, focus on the beauty of a single capture or exposure. Focus on a certain color that you love and that you want to apply to the canvas before any other color is put down, or that you want to capture in your photograph more than any other color in the scene in front of you.
Also, be playful with your medium. Give yourself the freedom to play with your subject. Playfulness may be the most effective way to remove fear because one is not acting towards creating a "masterpiece," something that entails future consequences that can be frightening in their implications because one can succeed or fail in this endeavor. Instead, playfulness does not carry a success or failure implication. Playfulness only means that we are having fun, that we are being playful, and that we are exploring what can be done and what can happen when we try this approach or that technique.
So make art a game. Make it playful and have fun with it. Rather than think about the future implications of your actions enjoy these actions at the present time. Focus on what you like in the scene you want to photograph. Do not focus on whether or not others will like your images. Focus on what you like to do. Do not focus on what others may say about your work or on what they may expect you to do. Focus on your inspiration and make it a point to express this inspiration freely and creatively.
Fear Of Critique
Critique is important but there is a time and a place for it. The creative stage is definitely neither the time nor the place. Therefore, do not seek critical feedback or commentary on your work during the creative stage of the artistic process. Your goal at this stage should be to let your creativity run free and to create new images unencumbered by critical considerations.
It is best to wait until after your work is completed to ask for feedback and criticism. For the time being, during the creative phase of your work, do the very best you can do. Once your work is completed, you will have the opportunity to show your work to others and to let them say whatever they think about your work if you so desire.
Similarly, do not worry whether you are creating a masterpiece or not. Just like criticism, this is neither the time nor place. Furthermore, this is not for you to say. It is for your audience, for the critics and for the reviewers to decide. Your responsibility at this point is liberating your creativity and producing new work.
To liberate your creativity you need to take a chance; you need to get out of your comfort zone. For this to happen it is best to push aside any thoughts concerning what others might think of your new work. To give consideration to future criticism is to stifle your creativity and make you fear that the outcome of your work won’t be pleasing to your audience. At this point this is the exact inverse goal of what you are trying to achieve. You want to liberate your creativity, not stifle it. So let it go and don’t give it any thoughts. Just focus on your work and create.
I was photographing the moon rising over White Sands when, after I completed my moon shots, I turned to my right and noticed this scene unfolding next to me. The color of the sky and of the dune where nearly similar, and the ripples in the sand mimicked the cloud formation in the sky.
I had a 300mm with a 1.4 tele-extender on my 1DsMk2 at the time. Aware that the light quality was about to disappear, I decided to not change anything to my lens setup. I had concerns that this lens combination was way too long for this image, but I did what I recommend you do to foster creativity, which is turn off your inner filter –your brain if you will- and just create an image without editing anything, without wondering if this is right or wrong, and without asking yourself what others might think. After all, if worse comes to worse, you can always delete the raw file and move on. Nobody needs to know what you did unless you decide to talk about it, which is what I am doing now.
The light and the colors vanished after I took something like 3 frames, and my desire to change to a shorter lens remained an unfulfilled desire. Back in my studio, it took me some time to convince myself that I should convert, optimize and print this image because it was unlike anything else I had done that day, or even before that day for that matter. I also wondered what title to give it, until I decided that simply titling it White Sands was the way to go. After all, for me this is what White Sands was like on that day. This is my emotional response to this scene, an unfiltered, un-critical and purely creative response.
Believing That Everything Has Already Been Done
One painter ought never to imitate the manner of any other; because in that case he cannot be called the child of nature, but the grandchild. It is always best to have recourse to nature, which is replete with such abundance of objects, than to the productions of other masters, who learnt everything from her. - Leonardo da Vinci
Another cause for lost creativity is the feeling that whatever you want to do has already been done before, feeling that you are, in effect, doing nothing else but re-doing what others have done before you. In short, your work is redundant and you are wasting your time.
Not everything has been done before. In fact, your vision is yours and yours alone. You are unlike anyone else. Certainly, at first, your steps towards expressing your vision are most likely to be the same steps that other artists have taken before you. We all have to start somewhere, and we all start pretty much from the same place: a blank canvas for a painter and a camera viewfinder for a photographer. Those are the same. What is different for all of us is what happens afterwards.
What I am trying to express here is that the logic of the "It has already been done" is a false logic. The best way I can prove it is by pointing to the contradictions that follow those who embrace it. Usually when you hear someone say, "Everything has already been done," what you hear him or her say next is "All art looks the same." Well, if indeed everything has already been done then we should be surrounded by the widest variety of art that we will ever see. We should not be surrounded by art that is "all the same".
This contradiction points to the fact that what we have here is not a statement by an enlightened person who has studied the art scene carefully and who is able to make an informed statement about it. What we have here is someone who is disillusioned by art, perhaps because they did not succeed as artists, perhaps because they listened to critics a little bit too much, or perhaps because while in school they believed what disillusioned art professors taught them.
Believing That Nobody Cares About Your Work
This is another common source of discouragement for budding artists and another cause for not feeling creative. The best way to address this issue is to look at the potential audience for your work. The number of people who inhabit the Earth is growing exponentially. There are over 6 billion people on Earth. If you think of this number as your potential audience, it is clear that it is larger than it has ever been for any artist that preceded you. Even if you reach only a small fraction of this audience, let’s say less than one percent, the numbers are still staggeringly high, higher than most of us would think at first.
There is an audience for you out there. It may be a buying audience or it may be an audience that simply enjoys looking at your work. It may be an audience of a few people, or it may be an audience of thousands or more. It may be an audience of people who like your work or it may be an audience who criticizes it. What matters is that those that do follow your work will, in effect, become your dedicated audience.
You cannot control the size and the nature of your audience. They choose you rather than you choosing them. However, you can control what part of your audience you address. You have control over who in your audience you give your time to, who you favor, who you talk to and who you chose as your friends.
My recommendation, modeled after my own approach, is to favor that part of your audience who loves your work. This is where encouragement comes from. This is the audience that will encourage you to go further, to continue your work, to grow, to improve and to reach the next step with your art.
What you want from your audience, in regards to creativity, is that this audience boosts your creativity. The only way to guarantee that this will happen is to focus on the part of your audience that is on your side, that likes your work, that sends positive reinforcement and encouragement your way and that wants to see more of what you have to offer.
Negative feedback, disillusioned audience members, or overly critical art patrons do not generate creativity. Although these and other negatively oriented individuals may be part of your audience, it is definitely not the part of the audience you want to focus on. Certainly, they will approach you and tell you whatever it is they want to tell you. That you cannot control. What you can control however is your response to their remarks. And the response I recommend is to let them speak then move on politely without engaging in an argument or a detailed explanation.
I do not photograph in black & white. I photograph in color then turn a small number of my color photographs to black and white when the colors do not add anything to the scene, or when the colors take away from the scene. A black and white image is successful, for me, when it would never have worked in color. At that time I do not miss the color and I am able to find enjoyment in the arrangement of black white and grey tones.
This image was challenging because I saw it as an opposition of forces. On the one hand there is the strong graphic quality of the dunes and the clouds. The pattern in the sand and the clouds are reminiscent of each other while at the same time they point away from each other, the sand waves pointing downward and the cloud wisps pointing upwards.
The compositional strength of the image, as well as the movement of the dune and cloud patterns, asked for an equal amount of strength in the treatment of the image contrast. In other words, the contrast had to be comparable to the composition in terms of strength. A weak contrast would have clashed with the strength of my composition.
On the other hand I did not want this contrast to be overwhelming because this often results in images that are overdone and that turn into clichés rather than engaging works of art. For this reason, I refrained from making the sky pure black and from over-exaggerating the contrast between the clouds and the sky and between the dune ripples. I let my creativity guide me more than my rational interpretation of what was right and wrong. I ended up, after several days of work, with a plethora of different files from this one image, among which I eventually selected this rendition as the one that best represents my emotional response to this specific scene.
Skill Enhancement Exercises
Nothing will give permanent success in any enterprise in life, except native ability cultivated by honest and persevering effort. Genius is often but the capacity for receiving and improving by discipline. - George Elliott
The best way to explore and liberate your creativity is to perform exercises designed to achieve exactly that. There is little about this process that is intellectual. Therefore, at this stage it is necessary to go out and photograph.
Below are three sets of exercises –A, B and C-- that I have found to be effective in this regard:
A - Breaking The Rules
My first photography teacher, Scott McLeay, had a great exercise aimed at developing creativity. When I first practiced this exercise I found that it opened the doors to ideas and images that I would not have thought about otherwise. Today, after many years, I continue to think it is one of the best exercises to develop your creativity. For this reason I chose it as the main Skill Enhancement Exercise for this essay. This is a two -parts exercise:
1 - List all the rules of photography that you believe you should follow, the rules that have been taught to you by others, the rules you made for yourself, the rules your parents told you about and so on
2 - Go out and photograph with the goal of breaking each of the rules you listed. You can either do this in one day, working on all the rules, or you can do it in several days or over a longer period of time.
I recommend you do this exercise over several days or longer. This will allow you to break a rule a day, or to break a specific rule over several days by creating a number of photographs that each represent a different way of breaking a specific rule.
B – Using Equipment That You Do Not Normally Use
This exercise will allow you to give a different direction to your work, to see things differently, or take chances and to get out of your comfort zone. It is also a lot of fun.
The list of equipment you can use for this exercise is virtually endless. Two possibilities are the Holga Medium Format Polaroid camera and a LensBaby on a DSLR. The distortion capabilities offered by the LensBaby, as well as the selective focus area that can be controlled to some extent, offer further opportunities for creative work.
C - Doing Creative Things On a Regular Basis
This practice will insure that creativity becomes part of your life on a routine and not on an occasional basis.
If you follow this advice, creativity will become something that you do naturally - not just something that you do occasionally or only when you photograph.
I found these four rocks while looking for photographic possibilities along the shore of the San Juan River in Southern Utah. I was not looking for rocks in particular, or for details specifically. In fact, I rarely photograph details, preferring to focus on the grand landscape rather than on close ups.
What attracted me were the colors of the rocks as well as their grouping. Certainly, I isolated this grouping among countless other rocks along the shore. However, I did not re-arrange them. I rarely if ever re-arrange anything in my images. It just takes too long and I never manage to make it look right. Nature makes it look right. I make it look contrived. If I re-arrange, what I photograph is my arrangement. While if Nature arranges it, I photograph Nature’s arrangement.
The preceding exercises may have given you the impression that anything goes when it comes to exercising your creativity and that the goal is to be creative first and generate good photographs second. This is not exactly true and for this reason I am adding this remark immediately following the Skill Enhancement Exercises section.
The goal is not to be creative for creativity’s sake. The goal is to be creative in order to materialize your personal vision. Eventually your creativity needs to be placed at the service of this vision.
Creativity is exploration and imagination. On the one hand, it is looking for something without knowing exactly what this thing is. If you already know precisely what you are looking for you are not being creative. You are simply trying to find something that you know exists, something that most likely others have found before you.
Creativity must be channeled otherwise it runs wild without following a specific direction, without seeking to reach a specific goal. This direction, this goal, is your personal vision. It is vision that brings inspiration and creativity together under a single roof.
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Alain Briot creates fine art photographs, teaches workshops and offers DVD tutorials on composition, printing and on marketing photographs. Alain is also the author of Mastering Landscape Photography. This book is available from Amazon and other bookstores as well as directly from Alain. You can find more information about Alain's work, writings and tutorials on his website at http://www.beautiful-landscape.com.