Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes
Art is knowing which ones to keep
1 – Introduction
In the two previous parts of this four-parts series of essays we looked first at why projects are important and second at how mini projects can help us facilitate the process of completing a project.
We are now at part three and it is time to look at how we can make our projects unique. Creating a unique project starts with creating unique images. To do so we have to learn how to generate creative ideas.
Creativity is at the core of all successful projects and it is time to study how it works. To do so, we are going to look at several techniques that will help us improve our creativity.
2 – About creativity
Creativity is a process. It does not just ‘happen,’ it has to be given an opportunity to visit us, a space to flourish and grow, and time to stay and take root. We all have an inner creativity that asks to be released but too often this creativity remains bottled inside us. To make use of it we need to learn how to discover our creativity, put it to good use and let it out. Feeling ‘stuck,’ is what we experience when our creativity is unable to come out. To solve this problem we have to uncork it and let it out of the bottle in which it has been kept so far. Only then will it be able express itself.
3 – Constraints and Creativity
Creativity depends on the context in which you work and on the constraints within which you operate. While following your artistic intuition is important, learning how to control these two variables is critical.
Many beginning photographers find that setting constraints limits their creativity. They believe that defining specific parameters for a project will reduce their creative potential. This is a myth. The fact is that constraints are freeing rather than limiting. We are far more creative when we have to work within specific parameters than when we are left to do whatever we please.
Many photographers work in technical professions. For this reason comparing art and science can be enlightening. For example, when we look at creativity and engineering what we find out is that engineers are most creative when they have to work within specific constraints. Engineers are not being creatively challenged when they are asked to complete a project any way they want, with an unlimited budget, with no constraints and with no specific purpose.
You don’t extract the creativity of an engineer by giving them a technical challenge and telling them ‘you have unlimited funds and unlimited freedom to solve this problem.’ Instead, you extract the creativity of an engineer by saying ‘here are the parameters you must work with. The machine has to do this, under these conditions, at these temperatures, it has to fit in this box, operate with that amount of power and it must cost that much to manufacture.’ It is then that creativity is unleashed. It is then that the engineers start to have fun solving the problem because the playing field, the limits they have to work with, are defined for them and they have to find ways to be creative within the constraints they must operate in.
These constraints are not really constraints. In reality they are liberating. The better we know the ‘box’ we have to work in, the more creative we are. Knowing the constraints we must work with reduces the number of variables we have to deal with. We must work with a finite instead of an infinite number of possibilities. It is this limitation that unleashes our creativity.
Constraints do set us free because they eliminate variables. If you have too many variables you can’t think properly. You need to remove most of them and leave only a few to work with in order to be creative.
Constraints are a good thing, not a bad thing. Constraints are liberating, not limiting.
The white canvas is the fear of every artist. For painters an effective solution is to see the empty space as an opportunity and not as a penalty. An other solution is to see the white space as being full in your mind and then approach the work as being the process of putting on canvas what is already present in your mind.
As photographers we don’t have to face this because our ‘canvas’ is already filled when we take a photo or open it on our computer. However, what to do with the photograph and how we interpret the subject to make it unique can be just as daunting.
In photography the ‘white space’ is not knowing what to do with the image.
4 – Creativity in the arts and the sciences
Let’s continue our comparative study or art and science by looking at what they have in common and at how they differ.
A – What they have in common
There are many similarities in the way creativity takes place in the arts and in the sciences. The following characteristics of creativity are present in both artistic and scientific activities:
– Art is experimentation within set constraints. In both disciplines we seek answers to questions, we test different sets of variables and we use specific methods. The only difference, are the tools we use.
– Creativity is a whole brain process.
– Being creative is being able to improvise. You have to turn off the brain to improvise.
– Creativity is affected by whether you are paid or not.
– Constraints define and stimulate creativity.
– Having unbridled space to be creative negatively affects your ability to be creative.
– Venues define creativity.
B – How they differ
There are also differences in how creativity takes place in the arts and sciences. The most important difference is that in the sciences the outcome is repeatable while in the arts the outcome is different every time.
Art depends on the audience, the place, the time and other imponderable variables for the outcome. Science on the other hand depends only on the method used. The audience, the day of the week, the location, etc. do not affect the result of a scientific experiment. However the same variables do affect the outcome of an artistic process.
The outcome of a scientific process is repeatable. If the variables remain the same, the result will remain the same. The outcome of creating a work of art on the other hand is different every time because art is influenced by the artist’s emotions, temperament, feelings, the audience’s participation or lack of, encouragement or critique and so on. While none of these variables have any effect upon a scientific experiment, they have a major effect upon the creation of a work of art.
Science is about reproducibility. Art is about creating something new and different every time.
Looking at the work of other artists, not just photographers, is a powerful way of exploring creative possibilities. Here this painting by Picasso demonstrates creativity through the artist’s goal which was to paint like a child when he was 84 years old.
5 – The variables that affect creativity
Several variables affect creativity, whether in the arts, in the sciences or in other fields of endeavor. Here are the most important ones:
– Creativity is affected by the context that surrounds it.
– Creativity is affected by the technology available to you.
– Creativity is affected by the tools that are available to you.
– Creativity is affected by the financial aspects of your situation: how you make a living. Whether you are paid for your creative endeavors, or whether you need to make a living some other way affects your creativity.
6 – Creativity and Psychology
Some of the factors that affect creativity are unconscious. We learn to think about creativity within specific parameters without knowing what these parameters are. The results is a set of unconscious beliefs that need to be examined in order to free our creativity and use it to its full potential.
These unconscious beliefs are a challenge that stands between us and creativity. Solving this challenge starts with finding out what are these unconscious beliefs. Below is a list of the most important ones. As you read through this list, try to find out which ones are affecting your creative impulses:
– Do you worry about what other people think of your work and of what you are doing?
– Do you direct your brain? In order to be creative you need to let it roam free and get wherever it wants. This is how you discover new ideas.
– Do you have a thick skin? Creativity depends on not being negatively affect by what people say.
– Do you explore the work of other artists that you find inspiring?
– Do you give yourself mini projects (see my previous essay)?
– Do you study with instructors who are supportive of your efforts and who know how to teach?
– Are you kind to yourself throughout the process of creating art?
– Do you give yourself the permission to create art that is yours and not what you think others want to see?
– Do you make time for creativity?
– Do you make space for creativity? Did you assign a creative space in your home or office where creativity is welcome and has room to bloom?
– Do you disregard the negative voices around you (see section 7 below)?
– Do you have fun while creating art? Fun is the root of creativity.
7 – Creativity and negative criticism
Negative criticism hurts creativity and can go as far as generating depression. I honestly don’t understand negative criticism. I am shocked at people who make only negative statements and who refuse to understand the perspective of the artist. Doing so means bypassing one of goals of art which is create a dialog between artist and audience.
Personally, I don’t understand criticism for criticism’s sake I don’t see what is the motivation behind it. Maybe it is because I don’t think that way. If I don’t like something, I don’t go talking badly about it, I just move on thinking that it is not for me and that it will please someone else.
It is important to be open to exchanging ideas and opinions. In fact you should welcome it. You should also welcome constructive criticism, meaning criticism that points to ways the work can be improved or done differently. Listening to such criticism does not mean that you will do what the critic suggests. It only means that you keep an open mind and are willing to listen to the different responses that your work generates.
8 – Creativity and bad decisions
In creativity there are no bad decisions. You never know where you are going to end up and you never know who you are going to inspire or how your work is going to affect your audience. For these reasons you don’t want to evaluate your decisions in regards to whether they are good or bad. What you want to do is create and forget about everything else. Don’t have guilt or remorse about what you are doing, don’t second guess yourself, and don’t think about what critics might say. Just create. When you create decisions only need to be evaluated in terms of creativity. The more creative your ideas are, the better.
Criticism takes place after the creative work is completed. In fact you don’t need to criticize your work yourself. Believe me, there will be plenty of people offering to do that for you!
In digital photography creativity is not limited to the image capture, it extends to the processing of the image.
Here, in addition to color and contrast changes, I warped this photographed extensively in Photoshop. The result is an image which is no longer representative of the original subject. In addition, this image no longer conform to the tenets of traditional photography because the image borders are neither straight nor square.
However, the abstract nature of Antelope Canyon, which is the subject of this photograph, lends itself to creative interpretation. So much so that I created a mini series of images from this location, each of them processed similarly in regards to color and contrast but each warped in a different way.
9 – Don’t get attached to the work
Above all, don’t get attached to what you create because when you get attached to the work you feel responsible for doing it ‘right’ and doing it ‘right’ means that you become your own censor. The minute you start to think that it has to be done a certain way you are no longer being creative. Instead, you start being directed by what you think you should do. There is an external force working on you and that force is what you believe other people will think and say about your work. When that happens you are no longer in the present. You are projecting yourself in the future by imagining what others will say. You are also living in the past because you think back to past experiences of having your work critiqued and of being affected negatively by it.
10 – Finish the work
Creative work is completed work. This means that you have to finish the work in order to fully express your creativity. You have to bring what you are doing to completion. A creative work of art is a completed work of art. An incomplete work of art stays in a corner not seen by anyone because you are waiting to complete it before you will show it. Incomplete works of art live in the future, for the day that they will be completed. They do not live in the present. They do not fully exist.
11 – Creativity happens now
Creativity takes place today, not yesterday or tomorrow. Creativity requires that you live in the present, in the minute, with no memories of the past and no projection into the future.
The less you think about the future the better. It’s a little like diving. Divers keep their thoughts as few as possible because thinking consumes oxygen. Doing so allows them to save energy and oxygen and make their dives longer.
When creating art you want to keep your thoughts as few as possible to save energy and oxygen so you can stay creative longer. Doing so will allow you to work at your creative peak. Over-thinking diminishes creativity. Creativity is at its best when it is spontaneous and impulsive.
12 – Skill enhancement Exercises (S.E.E.)
As in many of my essays, here is a set of Skill Enhancement Exercises to develop and refine the concepts I present in this essay:
A – Make mistakes
Instead of trying to be as good and as ‘perfect’ as someone else, throw all care to the wind and photograph without feeling bad about potential mistakes. Instead of being afraid of making mistakes, embrace your mistakes as creative opportunities.
B – Use a single lens
Use only one lens, either by taking just one lens with you or by using a camera with a fixed lens. Using a single lens is a technique that will foster creativity and reinforce, or initiate, creativity. It is based on one of the fundamental art concepts: less is more.
In the age of zoom lenses this exercise is often frowned upon as being either limiting or too simplistic. These criticisms are spot on because limiting the options available to you and simplifying the process of taking photographs are the two main goals of this exercise.
C – Set constraints
Set specific constraints and work within these constraints. For example, limit how much time you have to create a photograph or work on a project. Or define strict boundaries for the area you are photographing or specific characteristics for the subject you want to photograph.
D – Set a focus for your project
Setting a specific focus for your project is another way of setting constraints. Doing so gives boundaries to your project by defining what you are going to photograph. Below are some focus ideas. For each focus idea I provide three examples, each of them starting with the same letter. These examples are intentionally creative.
– A specific subject (trees, teapots, turnips)
– A specific place (Cottonwood Canyon, Carefree, Corner of Lincoln and Central)
– An idea or concept (Dreams, Daily life, Driving home)
– A diary (Today in my life, three rainy weeks, through the tunnel)
– A narrative (Journey home, June of 2012, Jackalope hunt)
– A portrait (Best friend, Bob, Bartender)
A second image from my mini series of warped photographs of Antelope Canyon.
13 – Conclusion
Being creative is based on a variety of things and describing these things was one of my goals in this essay. In concluding this essay I want to mention the four most important ones.
First, being creative means operating in a constraining environment because constraints are freeing, not limiting. Whether we are artists or engineers we are most creative when we have to work within specific parameters.
Second, being creative also means having the courage to be different, seeking difference instead of acceptance and wanting to break new ground rather than trying to be as good as someone else.
Third, being creative means desiring to do something unique rather than demonstrate the ability of doing work which as good as the masters.
Fourth, creativity education is important in order to acquire the ability to think out of the box regardless of the field you work in, be it artistic, scientific or other.
Creating art is the most effective way of learning creativity because art lends itself to exploration without any real penalty other than negative criticism. For this reason creativity is best taught through art programs that encourage artistic exploration.
Unfortunately, because art programs are being cut out, creativity instruction is diminishing or disappearing. If you did not get art instruction in school, an effective solution is to study art either by yourself of under the guidance of a mentor or instructor.
Finally, this is the third installment of this four part series on projects. The next essay will focus on Project Statements. This series is therefore still ‘a suivre’ … Stay tuned for the next essay, it is coming soon!
The Fine Art Photography Summit
Taught by Alain Briot and Jeff Schewe, and now in its 14th year, the 2016 Fine Art Photography Summit takes place in Page Arizona home of Antelope Canyon, Slot canyons, the Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell and many more world-class locations. The Summit includes field work, classroom instruction, printing, print reviews and one on one instruction and is followed by a three day field workshop to Navajoland. You can read the detailed description of this unique event at this link:
15 – About Alain Briot
You can find more information about my work, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to my Free Monthly Newsletter on my website at You receive 40 free eBooks when you subscribe to my newsletter.
I create fine art photographs, teach workshops and offer DVD tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography, How Photographs are Sold and Selling Fine Art Photographs in Galleries. All 5 books are available in eBook format on my website at this link. Free samplers are available so you can see the quality of these books for yourself.