Like Roots to a Plant

A couple of posts ago I wrote about a photograph that I first had dismissed as nothing, only later to find a way to bring out its inherent artistic quality (Blessing in Disguise). Back then the post was about not getting blinded by what might look like a mistake in the first place. The post resulted in many inspiring thoughts as well as interesting feedbacks. Particularly one comment made me want to expand on the thought process behind in principal any creative art form, and more specifically the apparent conflict between craftsmanship or technique on one hand and creativity on the other.

For me technique in relationship to creativity is like roots to a plant. In most cases a plant won’t survive without some kind of a root system, even though the roots themselves aren’t «showing up» like the rest of the plant – thus don’t seem to be important – and don’t need to. Still some plants somehow manage to blossom without much of any root at all and draw nutrition in some other way. So it is with artists. Some are able to work inspiringly without much technical knowledge at all but for must it surely will help and boost their creative process.

The comment I initially referred to, came from Katrien Steenssens. She wrote: «Why should photography be locked in that golden cage of sharpness and so called perfect exposure? – nothing wrong of course with happily living in that cage – I can appreciate and enjoy its often amazing photographs very much – but I resist ‘photography’ being fenced in – pictures that tick, that’s what matters». She is of course completely right. In the end it is indeed pictures that hit us in one way or another that stand out and make a difference. If the creative process becomes limited by technique, then the outcome is definitely fenced in. Katrien Steenssens has a very valid point (and by the way if you haven’t checked her blog halfpasthere, I strongly recommend it. It’s full of amazing art work) .

This said, I still think technical knowledge is an asset, not a limitation. When you know what possibilities you have, you have more keys to play with, and you don’t need to depend solely on luck or some divine inspiration. Again if you don’t let it limit yourself. I have many times written about the necessity to let go, to lose control, take chances or just experiment in the creative process, but I don’t see this as a contradiction to learning the craft.

It’s still a paradox of the creative process. We wish to be spontaneous; we wish to be free and even joyful in our creative expression. Yet, the greatest freedom comes through discipline, a rigorous approach to one’s work and craftsmanship. Only after learning the mechanics of the craft and fully engaging the process of our work with our bodies, hearts and minds, can we hope to be truly creative.

Examining the difference between the artwork of children and adults perfectly illustrates this point. Children are marvellously creative and imaginative, approaching their projects with an effusive, innocent and highly spontaneous energy. However, their work lacks rigor, technical mastery and conceptual strength – without indicating their work is less for that reason. Experienced adults, on the other hand, cultivate critical discernment and a mastery of their medium, learning to appreciate the benefits of sustained efforts of the long term. Unfortunately most adults also lose the child’s spontaneity and innocence in the process of growing up. Ideally, when an adult can integrate the spontaneity and unselfconscious expression of the child’s mind with discipline, wisdom and depth of the adult personality, a true fullness of expression may be achieved.

In Greek mythology, Eros and Logos represents the two poles of experience, both vital to the creative act. For the argument here, we may view Eros as the raw energy of our enthusiasm and passion, and Logos as the craftsmanship, the necessary structure and form, the rigor and discipline of the artists. We need both. As artists we stand between these two opposing forces which we much negotiate in the process of our creative work.


75 thoughts on “Like Roots to a Plant

  1. Hi,
    A great comment from Katrien very well said. 🙂

    I love how you used Eros and Logos as an explanation, brilliant, and I totally agree.

  2. Inspiring post once again. You always analyse the process of creativity so deeply and share some really important points with all of us. This post was indeed very important for me. When I started writing seven months earlier, I have very little knowledge of technicality of this creative process. I will not say now I have mastered this art form of writing, but what is important for me is that, each day I am learning something new. God has given us something unique to be good enough to be in a specific field. But we can’t nourish that talent with out learning the root of that process.

    As always thanks for this wonderful post. 🙂

    1. You have a very important point, my friend, and that is that any creative person needs to continue learning, to be able to develop both his or her craft and vision. This is an ongoing process. They day we stop learning is the day we stop being creative.

  3. I very rarely discard a picture because I just don’t know what I might be able to make of it sometime in the future. That might explain why I have over 70,000 pictures. Fortunately, I do have them all named and cataloged.

    1. When you archive starts to grow big it is indeed important to have a system so that you are able to find pictures from the past. In fine words it’s called digital asset management – or DAM, and books have been written about.

  4. Being Over critical with ones self discrimination in relation to creativity will only hinder the imagination and freeze the inspiration to think outside the box. As a novice, I have also found using the sounds of nature around me in my immediate environment that inspire to be creative,
    ie: The wind blowing through the trees, The calling whistle of a bird, it may not be these individual
    things that I photograph but something else I may see out the corner of my eye as I look for the sounds.

  5. Brilliant post, Otto. I love the Eros and Logos reference. I inevitably give the “craft and creativity” speech to my music composition students, they usually err on one side or the other and the trick is helping them find the balance. Your point about having the technical skill in order to have more choices is so well taken; I often find that students are afraid of “losing themselves” when they study formally, when actually the opposite is true. The craft hones the creative vision, as you have so elegantly discussed. Thanks for a wonderful post.

  6. well you can tell that i look forward to the blurred mistake that speaks to me, and i doubt i could ever be ‘fenced in’ by the need to be a good photographer… but all of your pictures are just lovely, mistake or no 🙂

  7. Yes, opposites. There is a place for everything, and opposites contrast and compliment each other whether in the same piece or completely different work hung side by side. Love it all.

  8. One time I had a conversation with a teacher from University of California in San Diego. He believed a student didn’t need any training in the basics of art. He said the student will create something, then, when he or she doesn’t know how to do something he’ll look it up and learn how to do it. I disagreed for the same reason you said, One needs to have some technical knowledge behind his belt. Then,with this knowledge, his creative efforts will be more powerful.

    1. I do the same – never delete any photos, for two reasons. It takes time and – as you point out – I never know what may become of any picture later on. Thanks for the link to the Digital Journalist.

  9. i don’t like my photographs to be overly sharp and i see the beauty of a blurred frame. we should all find our own balance and not imitate one another.

  10. I think illustrating your point with Eros and Logos is quite helpful! I really desire greater technical ability so that I feel more freedom in creativity, rather than envisioning an outcome, but later feeling disappointed with the result. I purchased a camera “upgrade” as my birthday present to myself and for the moment there is a steep learning curve, but I’m committed to practice! I always appreciate your encouragement towards a more polished effort with creativity always in the forefront! Debra

    1. Fortunately handling the technical part of photography is relatively easy and something everybody can learn – even if the learning curve feels steep in the beginning.

  11. Wonderful post Otto. Photography (and any creative medium) is very subjective and open to interpretation. As artists we have a vision and we convey that vision through our art. Our creative process and output shouldn’t be inhibited by the preconception of “what it should be.”

  12. Superb post Otto. I too love the eros and logos reference. There is a member at our club, who is hell bent on sharpness, almost to point of oversharpening in photoshop. I feel this ruins an otherwise, good image.

  13. Nicely done, Otto. I agree. My thoughts have always been that as long as you have a good “foundation” (you used roots), you can build what ever you can imagine.

  14. Another fantastic post on the creative process! I always feel validated when I read your thoughtful and well formed thoughts. So funny, this morning after reading it my husband, unprompted, went off on a tirade about how you can look at a photo now and not know if it was doctored because of all the software out there. He was upset. He is an engineer and knows how to use a camera, all the technical stuff. I don’t, I come from the point and shoot, self taught artist school of thought. I said to him, “Well, the point is to create an image that grabs the viewer, no matter how you get there, I like the software that can save an otherwise unappealing photo. He became very belligerent to me over that. He took a photo over the weekend of a mother duck and 13 babies, but did not realize he was in sepia mode on his camera. I asked him why he was in sepia mode and he did not realize he was. He thought it was ruined, a “mistake”. 😉 I told him I thought it looked “sweet” in that tone. After opening it on my computer I did not like the colors and used “software” to make it into something I thought was easy on the eye and nice. I totally agree with you Otto! Thank you!

    1. It’s quite amazing how we are able to get stuck in our own mindset. I can only agree with you; whatever makes a good picture. But I also understand you husband, it is very irritating when something you have used you whole life to master, suddenly has becomes as easy as a click of a mouse. I have been there myself…

  15. I really like this post. It reminded me of my own creative tendencies. For the past few years, it’s been an all out free for all, just embracing and celebrating what comes along through divine inspiration. However, more recently, I have experienced the joy of allowing that freedem, yet harnessing it through technique and commitment. I find using both gifts, gives me more of a creative high than I ever thought possible… which is manifesting into a greater enjoyment of my day to day life as well as what I seek to create.

    Thanks for your thoughts and have a lovely day,

  16. A very thoughtful and intelligent post, Otto. I like your comparison of the child’s vs adult’s approach to art, and also the Eros/Logos analogy. Sometimes I get so caught up in the seriousness of trying to master the technical aspects of photography that I lose that childlike enthusiasm and joy of it. Perhaps that’s why I was so happy with the outcome one day last week, when I accidentally left my dSLR at home and had to use my iPhone (i.e., toy) camera instead. Since I couldn’t possibly make “serious” photos with that, I just let myself have fun, and was pleasantly surprised by the results. But I can also see that I was using techniques I’ve learned along the way, even if I wasn’t consciously thinking about it. Now, to bring that sense of play along when I have my “real” camera in my hands!

  17. This is again an interesting post. Personally I’m one who believes that you have to know the rules in order to be able to brake them with success. The same applies for tech. knowledge. And yes, a photo to be good does not need to be sharp as a knife. it depends on what and how the photographer communicates. Since your post about mistakes I’m trying to “make mistakes” on purpose, not so easy as it seems…

  18. You know man, this mad me think about when I first started. I wanted to learn all the technical aspects of this and that. It was interesting as a knowledge gaining pursuit, but now… I find that I don’t really care. I think it better – and less stressful – to just do what feels right. Sometimes, that feeling of rightness can often take months, or even years when it comes to an image you already shot 🙂

    1. At the same time you have already learned the basic which makes it much easier to express the right feeling, even if you don’t care about technique any more.

  19. I have always been told the same as one of the previous posters wrote – you have to know the rules to effectively break them. It’s an interesting argument and I think a debate could be made for either side. For me, however, art shouldn’t be about limitations based on rules. Sometimes the most interesting pieces break the rules and don’t conform to standards. Sometimes those are the works that are able to move us emotionally where other pieces of art have failed. Nice post! 🙂

    1. You know for me technique is not about rules, but about possibilities to express your ideas. Otherwise I totally agree, the best pictures often breaks the rules that the established society has laid down.

  20. Thank you Otto– Your thoughts on this and the discussion points/replies are like being in the best grad class today!! Artists’ seminar! We used to call that moment ‘being in the moment’ or ‘the Zen of creativity’ -where the critical mind quiets, the ability and resources combine, and soul connects with other. And the viewer is brought in on the experience -ahhhhhh
    Blessings to you ,dear Otto! Beth

  21. A concept was presented in an interview I once read:

    A Jewish author’s wife become quite concerned that her husband had his nose continuously in the Bible. She worked up the courage to ask him about this disturbing interest. He told her he was writing about Christians. If he didn’t understand the root and base of their belief system, he wondered, how could he write about their lives?

    I think this was Leon Uris in preparation for writing Trinity.

    An outcome can be steeped in knowledge without knowledge being obvious. If know-how is demanding attention, essence, suggestion or sensuality risks being robbed.

  22. Great article! I loved the insight and also the advice given . Additionally, your writing style is very fun to read. If you have enough time please take a look at my new webpage and let me know what you think.

  23. hello, munchow,

    “the greatest freedom comes through discipline, a rigorous approach to one’s work and craftsmanship.” 🙂

    i imagine this is similar to blogging where the human id and the conscious part blend to create wonderful expressions of the individual blogger – his interpretation of the world and his location in it, no matter how blurred, confused or indeterminate (still) they may be. ^^

    have a good day! 🙂

  24. Wonderful thought-provoking post. I agree with you… we need the best of both worlds. The challenge is to hold onto the creativity and freedom of the child within us. But it’s important to know the rules before breaking them.

  25. I love when you find an old piece of art (whether that be photo, drawing, etc) and realize how magnificent it was, even though at the time you may have dismissed it. Lovely surprises!

  26. En lite suddig och drömsk bild, den väcker tankar. En bild behöver inte vara klar för att vara vacker. Den här bilden bevisar det!

    Jag fotograferar mest djur, kaféer och landskap…

    Ha det bra

  27. Thank you for visiting and commenting Otto, it was greatly appreciated.

    Some interesting thoughts in your post, and any that discuss photographic “rules” are very welcome. On the other hand having viewed Katrien Steenssens’ blog, her comments were hardly surprising…!

  28. I got even more wisdom from you after reading this entry. I like hearing from people who have walked further down roads of creativity and experience than I have because their stories both lengthen and strengthen my stride in my own journey. I love that you listen to the words coming from within your own photography. Thank you for sharing from where you have come and from where you are going. It’s great stuff.

  29. I love looking at children’s artworks and then asking them to tell me about their creation. They are just not self-conscious at all and don’t find it difficult to express how their artwork came to be. Isn’t it a shame we ‘outgrow’ that stage of our lives only to actually, go backwards.

  30. I like your Eros and Logos comparison. I remember a few months ago when I posted a “blurry” picture on my blog and I wasn’t sure if people would like it. You came along and said it was a great picture because it added a “dreamy” effect (something like that, I forgot your exact words). Great post and lots of words of wisdom!

  31. You’ve given us more helpful tips. Learning the rules are important, but why not color outside the lines once in a while and see what happens. We might be pleasantly surprised!

  32. your photo looks like a moving picture of the wind peaks, and poetic light. just the moment the wind brushes the trees, The branches stretch upwards to get as much light as possible.

  33. this line:
    “We wish to be spontaneous; we wish to be free and even joyful in our creative expression. Yet, the greatest freedom comes through discipline…”

    and this
    “Eros as the raw energy of our enthusiasm and passion, and Logos as the craftsmanship, the necessary structure and form, the rigor and discipline of the artists.”

    What’s the difference between a blurry photo or an out of focus photo?

    1. A photograph out of focus is only one way for it to be blurry. Another ways is by long exposure when the shaking of the camera renders the picture blurry. There are still other means to blur a photograph, such as by using lenses with poor quality – or no lens at all as in pinhole photography, by putting objects in front of the lens – it could be a softening filter or just photographing through foliage out of focus – and finally there are numeral ways of blurring the picture after the fact for instance in Photoshop. All the different kinds of blur have different graphic and visual qualities.

      1. Thank you for explaining this to me Otto. I didn’t know that you could blur a picture in Photoshop! I hope to take a workshop with you one day…

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