Training the imagination

It is the imagination that makes an artist capable of going beyond anything he or she has learned about the craft and from others in the field. It’s the imagination that makes the artist create something new in his or her own work; a new idea, a new approach, a new point of view, a new effect, a personal style. A person may read all the right books on the craft, attend lectures, go to school, and yet still not be able to do anything but copy from what he or she has learn. But we all have imagination and creativity latent in ourselves and it’s possible for all to bring out and develop that potential.

A good way to train one’s imaginative faculties is through mental exercises: try to imagine different ways of doing the same thing, different ways of rendering the same subject, different applications of means and technique. When confronted with an artistic problem we may try to visualize how the subject would appear from a different point of view – for instance in photography from higher up, from lower down, from the side, from the rear. Or how would it appear if the subject would be taken farther away with a telephoto lens? What would happen if a wide-angel lens were used? What about a different type of illumination?

By investigating systematically every controllable factor which contributes to the appearance of the work of art, by patiently searching for other ways than the obvious one for solving a specific problem, by critically analyzing the result of these investigations, by making clever use of the possibilities inherent in the subject, the inventive artist creates the kind of work that makes less patient or less creative artists exclaim: Why didn’t I think of that? How could I overlook such possibilities! Haven’t we all experienced this feeling at some point? But don’t worry, though, don’t get discourage by other’s creative work, it’s all about training your imagination.

Another way to do so is exactly to study and analyse the work of other imaginative artists, much as the student artist learns by studying the work of the masters. I believe there is no artist who, in one way or another, has not been influenced by the thought and work by others. Such influences are necessary catalysts to the artistic growth and development of any creative personality. We are not talking about imitation, but influence.

How do you train your imagination? And keep it sharp every day?

66 thoughts on “Training the imagination

  1. To me, photography in general is what has trained my imagination. Until I picked up a camera I felt like I had no imagination at all and no creative side to me either. Photography has coaxed my imagination out from the place it has been hiding since I was a child when imagination came naturally :). Does that make sense?

  2. What I do is when I have a (photographic) idea is to think how I could develop it in an opposite way. If first idea is to shoot with a normal lens I do that, than I try to use a wide and compare the two shots. Or to introduce a “small” technical mistake, underexposing or overexposing and evaluate the result. But most important is to see what other have done: books and exhibitions are very useful. And combine the feelings I get from these with experiments: if I visit a french impressionist museum I think how would they have taken a photo, how could I do that following their ideas. And trying everyday to make a small change compared to what I did the previous day, like wearing my watch on the wright instead on left, going shopping by a different way even if longer, eating something different…hmm, it’s a long way the road to phantasy…

    1. The opposite approach is always an excellent way to expand the creativity. And getting inspire by other artists is indeed boosting the inspiration. I think your way of making small changes even in daily life is a great idea. That is way to keep oneself from mental and creative stagnation.

  3. I so agree Otto! Influence vs imitation. Influence is infinite where imitation is so limited and what all the schools teach! So well put as always, to see things from a more interesting perspective and incorporate the properties of the entire image, makes for more visually interesting art.

  4. A lot of photographers influenced me when I was younger. The one who I most tried to emulate was Karsh. He was brilliant. I would scour his photos to see where every shadow and every highlight lay. I never tried to copy his work but it certainly influenced me.

  5. I’m midway writing a similar blog post myself about creativity versus imagination. There are so many books and ideas and techniques about creativity, yet it is the nebulous concept of imagination which young children, unschooled in any methods, produce wonderfully inventive ideas. Picasso nailed it when he said ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up’

    1. The Picasso quote is one of my favourites. If we only could learn from children or delearn ourselves when we grow older… Yes, there are indeed many books about creativity out there, some really excellent ones and a lot of mumbo jumbo. If you have come across some of the excellent ones, I wouldn’t mind knowing. Did you ever post your writings about creativity versus imagination?

  6. it is easy to get caught up in comparing oneself to others and feeling our own creative works pale to theirs…i find not only working to avoid comparing but as you say, studying other great artists and trying the opposite of whatever we actively working on. also, your commentator Andy wrote about the creative imagination of children, and looking from their point of view, i think, is a good place to start. 🙂

    1. I think comparing work is a creativity killer. We can be inspired by others but if we start to feel inferior or less creative we are strangling the muse. The point is to have fun and expand our creativity. I am totally with you on this.

  7. Thanks Otto, this is wonderful timing. Just what I needed to remind myself to have my daily “stretch”. I do this by seeing what is there in the ways that you describe then turn it up a notch, such as look at something from different points of view. It is fun to go and take photos right outside my door and “see” in a new way. I try to practice this “re-framing” in my emotional and thinking life as well, but gently, so I don’t burn out.Another fun project is to take as many quick pictures as I can of the same object in a certain space of time. We did the same in drawing class years back..I need to allow myself to be inspired by others and get my fears and perfectionism out of the way so that I don’t freeze and give up right from the get-go.It doesn’t have to be my best, just do it!The Picasso quote above happens to be on my e-mail signature.Happy shooting! Jane

    1. Limiting yourself in space and time is always a fun exercise. It’s quite astonishing how much you can force yourself to vary when you narrow down the options. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  8. Love the “heart-mind connection” in the photo. I remember a quote by an elder at a healing circle, “the longest journey you will ever take is the journey from the head to the heart”.

  9. Something that helps train the imagination is looking at different photos, from magazines or newspapers and try to make connections among them, even if they are weird, it doesn’t matter, that’s what triggers imagination.

  10. I keep an “inspiration” folder on the desktop of my computer where I house every image that causes an emotion reaction. I browse them often and these images push me into new directions. Maybe it’s a texture, an expression, color or composition that grabs. I try it my way, paired with an idea or notion that might be swimming around in me. The result looks nothing like the inspiration, but it the “inspiration” image stretches my borders. As always, a thought provoking post.

  11. Another suggestion for your readers Otto…try photographing in a genre that you really dislike. There’s nothing like working out of your nice comfortable box to get the creative juices flowing, in fact most professional photographers do it constantly. And if the images are crap, don’t stop, do it again (and again) until you achieve a result that you are reasonably content with.

    1. You are so right, George. We all need to step out of that box more often than we do. That’s the way to expand and find new ways to be creative. Thanks.

  12. You write write words – again, Otto.
    Two things I can say that ALWAYS has trained and help my imagination are:
    – experiencing and being in nature (I have been working inside for many years before I became a gardener – and had found the BEST job for me 🙂 )
    – Being together, talk, play, experience – with other curious, open, happy, humorous, minded and creative people: THAT tickles my imagination.
    I have just yesterday seen the documentary “Searching for Sugarman”:
    IT has IT ALL: joy, music, creativity, curiosity, excitement, tears, surprise, hard work, critical eye, great images and – modesty. Watch it!:

  13. Before reading this post, I put up my photos for today’s 365 that I’m involved with. I experimented with different settings on my camera and got a bit of a surprise…one that I like. But I think that’s what it takes, like you say experimenting with different ways of doing something. And going out with camera in hand every day to take a photo of the mundane in a different way is an amazing exercise.

    1. When you are experimenting, often you will come back with nothing at all. Other times you get back with a handful of wonderful surprises. Every time, though, you go outside the usual path you learn and expand.

  14. Interessant lesning, som alltid! ; )
    Jeg har nylig vært på reise i Yunnan, sammen med meg var en svært dyktig fotograf. Vi fotograferte de samme menneskene og stedene. Så det var ikke til å unngå å sammenligne… For meg var det litt nedtur å se hennes bilder – SÅ mye bedre enn hva jeg fikk til! Etter å ha lest din tekst tenker jeg litt annerledes på det! ; )
    Takk for at du deler så raust av din erfaring og kunnskap!

    1. Som jeg skriver i en anne kommentar lengre oppe, kan det være ødeleggende å drive å sammenlikne seg selv med andre. Det som er viktig er å ha det more og så hele tiden utvikle seg.

  15. Your posts always get us to think, and not just a quick smart answer in this comment box, but for a long time after we’ve left your blog and I thank you for that.

    I’ve never gone to photo school. When I’m clicking the shutter of my little camera I sometimes know exactly how I’m going to frame it, but most time I dither – should I photograph it from underneath, should I be far away, should I take a close up or crop it later – and that’s when I wish my buddy Munchow was there with me explaining why I should take the photograph just so.

  16. Great post…I could probably spend a lot more time training my imagination than I do. The “photo a day” challenge I do has helped me with learning to be a bit more creative this year.

  17. Influence and emulation, perhaps? This definitely goes far beyond imitation. They both imply a deeper understanding of the inspiring artist’s craft, purpose, and perhaps inspirations.

  18. I constantly remind myself of Elliott Erwitt’s comment, ‘Photography has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them’. Of course, he meant much more than changing the angle of view, although that is often very helpful.

    1. Elliot Erwitt has his very special way of seeing things. And yes, the quote hardly refers to angle of view, but more to the photographers vision.

  19. Whenever i approach a photo session I try to imagine and conceive before hand what it is I want to capture and how I want me end product to look. I find imagination and creativity go hand in hand but for me learning (where it be from reading books, attending a workshop or working with other photographers) enhances my creativity.

  20. I think by reading, I keep my imagination sharp. I love reading interesting books or even funny books, with a twist of cleverness.

  21. I find the analytical approach helpful by refreshing myself on fundamentals and doing as much as I can. Making mistakes and experimenting (creativity?) is important.

  22. You really inspire me to think differently, Otto. I’m getting up early in the morning, a day off from work, and I’m taking my camera to a favorite botanical garden. I have a pass for early access, and I’m looking forward to seeing what I might do differently! I think about stretching my creativity very differently because of your encouragement. 🙂 As always, thank you!

    1. I hope the new way of looking at the botanical garden brought back some positive surprises and maybe even a new way at looking at photography. Thanks for your comment.

  23. I usually bring my camera with me every where I go and some times just seeing somthing that catches my eye can flip on the switch to my creativity. I also think we are inspired by other people or other mediums to think outside of our own boxes. It’s interesting when I take photos with another person to see what their eyes are falling on. I’m also somtimes really surprised at moving behind somthing or around somthing can really change the whole photo. Also taking photo’s outside my own comfort zone. like photographing people or buildings or city art. :+)

  24. This is very informative. I love to see how others tackle a subject or develop a perspective on a common item… Keeps the mind fresh. Thank you for checking in during the Hurricane… your kind wishes were appreciated! 🙂

  25. My world of photography has been a bit limited with only a point and shoot camera however I never have let it stop me from trying to achieve what I see with my eyes eye using different angles and lightening the challenge is getting my camera to capture what I see or visualize. Visiting other writers and photographers have always inspired me to try harder to be more creative not in copying them, but knowing inside myself the vision is there I just need a little boost to get it flowing. Most my photos are nature and there are often shots I have tried to capture, but don’t get what I saw. So as time rolls around I try again. It’s such a wonderful feeling when you finally get what you envision. That’s often what keeps me going.

    1. Nothing wrong with a point and shoot camera. It can capture just as interesting pictures as any other camera. Yes, there are some limitations, but as long as you learn them and work around them, you are as good as anybody else. Great to read about how you keep yourself boosted and going.

  26. Otto, you always provide us so much to think about by sharing your knowledge with us. I believe training the imagination has a lot to do with the dedication a person has towards that creative process. If a person is not dedicated to the task he is going to perform, then rather than trying to get something new out of the task, he will think about doing it in the normal way so that he can get the final product as per the requirement only. So although the job is done but I hope it can never be unique or interesting. Because to create something new, the only thing required is vision and pure dedication towards the job. And that is where the importance of training the imagination lies.
    As always thank you for sharing your knowledge!

    1. Dedication, imagination and creativity does indeed go hand in hand. Without dedication none of the others will show up. You are absolutely right, Arindam.

  27. having just returned from two weeks of travel through ecuador, it is nice to kick back and enjoy posts like yours that prompt self analysis. one of my traveling companiions commented that it appeared that everywhere i looked, i saw creative possibilities and often acted on them. that is so true, and i told him that sometimes my biggest complaint is ‘how to turn it off’ – they eyes never stop working. every where i look, my mind/psyche immediately breaks down the scene into the easiest way to draw it.. the eye connects splotches of matching colors: orange shirt/connects with orange flowers, connects with a splash of orange in a table cloth or someone’s scarf… i confessed that sometimes i wish i could just see things like everyone else. i realize that this is also a gift that takes years to perfect, and usually i am not aware that it’s happening – it’s just part of how i see.

    inspiration is everywhere for me, though it came poco a poco – a little by little. i still remember long ago when seeing a large unpainted canvas or expensive sheet of hand-made watercolor paper gave me stage fright; i stared at it for weeks before finding courage to begin. now i embrace large unpainted areas and jump straight in and start drawing/painting.

    with way too many images from the past two weeks, i am procrastinating the task of going through all of them. i also know that many laughs are in queue, and once i begin, i will most likely work nonstop until fatigue forces me to stop!

    as always, i treasure your posts!


    1. I think you are blessed with a very special gift – even so much that it’s almost an annoyance to you – something the rest of us have to push ourselves towards all the time. It’s always inspiring to read you comments – and your own blog.

      1. For every split second when I am aware of being irritated, there are minutes or hours of my awareness of how lucky I am.
        Your posts always inspire, and I am still amazed at your incredible gift of critiquing others photographs. I read many of the critiques earlier today, and you put your entire being into each one, with sensitivity and a wealth of knowledge. You are a good and decent and very talented man, and the world needs more people like you! Z

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