Creative Routines

If you want to stand out as photographer (as any artist, as a matter of fact), you need to put in the work. Simply put; it takes a lot of work to excel. Often enough I have written about the necessity to work hard. However, almost as important is developing good habits.

As Twyla Tharp, the dancer and one of America’s greatest choreographers, concludes in her book The Creative Habit: “It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive pattern of behaviour—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, and going the wrong way.” Tharp wakes up every morning at five-thirty and takes a cab to the gym—a trite ritual but, as she writes, “a lot of habitually creative people have preparation rituals linked to the setting in which they choose to start their day. By putting themselves into that environment, they begin their creative day.”

Most renowned artists have and continue to develop good habits for the creative work. Frédéric Chopin played Bach preludes and fugues. Beethoven took a walk with a sketchpad to jump-start his mind and jot down rough notes. Novelty in creative endeavours usually arises from routine—you have to be familiar with something before you know what is novel.

In his book The Accidental Masterpiece, Michael Kimmelman writes about the artist Philip Pearlstein—as one of many artists he highlights in the book. Kimmelman, chief art critic of The New York Times, followed Pearlstein’s process when creating one of his paintings and in so doing, observe the routine of his life. Pearlstein’s paintings are unusual and provocative. He paints in a style that has become recognizable his own. As to his work routine, though, he does essentially what most of us do whether we are in an office or teach in a school or we drive a truck or we raise children at home: he follows pretty much the same schedule, day in and day out, trying to make something constructive of it. Contrary to the myth that artists are eccentrics, leaping from one peak of inspiration to another, Pearlstein exemplifies the greater truth that most artists live as they work, incrementally, day by day, in the same way that they build up a canvas or chisel a sculpture. According to Micheal Kimmelman.

Kimmelman also refers to the artist Chuck Close who makes prints out of small, nearly identical dots. Close’s work is painstaking, repetitious, and methodical. As he says to Kimmelman: “My favourite analogy is a brick building. Stacked up one way the bricks make a cathedral, another way they become a gas station. Having a routine is what keeps me from going crazy. It’s calming. My working methods are almost Zen-like, like raking gravel in a monastery.”

Daily routines are also essential for Julia Cameron. She has inspired plentiful of artists and artists in coming by her book The Artist’s Way. The book describes a program for how to open up the creative self and become more in touch with one’s muses. An essential part of her program is what Cameron calls The Morning Pages. As the first think every morning, you sit down and basically empty you mind onto three pages of handwritten notes. The routine will help your artistic development and spur the creative drive.

Good habits create space for creativity. It frees up your mind and inspiration, when you otherwise might get bugged down by the mere thought of what could end up becoming insurmountable chores. Again, to quote Twyla Tharp: “Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this? The ritual erases the question of whether or not I like it. It’s also a friendly reminder that I’m doing the right thing.”

One way of developing good habits for a photographer is doing what the photographer and teacher David Ulrich calls Your Daily Record. In many ways it’s similar to Cameron’s Morning Pages, except instead of writing it encompasses photography. Ulrich describes Your Daily Record in his book Zen Camera (which I reviewed in my post Zen Camera).

The baseline for Your Daily Record is acknowledging that it’s imperative to photograph regularly and frequently if you want to strengthen seeing, improve your ability to discover potential subjects and become a better photographer. You need to develop photographic habits. Your Daily Record is similar to a free-ranging journal of thoughts and impressions—like Morning Pages. You let go of conscious thoughts on how you ought to photograph and let the unconscious mind connect directly with the world around you through the camera. Ideally, you dedicate time for daily shooting. It doesn’t have to be time solely for shooting; use off time if you have a change. Shoot while you go for your daily walk, or shoot while commuting with bus or train, or during your lunch break. Now just see and record what you see with you camera (or cell phone). Don’t worry or think about making good photos. These are only sketches. Take photos of everything you see and that strikes you enough to make you become aware of it. Photograph anything and everything that ignites any kind of response or resonates with you. Just captured images without thoughts and any worries about composition, light or technique.

Reviewing the images is just an important part of Your Daily Record as the shooting itself. This is how David Ulrich describes this second part of the process: “Organize your photos and view them daily. You can do this at night or odd times throughout the day when you have a free moment. You want to look for recurring themes and core forms or shapes that appear and reappear. Study how you use colour and form, and your magnetic attraction or revulsion to certain subject matter. Above all, seek the pearls of resonance, those images and scenes that call to you from the deep within, that touch your being in ways you cannot yet identify. Place these, and only these gem-like reflections, in a separate folder.”

I try to shoot and follow the guidelines by Ulrich on a daily basis, although I don’t always manage to set aside time for Your Daily Record. Nevertheless, I notice how it has sharpened my awareness and even increased my effectiveness when I photograph an assignment. I am quickly able to get in flow. The photo following this post was shot one morning some time ago during a walk while shooting Your Daily Record.

For the record, Holly who writes the blog House of Heart, recommended The Accidental Masterpiece to me. She creates beautiful poetry. I suggest visiting her blog.

61 thoughts on “Creative Routines

  1. ” Above all, seek the pearls of resonance, those images and scenes that call to you from the deep within, that touch your being in ways you cannot yet identify.” The daily record is a grand idea, Otto!

  2. For me since the time of the school, so many years ago between september and october is the moment to start again after the summer break, to renew my habits, to decide which way to go. Even to make a few statements !
    I find easier to do it now than at beginning of the year.

    So now I have to think about which ritual can help to develop my photography, probably to restart the morning pages and to take some daily pictures during my walk, already done in the past. What I should really do is to fix a time, daily, to finish my works. Editing, post processing, printing and maybe promoting, looking for opportunities to show both in the web and in the “real” world.

    Thanks Otto for the idea, I’ll do something…


    1. Yes, allocating time is important, not the least for editing and post processing. It’s easy to put aside for better times, but then suddenly you have too many pictures waiting to be processed and it’s even harder to get started. However, it seems like you have good routines already, Robert. 🙂

  3. “Above all, seek the pearls of resonance, those images and scenes that call to you from the deep within, that touch your being in ways you cannot yet identify. Place these, and only these gem-like reflections, in a separate folder.” Ulrich’s words resonates with me as well. As yours always do.

  4. thanks for the tip, when reviewing my thumbnails, i will put the ones that call out to me in a different folder.
    i was watching a ted talk about the first part of your talk… it was about how to make ‘a hit’ and you’re supposed to combine the familiar with a surprise, in just the right way 🙂

  5. There’s a lot of wisdom in this, but I’m often not wise. I allow myself to get distracted from my routines. I’ll try to be better 🙂 Thanks for the reminder!

  6. What a good idea. I already have a morning routine that starts with 50 set ups, then I drink a cup of tea and do a quick reading of the news and my emails. After that, the fun stuff starts… I’ve been doing this routine on the weekend for the past 20 years now. I had no idea that there was a link between creativity and our rituals. That makes a lot of sense and I am glad that intuitively I developed this habit. I like the idea of determining the amount of time to allow for each task/project. I do not have a good sense of time, and often I put too much time on details that are not worth it. Determining an amount of time for each task could allow me to be even more efficient. I’m going to try this. Thanks for this useful and inspiring post.

    1. I am glad it made some sense. I think we often have an inherent understanding of how things work, even if we don’t always listen to it. However, you did, practicing your routines even if you hadn’t necessarily connected it to your creative process.

  7. Many (most?) people underestimate the level of self-discipline, organisation and regular ‘practice’ required to be a successful creative artist. A valuable post Otto.

      1. Hi Otto! You’re most welcome. I was wondering, do you make a living at photography? I so wish to get away from admin – can’t find work in that area now anyway! Take care, Karen

          1. Hey, Otto. Thanks for your reply. I need to work for myself. I doubt I’ll ever find anything…it seems like a fruitless endeavour. But it’s all good, because it’s something I need. Take care, Karen

  8. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and what you have received from the books and other photographers, Otto. At my age I have habits but not as organized or mind clearing as the one you list. I am off soon to read your review of Ulrich;s book for some more inspiration. Who knows, maybe this old dog will learn a new trick.

  9. Så sant, inget kommer gratis, speciellt inte kreativiteten. Konstnärligheten och förmågan att uttrycka sig i ord och bild är i och för sig, i alla fall till viss del medfödd, en begåvning…men för att underhålla den måste man jobba hårt, hela tiden. Det går upp och det går ner, ibland lyser solen och nästa dag hamnar man i ett stort svart hål som det ter sig omöjligt att komma upp ifrån…men, det är bara att bita ihop och kämpa på.

  10. Hi Otto, thanks for sharing different experiences from various creative people. Although I don’t have a fixed time for doing things, I set a minimum amount of time every week to do something. A fun and cheap activity I enjoy is doing food plating in the morning, it helps me to sharpen my knife skills, planning and also exercise some creative muscles to come up with different designs using a few ingredients. You can just use fruits or add something to it to make it interesting.

  11. Insightful words, Otto, important for almost every piece of life. In my work, the experience built up over the years has become invaluable as I’m able to make quick and for the most part, correct, decisions when issues arise. Reading your post, I realize these experiences were all strengthened by putting in the time, sticking to a “routine of learning” and doing so with a belief in the value of what it is I was doing. Your post here describes a process for photography and for all other aspects of life – as always, written so well too. Love the opening shot ~ wishing you a great weekend and wonderful finish to the summer.

    1. What you describe is really how we human beings learn, from using routines to move the control from the explicit to the implicit part of the brain – or from conscious to unconscious thinking. Thank you for the comment, Randall, and may you have a great weekend, too.

  12. Otto, there’s hardly anything to disagree with. Morning light works wonders for the camera and humans too.

  13. I really enjoyed this post, Otto. Have reread it a few times already. I hope you don’t mind my reblogging your post. I’ll try implementing Your Daily Record in my daily routine. Photography always calms me.

  14. You’ve set down some compelling arguments for daily routines. Tharps’ work is amazing so it obviously works for her – and Pearlstein and Chuck Close are also people who seem to pay close attention to life itself, and along the way, they have perfected their visions. I remember your post about Ulrich’s book. His “prescription” is a little too confining for me but I get the idea, and certainly the value of daily shooting without an agenda, without trying to achieve a certain result. It’s all good advice!

    1. I think shooting daily is good practice, both for the development of one’s photography, as well as developing better seeing. And of course, it’s not necessary to abide to Ulrich’s suggestion, but rather find a way that works for oneself.

  15. This is so True as a fellow photographer , love of social networks I always use my Phone when out and about using pro mode if possible when I want .. and flicking through images later. Also as a Freelancer I take my dslr traveling either local or Abroad with glass to get those shots which could be used now or in the future … but yes practice always. I’ve just partly arranged 2 local shoots in Manchester.u.k .. all the best with your Photography Otto Good Work it was a Great Read .

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