Am I There Yet?

How does an artist know when a piece is finished? This is a question I’ve been thinking about since I read a quote by German artist Gerhard Richter, whose astounding work ranges from photorealistic to abstract expressionist:

“At the beginning, I feel totally free, and it’s fun, like being a child. The paintings can look good for a day or an hour. Over time, they change. In the end, you become like a chess player. It takes me longer than some people to recognize their quality, their situation – to realize when they are finished. Finally, one day I enter the room and say, ‘Checkmate.’”

The sense of finishing a piece applies to anyone who creates art—painter, photographer, sculptor, composer, writer, or musician. While overanalyzing the “How do I know it’s done?” question is a surefire recipe for artistic gridlock, it’s worth thinking about periodically to get a better sense of your own process. Here’s how it relates to mine.

Traditional Photography (The World as Seen)

Landscapes and nature. I stop processing a photograph in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom when I believe that I’ve either faithfully captured the scene as I saw it, or I’ve successfully rendered my interpretation of the scene in terms of mood, tone, style, and impact on the viewer. Either way, I follow the maxim of Ansel Adams who said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” The processing can take minutes, or hours, depending on how I dealt with the composition, exposure, and other technical details of the shot.

In the image below, I had been waiting from a vantage point on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon since first light to follow the sun as it bathed the magnificent expanse before me. I peeled off a number of practice shots in anticipation of the light reaching the tops of the three major landforms in my compositions. Using the camera’s histogram, I exposed for the highlights, knowing that I would recover all kinds of detail in the shadows when I returned home. The finished print took me right back to the Canyon.

Eye level–people on the street and urban compositions. I believe that if you capture a meaningful narrative in the viewfinder (which can be challenging and sometimes requires luck), you won’t have to invent one through creative processing. Accordingly, I generally only spend a few minutes per shot on processing. (Full disclosure: I used to agonize over every street shot, but a workshop I took with the very talented Valerie Jardin convinced me to do otherwise.) In the image below, the confluence of the passerby, his shadow, and my shadow created a variety of interesting “who, what, why questions” for the viewer.

Macro photography and close ups. I believe that macro/close up photographs are about showing worlds in miniature as they really are, and it’s therefore more obvious, to me, anyway, when they’re done. I’m finished processing them when the images are exact replicas of what I saw through the viewfinder. The following photograph of a water drop required minimal processing; I’d photographed similar scenes often enough that I believe I got it “right” with a few bracketed exposure shots.

Photo-Based Collages (The World as Reimagined)
My collages are designed to go beyond “what is” to explore the realm of “what if.” They’re about applying what neuroscientist David Eagleman calls the three cognitive strategies of creativity: breaking, bending, blending.

In this context, “it’s done” becomes a matter of intention and vision. Over the years, I’ve built up a “component bank” with thousands of images that might be pressed into service as backgrounds or layered elements of a collage in process. If I have a clear sense of what new images might fit together with older images from the bank, getting to “it’s finished” is akin to playing Richter’s chess game—it’s an interplay between art and artist. When further breaking, bending, and blending add nothing further or detract from the artwork, the game is over. Checkmate.

At other times, my process of creating a collage is like being chauffeured. I have no idea where the artwork is taking me as it evolves organically. This kind of creative endeavor is about curiosity and experimentation. It’s also about being receptive to what the elements are saying to me and suspending disbelief. At some point, the inchoate collection of images and forms crystalizes into a clear direction. From here, I move from the passenger seat into the driver’s seat, taking the wheel and deciding when the journey is over.

Here’s an example. During a sleet storm this winter, I noticed ice and water beading up in the wire grid of a window screen.

I immediately saw the squares of glasslike water as windows in skyscrapers, so I combined various shots of the screen and used Photoshop to create the sense of depth and distinct buildings.

I then wanted to further delineate the tall “skyscrapers” in the midground and background, so I added a blue tint and darkened the top so the buildings would fade into the night. I now had a strong visual progression from the dark night sky to the bright lights at the baseline.

At this point I was confident that I was in the artist-driver’s seat, ready to end this little artistic journey. The image had arrived. But before declaring victory, it struck me that my “screen city” had evolved from a small set of building in the foreground to a full city. Something was missing in the final evolutionary stage of my digital metropolis: a fully formed skyline.  I just happened to have such a shot in my component bank: the New York skyline photographed from the window of an Amtrak train headed to Boston.

Is this piece of artwork done?  Yes and no. This particular image is done, but I’m planning on isolating earlier phases of the evolution of the piece and creating a series that will consist of six images in total. I just happened to start with the final one.

Is this blog post done? Yes and no. It’s done for now, until I update it with more images and ideas. Stay tuned!


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