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Defeating Creative Block

Posted by Greg Blue on Monday, September 21st, 2015

“Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.” – Chuck Close. The words of a veteran! I love this quote, but I certainly don’t adhere to it – inspiration is important to me and I always keep my eyes open for work that I love.

I’ve decided to make this post on both the creative process and artistic blocks as the two are intertwined. Where do we get our ideas from and what do we do when ideas seem few and far between? This is an enormously important topic for photographers as well as other artists. I’ll be giving a condensed discussion of the ideation process in this blog post, but I will soon be doing a much more in-depth free business tutorial on the subject in the near future.

Document and file your ideas!

I have quite a number of different strategies for generating image ideas and which one I use depends on the purpose of the image. I am rarely troubled by creative block as I typically generate way more ideas than I have the time to shoot, and all of those ideas get sketched out and filed away for future reference. Many of those ideas will never get shot as they are simply not good enough to produce. Others may sit for a couple or few years before the time is right or I redesign them in a way that makes production of the idea more urgent. But for the times when ideas are just not coming, I have a whole host of unproduced ideas just waiting to be tackled.

The image below is a pretty typical idea sketch (this one did get produced).

Gemsbok idea © Greg Blue 2010

Gemsbok idea © Greg Blue 2010

I usually draw these ideas in Moleskine books (sketch books) – I always have one on me as I never know when an idea will come. Often I simply see a scenario on the street, and it strikes up an idea in my head. As you can see above, the sketches don’t have to be works of art – I can often draw a stick-man with a word or two of description, and my idea will come back to me in vivid colour years later. One of my favourite things in life is to sit down with a coffee and sketch up new ideas – I like coming up with ideas even more than I like shooting them (shooting them’s a ton of work). If you were wondering what the intro photo for this blog post meant, it is a perfect representation of how I feel when ideas just don’t seem to be coming.

I document every idea I come up with, good or bad – you have no idea how many times I have come up with an idea in a flash of inspiration where I think “this is the best idea I have ever had!” I then scribble it down in the book only to look at it a couple of days later and realize it was probably the most idiotic idea I have ever had. Fine by me. You absolutely cannot be afraid of shitty ideas – shitty ideas are an integral part of the process of coming up with really worthwhile ideas. I have volumes of Moleskines filled with shitty ideas – they are my prized possessions and no, I will not let you see them.

Commercial Strategies:

For commercial work or portfolio development, I have a pretty set process which I will absolutely describe in greater detail in a future free Business Tutorial. But I can give you a condensed version here:

I am constantly keeping my eyes open for ad agencies, design firms and magazines that are producing work that I love, and that I would love to be working on. I’ll look at industry awards, the work of other photographers, magazines, billboards and such to see who is doing what. When I find an agency (or more likely a specific art director at an agency) that I really like, then I get to work on researching that individual. I will obviously look at a portfolio of their work (easily found online), and I will look for any awards they may have won for their work. It’s great when you can find an industry magazine article about the client that showcases their work and explores their philosophy toward visual communications. But it’s even better if they have a blog – in which case I will spend considerable time reading it. Hopefully I can get a better idea of what turns their crank, what kind of work they love, what they hate and the direction they see themselves moving in, and if they’ll be a good prospect to pursue.

If they are, then the next thing I will do is find out which competing photographers they are currently working with and I will go about researching them as well. Obviously, I’m not researching these photographers to copy what they are doing – that would be the worst possible strategy. If I show a client a bunch of work that looks exactly like that of a photographer they are already working with, they will have no incentive to hire me at all. Instead I will be researching their work to ensure that I am offering the client something different from what that particular photographer is offering them.

That alone gives me some pretty set parameters to start generating ideas for images that are relevant to that client’s needs, but different from anything they are using at this time. The process is obviously a bit more involved than what I wrote here but like I said, I will do a far more in-depth post on this specific topic in the future.

Word Association:

I used to use this strategy a lot when I shot for stock and the stock agency that represented my work sent out requests for particular images. I’d start by writing down every word that comes to mind when I think of the topic at hand and those words always generate visuals in my mind that often lead to image ideas. As a matter of fact, word association lead me to a long-standing project I have been working on for producing conceptual portraits!


The image below is actually a portrait.

Susan's Portrait © Greg Blue

Susan’s Portrait © Greg Blue 2001

The ideas for producing illustrative or conceptual still life portraits came to me when I was being badgered by a friend to take her portrait. I knew that she was looking for your standard franchised Mall Photo-Studio portrait where you get three 8X10s and 150 wallet sized prints for $29.95 and everyone has the same vacant smile on their face. I flatly refused, but she kept on bugging me and I finally relented on the condition that I have complete creative control over the image and that it will say something meaningful. She agreed to that – I emphasized that if this meant public nudity, then that’s what we’d be doing. She said, “yes, yes, whatever you like.” So I got to work, and decided to start with word association. I wrote down on paper every word that described how I perceived that individual, the history of our friendship and what she meant to me – I eventually had a LOT of words down on that sheet of paper.

But the word associations for this portrait were not coming easily and I wasn’t happy with the concepts they were generating. I found myself feeling more satisfied when I thought of things that represented what I was trying to say rather than scenarios for shooting this person. In time I realized that the best way for me to say what I wanted was to shoot an illustrative still life rather than an actual portrait – at first I thought this idea was stupid, but then I started to become pretty intrigued by it. I still remember calling my friend and saying “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that I finally have a concept for your portrait. The bad news is you’re not in it.” In the end she was very happy with the print, but I think she needed some time to digest the news.

At first I felt the image was too abstract, so I started to write out what I felt in proper language and thought of how I could incorporate that into the image – but then it became way too literal. So I decided to work the writing into the background where most of it would be hidden by the image elements. I then mounted the original paper with the writing on it behind the print and sealed it inside the picture frame where it would be safe, but not accessible. Both these images were shot with film on a 4X5 View camera and I spent a lot of time in the darkroom on the final print. Once I was happy with the print and it was safely mounted inside the frame, I destroyed all of the test prints, cut the negatives in half and put them into an envelop attached to the back of the picture frame. This meant the image was a 1 of 1 and would never be able to be printed again. A few of my photographer friends thought I was nuts for destroying the negatives, but I actually found the process enlightening – it felt like the photo wasn’t mine anymore. It existed on its own and if it got destroyed, then that would be the end of that. (Obviously, I did take a digital shot of the print to keep in my records – which is what you see here). If you’re interested in learning how the above image was produced, you can view the tutorial for it here.

Inspiration files:

I spend a lot of time looking at other photographic works and whenever I see an image that I love, I save it under the photographer’s name (assuming I have access to that) and in a folder under a specific type of image category. On occasion, I’ll open these images up (there are hundreds of them) and spend some time browsing through them to see if they inspire any new ideas. This can be a valuable tool, but obviously you need to be really careful to make sure that you are not copying the work of another photographer. When I come up with a new idea for an image, one of the first things I do is open up my inspiration files and start looking through all of the images to make sure that I have not subconsciously copied or come too close an existing photo.

Actually, in one case I did consciously copy another artist’s concept. I saw a fantastic concept on the Internet by a wonderfully talented illustrator named Matt Leyen. I copied the image file and saved it to my inspiration collection. I found myself revisiting that image many times over a few months and I finally decided to do something I rarely do – a derivative image (an image based on another artwork). That image is below with the original illustration that inspired it. There are enormously important considerations when creating a derivative artwork, and before the image ever saw the light of day, I had contacted Matt Leyen to discuss the idea and come to an agreement. If you’re interested in seeing the full tutorial for the image (including the ethics of derivative images), you can view it here.

Typewriter Derivative

Typewriter Derivative

Try other forms of artistic expression:

I know – this is a bit of a cliché solution. But it’s only a cliché because it actually works quite well. It’s easy for some of us to feel like we are tapping ourselves out when we focus too much on one form of artistic expression. I definitely find it’s helpful to step away from photography on a regular basis and focus on other artistic outlets. Recently I’ve been taking classes on “photo-realism” drawing using graphite (pencils) and I’m really enjoying it! Here’s an example:

pencil drawing © Greg Blue

pencil drawing © Greg Blue

I also play a number of different instruments so music is an important outlet for me as well. I was lucky enough to have my friend Jeff Burgess do a custom paint job on my cello. Jeff is a fantastic commercial illustrator – now I have a psychedelic cello! We worked together on ideas for the illustration and I kept bugging him about when it would be finished, when one day there suddenly appeared a Blue Meanie on my cello! Haha.

cello © Greg Blue

cello © Greg Blue

The tactics we all use for the ideation process will vary tremendously on the type of photographs we take – it’s unlikely that a studio photographer will use similar tactics to a candid or street photographer for creating images. One thing that I think many photographers do have in common is a low threshold for boredom. It’s easy for us to get stuck in a rut if we stick to familiar paths. It’s important for us to try new things, but you have to be kind to yourself – trying new things usually means you’ll screw up. You need to cherish your mistakes, making mistakes or coming up with bad ideas is a natural part of this process – the bigger danger is sticking to what’s safe and familiar.

I’d love to hear the processes or triggers that you use to come up with ideas or to get out of a rut!

There’s a very good article on dealing with creative blocks at the Brain Pickings website – if you are not familiar with brain Pickings, I highly recommend checking the site out – it’s a great source of inspiration and some very good articles on creativity. You can check out the article here.

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Defeating Creative Block
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Defeating Creative Block
Defeating Creative Block - I’ve decided to make this post on both the creative process and artistic blocks as the two are intertwined.

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