Some thoughts on the nature of artistic pursuits

BRENT PENNINGTON Sunrise amid the fog on a 34* morning on Lackawanna Lake, 24 May 2015.

I haven’t been doing much photography lately – a couple of personal autumn outings, a few events, a portrait session or two, but the cameras have largely remained in their cabinets.  There are a few factors to this, the change in seasons always puts a damper on my outings, at least until the first few snowfalls.  My wedding in the beginning of October ate up a lot of time in the weeks leading up to it.  And lately, when I’ve had free time, I’ve been spending it on other pursuits.

I’m building a backyard foundry to try my hand at melting and recasting aluminum.  It’s been a fun project to build, although the materials have run vastly over-budget, and it has taken far more time than I anticipated.  I probably have another 5 hours and $50 before I’ll be able to fire it up for the first time.

I’ve been doing a lot of woodworking as well, something that I continue to enjoy more the more I do it.  I’m building several projects at the moment, from the functional (new radiator covers for my house) to the aesthetic (star shelves and wooden boxes).  I’m spending a lot of hours in the shop, and I’ll be posting about some of these projects in the coming weeks.  As I’ve mentioned before, TRP may be about photography, but it’s also my “man cave” to talk about anything that interests me.

[A prototype for a star-shaped decorative shelf, and the cut parts for a second one.]

[A prototype for a star-shaped decorative shelf, and the cut parts for a second one.]

There is a definite learning curve to any kind of artistry, and I am a firm believer in the 10,000 hour rule.  It took years of shooting photos before I felt comfortable and competent as a photographer – before I could walk into a space for the first time and have an immediate feel for how to place a model, compose a shot, and light it all.  In the early days I’d walk in and almost panic, and there was a lot of trial and error before I’d find something that worked.

There’s still a lot of trial and error.  But at least now I have the foundation that lets me say, “Yeah, we’ll have you stand here and I’ll throw up two flashes at ⅛ power with umbrellas to balance that window light,” and it turns out to be really close.

I expect the same progression with my woodworking, and right now I’m a rank amature.  I’m still building my kit – heck, I’m still trying to find out what I really need to build a kit.  I’m still learning basic techniques, still working to master the technical skills.  In my experience, true artistic expression usually comes after the technical foundation is laid.  But I’m getting there.

Of course these days, it’s easy to learn just about anything you want; I can ask my phone a question, and it’ll present 1000 web results and a slew of YouTube videos, many of which lead to yet more sources.  Needless to say, I’ve been doing a lot of reading across multiple blogs and ebooks.  And what I’ve found is interesting – and rather amusing.

[Router table.  Rather than spend hundreds of dollars on one, I built my own.  It was a process and took some time.  Much like when I was starting to build a lighting kit.]

[Router table. Rather than spend hundreds of dollars on one, I built my own. It was a process and took some time. Much like when I was starting to build a lighting kit.]

It seems that “true,” “artistic” woodworking is a dying art.  The purity has been lost to substandard consumer products and hoards of DIYers with power tools.  The entire industry is on the verge of collapse, the skills may be lost forever, and the future is bleak.  Only a lucky few are able to make a living as woodworkers these days, and even they are struggling and failing.  The glory days are over.

Any of this sound familiar?

Replace “woodworking” with “photography,” replace “power tools” with “digital,” and it’s the exact same party line we’ve all heard before.

And it got me to thinking that it must be the same old story no matter what form or artistic expression you pursue, be it photography, Shakespearian poetry, or taxidermy.  We all probably know a dozen local bands, but when’s the last time any of them made it big, got signed to a record label, and partied with Mick Jagger?  Probably about as often as any of our photographer colleagues got recruited by National Geographic and shared an assignment with Joe McNally.

Which is to say, there are millions of people pursuing artistic endeavours.  We call them hobbies, we call them vocations, and a lucky few even get to call them a paycheck-producing day job.  Which begs the question of why we choose these pursuits?  As nice as it is to get paid for our efforts and dedication, I really doubt that’s the real reason we begin.  Speaking for myself, I love shooting photos.  I love working with my hands and creating things.  Even if no one ever bought them, I’d keep making photos and building furniture until it spilled out of my house, and then some.

[I shot this years ago on a consumer-level 400D at ISO 1600 using a single bounced flash in a gymnasium.  It's what I had available at the time, and I made it work.  And in truth, that little 400D was a better performing, more dependable camera than several of the more "professional" models I've owned.]

[I shot this years ago on a consumer-level 400D at ISO 1600 using a single bounced flash in a gymnasium. It’s what I had available at the time, and I made it work. And in truth, that little 400D was a better performing, more dependable camera than several of the more “professional” models I’ve owned.]

At one point I was annoyed by the Chicken Little, gloom-and-doom brigade.  But anymore I find that I’m just mildly amused.  The snotty bastards on the woodworking forums who sneer down at you for using power tools or pocket screws are the same snotty bastards who proclaim that real photographers only use film and do all their own processing in a wet darkroom.  (Or that only a 5D Mk3 can be used for weddings, or [insert bullshit here].)

Well props to you!  If you want to carve a table using nothing but a butter knife, knock yourself out.  If you want to shoot on glass plates and develop them in coffee, go for it.  Break out the dark roast!

All I ask is that you keep your ego in check and not browbeat the folks who don’t do it that way.  Some of us prefer other methods.  Some of us like taking advantage of technological advancements.  I don’t want to shoot film anymore (and pay for the film, the paper, the chemistry, the hours in the darkroom) any more than I want to rip boards with a handsaw all day.  And that doesn’t make me any less of an artist.

Here’s my advice for anyone starting out in a new art form: read everything you can get your hands on.  Read books, read blogs, read forums.  Watch videos.  Go to wherever they have finished examples of your art on display and study them in person.  Find other artisans and talk to them, ask questions, watch them work.

And then disregard half of what you’ve seen, read, and learned, and just dive in.  Be prepared to consign a few projects to the trash can or bonfire.  Be prepared to fail, to screw up, to throw tools and shout obscenities.  The trick is to make mistakes and learn from them – if you’re smart, you won’t make the same mistakes again.

With my woodworking, I build prototypes first.  I use cheap materials and practice my techniques and try to make all my mistakes at once, so that when I step up to nicer, more expensive materials, I hopefully don’t screw them up.  But sometimes I do.  And sometimes I can fix it, and other times the whole thing goes in the burn pile and I start over.  That’s life.

But don’t listen to the internet blowhards who tell you that there is only one way to do things, or that only the traditional (and often painful, expensive, and time-consuming) way is valid.  A Holga is just as valid as L-glass, if that’s the aesthetic you enjoy.

[I bought this handplane used at a second hand store for $5.  I had no idea of it even worked, but it seemed sound.  A week of work and a little spray paint later, and it's good as new!  Saved me over $100.  Buy used when you can - tools are tools and most have a lot of life in them.]

[I bought this handplane used at a second hand store for $5. I had no idea of it even worked, but it seemed sound. A week of work and a little spray paint later, and it’s good as new! Saved me over $100. Buy used when you can – tools are tools and most have a lot of life in them.]

The real end goal is to produce art that expresses whatever it is you need to express.  To create something that speaks to you, or for you.  And to do that, you need to get your hands dirty and start racking up those 10,000 hours.

The sky is always falling.  The end is always nigh.  You’ll probably never make any real money (although goodness knows you will spend plenty!).

Who the hell cares?

Go and practice your art because it’s fun and you love doing it.

 

Image notes: sorry for the crappy cell phone photos, it’s all I’ve been taking in the shop.  I don’t want the camera down there amid all the dust, and I’m just now starting to have a few nice finished pieces that are worth setting up the lights to get real photos of.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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1 Comment

  1. Marie Pennington

    I remember when you built a scale model of an aircraft carrier so your micro-machine airplanes would have a ‘home’! You build it kid!!!

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