Creating Artistic Photographs Part 8: Profession: Artiste
For me ‘artiste’ is a profession with all the implications that come with it: training, purpose, activities, responsibilities and, directly relevant to this conversation, title. Artiste is the title on my business card. It was that when I did painting, it is that now that I do photography. In that respect, I see no differences between painting and photography. I was not just a painter and I am not just a photographer. Artiste is a more liberal term, a term more encompassing of the different activities I conduct. Painters paint and photographers photograph. However, artistes create art unrestrictive of the medium they use at any given time. I painted and drew. Now I create photographic images. However, I also write, teach, reflect, collect art, practice hobbies and live a lifestyle centered around art. Artiste fits the bill much better for me as a professional title. I also use the French spelling, Artiste. Why? Because I like it.
I regularly meet people, many of them students, who have a hard time calling themselves ‘artistes.’ When doing so they feel they are performing an act of self-knighthood, giving themselves a title they have neither earned nor deserved. This feeling may be true or it may be false, it all depends on the specific situation a person is in. However, this feeling misses an important aspect of accepting a title. This aspect is the responsibilities that come with this title, in this specific instance the responsibilities that come with being an artiste. Being an artiste is not just a title, not just a name I was given or I gave myself. It is a set of responsibilities, ‘things’ for lack of a better name, that I had to do once I took this title. Pride is involved, even required I must say. The seriousness of purpose is also required. I would not call myself a lawyer without being dedicated to the study and practice of the law. I would not call myself a doctor with being dedicated to the practice and study of medicine. I would not call myself an engineer, a chef, a mechanic or any other professional title without being dedicated to the study and practice of these professions as well as accepting of the responsibilities and duties that they entail.
At a time when, if we believe the social roar, ‘everyone is a photographer because everyone has a cell phone camera,’ being willing to both accept and meet the responsibilities that come with the acceptance of a professional title come at the forefront of my attention. In fact, these responsibilities may be more important than they have ever been because they are the aspect of photography that is lacking in many practitioners. Just taking a photograph is not enough to call myself a photographer and even less an artiste. I must do more than that. I must take on more responsibilities than just pressing a button, posting my photographs on the web and waiting for likes, hearts, thumbs up, emoticons and other social media responses.
I see my artistic responsibilities as being multi-faceted. It is for this reason that I write extensively, focusing on the challenges I faced and continue to face as an artiste. It is for this reason that I create photographs that depict my feelings towards a subject and not the literal subject. It is for this reason that I teach, focusing on both artistic and technical aspects with an emphasis on the person, on the development of a unique personal style, on the expression of the artiste’s true personality. It is for this reason that I do all the other things I do. I feel compelled to do so because for me this is a serious endeavor to which I am fully committed.
I am often asked, again usually by students, if formal training in art is important. In that regard, students often express regrets about not having attended a formal art school and about not having received formal art training in an accredited institution. Of course, when considering a profession, any profession, the issue of training must be considered as well. How one learns is important. However, learning options have multiplied now that the internet is omnipresent. It used to be that attending a school that trained you for the profession you wanted to practice later on was pretty much the only way to learn. Not so anymore. The web brought with it an expansion of learning options. On the web information is omnipresent. That was after all the primary purpose of the web: to share information. But information without structure is very much like food without diet. Using it effectively can be challenging. Fortunately, the web provides not only en-masse information, but it also provides information in the format of structured workshops on all subjects.
What I am aiming at here is that formal training is no longer a necessity. Formal school study is one way to learn, one way to acquire the knowledge we need to practice a profession. However there are many other ways to learn today, many of them being just as effective. Furthermore, these novel ways of learning offer the advantage of being available any time we want or need to learn a subject. Any time in our life and any time of day or night.
One thing remains important however and that is study intensity. To be effective training for professional life has to be intense. It has to be immersive so that the material learned becomes second nature. Instinctive. I studied painting at the Beaux Arts in Paris in a traditional formal school setting. I did nothing other than paint and draw all day, Monday to Friday, for several years. I later studied photography at the American Center also in Paris, this time in a workshop environment. Instead of being in a nine to five school setting I was free to enroll in the workshops of my choice. However, because I attended workshops over several years, the intensity of my photography studies was comparable to that of my painting studies. The difference was in the relationship between instruction and practice. At the Beaux Arts both instruction and practice took place in a school setting, in a classroom. We had formal lectures, usually relatively short, followed by lengthy practice sessions during which we painted or drew, using oils, watercolors or pencils, depending on the medium used in each specific class. We were given assignments and completion date at which time we attended a critique session led by the teacher.
At the American Center we received instruction during the workshop however practice was on our own. We were given instructions as to what each photography project consisted of, we would go out on our own to create the photographs and we would return for a photo critique bringing either prints or slides. This was film days. Today we would return with either prints or digital files for screen viewing.
The two study environments were comparable, the main difference being that while the Beaux Arts featured both instruction and practice at the school the American Center featured instruction only leaving us to practice what we learned on our own. Traditionally this is the main difference between a school and a workshop. A school is a living environment while a workshop is a study opportunity.
Ten thousand hours of combined instruction and practice is a number often mentioned in regard to training because it is the figure given by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. Ten thousand is a convenient number, breaking down as being three and a half years at eight hours a day. If we take out weekends and holidays it comes out roughly as being four years of study and practice, the number of years of study required to receive a Bachelor’s degree or for that matter a Beaux Arts degree. It is convenient but it is by no means exclusive, one being just as well trained if one spends slightly more or less hours of study than ten thousand. However, it is a relevant figure when looked at as a roundabout number. Whoever established 4-year degrees knew this, either intuitively or formally, because such programs are found all over the world in very different learning institutions, be it American Universities or French Beaux Arts academies, to mention only the examples I used here.
This intensity is important because it is what stays with us in what I like to call our ‘muscle memory’. This muscle memory is present in every profession, consisting of the things we do repetitively which, because they are done over and over again, have become automatic or second nature. These are specific to each profession. At the Beaux Arts they are related to drawing and painting. How to hold a brush or a pencil, how to block out a painting, how to structure a drawing, how to visualize a final piece, how to arrange colors or tonalities on the canvas, how to proportion a figure. In photography many of the same things come to play as well however to these are added technical considerations such as how to set the proper focus, f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, white balance and other technical considerations.
All these considerations, whether I draw, paint or photograph, need to be second nature for my creativity to flow through. If not these things, which are nothing more than a starting point, nothing else than the ingredients I need to create the final piece, will become a chopping stone that will either hold me back or stop me in my tracks.
The intensity of study takes care of turning all these considerations into automatic proceedings. My years of study and practice come to play in my mind as a leitmotiv, an unconscious litany of information, often spoken to me in the tone of voice of the teachers that instructed me. As I do something in a state of flow, unaware of my surroundings, I hear their voices in my mind, telling me today what they taught me years ago. Which color are you going to use here? Hold your brush upwards. Be gestural with your brushstrokes, you are making art not a blueprint. Vary the contour of your drawing. Lines do not need to be closed, finished or even. The figure will not leak if the pencil line does not go all around it. It is ok to leave out some areas and emphasize other areas. The quality of the light is everything. Shadows are dark, highlights are bright. Expose for the highlights but be mindful of shadows.
On and on and on. In fact, I hear the teachers I had in the past talk to me today about subjects other than art. I studied many things in my life, among others I spent a year in a woodworking school learning to make wooden furniture and cabinets using hand tools. George was my teacher and his voice is still with me today if I work with wood, which I do regularly for home projects. Don’t be messy. Measure carefully. Focus. Respect the wood. Take care of your tools. Sharpen them. Use the correct ones. Don’t waste time.
I think about it when I write. After all, I spent nine years in academia studying for Bachelor, Master and eventually Ph.D. degrees. Nine years studying in humanities departments leaves traces. Writing is rewriting. Edit ruthlessly. Use s. Watch out for words ending in ly. Don’t overuse adverbs and adjectives. Don’t split infinitives. Use primary sources. Make a point.
It’s all there, about many subjects, ready to be recalled and helping me do good work. What is most interesting is that when these voices are not there, when they are not present because I did not spend the necessary time studying a particular subject, I do not do well. I get lost or confused. I forget important steps. I make beginner mistakes. I do not know how to proceed past a certain point. I do not have full knowledge of the steps I need to make from the beginning to the completion of a project. The intensity was not there when I learned and today the voices are missing when I practice. Control and mastery are not present. I need further study and more importantly further instruction.
The intensity of study is for me one of the discerning factors between a hobby and a profession. A hobby does not require the same intensity of study because the practice of a hobby does not feature the same level of responsibilities. A hobby is an activity that can be learned while it is practiced. A profession is an activity that needs to be known before it is practiced. Of course, the experience is gained over time, regardless of whether something is a hobby or a profession. But experience is something different from the study. It is what we gain through our own doings, through our personal interactions. It cannot be taught because it can only be learned by exposing ourselves to the reality of the world and to all that comes with it, both positive and negative.
Hobbies give us permission to make mistakes. In fact, mistakes are expected from a hobbyist. After all, this is an activity conducted as a way to relax from one’s primary occupation and source of income, from one’s profession. It is something to be enjoyed not something to be stressed about. One’s profession is to be taken seriously and responsibly. One’s hobby does not carry the same level of responsibilities. While it can be taken as seriously and responsibly as one’s profession, it rarely is. It does not have to be. Unlike a profession where outcomes are under review by outside forces, hobbies leave control in our hands. We are free to make them as involved or as superficial as we like. While some of us would like to reach the same level of achievement in our hobbies as in our profession, such is rarely the case. Hobbies provide too many opportunities to ‘slack off’ and avoid professional scrutiny. Nothing wrong with that. After all their purpose is to provide respite from the demands of our professional lives. To approach them with the same intensity as our profession is to defeat their purpose and complicate life unnecessarily.
Hobbies also offer something else, something of extreme importance when it comes to creating art: the ability, indeed the freedom, of focusing on the sensual aspects of the activity we are engaged in, in this instance using our five senses to create art using photography as a medium. Professions, unless we watch ourselves carefully every step of the way, get us involved in the process of seeking achievements, of reaching specific goals and of climbing the proverbial corporate ladder in order to reach the desired level of hierarchy. Professions are the way to security, both social and financial. They can also be the way to celebrity, renown and other professional levels of recognition. Not so with hobbies, at least not if we let them be hobbies because the risk of turning them into professions is always there. Again, nothing wrong with that if this is what is desired. We just need to be aware of the risk, aware of the circumstances I just mentioned. Prevention is key in this regard.
If left unchecked, the mental planning professions require can move us away from experiencing the activities we engage in through our senses. Sensuality means referring to our physical senses instead of our mental constructions. Sensuality is feeling instead of thinking. It means using touching, smelling, hearing, seeing, tasting and intuition as sources of information instead of thinking and planning.
Professions ask us to think things through and plan career goals. Hobbies offer the opportunity of feeling our way through, of being creative, of stopping the critical part of our minds. Art especially so. Creating art is about expressing our emotions, about showing what we feel, what we experience through our senses, what we go through from a sensual perspective when we are confronted with our subject, be it a landscape, an object or whatever we decide to place in front of our lens.
Professions ask us to make the highest level of commitment: that of generating income from passion. This commitment comes at the cost of potentially taking over our entire life leaving us with little or no time to think of or do anything else. That is the challenge of a profession. That is also its measure of success. Does a profession – be it my profession, artiste, or your profession, whatever it may be – leave enough free time to enjoy other aspects of life? This question is important because at the end of the day I do what I do, I am an artiste because I want to create the lifestyle I desire and have time to live this lifestyle to the fullest. This lifestyle includes many things that are not of a professional nature. Things, or activities, that may be qualified as hobbies. This is normal, even required, because I do not want to just practice a profession. I do not want to just run a business.
A hobby does not carry the responsibilities of a profession. However, a hobby teaches us important lessons about a profession. For example that we do not want to take our profession too seriously. That we want to be able to take chances by trying things out because experimentation is important. That the journey and the experience are more significant than the destination and the final outcome.
The practice of a profession carries with it some characteristics of the hobbies that preceded it. I turned my hobbies into a profession, that of artiste, and some of these hobbyist beginnings are still with me today, still present in what has become my professional activity. I am thankful for that because it proves that the pioneering spirit that animated me when I started continues to motivate me today, keeping my passion alive.
For this reason, the hobbyist is still present in my mind and in my life. I need it to be able to dream, to engage in flanerie, to make mistakes without fear, to enjoy what I do sensually. I need it for my profession to be a lifestyle and not just a business. I need it to make retiring pointless because there is no reason to retire from a profession that generates happiness and creates the lifestyle I desire.
About Alain Briot
I create fine art photographs, teach workshops with Natalie and offer Mastery Tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing, business and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on our website at this link. Free samples are available.
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