Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Talent is a Myth (Stick with me, I know what I'm doing here...)

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If you know me, you know that I occasionally become inspired by circumstances and have somewhat entertaining rants. If you don't know me, well I just told you what to expect... :-P

One of the things that creative types, and the types that would aspire to be creative, struggle with is the notion of talent. My whole life I've been told how talented I am, or am not. For most of my life, I have considered being told I'm talented to be a compliment and also a part of my personal definition.

Amanda [uh-man-duh] -noun A talented artist. (Learn more about Amanda here.)

Sometimes I would find myself wishing for more talent. If I was a little more talented, then I could do this or that great thing. Oh well, I'm only this talented, so I can only do these things, I guess. Hmm..

A couple of years ago, I read the book Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, by Geoff Colvin. It was about, well, how talent is overrated. Catchy title , right? Descriptive. But, despite the fact that the title of the book didn't wander too far off into Creative Land, and that it was a book meant for business-suit-wearing types, it had a lot of interesting information that made me start to think seriously about the assumptions I had made about myself and making art. Now, a couple of years later, after mulling it over a bit and making a lot of careful observation of creativity in its native environment (gotcha), I have come to the conclusion that talent really may just be a myth. And even if it's not, I just plain don't have any. And what's more, I don't even want any stinkin' talent anyway.

"But," you may be thinking, "how is that you make such pretty pictures and paintings and drawings and all the other things that you do if you don't have any talent? And if there's no such thing as talent, how come you can do it, but I can't?" (assuming you don't, though you might, in which case, nevermind).

The short answer is: Because.

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But since I like you, I'll elaborate a little. The thing is, I've been practicing drawing since I could hold one of those fat little crayons they give preschoolers. I drew on paper, walls, doors, my brother, anything that would hold still. I literally have thousands of hours of practice at drawing. You'd be good at drawing if you practiced that much too. You really would. And painting is the same. I started making paintings when I was fourteen. And because I already had confidence in my drawing skills and believed I was 'talented', I wasn't terribly frustrated that the painting didn't go well at first (mega-understatement). So I kept at it, and a decade or two later I got kind of good at it.

Are you seeing a pattern here? It's not talent that makes a person really good at a skill, it's hard work. It takes a lot of dedication and determination to practice anything for ten thousand hours. Ten thousand hours of practice is what the prevailing theory of mastery is among some of those smarty pants book authors and psychologists who study stuff. The idea is that if you practice for three hours a day for ten years, then you'll be a master of practicing something.

Ahhh, but the catch is that you have to practice well, not just aimlessly plunk away the notes to Highway to Heaven on your brother's busted guitar. Nope, you gotta get some sore fingers and make some mistakes. And then you have to figure out what you are the worst at, and do that over and over until you are good at it. This is called deliberate practice, and it's what separates the hobbyists from the geniuses.

"So what?," you ask. "What's the big deal about whether or not there's a such thing as talent? Does it really matter anyway?"

Yes, I think it does. And here's why.

When you go visit your doctor and afterwards they hand you the bill, you pay it. You might moan and groan a little about it, but you pay it. You usually don't negotiate with them or try to convince them to give you a break. After all, the doctor has a staff that has to be supported and the doctor went to medical school and worked really hard as an intern and yadda yadda yadda. It's the same when the mechanic hands you the bill, or the plumber, or whomever. They worked hard and earned their license or certification, so they should be paid for their work. Right?

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So, here's the interesting part. Just like your doctor, I went to college and paid a large amount of my own money for the privilege to do so. I studied hard and got good grades. I stayed up for days on end to complete projects. I wrote lengthy research papers about a zillion different topics. I graduated with a respectable GPA and am the proud owner of a piece of paper that cost the equivalent of an Italian sports car.

However, I soon discovered after school that my skills were, shall we say, negotiable in value to the average citizen. While the plumber can tell you that his service will cost $80 per hour and receive no argument, I have observed that there's a different thing that happens when an artist quotes a price to a client. (Disclaimer: not all clients, not even most, but enough.. there now.) Suddenly the conversation becomes full of flattery and compliments. Oh, you're so talented. This isn't hard for you to do. It won't even take you very long to do.

It seems that because artists have talent and it's 'easy' for them to do things, that somehow makes their skills less valuable on the open market (again the disclaimer: not all clients, not even most, but many, yadda yadda). I'm pretty sure it's easy for your doctor to dash into your exam room, half listen to your complaint, write something illegible on a prescription pad, and run out the door again. He's done it hundreds of times. For years. But it's different.

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But even more than the occasional attempts to negotiate a better price, there's the general disregard of a person's lifelong pursuit and passion that kind of gets my goat. A musician, an artist, or an athlete will often exhibit a passion for mastery from a very young age. They become consumed with the pursuit of their passion and find every opportunity to practice and improve. Everyone can think of someone who was like this in high school. While all their friends are busy with their social lives, they will be found studiously at work perfecting their skills. But somehow all this WORK goes unnoticed by their peers.

Here's the really interesting part. If one of the more socially inclined students is asked to do something, anything, creative... they will immediately become defensive of their attempts at making art and say, "I'm just not creative. I don't have any talent like so-and-so." It seems kind of strange to me, but it happens all the time.

A few months back, I went to one of those cool places where they let you drink wine with a bunch of your friends while they coach you through making a cute painting. I didn't know many of the people there, but I knew a few. I never said a word about being a painter, but someone else spilled the beans for me. (You know who you are.) It made a few others uncomfortable enough that they started making comments about how crummy their paintings were. And I thought how strange that was. You wouldn't feel defensive about not being able to perform surgery on your friend. You didn't study it, you haven't learned how, it seems pretty logical therefore that you wouldn't know how. But you are comfortable with applying a band-aid to a boo-boo. To me, it's the same thing. I mean, except for the life and death part. That's different.

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The point I'm trying to make is that art isn't really some big mysterious thing. Talent is not what is required to make art, motivation to do the hard work is. There's lots of ways to make beautiful things and anyone who is interested should do it and enjoy it for what it is, which is FUN. And when you see someone who is doing something exceptional, don't compare your stuff to theirs and feel inferior. Instead, recognize that they have worked really hard to achieve the level of skill and insightfulness that you see in their work. And understand that if you wanted to do the same thing, you could. You really could. And if you don't want to devote 10,000 hours to it, that's ok. You don't have to do that to enjoy making the things that you can make. The amazing thing about making any kind of art is that there's a place for everyone at every level to find enjoyment. Not everyone has to be as insane as me and spend every waking moment thinking about how to learn to do it bigger, better, and more amazing.

Ok, so I'm stepping down from the soapbox now. I know that you may be sitting there scratching your head thinking how this is the craziest thing you've ever heard. I'd really love to hear your take on this idea of talent. Please be sure to leave a comment and let everyone know what you think. We're interested!

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One last thing. If you scroll all the way to the bottom of the page, you will see that I've added a widget so you can enter your email address and subscribe to my blog. It would be great if you would, and I promise I can't see your email address and I will never spam you. It will simply send these insane blog posts directly to your email inbox so that you can be the first to know when there's new stuff to see and read.

Thanks again for visiting. It's always great to have you stop by.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Family Union Ceremony at The Giving Tree

"It has been said that adoption is more like a marriage than a birth: two (or more) individuals, each with their own unique mix of needs, patterns, and genetic history, coming together with love, hope, and commitment for a joint future. You become a family not because you share the same genes, but because you share love for each other."

-Joan McNamara
(Adoptive parent)


There are many kinds of family. There is the family you are born to. You don't get to chose them. You share blood and characteristics and personality traits with them. Sometimes that means you will have a wonderful relationship with them. Other times those shared personality traits lead to conflict and misunderstanding. Usually there's a combination of love and tension that defines a family.

And then there is your chosen family. Your chosen family members are the people you bring into your life intentionally and keep in your life because you find that you can love them unconditionally with your whole heart, often in the way that we wish we could love our blood family. We all have someone in our life who is a chosen family member that we can't imagine not being a part of our lives. I'm fortunate to have a very large chosen family. There have been many times in my life that I have leaned on chosen family members for the support that I needed that simply wasn't available from my blood family. I have no doubt that the ties to my chosen family are every bit as strong as the connections I have with my blood relatives. Blood ties are never a requirement for family, only love is.

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On Thursday, January 6, I was fortunate enough to be invited to The Giving Tree to document another union ceremony. This time there would be two sisters adopted into a family that already had four children, making them a family of eight at the end of the day! This was to be a happy and boisterous celebration.

First, there was pizza for lunch.

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There were balloons to play with.

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Grandma and Grandpa were there. So were lots of cameras.

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Then it was time to sign the papers to make everything official.

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And then it was time for the ceremony. The candles were laid out on the table. A special poem had been chosen for reading.

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Everyone gathered in a circle and joined hands. Prayers were said for the new family. The poem was read. There were a few tears of happiness.

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And then it was time to light the symbolic unity candle. Today a new family was born.

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It was an honor to be present for such an amazing event. I want to thank everyone at The Giving Tree for inviting me to be involved. I also want to wish this large and happy new family a lifetime of love and happiness. Thank you for letting us be a part of your special day.

I would also like to extend a very special Thank You to Mark Tioxon, the 'Mark' of, for accompanying me on this special day. We had made other plans for this day, but when The Giving Tree notified me of the ceremony, he very generously agreed to donate his time and energy and camera as well. I was very glad to have him there when I arrived and realized what a big family we would be photographing. All of the images that you see here that aren't watermarked are his. Like this awesome last photo.

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If you enjoyed these photos, you can see another family unity ceremony here.

Thanks again for visiting my blog. It's always good to have you here.

A Lot of Wow

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I'm going to be honest with you (like I'm not usually). I've got big plans for my photography. I really do. If you've been looking at my work for a little while now, you have probably noticed that Every. Single. Shoot., stuff gets better. I've been really busting my chops for the past several months to learn EVERYTHING as fast as I possibly can. I'm not saying that what I was doing six months ago wasn't good, but I am saying what I'm doing now is SO much better.

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And I'm not slowing down. Remember that reading list I showed you a couple of weeks ago? I'm plowing through that stuff. Learning. Absorbing. It's like I'm in college, but without all the keg parties and student loans (both of which will give you a horrible headache later)..... AND I'm actually learning things that are relevant to what I'm doing.

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What's my point, you ask. Well, VALUE is my point. You see, this isn't my first time running my own business. I was a pretty darn successful decorative artist in the southeast for several years. The reason I was so successful was because I understood the importance of value. I always worked and strived to make sure that not only did my client get every single thing I promised them, they got MORE than what I promised. Every. Time. And more than a few times I heard from very satisfied clients that writing the final check to me was a joy because it was worth every penny and then some. In fact, I heard that from most clients.

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And so I'm taking all that I learned from my first business, and I'm applying it to my photography business. And then I'm turning up the wattage. Big time. Because I'm not interested in just puttering around. Every time I pick up a camera, it is my goal to be better than I was last time. Every time I take a payment from a client, it is my goal to make them feel like they got much more than they paid for.

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This set of photos is all about my friend Frank. Frank and I worked together for a little while. I actually hired him and trained him to be my assistant at the decorative arts studio where we worked. Right away I knew he was someone special. It took a long time to get to know him, because he's not one to talk a lot. But over several months, I found out more and more about him.

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One of the first things I learned about Frank is that he is a musician and composer. When I met him, he had very recently graduated from SCAD with a degree in sound design and was trying to figure out what was next. Having been in his shoes a (ahem) few years before, I understood his frustrations. We shared stories about the many ways that people try to take advantage of creative professionals. (There are apparently an infinite and endless number of ways people try to do this!)

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After some time, and some convincing, he finally shared some of his work with me. I didn't really know what to expect. His musical tastes were pretty unusual, and diverse. But when he finally let me hear some of his compositions for one of the short films he had worked on, I was blown away.

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So let's fast forward to today. Frank has finished his latest personal work. It's called Wake Windows. When we first started talking about doing a shoot, he sent me a copy to listen to. I have listened to this album (he said I can call it an album... digital stuff is confusing sometimes)... I've listened to this album nonstop. It's really my favorite thing to listen to right now.

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One of the things I like best about the way Frank composes is that the intensity of his music seems to be a direct connection to the right brain. I can listen to his music and do creative work for endless hours. This particular album has kept me in a creative zone for over a month.

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Frank was very gracious and sent me a link so that I can share his work with you. I invite you to listen to this with your headphones on and with a nice glass of wine in hand. Sit back and close your eyes and let the music pour over your brain. You are almost certain to feel refreshed after listening. But don't try to listen, because the point is that this music isn't the kind of thing that you sing along to. You experience it.

The Ocean Out and Drown of Plights by Frank A. Napoli

And I'll end the post here. I have more photos of Frank to share with you and I will be sure to do so. Thanks again for checking in. Hope your day is amazing.

Oh, for anyone who is wondering why I don't do decorative painting anymore, well, after a couple of decades of breathing all those fumes, I really just don't need to do it anymore. Thankfully, digital photography is odor free and VOC free. And that's a good thing. Cause I'm fond of breathing. Especially in and out.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Acrylic Prints of Your Favorite Photos

As a photographer, my goal is to make amazing photos for you to enjoy. Being a photographer is really lots of fun, especially the part where you jump up and down and clap your hands (or just smile and nod if you're all cool and stuff), and are totally thrilled with your photos. That rocks.

But there's this thing I've noticed lately, and other photographers I've spoken to agree. Even though you've got this super awesome disk with a hundred awesome photos on it that you are totally in love with, most of those photos never go anywhere except to your facebook profile... and don't get me wrong, facebook is great, but don't you want to do MORE with them?

At my house, there are photos in frames, photos in albums, photos pinned to bulletin boards, photos on mugs, photos in collages, photos on business cards, photos on 411 cards(more on those later) and now there's one of these.... an acrylic print. Ooooooh yessss. And it's gorgeous!

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The photo is printed on the back of a 1/4 inch thick piece of highly polished crystal clear acrylic. Then the back is coated with opaque white ink so that the light bounces through the image and back, bringing it to life with colors more vibrant and intense than you can get with traditional paper. Do I sound kinda geeky? It's because I didn't expect how good looking this thing was going to be when I ordered it.

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Have I ever told you how much I like shiny stuff? Yeah, I can't help it. You know you like shiny stuff too. What's not to love?

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Acrylic prints are also displayed a little differently too. On all four corners are stainless stand offs, so that when you install them, they stand out from the wall 1/2 inch.

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Details just pop to life on these prints. The glossy surface makes bright colors look richer and dark tones look deeper and richer.

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They come in 4 sizes: 16x16", 16x23.5", 19.5x19.5", 19.5x23.5" (That's 2 square formats and 2 rectangular formats.)

You see? There's lots of great stuff you can do with those awesome photos besides use them on facebook. In fact, I'm making it a point the next few weeks to tell you about several more. Be sure to let me know if you see something you want to know more about. If you have gorgeous photos, you should show them off! Let me help you do it.

As for me, guess I'll be buying a couple more of these for the living room. Good thing the prices on them are so sweet.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

2011: The Year of Convergence

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converge |kənˈvərj| verb [ intrans. ] (of several people or things) come together from different directions so as eventually to meet

Last month I sat down with a pencil and a notepad and made some lists about the year that had passed. I made a list of things that went well. I made a list of things that didn't go well. I made a list of things that I thought needed improvement.

And then I thought about what 2011 should be. And I made another list about what I thought I should accomplish in 2011.

It wasn't that hard to see a pattern developing as I listed my goals for this year... this will clearly be the year of putting it all together. All of the hard work, studying, stockpiling of gear and equipment, all of it is coming together now in a way that is starting to make sense. Momentum is building.

The photo of Frank above is symbolic of where I want to be going this year. Not toward using hecka lotta Photoshop, that's not what I mean. I mean toward creating images that say more about each person. This image of Frank is a collaboration. We talked about what his likes and dislikes were. He's a musician, so I listened to his album. It was really good, so I listened to it a lot. And then I made a list of ideas that we should try during his session. When we were done, I had a set of photos that he was afraid might be boring, but I knew they were exactly what I needed. Because it's 2011 and it's the year that all the hard work starts to pay off.

What is your year going to be about?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Offering Myself Up for Critique

I just received a tweet from Mark Stagi, a fine art wedding photographer from California whose Twitter feed I follow, suggesting to his followers that they submit 2-4 photos to him for critique. (You can see Mark's amazing photography here.) I thought it over and realized what a great opportunity it would be to have an accomplished and well known professional photographer review my work, so I quickly found four photos that I've completed recently to post. Since I haven't had a bonafide critique since college (we all know how long ago THAT was), I'm really excited for this opportunity, and I hope he will be able to review my work.

In the meantime, dear Internet friends, please forgive the reposting of photos you've seen before. If you are so inclined, I invite you to offer comments on these photos as well. I am always interested in any feedback anyone has, of any kind. You won't hurt my feelings, I swear!

And Mark, if you're reading this, thank you very much for your incredibly generous offer. I am really excited to hear everything you say, especially any constructive comments that will help me improve my work. Thank you. Thank you.

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Raven and Nick at the Abandoned Campground in Roswell

Cabin Fever : An idiomatic term for a claustrophobic reaction that takes place when a person or group is isolated and/or shut in, in a small space, with nothing to do, for an extended period (as in a simple country vacation cottage during a long rain or snow). Symptoms include restlessness, irritability, irrational frustration with everyday objects, forgetfulness, laughter, excessive sleeping, distrust of anyone they are with, and an urge to go outside even in the rain, snow or dark.

Hello again Internet. I've been very very busy this week, what with being all snowed in and nearly perishing at the hands of hormonal enraged teenagers suffering from extreme cabin fever. Fearing for my life, I locked the door and hid in my office with only some granola bars and a bottle of diet coke to subsist on (nah, not really.. about the granola bars.. we ate mountains of beans and rice.. see the last post). However, I'm finally starting to make a dent in the long list of things that got postponed to work on the office renovation.

You've already seen a couple of these photos of Raven and Nick, more if you visited my intern blog, since Raven is a fellow intern. Raven wanted some photos of herself and her beau, Nick, that she hadn't taken herself by duct taping her camera to a stick and banging it against a tree to press the shutter, so she asked for volunteers.. not to get banged against a tree.. to take her photos.. (what are you thinking?). Anyway, I volunteered to make their portrait, cause they are really cool people and I thought it would be an adventure to make a portrait of another portrait artist. I was right too! We had a great time running around the abandoned camp ground trying out ideas and concepts. I'll admit, I was a bit nervous, because both Raven and Nick are excellent photographers (see their website here), but they were so fun to play with that I forgot to be nervous until the ride home.. which is always my least favorite part of a shoot anyway, what with all the time to sit there and think of all the cool things I didn't do and so on. But that always leads to the best part of the whole experience, which is getting the photos finished and giving them to the client so they can see how awesome they look! Hey! That's this part! Check out how awesome Raven and Nick look in these cool photos!

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Coming up next: More Blog Posts! Stay tuned. You don't want to miss any!