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Finding Your Artist's Voice

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Bonny Lhotka offers an assemblage of ideas to motivate photographers and artists to assess their work from a new viewpoint.
This chapter is from the book

One of the hardest things about being a photographer or artist can be finding a creative voice that reflects the uniqueness of your own spirit. A way you can approach this is by determining which particular medium is right for you—sculpture, photography, painting, printmaking, poetry, film, and song each has their own unique character. One of my sons uses sound to paint mental pictures reflecting dreams and imagination. The other uses written and spoken words (not musical, mind you, as he jokes that on a good day, he can carry a song—in a bucket) to share visions of how the future can be. Both sons use photography to tell stories. And while my daughter-in-law is joining me in the studio using these processes, you’d never guess that her work and mine use the same techniques because we each have our own unique creative voice.

This chapter is an assemblage of ideas that I hope will motivate photographers and artists to assess their work from a new viewpoint. While the work included in this book is a representation of the possibilities, your goal should not be to replicate those images but rather to take the techniques and apply them to create your own signature look.

Be Prepared

The best image is the one you actually take, not the one you missed because your camera is at home. The smartphone revolution has somewhat solved that problem. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t take a photograph of some kind, either with my iPhone or my Nikon. Now that everyone has a smartphone camera, we’re producing an amazing number of images every day. For most people, these are simply snapshots that will end up on a hard disk or website. The photographer or artist has a different kind of eye, however—they not only see and capture the scene before them but they also visualize what the image can become. In this light, capturing the image obviously is important, but it’s what you do with the photograph that really matters. For me, these actions of seeing, capturing, and visualizing are ingredients you can use together or in layers to create a larger message and story.

It helps to keep the story in mind as you take photographs: think not only about what you are shooting, but also why you are shooting it. We all can benefit from stepping back and thinking about not just a single piece, but about a body of work that we want to create. It may be a series of works through shared composition or subject matter, or with a single technique or techniques. In any case, it’s the overall story that we want to tell that’s important because this is what launches the creative process.

While basic (or advanced) Lightroom or Photoshop skills can apply filters, make photographs look foggy, replicate toy camera looks, or even turn vibrant colors into black and white images, the best techniques alone will not turn a photograph that contains no thought or planning—and, hence, is poorly composed and without a story—into a piece you’d hang on your wall, let alone in a gallery or museum.

I’m often asked how I develop an idea for a body of work. Where does the spark come from that can carry me through several different pieces over many months?

One great example of finding that spark comes from my pre-digital days. I was attending a Peter Kater concert at the Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, Colorado. On that summer night, the old wooden structure engulfed the audience and blocked out all except for the intense performance. The music released my left brain and I found myself mentally painting and developing a completely new process.

It turns out that those imaginings had their roots in an experiment I’d done the month before: painting in reverse on a plastic plate and then pulling it off to reveal the work—layering in reverse. Something clicked that night and it all came together. I returned to my studio, put on the same music I heard that night, and was able to begin the process of creating more than 100 works based on the one experience, many of which are now in private and public collections (Figure 4.1).

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1. This 48" x 96" acrylic monographic transfer is titled Fear Alley.

By mentally storing all kinds of visual imagery, you program your internal computer and intuitive vocabulary with the necessary components for the spark to ignite. Those captured elements can be instantly recalled to consciousness when you’re away from the computer and trigger the Aha moment that results in a compelling work. I find that if I rely too much on stored digital photographs, I spend time and energy thinking about where I saw something rather than what I saw. As well, sometimes working with real materials helps me keep the focus on the work—and I’m not alone. I recall John Derry, who was one of the original authors of Fractal Design Painter (now Corel Painter), telling me in 1994 that he would go scrub a piece of chalk on paper to determine how the digital version should work and would then incorporate that visual imagery and feel into the product.

When I taught experimental painting techniques, I would tell my students that it’s just fine to paint what you like. Even cliché subjects like daises, mushrooms, dead trees, and Hawaiian sunsets can be made unique and compelling if you can find a creative way to use the subject. One of the masters of looking at ordinary things in new ways is Edward Weston (http://www.edward-weston.com/edward_weston_natural.htm). His images of peppers, toadstools, chard, and artichokes express beautiful simplicity in a way that reflects his own creative voice. For me, what it comes down to is you must be open to experimentation while drawing on experiences to fuel you. Those experiences you bring are what keep you prepared for the unexpected and new.

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