Creative Freedom

What exactly is creative freedom? Aren’t we all able to make whatever we want? The short answer is yes – but…

We can make art for any reason. It can be therapeutic, it can be for the sake of making art, or it can be to make money. I’m going to leave the first two reasons out of this post because I believe as artists/creatives we already make art because it makes us happy and because we enjoy doing it or why would we continue making art? However, when money is involved, things get a little more complicated.

Random supplies and tools – Creative Freedom can be expressed as having the ability to make art without constraints. © Michael Warth

The more control we give our clients, the less freedom we have as artists to make our art. There, I said it. Before you get all twisted and start thinking about sending me an email about how wrong I am, I just want you to think about this. When the dollar value goes up, or when the client’s demands become focused (or both), we as creatives, often have to go with suggestions, rules, specific ideas (not our own), and constraints. I see these as loss of freedoms. Alternatively, we may find ourselves collaborating with great people and the synergy can lead to fantastic projects – but you’ll still have less freedom if money is involved.

I love collaboration. In fact, put me in a space with a few like-minded creatives and let us make art. It will be fun. However, if the project is overseen by a client (often a non-creative), and one is getting paid to make the art, there will be some sort of direction that takes the creative freedoms away from the team or individual getting paid to make the art they would happily do if they weren’t getting paid.

Do you see were I’m going with this? 

I’m not saying that we should only make free art! And I’m not saying we should never get paid! Stick with me here.

There are two ways an artist can make art and get paid to do it. In the simplest form, one can think of getting paid like this:

  1. Make the art, and sell the finished work to someone who appreciates it. This option still has the most creative freedom but may have the constraint associated with only making art that sells to established clients. Be yourself, make your art, let them buy it if they like it. Enough said…don’t make art because you think it will sell. Don’t make art because you learned what ___________ ___________ does and you think their art is cool and they make a lot of money.
  2. Take on a work-for-hire model and simply make art for your clients based on their needs. This option is the least creative freedom option but still may allow for a bit of wiggle room as long as you are able to say, “no” to the client work you don’t want to do. Just remember, money talks. Work with clients who like your style, your ideas, etc. Never let a client dictate unless you are willing to be an employee to get paid doing what you love. In my experience, you won’t love making art if you feel like an employee.

Obviously, we can do both, and most of us do. The bottom line is – how much control, or creative freedom are you willing to sacrifice for money?

I posted the following on my personal FaceBook wall the other day.

I get the feeling we’ve become a society obsessed with learning how to do something, what other people are doing, and simply gather information to be like someone else. 

Do your own thing and be yourself. When they want to do what you do, then you’ve reached the point of greatness.

If we allow our creative freedom to be dictated by earnings, revenue, or whatever you want to call it, aren’t we just making our art a job? Are we not doing what everyone does? Are we not being our best self?

Quick Personal Story:

(Yes, this is going to sound like an artist who wasn’t able to make his art, and forgot he was getting paid. The point is, all my creative freedom was sold at a price.)

I once worked for a client that I was pretty excited to work for. So much so, I ignored my regular day rate (it was a commercial photography gig) because I loved the client’s product, and just knew it would be a career boost for me. This high profile client could open doors for me and get more clients. At the time, seemed like a good decision. As the planning stages went on, I realized my creative ideas were becoming less and less important. My time was rushed before and during the shoot, and the processes I use were not being considered. The only important thing to the client was getting the images as cheap as possible and as fast as possible. I even think quality was a last priority and the old adage of “good enough” was the goal.

The photographers out there will understand this. I was working a problem with the lighting and subject. I work in manual mode, and some of you know that exposure is nothing more than a series of compromises between shutter speed, ISO setting, and aperture size. The set was partially established, and I was trying to work with a stand in before bringing in the hero for the final shots. The process was being rushed and before I knew it, the hero was already being placed in camera view. The lighting was wrong, the angles were ugly, and the composition wasn’t working. I was then told to get another series of shots while we can (this was another set on location). A totally different setup and the settings on the camera were widely different. I couldn’t work the problems. It was like I should’ve just left the gear at home and used my iPhone to get their shots.

The entire day with the client was just plain awful – painful really. Within a few hours on the job, I couldn’t even find the energy to be creative, I lost my headspace, started questioning why I was there, and didn’t even care about the money anymore. I finished the job, delivered the best images, and it was still painfully awkward working with the client. Every warning sign telling me to avoid the job was flashing like a neon sign, but I ignored them because I wanted to be “that guy”. Money dictated the job, the client profile clouded my vision, and I lost my muse. She ran from me like Jamie Lee Curtis running from Michael Myers (not the funny one). I was a monkey with a camera and I must have looked like a baboon to my client.

They got a cheap photographer, a starry-eyed fan with a camera, to do their job. They didn’t get my best because they wanted something I couldn’t do. They wanted fast, cheap, good enough photos but didn’t want to put in the time to work the process. They saw my work, they liked my portfolio…they didn’t have a clue about the time and processes I use to make those pictures. There were distractions on set, and in some cases the “set” wasn’t even ready when I got there.

I often think about this client. I see the images in some of their marketing and wonder if they even care that I felt like a mule, and unwelcome in their presence. I’m not kidding here, they were a bit rude and lacked basic hospitality skills. Several hours in, I asked for a water to drink. One would’ve thought I asked for congress to change the laws for me. They will continue burning through talent and getting “good enough” results to sell their product and brand. I learned my lesson, and it will never happen again. What works for them, just wasn’t my cup of tea.

If our art is truly a reflection of our soul, the images in our mind we manifested into something tangible – they will buy it. They will spend money on it. They will give us the time and freedom to make the art they like. The clients who allow us to be the artist they hired, are the clients we say, “yes” to. The others can find the poor souls chasing money or fame, and allowing their creative freedoms to be soiled for the sake of the job. Don’t seek a job, do your art because they hired you or purchased your work because they love it. If there are warning signs telling you not to take the job (in the case of a work-for-hire), listen to your gut feeling and learn to say no when something doesn’t feel right.

Creative freedom is a real thing. How you perceive freedom may direct your choices, but the final say needs to be your art. You are in control until you allow fame or money control you.



*** UPDATE ***

(April 11, 2017)

I got a few emails regarding the wording I used above. Specifically, “work for hire”. In legal terms, a work for hire is (or may be used as a phrase for) something similar to a buy-out where the client owns the copyright. In the context of this post, I don’t necessarily mean give up your copyright. Artists should always protect their work and if a client wants the rights, then the artist should charge a premium for it. I used the phrase above to differentiate between making art on spec (that is, to make the art and hope to sell it to a buyer), and making art based on a client’s needs (to be commissioned or “hired” by a client).

Therefore, in the context of this post, a “work for hire model” as I stated above refers more to doing commissioned work, or simply get hired by a client to do their project. It is up to the artist and their terms of use as to how they proceed with the details regarding copyrights. I’m not a lawyer – if you need more clarification, or find yourself in need of professional assistance in regards to copyright laws I would suggest finding a lawyer with the experience to help you. Just know, in some areas, the words “buy out” and “work for hire” mean they own your copyrights after the project is done. Make it clear in your contracts that you own the copyright and they do not if you want to retain your rights to use the image.

When You Have Creative Anxiety And The Muse Is Gone

Ever have the urge to get something done but you can’t muster the energy to even start? Or maybe the noise of life has snuffed out your desire to make art. In my case, the daily routine (Monday through Friday) often kills the weekends and by the time Saturday comes around, it’s easier to relax and take a break than prepare for a 10-16 hour day in the studio making art. Furthermore, my luck tends to jump in and something pops up before the productive hours can be completed and this mindset eventually kills the spark that would get me in the studio in the first place.

Even as I sit here, on the couch, in the family room, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Ohio, I struggle with my words. The muse is apparently on vacation and doesn’t want to be bothered. Part of me wants to describe the anxiety I feel, and part of me wants to share a positive, and valuable piece of advice you can take away from this post.

The following may be too much for some of you and the fact is, it may very well make the creative in you scream – read on if you dare.

A lot of expensive gear – useless when it sits around, but in the right hands, these tools can entertain thousands. I made this photo with minimal camera gear and just one bottle of whiskey. Make art with what you have and stop wasting time – © Michael Warth

So many creatives feel like gear is the most important facet of their work. Sure, a nice camera in the right hands is a great tool. Those expensive Siberian sable brushes imported from a small village in Russia, made by the oldest living hand-made brush guy might be pretty sweet, but I think there is one thing that is more important than anything we have in our bags or studios. That one thing is time. Yes, time is the most important “thing” we have as artists.

We need time in the studio, time away from the noise of life, time to make art before we die. Seriously, this is the one thing that keeps me up at night. I have major anxiety that stems from the fact that my art-making days are numbered. When we spend that valuable commodity doing other things such as a job, chores, responsibilities, or whatever, we are giving up the one thing we can’t go down to the art or camera store to buy more of – time. The other struggle with time involves the past.

If you are like me, there is also a sense of regret for not chasing the creative life at a young age when it was easier. Before I get hate mail and negative comments about this statement let me explain. When we are young, we often don’t have a mortgage, big bills, family roots that go deep, and all the things that keep us from taking big leaps. Yes, I could drop it all and walk away and hope I’ll sell enough art to maintain a comfortable living – but I have people who depend on me and that would be irresponsible. Therefore, a large chunk of my time must be spent at a job and not in the studio (i.e. anxiety due to lack of time).

When the weekend gets here, I have to cram five days worth of art making into two days while trying to be social. This part of my life can lead to problems. And because I ignored my muse all week, I can expect to hunt for her when the weekend gets here (which leads to more lost time). Factor in my age, and the fact that I am convinced I’ll die before 60 without realizing my dream of making a great living selling my art, and the anxiety becomes absolutely paralyzing and destructive. My brain explodes with ideas at the least appropriate and most inopportune times. While, my free time is void of creativity and I am at a loss.

I could go on and on with reasons and excuses for not making art. I’d love a studio in a large open warehouse, I’d love to win the lottery so money and health insurance wouldn’t be an issue, I’d love to be 20 years old again, and I wish I could turn it (creativity) on and off like a switch. You get the idea. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers here. The point is, all of us have a perception of success. We have an ideal life we want to live. The determining factor is time, not money, not gear, nothing but time. One cannot be an artist if they don’t spend the time making art.

If you have this sort of anxiety too, ask yourself this:

  1. Do you have a dedicated space to make art?
  2. Is your space a fortress of solitude or simply a place you leave your stuff setup? If it is not a fortress of solitude, then maybe you need a new space.
  3. Are others respectful of your time?
  4. Do you have a schedule?
  5. Are you worried about gear, or making art?

I have a dedicated space to make art but it’s not ideal. A space outside the home large enough to make art would be perfect but also costly. My current space is not a fortress of solitude and I’m easily distracted and drawn out of my creative mind-space which leads to frustration and kills my scheduled time in the studio. For the most part, my family respects my studio time. However, I’m still too easy to interrupt and the creative train of thought derailed for something I don’t feel was urgent enough to warrant the interruption. I can be a real ass and it leads to ruining the day. I’m just being open here. I don’t have a schedule because it changes due to many factors and I simply do my best to plan for studio time. Finally, I rarely worry about gear because I’m just not a gear guy. I would absolutely love a set of Broncolor strobes and a Hasselblad medium format camera but I also know it’s not necessary (but it would be cool).

I know this post reads like a rambling of excuses. To be honest, excuses are the main reason most of us don’t start. When I sat down to write this post, I wasn’t in any mood to think creatively. The damn time change and the anxiety of losing the weekend to other time consuming activities has all but made me hate my life. Truth is, most artists are agonizing solitary types who like being alone in their heads thinking about deep subjects. We often don’t enjoy social activities but tolerate them because we can only be weird most of the time. Don’t get mad at us, don’t feel like we hate you or are avoiding you – we simply have a short time to get the art out of our head before it’s lost forever.