It’s “Guest Blog Wednesday” featuring: John Paul Caponigro


First things first. It’s an honor to be invited to be a guest contributor here on Scott’s blog and to follow terrific guest posts by both Vincent Versace and Joe McNally. Cheers to what I hope will become not only a long happy tradition but also an industry trend. I know I’ll be guest blogging for other industry luminaries. And I’ve invited them to make guest appearances on my blog. My blog? Yes! You heard it here first. Not even my Insights enews members know this yet. My new blog is live! Check it out here. (After you read the great posts on this blog!)

Many take the view that pictures should be seen and not heard. I did. After being called to comment on my work time and time again, I realized that learning to comment on my work not only made my work more effective but it also helped me understand my work better and solve certain creative challenges. In fact, I realized that there are many types of writing and many uses for writing. Writing is now an integral part of my creative process from start to finish. Making the Visual Verbal is a useful skill that can benefit everyone, including you. You don't think you can write? Anyone can finish a sentence. Finishing it well just takes practice. And some kinds of writing don't need finished sentences. While it's true there's only one Shakespeare, we can all write. After all, think of all the great writing (fiction and nonfiction) that's been written since Shakespeare. Personally, I don't want to receive love letters written by Shakespeare. I want love letters written to me by my wife.

How have I been called to talk about images? Here are 5 ways.

  • You can read Interviews I’ve given here.
  • You can read conversations I’ve had with other great artists here.
  • You can read statements I’ve written here.
  • You can see related images here.
  • You can find my workshops here.
  • You can find my DVDs here.
  • You can find my tutorials at Kelby Training here.

Making the Visual Verbal

“Pictures should be seen and not heard.” “If we could communicate what we want to communicate with words, then we’d be writers not artists.” The words had rained down on me so many times that my mind had been saturated with the idea. While it reflects some truth, chiefly that a text (written or verbal) can never be a substitute for an image, it can also be misleading. Pictures have always been, continue to be, and will always be talked about-particularly by artists.

Growing up in an artistic family, the parade of visitors and people we visited included many types of artists from musicians to sculptors and most frequently photographers. The topics of conversation were far-reaching and colorful. Often there would be complaints about what had been written about their own work, sometimes about what had been written about each other’s work, or ……what had been written about other artist’s work. Then, if they existed, out would come quotes from an artist’s personal writings that were used to illuminate, reinforce or refute varied points of view (Artist’s letters, journals, interviews and statements have always held a special position in the history of art. They have forever shaped the commentary that surrounds work.) Inevitably, the very same artists, who claimed that artists should remain mute, would be lured into giving a lecture or an interview about their work. Artists approach the process of making the visual verbal with mixed feelings; part trepidation, part confirmation, part validation. To be sure, while there are many pitfalls to be avoided, there are many positive byproducts to making the visual verbal.

Writing can illuminate new avenues of inquiry for the viewer and in so doing enrich the entire viewing process, including the subsequent viewing process of future works by other artists. Writing is a process of revelation, It is a process of making thought visible. It is a matter of clarifying a process of thinking. By making what was intuitively sensed visible to the conscious mind, the familiar is clarified and the unfamiliar is brought to light.

Writing about images is inevitable. This kind of writing has always been there. It always will be. Someone, somewhere, sometime will write about your images. You have a great deal to contribute to the process. Along the way, you’re likely to find that writing about your work will be extremely revealing.

Many positive things happen when you engage writing. You will understand your work better. You will be able to communicate more clearly about your work. You will affirm the strengths of your work. You will be able to chart your own artistic development over time. You may even be able to uncover the seeds that will provide future growth in your work.

There are a variety of ways to make the visual verbal. There are artist’s journals, artist’s statements and writing exercises that can be used to get to the core of the inner life of work. There are ways to prepare for interviews; these days many interviews are conducted through writing over the Internet. There are lectures, and writing and rehearsing creates a solid structure for them. Writing can be a tremendous aid to any creative endeavor at any stage in the process.

Certain kinds of writing exercises can get the creative flowing. Whenever I want to understand an image, a series or a body of work better, I try word association. Association can work in several ways. You can cluster words and phrases around an image drawing widely from any association that might spring to mind in a linear fashion (Freud’s method) or stay closer to the subject at hand returning to the same source before each new word or phrase is generated (Jung’s method). Do both and note the difference. Here’s the key; don’t censor yourself. No matter how absurd, write all your responses down. You’ll have conventional responses, rhyme, make links to current events, even rethink other people’s thoughts, but amid all of the machinations of the everyday mind, information from your subconscious will well up if you approach it with an open and non-judgmental frame of mind. This is where pure gold is found. You’ll quickly discover connections and feelings you hadn’t consciously recognized. Next, you’ll want to distill the pool of material these associations generate, focusing on the responses that seem most relevant or significant. Edit them down to the essentials. Then prioritize them. Going further, you can extract themes by making connections between related material. These can form a framework for current comment and future work.

Another very useful technique is amplification. Once you know the qualities or themes that lie within your work, elaborate them. Find all the other ways to say the same things. Say more. You may find the material you’re missing is lying in wait for you. One very useful technique is to give voice to a work or the elements within a work. If they could tell you their story, what would they say? These kinds of exercises develop a new level of intimacy with your work. You’ll understand it on levels that you might not have imagined before.

I hadn’t realized the parallels and connections between two bodies of my own work until I compared the associations and distillations I had done for each separately. Though the work looked different and the subject was quite different (nude and landscape), fully a third of the words and phrases were the same. Despite their differences, at heart their themes were the same. In the long run, this was my own theme. I ended up understanding individual images, both bodies of work, the entire course of my work to date, and myself better. This allowed me to focus and develop that even further.

While the personal writings of many famous artists have later been made public, most journals are highly personal and their contents were never intended to be shared. Your journals need only be seen by and be influential to you. A journal is a safe haven for you to explore. Much more than making a permanent record, a touchstone to return to in future years, an artist’s journal serves the purpose of exploration. The process of reflection is always a process of revelation. There are many kinds of journals: chronicles of inspiration, acknowledgements of influence, charts of personal progress including milestones, dream books, hopes for the future, letters to a past self, letters to a confidant. (There have been ~ great correspondences throughout the history of art.) There are even visual journals containing personal sketches, clippings of influential images by other artists, or reproductions of sympathetic work recently found. You can be as creative with your journals as you are with your images. You might even have several, each with a purpose all its own.

While you never know which details will be the most significant in the future, many journals often contain too much detail. A list of minute details and trivia make it hard to get to what’s important. You may find an emotional, psychological or philosophical history to be more valuable. If a journal doesn’t help you find clarity, if it doesn’t reinvigorate your personal inquiry, if the process of creating it doesn’t ultimately change the way you see, then it’s of limited use. What should be included above all are the things that change the way you see and in the process who you are and will become. A history of passion is much more useful than a history of dry facts. While one might serve as fuel for a future fire, only one can strike a spark. If you find that you are disappointed that you haven’t kept a journal, or a particular kind of journal, it’s never too late to start. And, you can write “backwards.” Journal entries that look back on the significant events in your life can often be the most rewarding. What’s more, the treasures that are unearthed along the way are often the most valuable and they are certainly the most relevant at the time you reclaim them.

I have many kinds of journals. While it’s a good idea to take some care with the container for your journals, I find I prefer loose leaf sheets of paper that I later collect into folders. I sort them by content; one for dreams, one for ideas, one for sketches off the top of my head, one for sketches from materials I have collected, one for significant influences over time (I’ve written backwards to age one), one for reproductions of images I appreciate, one for images I find influential, one for major events throughout a year, one for particular insights over the years. Anyone of these themes is simply a useful container to focus a thought process.

Artist’s Statements
While a journal is a private matter, an artist’s statement is meant to be made public. Like a journal, an artist’s statement can be approached in many ways and serves many functions. An artist’s statement can be used to clarify a thought process, to introduce a body of work to viewers, provide useful excerpts for another’s writing, create the foundation for a lecture, or set the stage for an interview. If you haven’t written an artist’s statement, do. Use this mantra as a starting point; one word, one phrase, one sentence, one paragraph, one page.

Master retoucher, Robb Carr, a good friend of mine, quietly caught me off guard one night, “If you could sum up your work in one sentence, what would that be?” I was at a loss for words, How can you reduce a life’s work to a few words? I realized that I had been asked a profound question. I returned to my room that night and there on my bedside table was my answer in two words; I was reading Chet Raymo’s Natural Prayers. I had written several artist’s statements, still I was unprepared for a very simple and useful question. Now I upped the ante. Could I do it in one word? Using spare moments collected throughout a few days I had my answers, (Reflections-Natural prayers-My work is about the perception of nature and the nature of perception.)

How, frequently should an artist’s statement be done? It should be done after the creation of a new body of work, perhaps to understand a single image, to understand a series of images, or to articulate a personal philosophy. Do not wait to be called to write, plan to write. I strongly recommend writing artist’s statements after work has been generated. If a statement is written beforehand, it can guide your efforts too strongly. Then exploration is limited and the surprises contained in the work itself, the ones that bring about the greatest personal transformation and growth, may not arise. Every process has a wisdom all its own that can only be revealed by submitting to it. This is true of writing.

One form of statement is essential for any endeavor-a mission statement. If you think that only traditional businesses need them, think again. Plan for the future. Shape your destiny rather than being shaped by circumstance and happenstance. Set reasonable goals for one, two, three, five and ten years. Revisit them frequently; revise them annually. Having set goals based on the accomplishments of each previous year, I’ve exceeded them each year for the last ten years. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t taken the time to focus and organize my thoughts in writing, Doing this work generates real, tangible benefits.

At some point in time, it is likely that you will be called upon to make a public presentation about your work. It’s not likely that you’ll want to write out a lecture word for word. Outlines are generally best. They structure the course of a presentation. They often contain markers for introductions, key transitions and conclusions. An outline is a good thing to review shortly before giving the presentation and to have on hand during the presentation to keep you on track.

If you think of ways to make a presentation better, before, during or after, write them down. There’s always room for improvement and the challenge will keep you on your toes. If you make a presentation different each time, even if it’s just slightly different, it will always seem fresh.

While you don’t want to cite too many references, citing a few is good form. They can lend validation and credibility to almost any presentation. You may want to collect relevant quotes and readings from significant historical sources. Whenever I read, I’m constantly on the lookout for this kind of material. I mark the pages that contain anything I think might be useful, now or in the future. By the same token it can be useful to cite a few influences. Citing your appreciation of similar works by other artists and any parallels that exist often helps an audience feel more at ease with new work.

I find it useful to have several kinds of lectures at hand; chronological, thematic, technical. Public speaking is difficult at first, but it gets easier with practice. I used to marvel at people who could get up in front of a crowded auditorium and deliver a presentation of any kind. Now I feel comfortable talking to crowds of people, often to several hundred people at a time, and I do so routinely. Getting there took preparation and practice. Now my goal is to do it better each time. I actually look forward to the challenge.

Interviews take place in a variety of media-e-mail, phone, radio and television. Each medium has its own strengths. Plan to play to those. Regardless of which medium the interview rakes place in, start with an agenda. You might write that agenda in bullet point form. Then flesh out the points with succinct statements.

Interviews via e-mail are written; you have ample time to consider your word choice and can often make longer, more complex statements that can be tightly orchestrated. The downside is that a written interview can become stiff. Stay loose. Remember to keep things fresh and spontaneous. Interviews by phone and radio are very similar to one another. The major difference is that at a radio station you usually’ have a physical presence as well as a voice to interact with. But, remember, the listener only hears voices. Project, don’t go too fast, speak in full sentences, don’t repeat phrases too often, and eliminate the word “um” from your vocabulary. Come with several short statements prepared and rehearsed. Ask yourself the questions you’d like to be asked and the ones you think you might be asked and answer them. Whenever possible, share the list of questions and answers with the interviewer. Quite often they appreciate your help. Even if they or you don’t use the exact words you prepared, your answers will show that you were prepared.

Interviews on television are perhaps the most challenging. Time is short. You need to react to the questions put to you and communicate what you want to say in a short amount of time. Write several succinct statements (soundbites) and memorize them. You can’t read your lines onscreen. Then tailor your performance to the moment. You’ll have to improvise, but if you come in with a few riffs at your fingertips you’ll be ready to deliver the best performance possible. Television is performance under pressure. You can reduce the pressure by being prepared ahead of time. Use the remaining pressure for adrenaline. Have fun with it and your
performance will be animated and memorable.

While you don’t want them to be the sum of your statements, personal anecdotes are very useful. They humanize any statement and allow people to empathize with you. Anecdotes that share something you have in common with your audience are particularly effective. Finally, always make or get a copy of anything that is published in any media on your work. You can use it for future promotional efforts. You are your greatest archive.

For the past decade, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many of my colleagues. I’ve always approached this work as if I were the artist’s ally. Comparing notes with other writers, watching how they approach an interview, listening to the reactions of artists to the interviews they’ve given, being interviewed myself, I’ve seen things from many perspectives. It’s helped me to understand the interview process better, both its limitations and what it can be in the best of situations. I recommend you practice. Try interviewing yourself. Then get a friend or colleague to interview you. If you do, you’ll not only be better prepared for interviews with new acquaintances, you’ll learn many things along the way.

Write, Write, Write or Just Do It
Many people who do not consider themselves writers are intimidated by the thought of writing. But all will admit that writing serves many functions and there are many kinds of writing and writers. Everyone can write. Not all significant writing is great literature. It doesn’t have to be. Your writing need only be significant. Ultimately it’s what you have to say that’s most important, not how you say it. In her book One Continuous Mistake, Gail Sher offers four noble truths for writers: “Writers write. Writing is a process. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is not to write.” The same could be said of any artistic process. It could also be said that all artists can benefit from writing. After you create, use writing to deepen your understanding of the product you’ve created and the process you’ve gone through. You will be richly rewarded for your efforts.

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