Unpredictable Artmaking And The Joy Of The Broken

image: dan james
image: dan james

How often in your creative life have you had all the materials and equipment you need – the ideal set up for making the greatest art of your life – but then been disappointed with the, at best, mediocre results you’ve been able to come up with?

Recently I had an experience that was the complete opposite, and that reminded me of the value of the less than perfect.

As you probably know, I’m a photographer, and I recently acquired a new (old) camera, that turned out not to work properly.

In short, the lightmeter, which measures the light coming in through the lens, then sets the appropriate shutter speed, was only working intermittently, so most of the time it was stuck at a very fast setting of 1/1000 second.

I decided to try a roll of film in the camera anyway.

And I’m very happy I did, as whilst some of the photographs were unrecognisable and unusable, most were really interesting.

And some were quite lovely, far beyond what I thought the temperamental camera would be able to create.

Two key lessons arose from this –

1. Experimenting with less than perfect equipment, materials and environments often surprises you, and leads to happy accidents and exciting new avenues.

The more we use a particular creative tool and/or material, the closer we come to a kind of mastery. We get to know its properties, its features, its behaviours, its quirks, and this ever increasing knowledge and intimacy means we can control it with more precision.

But… Sometimes we get to such a level of control, we become more like a machine or conveyor belt robot, programmed to reproduce exact results with zero tolerance for error, time and time again.

Which after a while becomes tired and dull, even sterile, both for the artist, and for the audience.

By playing with equipment and materials that have an inbuilt level of unpredictability, even if you try to recreate the exact same results over and over, it won’t happen.

This frees you up to experiment more, and see what happy accidents arise.

Which is exactly what happened with my “broken” camera, and gave me interesting photographs like this –

image: dan james
image: dan james

2. Practise, showing up and experience, counts.

If we practise our artmaking regularly, we gain experience. We get to know what we need to do to create something we like.

Whilst, as we spoke of above, creating with the same predictable materials in exactly the same way over and over again leads to an uninspiring output (even if it’s technically precise), repeated creating of any kind helps us learn what works. And what doesn’t.

With my camera example, I knew that my shutter speed most of the time was going to be stuck at a very fast 1/1000s.

The Sunny 16 rule of photography told me that on the sunny morning I went out an ideal shutter speed at f/16 would be 1/250s. Meaning for 1/1000s, two stops faster, I’d need to open the aperture by the same two stops, to f/5.6, to get the same exposure.

Any smaller an aperture would mean the images were underexposed and likely too dark too see. So I used only f/5.6 and larger apertures.

So this basic knowledge and experience meant that although my results with a broken camera would have some unpredictability, they would still create something usable, and I wouldn’t have a roll full of black images.

In summary, experimenting with broken equipment – introducing a certain unpredictability or randomness – can breathe new life into your creating, not only in the process, but the end result too.

Which makes for a happy and rejuvenated artist.

How predictable and controlled is your artmaking currently?

How could you introduce some “broken” elements into your work, to see what new avenues and inspiring surprises it could lead to?

Join the conversation in our community to let us know about your experiences.


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