Imagine a print by Ansel Adams. You're probably thinking of a black and white image, impeccably sharp and detailed, perhaps of Yosemite. Now visualize something by Monet. You're probably seeing a vividly colorful "impressionistic" painting, perhaps of a Japanese bridge or the French coast.
A lot of artists have a definitive style. You can see a piece and instantly know that it is an Adams, for example. Cultivating a style can be key to developing your own brand as an artist.
But you may also want to try something else.
Most of my work falls into two categories: sharp, dramatic landscapes under fiery red skies and images of wildlife in the context of its environment. While that makes up the majority of what I show, it's not the whole of what I do.
For years, I've experimented with alternative ways of photographing the natural world. Inspired by the work of Freeman Patterson, William Neill and others, I've made a number of impressionistic images. Sometimes I move the camera around during a long exposure. Sometimes I zoom in or out while the shutter is open. Sometimes I try to make multiple exposures on the same frame.
The image at the top of this post is from a beach in Edmonds, Washington. I headed there to photograph the sunset over the Olympic Mountains. The sunset was pretty, but not especially dramatic. Whatever I got that night was not going to be better than images of the Olympics I had taken in the past.
So I decided to try something else. For some time, I wanted to create an image that showed the layers of the Olympics. It's hard to do. The peaks are very similar in height, so short of using aerial photography, it's hard to show rows and rows of mountains.
I was at sea level, so I created the rows of mountains by using an impressionistic approach. I used the longest shutter speed I could, held the camera in one position for a second, moved it a bit and held it in that position for a while, and so on. In this image, there are probably six or seven rows of mountains.
The image at the bottom was from another session at a nearby beach. I panned the camera with incoming waves at sunset.
Very few people get to see the results of my experiments. Most of the images are quickly deleted. I tuck a few away in an "abstract" file.
I got a chance to pull that abstract file out recently. An art gallery that I regularly work with has a client that wants abstract images of the Pacific Northwest. They invited me to submit images even though that's not generally my thing. I pulled a dozen of my favorites and the client seems really interested in about half.
Even now, I'm not sure I'll show much more of my abstract work. It's mainly for me. It helps me to concentrate on shapes and color — good design that helps me create better "traditional" images.
That, and I think there's something to be said for creating your own brand. Creating a brand usually requires some consistency.
On the other hand, I recently toured the special Picasso exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. Even pieces he created just a few months apart looked like they were done by different people. That didn't seem to hurt his career.
Whatever the case, I've found it helpful to try something else from time to time. If you're developing your style, a little experimentation can help you find it. If you have a style, experimentation can help you refine it and keep it fresh.
And don't be afraid to share a few of your experiments. You may find a captive audience.