What is creativity? How elusive is it and can we learn creativity? This article tries to describe the creative process and what it really is based on an influential essay of military strategist John R. Boyd and then tries to apply it to the artistic process.

Not too long ago, I stumbled across an article that drew my attention. The article describes how creativity works but not by giving concrete examples from the world of art. Instead, it describes how creativity in general works by referring to, and paraphrasing from the work of an unknown but highly regarded military strategist, John R. Boyd. His influence in the world of the military is compared to that of renowned military strategists as Sun Tzu. Yet he remained relatively unknown due to the fact that he very rarely wrote down his ideas. Except for his essay called Destruction and Creation (click to download the full 7 pages essay) that deals with how innovation and creativity really works. Obviously, his essay is targeted at military strategists but works in any aspect of life and especially for those people who seek autonomy and independence. People such as entrepreneurs, innovators, and artists.

Simply put, his essay describes that as individuals we always aim to improve our capacity for independent action as a way to survive on our own terms. If we cooperate or compete with others we’re essentially striving to satisfy that basic need to overcome obstacles we can’t overcome on our own. When cooperating, we do that to pool skills and talents for an improved capacity for independent action, but less on our own terms – a trade-off. When we compete, an improved capacity for independent action will constrain that same capacity for other groups or individuals in a world where skills and resources are scarce. From this follows that decisions and actions must continuously be made to achieve the goal. Decisions will be made based on mental concepts of an observed reality. If reality changes, that mental concept needs to change too. All for the sake of improved capacity for independent action.

The way we create mental concepts is either from specific-to-general or from general-to-specific. In other words, in the case of from general-to-specific: we break down a whole and deduct, analyze and differentiate: it’s destruction. In the other case, we induct, integrate and synthesize: this is creation. When we deconstruct and then construct we change our perception of reality.

(…) what needs to happen continuously is destructive deconstruction into its smallest components and then rebuild, synthesize and integrate those components into a new concept or model by looking for the common qualities within those components (…)

Boyd then states that a concept, any successful concept, will always reach a point that it will not work anymore. Not even, and especially, when it’s continuously analyzed, improved, and evolved. It will fail because we use observations to formulate and sharpen concepts and we use concepts to shape and sharpen observations. It will fail because its evaluation and improvement are based on criteria within the concept itself while not everything can be explained (and improved) by criteria inside that concept but only by criteria from an outside model. And it will fail because when we observe reality to sharpen concepts and use concepts to sharpen observations, we are acting in an intrusive way. This has a negative effect on this reality and the concept. To prevent failure, what needs to happen continuously is destructive deconstruction into its smallest components and then rebuild, synthesize and integrate those components into a new concept or model by looking for the common qualities within those components like facts, ideas, observations and other attributes without referring to the old deconstructed model as if they never existed. Because if that happens you’ll probably end up with the same model. This whole process of continuous deconstruction and construction to something new is exactly how the creative process works, in its brilliant simplicity. This is a model that works for startups and explains why startups can outcompete giant companies, it explains how guerrilla fighters can frustrate powerful armies. Simply because they construct a model that can never originate from existing models but only from their deconstructed components that are linked together in a completely different way. They weren’t looking inward and talking to themselves but looked toward a model beyond the existing one. It has to be broken down first to be synthesized in something completely new and innovative. It’s the application of Darwinistic principles to all material and immaterial aspects of life. This is what John Boyd says:

To comprehend and cope with our environment we develop mental patterns or concepts of meaning. The purpose of this paper is to sketch out how we destroy and create these patterns to permit us to both shape and be shaped by a changing environment.”

In other words: we impede progress if we stick to our concepts, our beliefs, our mental patterns, no matter how good and successful these concepts were. We must not only continuously shape new models by breaking down the old ones, but also let ourselves be shaped by our environment that we helped change.

Artists throughout the centuries have always understood this principle intuitively, but instead of analyzing it and writing it down, they dedicated their brilliant artworks to their muses, sometimes to their own brilliance. It took a military strategist to describe what creativity really is.

Impressionism, which was the start of modern art, could not directly originate from its more Romantic and Baroque predecessors or those from the Dutch Golden Age. Impressionism was a result of the advent of photography that questioned the objectives of painting as a representational form of art. Cubism could not directly originate from their Expressionist and Fauvist predecessors, and so forth. Before the impressionist movement became a fact, several artists came together in Paris saloons, night after night, to discuss art, to oppose against traditional artistic points of views, to oppose against the objective of art and to oppose against traditional techniques. They opposed against the mental patterns and existing models in painting and art. They broke down art and the painting medium into its smallest components and rebuilt it into something completely new by linking those facts, techniques, observations and other attributes together into a concept that didn’t exist before: impressionism.

Or a more concrete example, Picasso is widely considered to be one of the greatest artists of the past century. He became the artist with his stature because he continuously reinvented his artistic concepts. First starting with the representational works of his early period, followed by the blue and rose periods, to then suddenly distort the shapes in his African period, inspired by African masks. This eventually lead to his famous Cubist period. The artistic concepts, the model, behind the works of his blue and rose periods are fundamentally different from the works of his African and Cubist periods. The African and Cubist periods works could never be the result of a refinement of the preceding periods. It could only be the result of a destruction of his earlier concepts in favor of something new. He used lines, color, and shape in completely different ways in his African and Cubist periods, triggered by the central question: Why make paintings if photography can capture reality so much better and more accurately? Picasso’s answer was Cubism because he left all traditional views on what art should be and what painting should be.

And now we have to ask ourselves a similar question. Why make artistic photographs if its goal is recording reality? Or, why make fine art landscapes or architecture the way we make them now?  Or still life or portraiture? Why even use objects at all? Some of those questions have been answered by artists like Stieglitz and Steichen who established a movement called pictorialism. There were some brilliant photographers and photographs ever after like Ansel Adamswho broke down photography in its smallest components, and built it up again with new techniques and a visual expression that did justice to photography as a medium and as an art form. Irving Penn gave a new interpretation to portrait photography and especially fashion photography. Artists like Alexey Titarenko and Michael Kenna, used a fundamental component of photography, time, in different ways than usual, by using long exposures that resulted in different visual concepts.

This is also what needs to be done if you want to succeed in (fine-art) photography: continuously breaking down of your own successful concepts and trying to rebuild it with something completely new based on the same elements but integrated and synthesized in a different way. It will lead to a deconstruction of your own success by trying to refine your own concepts and visual expressions. By destructing and deconstructing your concepts you reconstruct success because you’re giving way to progress.

I have been trying this myself in my own photography without being aware of these “Boydian principles”. It was a very intuitive process, but the mistake I made is to cling to my proven concepts for too long. I became the victim of my own, relative, success and thought that by refining and tweaking my concepts, I could be the victor again. But that didn’t happen, it simply wasn’t enough to work within the same mental pattern and only improve on elements within my concept. I was looking inward and talking to myself. I contributed to changing my artistic environment, and while my environment adapted and kept changing, I didn’t allow myself to be changed. I stuck with my concept that has proven to be successful and should continue to be successful, or so I thought. I stood still.

Now I’m trying to give way to progress again by deconstructing my proven concepts. I’ve tried to do that with my architectural photographs, but I am aware that it is not enough because whether I wanted it or not, I continued referring to the old concept. To the old mental model I had of an architectural photograph, but with some tweaking. Comparing my latest architectural photographs with the ones from a few years ago, and in return comparing those with the ones a few years before that, the discerning eye will see that there are recurring elements and principles, but sometimes technically better executed, sometimes using science to the photograph’s advantage, or sometimes just incorporating style elements from art movements into my photo or simply inverting the way shadows behave. It is a different interpretation of the same mental model. But it’s still the same model. That’s no destruction of a model, it’s just an affirmation of it. The mental pattern is architecture and light and shadows and how they create depth. It’s ingrained in my mind and I can never change it unless I radically leave it.

That’s what I try to do now by shooting still life. I started with emulating the great still life work from artists like Mapplethorpe and Weston. That’s nice as a way to get started and learn to appreciate the beauty of a masterful still life. How to proceed and create my own visual style with still life and not just emulations? So I started studying the still life paintings from the Dutch masters like Adriaen Coorte and Willem Claesz Heda. Also the Spanish masters like Zurbaran and Cotan, by not only studying their work but also by reading books, essays, and articles on why they painted what they painted. I deconstructed their work into key elements. Recurring principles. Now I try to connect them and reconstruct a visual style, my visual style, within the context of modern day’s environment. Within the context of digital photography and bound by my technical and artistic toolkit. This is liberating since I don’t have a distinctive personal visual style in still life yet, and therefore I cannot be stuck within my own mental pattern. But if I succeed remains the question, at least I’m aware of the process I’m following to construct a new model.

This deconstruction of older mental patterns can perhaps be amplified by using other technology. The photography projects I have in mind for next year, for example, will largely be done with a 4×5 Large Format camera, not so much because analog photography is better than digital photography, I think that’s an elitist statement, but because I believe it will force me to change specific patterns, routines, that have crept into the way I approach photographic subjects. With Large Format, I need to look at an image on the ground glass, upside-down. That’s already a disturbance of the mental models in my head. Focusing the camera with a Large Format camera happens in a different way too. And I can go on for a while giving more practical examples. The idea is to ‘find new inspiration’, or more accurately: to break down mental patterns and models that I’m continuously trying to refine but at some point won’t evolve anymore. And then to construct a new model, by changing routines, disciplines, subject matter or even camera gear, that can contribute to triggering ideas for a successful new model. On a related note: I’m not going completely analog, but I chose to make it partly analog up to the phase of developing the negative, but after scanning the negatives I will use my digital workflow to process the photos. I will report on my experiences with the Large Format camera in articles here on this website. To get back to still life: based on what I have now as a preliminary mental concept of still life, I could develop another model for portraiture. Another genre I’m working on. Perhaps these new concepts, these new mental patterns, can serve as an external model for the moment I’m going back to architecture so I can base my architectural photographs on that external model to come up with something that’s really ‘new’. The point is to change mental patterns, to see things literally in a different light by deconstructing them and try to use the deconstructed elements in a different situation and combination, and if a change of tools and technology that you’re used to use, can help with that, then even better. The result of a change of technology is already that my workflow will become a hybrid workflow instead of a strictly digital or analog workflow. And that may seem an insignificant change, but it can force you to see things differently. Perhaps it will result in new artistic creations again. Fine-tuning of the existing models we are using, will simply be not sufficient.

Further Reading

  1. One of the best books on what still life is with very interesting analyses based on paintings from the masters of still life painting: Norman Bryson – Looking at the Overlooked
  2. I can highly recommend the eBook From Basics to Fine-art, that I co-wrote with Julia Anna Gospodarou and goes into the artistic aspects of photography (and is on sale now for Black Friday/Cyber Monday)

Share this post

11 Responses

  1. Just as we do not possess our intelligence because she is only visiting us, creativity is like an alien who wakes up from time to time. I don’t know everything about the mechanism of inspiration and the possibilities of the fight against doubt, so for comfort I think spontaneity has virtues. However, perhaps our vision as occidental photographer would benefit from understanding other cultures while also making use of Zen teachings. Creativity may be his most beautiful definition is in Arthur Rimbaud’s verses: happiness is grief that rests.

    1. I’m not sure what you’re trying to say Philippe, but even though I don’t pretend to know everything about creativity, I’ve always believed creativity is the ability to connect individual components of a whole, in an entirely different way, resulting in something new. It’s not so much finding/inventing something completely new and original, as I don’t think that exists (breaking down something new, you’ll find that the individual components or methods/ideas behind it are often nothing new), and therefore I think that you can stimulate creativity when you’d do what Boyd suggests you could do. This doesn’t mean btw, there aren’t other ways to stimulate creativity, perhaps through Zen or other practices.

    2. Hello Joel. I agree with you and be sure that I’m going to try to increase my creativity with method available and Boyd’s suggestions 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop