7 Ways to Stretch Your Creative Muscle

7 Ways to Stretch Your Creative Muscle with Scott Detweiler

7 Ways to Stretch Your Creative Muscle with Scott Detweiler

Photographers sometimes forget they are artists, either because we don’t feel we utilize some of those traditional and messy tools or we have not undergone that specific type of schooling. We might merely see our job as documenting what we see around us. But as artists, we need to feed that creative side of our brain from time to time, or we fall into a rut. That feeling of world-weariness, or ennui, that I discussed in a previous article can get to all of us from time to time. It can feel as if you are no longer making progress or your work is no longer exciting. That might mean it is time to feed the artistic side of your brain and take a break from your typical work. It’s time to stretch your creativity to keep yourself fresh and excited about what you do.

Let’s discuss what you typically deliver to clients. Because everyone with a cellphone is now literally a photographer, we continually need to differentiate ourselves from the pack. The following creative exercises can unlock doors that may lead to unique products and offerings that differentiate you from the competition and the gaggle of neighbors with nice cameras.

Figure Drawing

Before you leap to conclusions about how hard this is, I know this is something you can do. The human ability to see a form that is not correct is also what helps us be better artists. We already know when something looks a little off. It’s known as the “uncanny valley.” Humans can tell when a figure is not entirely human looking. When it is close but not quite right, our little neck hairs get a workout.

When I took my first figure drawing class back in college, the beautiful young models often resembled some sort of alien when I was done with my daily sketches. As the semester progressed, I finally figured out how to make it all work well enough that I even discovered a sketching style that spoke to me, and eventually the figure was no longer the primary concern. So, in one short semester, I went from drawing forms that made people cringe to art that is actually hanging on the wall of our home. I married one of those young models, and 26 years later, she still models for me. My sketches are much better, even if I can’t draw her like the top artists in the class. Another unexpected benefit from this was a much better understanding of posing. We take our knowledge of anatomy for granted. Figure drawing classes focus on how best to show off the human form. That relates well to photography, especially when you consider nontraditional poses like bodyscapes.


Much like drawing, the basics of painting can be picked up quickly with regular practice. The cost of entry is a bit higher than drawing, depending on the type of paint you choose. Each medium requires different skills. Oil and watercolor opened doors for my photography that I didn’t expect. There is a lifetime of mastery, but you can get to a passable artistic skill faster than you might expect, especially when you let the base of the photo do most of the work. What this means is I can now offer “artist embellished” portraits where the additional paint is applied to the printed canvas on various details, highlights, background elements and borders. Some vendors offer similar services, but I find that doing it myself feeds my creative needs.

This also works for shooting landscapes. Painting yields some compositional rigor that photographers don’t get as part of their typical learn-on-the-go attitude. This makes it worthwhile to take a painting class. It affected me so much that I am now teaching a class on composition at ShutterFest again this year. Learning composition in painting can translate well in photography.

Mixed Media

Once you let your hair down and get past painting on your own prints and canvases, you can really go nuts and start to attach objects like keys, necklaces and old book covers to these prints, and then paint over that in layers with plaster, paint, concrete, what have you. Starting out with a canvas or even a wood print also adds a lot to these compositions. Mixed-media pieces can become grand works of art and fetch astounding fees once you find a consistent style that brings people to your door.

These are so unique and interesting that they seem to attract collectors more than just about any other treatment of photography I have encountered. Don’t think this is beyond your skill set. I guarantee that if you did 10 mixed-media pieces, you would come up with something cool, and those wanting that type of art would find you. Even if you can’t paint a human in a way that doesn’t make children cry, you can still use those skills to slap paint down like a pro on one of these mixed-media works with some level of competency.

Weird Projects

This year, I started a series of doll photo manipulations. It was a bizarre idea, and the results were creepy yet fascinating. The uncanny valley became obvious. Many of the works come across as fun or just plain uncomfortable. Regardless, it was a fun and out-there idea that people liked. I have had several commissions for this type of image, and it all stemmed from trying to do something weird and stretching my creative mind.

Designing Sets

There are a lot of amazing muslin backgrounds available for the studio. These amazing hand-painted pieces of cloth are used in formal portraits. There is a lot to be said for creating scenes. Christmas is an obvious one: Put up a tree and hire a jolly fellow to be a prop for your clients. Other sets can be a basement, garage or even the outdoors. Anyone can find a little place in the woods where they set up a scene to offer as a limited-time opportunity.

Headdresses & Wardrobe

I started collecting fancy headdresses and other fun wardrobe pieces. These items are usually supplied by the client, but my stash of items has saved the day. A beautiful fur can lead to a lot of fantastic boudoir photos, but not a lot of people have a fur or think to bring it with them to the session. A fur from a second-hand shop can pay for itself quickly. Renaissance-style dresses purchased online invite creative lighting that can open doors to new clients and creative outlets. I also create my own wardrobe pieces with my trusty glue gun.


In the past few years, I’ve started getting into bodypainting. If you have attended my conceptual sessions at ShutterFest, you have seen some of the fantastic images these paints can create. My good friend Otto helped me get started, and I have since developed my own style. This is another area I never intended to monetize, but sure enough, I have boudoir clients who arrange all-day sessions that include body paint. These are some of the more attention-grabbing pieces I’ve shot. Clients often order these images printed very large. I had no idea what I was doing initially, but I just kept at it and learned as I went.

I hope some of these ideas strike home and you take the time to pick up another artistic hobby and see how it can translate into your photography. Some of these ideas renewed my interest in portraits when I was feeling drained. Some of them turned into new sources of revenue and products that I never could have anticipated.

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To read the full article, launch the digital version of the December 2018 magazine.

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