How Do Artists Use Their Intuition to Create?

Many years ago, I played in a symphony orchestra in the Midwest. I was attending a meeting of what was called the Player’s Council, a committee made up of fellow orchestra members who oversaw the integrity of the institution from the musicians’ standpoint. We were discussing the artistic staff with our management, and I made a statement about how important it was to have music conductors who understood the pressures musicians had to deal with, and who were invested in the future of the orchestra, even though people in those positions usually came and went fairly quickly. (By contrast, most musicians who get into a big orchestra job are there for their entire careers.)


After the meeting, I was told by our Personnel Manager that one of the associate conductors wanted to see me the next day. Why? I thought. Musicians who are called in to speak to a conductor usually spelled trouble for the musician.


That night, I had a vivid intuitive dream. The associate conductor was in the dream, and he was asking me if I had been talking about him in the meeting, even though he wasn’t present and would have no way of knowing I had spoken unless someone had told him I had.


The next morning the Personnel Manager contacted me again, and told me that the conductor had canceled the meeting with me. I was relieved, as I believed that what the dream told me was probably an indicator that someone in the orchestra had related my words to him, but after second thoughts kicked in, he decided it wasn’t worth talking to me.


I’ve thought many times about that incident, and how intuitions and gut feelings play a part in our lives, and I conclude that they are powerful forces that we need to pay more attention to.


In music, a time-based art form, I used intuition in a much different way than I use it for my artwork. When we’re playing music, we’re following a timeline, going through a piece step by step. Anything can happen along the journey, and sometimes it can be quite surprising. You may be inspired to play a note a thousandth of a second sooner or later than you did the last time the piece was performed, and every musician sitting around you can hear that, and it may change the entire performance!


I played a concert of a Tchaikovsky Symphony toward the end of my music career, and the last movement was just gangbusters, a lot of fun to play, and we had a wonderful conductor who channeled Tchaikovsky like no other conductor I had worked with.


Suddenly, in the middle of the movement, he stopped conducting! He hugged himself, nodded with a huge smile, and just let us play. That had the effect of galvanizing all of us on stage to make this the best Tchaikovsky we could muster, and we were like an unstoppable train. The movement ended, we looked around at each other, stunned, and the audience went berserk. They cheered and clapped and shouted; it was unlike anything they’d ever seen, or heard.


What had compelled the conductor to take such an action? Intuition. He suddenly knew we could get the job done better if he stepped out of the way, and it was a brave and magical moment because of that. I’ll never forget it.


This image from “The Soul of Vietnam” portfolio was only possible because of years of intuitive or instinctual reactions fostered by the thinly sliced seconds of classical music performance. Musicians make incremental adjustments in hundredths of a second to form the exquisite ensemble sound of major symphony orchestras. That empowers an ex-musician to “grab” a shot so fast despite having  no chance of seeing or predicting when that diced dot of time will occur.  In this case I was speaking with a friend with my back turned towards the subject lady. For unexplained reasons, I whirled and snapped. Good enough, but who in the universe is responsible for putting the contrasting young women in back of the lady, producing a powerful metaphor and narrative?  And who gave me the gift of a subject in polka dot black with another in pure white?
Bent But Unstoppable

This image from “The Soul of Vietnam” portfolio was perhaps only possible because of years of intuitive or instinctual reactions fostered by the thinly sliced seconds of classical music performance. Musicians make incremental adjustments in hundredths of a second to form the exquisite ensemble sound of major symphony orchestras. That empowers me, an ex-musician, to “grab” a shot so fast despite having no chance of seeing or predicting when that diced dot of time will occur. In this case I was speaking with a friend with my back turned towards the subject lady. For unexplained reasons, I whirled and snapped. Good enough, but who in the universe is responsible for putting the contrasting young women in back of the lady, producing a powerful metaphor and narrative? And who gave me the gift of a subject in polka dot black with another in pure white?






So, how do we visual artists tap into that intuition to get our own miracles to happen? Miracles like Picasso’s “Guernica” or Monet’s “Water Lilies”, Michelangelo’s “David”?


Well, practice, for one. The ten thousand hours that are talked about before anyone gets great at anything. We need to be facile with our tools, and there’s no way around that except doing.


For another, exposure and study. Get to know your fellow artists, the dead and the living, and see what worked for them. How can you emulate them, how can you grow beyond them?


And then, what sets us apart and creates something unique to us, intuition. That small voice that isn’t begging to be heard, but it’s there, inside you, waiting. It’s giving you an uncomfortable feeling about a colleague or some other situation, and you just can’t shake it. Or it’s giving you a good feeling about some decision you need to make, pushing you gently in a direction you hadn’t thought of.



Blue Horse for a Friday Workout

This horse sort of fell into the “Cries the Unseen” portfolio, for unfathomable reasons. Destined for the portfolio “The Soul of Vietnam” something egged me into dumping it like unwanted refuse onto the pile of image sandwiches to be ignored. Rescued, it found its way to life by collaborating with some strange scenes, dominating all of them. Instinct forced my mouse to the blue palette, again for unknown reasons.














When I’m out with my camera, looking for material, I use intuition all the time. It leads me down some very interesting paths, where I might not have gone without it. Sometimes, when I’m “taking” the photo, I feel something powerful signal me, and I know I’m on the right track.


My wife, a professional violinist, and I were approached to go to Vietnam in 2006 to participate in an artist’s residency program for three months. We turned down the initial offer. But the offer wouldn’t go away. It kept coming up in everyday life, whispering its message, nudging us in the direction of Asia. I can’t even remember why we decided first not to go, because after some time went by, we decided to go. It suddenly seemed like the wrong idea to dismiss it from our lives, and thank goodness; our subsequent years in Vietnam imbued our lives and our paths with positivity and enlightenment.


The Vietnamese artists we befriended had a lot to teach us about intuition. They seemed more tuned into this part of themselves, which may come from cultural differences. Their ideas about creating art seemed to emanate from a different place than American artists. They were more alert to what was happening around them, and how that might affect their artwork. They seemed less concerned about being famous and rich, and more concerned about being true to their artistic goals.


You can use this remarkable tool of intuition in your own life. Try and tune in to whatever your intuition is trying to tell you, negative or positive (it works both ways).


Here are some ways to access your inner intelligence:

  1. Get still. Put away all your electronic devices and just be still. Focus on being, empty your mind.

  2. Let your body move the way it wants to. This may mean no movement, or it may mean walking, running or dancing. Yoga is a wonderful movement exercise that can access intuition.

  3. Go into nature, where there is a vast intelligence at work. Notice this intelligence.

  4. Breathe. Slow breathing slows the rest of our body and mind down.

  5. Be present. Stop thinking about all the things, past and future.

  6. Ask your body for guidance. Notice how your body feels when you ask it certain questions. Flip a coin to answer a question, and notice which side your body roots for (don’t worry about how the coin lands!).

  7. Make friends with your inner critic. Your inner critic is simply fear and conditioned responses from your past. Don’t let it run the show.

  8. Notice when something inside you speaks. It may say, “something isn’t right” or “this feels like the best course”.

  9. Don’t necessarily listen to advice from those around you. They may be afraid, tired, uninformed, etc. They don’t have the information inside of you that you have. Naysayers abound, so tread lightly around them!

These steps are difficult to take in this world. We feel guilty - shouldn’t we be DOING something? Not necessarily. Step back, consider your life. Play. Follow the mystery. Tap into the quiet thing sitting next to you, telling you to slow down, change what you’re doing, or how you're doing it, or coaching you to go for it.


Above the Boards

“Street Photography'' had a distinct meaning in the time of Robert Frank, only to be homogenized into a somewhat undefined concept as it grew. The basic nature of this photo journalism had its roots in New York City in the 1950 – 70 period. Quick reactions were needed by the photographer, as the correct time for the best shot passed in a microsecond, too quickly to capture what the eye is too slow to comprehend. Thus for Frank and other practitioners, we humans get to see truly what a camera is capable of seeing.

I am from NYC, and was a teenager and young adult in that period. I tried to join the movement, and thousands of shots later felt defeated, except for one iconic shot of my father in an antique shop entrance that may be the best portrait I ever made of him. I moved on to large format cameras and often very static images. Maybe I could not react to my home town, but once in California I suddenly and inexplicably felt that I was truly home. I thank intuition for leading me there.


This image was taken at the 2019 Los Angeles Women’s Protest march. Note the two small points of red, crucial to the composition, yet impossible to consciously notice in the microsecond it takes to press the shutter.


When I teach, I try and get my students to loosen up by not even looking through the viewfinder on their camera. Just shoot photos one handed, don’t look at what you’re shooting. Twirl around, shoot over your head or down at your toes. Dance and shoot! You will be amazed at some of the photos that result from that little exercise. It has the intention of getting you not to care or judge yourself. If our left brain kicks in, with all it’s parental lectures and analysis, it freezes our creativity and intuitive urges.


Some of my students catch on to this quickly, but many don’t; it’s too scary for them. I’m not saying it’s for everyone. In fact, probably the need to feel safe and not venture outside what we know is built into our DNA. But, I do know that if you don’t access your intuition on a regular basis, it becomes harder and harder to hear its clarion call.


I’ll leave you with a quote from my teacher, Ansel Adams, who said the following:


“In my mind's eye, I visualize how a particular... sight and feeling will appear on a print. If it excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph. It is an intuitive sense, an ability that comes from a lot of practice.”


…..and W. Eugene Smith, another of my heroes:

“What uses having a great depth of field, if there is not an adequate depth of feeling?”



And For You!

Want to access intuition? Try taking your camera phone to make images of store reflections, without intention, and snapping as soon as anything attracts your attention. In thirty shots at least one of them will seem to you as if magic was in your photo blood.





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