What I Learned from my First Piece of Promise


This is the first art piece I’ve done that showed a bit of promise (at least in my mind.) Believe it not, this began as black acrylic circles that were originally intended to be a piece about motion. I started by making these overlapping circles in three rows spaced evenly a third of the way down and a third of the way across the paper. After doing so I realized with a few “confining” strokes I could anchor the edges and create more an abstract facial piece. The colors just felt right. I added the blue after the black then finished with the yellow which gave me the contrast I was looking for.

I realized after making this piece that I could probably spend my entire life working with JUST black acrylic and paper and never come close to extinguishing the possibilities. I don’t need much at all. Just SIMPLE tools, time and practice. I would also love to study drawing, art, illustration, from charcoal to watercolor, but with my schedule it is almost impossible for me to commit to anything routine.

Over the past few months I’ve made about 25 pieces. The most difficult part is actually the concentration required to do this kind of work. My mind is a mess, it really is. I am SO easily distracted these days. I’m actually trying to figure out how to remedy this because it really is something I’m not dealing with all that well. The moment I try to begin a piece I find reasons not to, and this just has to stop.

Over the past year I’ve been watching people as I travel, a full range of people. Young, old, technical, non-technical doesn’t matter. To say we are addicted, physically addicted, to technology is not a stretch. I see it in myself, and I have certainly been seeing it in many of the people around me. I FIRST noticed this back in about 2005 while photographing children. When I stopped to load a roll of film they would instinctively reach for their phone, punch in their code, check something, then turn the phone off and wait for me. Within TEN SECONDS they would pick up their phone and do it all over again. I thought to myself, “Wow, this is a physical addiction.”

A few months ago I landed at John Wayne Airport here in lovely Orange County and the pilot said “Well, the good news is we are eight-minutes early, but the bad news is we have no gate and have to wait eight-minutes.” The woman next to me, who I am guessing is a mid-level exec based on her clothing and briefcase, turned on her phone, punched in the code and checked Facebook twenty-four-times in eight minutes.” THAT my friends is addiction. Think this is rare? Think this is a wild chance encounter? Think again. Like I said, I’ve been watching this for a year. Even a younger friend pulled me aside and said “You know, I thought you were exaggerating about this but you aren’t, I’ve been watching too and it’s out of control.”

Do you wake up in the morning and reach for your phone?

Do you rush home at night so that you can get on the computer to surf?

Do you filter the world through your social media, at all times, all moments?

Has your regular camera been abandoned for your mobile phone because it’s easier to post?

Does your brain think of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter during those moments in the day when you have even a moments break?

Do you check your email on your phone more than ten times per day? Twenty times? Fifty times? A hundred times? (No joke.)

Are you actually putting weight into something so trivial/fickle/ridiculous as views and likes?

If so, I have a little test for you. Try sketching or drawing but try something very small and very detailed, which is what I accidentally did when I started this “art” thing. I haven’t shared these pieces with you yet, but I will at some point. They are small, 6×9, ink on paper and each one took DAYS to compile because the design I was attempting was infinitely small. I can’t tell you how difficult this was for me. I had to put my phone in another room and turn it off because the minute I ran into either physical or mental difficulty my relief came by telling myself, “Oh, I better check my email, where is my phone.” “I better be “productive” so maybe I should get my laptop and check things online.” “Maybe I should check Facebook, Twitter, etc.” and then the train was off the rails. Gone, fractured, destroyed. I simply didn’t have the attention span to pull these things off.

Suddenly, I was the guy checking his phone twenty-times while sitting on the runway. Yep, that WAS me.

Now, I never started this “art” thing to make realizations about myself. I did it simply to see what would happen, but the beneficial byproduct, so far, has been this acknowledgement I have an issue with attention. And based on my observations…..you might have one too. The truly odd part is not seeing these issues in my friends, etc, it’s finding someone who DOESN’T have the issue. I’m not kidding. The “clean” people, those untarnished by technology, seem STRANGE. They listen, they ask questions and they don’t engage in rapid-fire conversations where each person is simply verbalizing a mental, drop down list, not waiting for each other to finish a fractured sentence, instead jumping in with their bullet points.(I’ve done this too.)

My wife and I had dinner with one such “clean” person and when we left my wife asked “Oh my GOD, that was weird, what was going on with them?” I said, “Well, I think what was happening was they were actually listening, then thinking, then responding with a well thought out reply.” It was unnerving. It really was. It felt like we were engaged in a conversation while slowing sinking in quicksand.

I recently spent some time with a relative, a 14-year-old kid who is not a “screen kid.” He had screens at his disposal, phones, iPads, computers, games, etc, but for whatever reason chose not to engage with them. It was ENTIRELY strange. The kid exuded an energy I would equate with that of a shaman, not that I’ve spent a lot of time around shamans, but the kid was rock-solid-steady, calm, focused and felt like the most mature person in the room. The rest of us bounced from phone to laptop to phone and back to laptop, using senseless apps for no reason, repeatedly checking email and sending texts like crack monkeys. The kid just sat and watched, listened and had a look on his face like “Guys, the joke is entirely on you.”

Now, during the time I was with this kid I made a book from images I made with my phone. I actually made the book through my phone, and I like the book. I also shot a few rolls with the Hasselblad and a few with the Nikon. I did get a few things done, but when I think back on this time it feels like a dream state where everything is playing at top speed. Friends who hadn’t seen me in over a year described me (I found out later) as jittery, distracted and unable to sit still.

Normally when I bring up anything that questions the modern way I get plenty of hate mail about being a luddite, or not being smart enough to understand the technology or that I am “anti-technology.” This is the easy route. “That cant’ be true, he MUST be an idiot.” “How dare he question these things, technology has made our lives clearly better.”

All I’m saying is I am, at times, a complete mental mess. This is ME. If you spend a lot of time with a phone in your hand or on your computer than you MIGHT take a moment to reflect. Or not. All I know is I have to change a few things. I used to think “brain fog” was a joke. Now I have difficulty reading novel length material. I used to think technology was aiming us in the right direction. Now I hide my phone to get real work done, and place it in the trunk when I’m driving.(another long story)

It’s not like any of this technology is going away, nor should it, but I no longer view it in the same way I once did. I find it appalling to watch people interface with the Grand Canyon via their mobile phone. I don’t like selfies. And I’m entirely over the amount of self-promotion that has invaded our little world.(Like this blog?) What else can I bash? I’ll think of something later I’m sure.

Luckily, I now have “art” to keep me company now. Yep, I stand in front of blank pieces of paper, petrified of that first mark. Will it be right? Will it be perfect? Ah, perfection…..the idea of damn perfection…..that leads me to my next point.(Post) To make this ONE piece I found interesting I made MANY that were simple embarrassingly bad. I mean REALLY bad. I have zero background, education or knowledge in regard to art, so I have a lot of ground to make up, probably more than I hope to do in my lifetime, but I feel like trying. I need to study, and to do that I first need to find…peace.

Stay tuned.

26 responses to “What I Learned from my First Piece of Promise”

  1. Paul Romaniuk says:

    I had a similar epiphany about my own relationship with technology back in the spring, and how it was affecting my focus and ability to work on any project requiring substantive time and concentration. I quit all social media, going to the extreme of complete deletion of accounts, not just putting them in limbo.

    I was pleasantly surprised to find I didn’t miss them at all. I thought I would, everyone around me thought I would, but in the end I learned that these sites that I checked so obsessively, were of no consequence to living my life.

    After 6 months a few out of town friends asked me to consider rejoining FB so we could stay in closer touch. Knowing now that it really was of no importance to my life I rejoined, but with very specific intentions – I only friend people I have met face to face, and have an established friendship outside of FB; and I only have the ability to check FB on my iPad (which stays at home) or my personal computer at home (but not the work computers at home or the office) and I don’t have the FB app installed on my phone. I generated a long, convoluted password that I can’t possibly remember (it’s archived on the home computer), so I can’t “cheat” and check FB from my phone or work computer. And I deleted my work email account from my phone – my employer doesn’t pay for my phone or airtime, so I realized that I don’t need to be checking work email when I’m out of the office.

    By and large this balance of being connected/not connected is working well for me, but I still consider myself in the early stages of “recovery”. My focus is slightly improved, and I have been able to embark on a few projects that have been waiting a long while. But I have a long way to go to fully get my focus and concentration back. My god, when I was in my early twenties (back in the age before the first microcomputers), I wrote the first draft of my 120 page Ph.D. thesis in long hand, double spaced in three weeks. It turned out that it well enough written to be the final draft, which a secretary typed out for me on an IBM a electric typewriter. I seriously doubt that I could produce a one page outline for a thesis in three weeks these days. So I’ve got many, many miles to go still.

    My next step is a return to regular meditation practice – that’s something I know from previous experience will improve my concentration and focus.

    • Smogranch says:

      Great comment. A few key words…balance, meditation (which I am also going to try), concentration. It is truly amazing to me that in a ten year time frame we went from “technology is the greatest thing even invented” to corporations running retreats to detox their employees off technology.
      Now I sit at red lights honking behind people texting as they drive. And now I walk the streets dodging fellow walkers who text and walk.
      And, the reality is that 99.9% of what people are doing really isn’t that urgent.

    • Nick Korolis says:

      This addiction is definitely not based on urgency, i think that it comes down to FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and constant need for stimulation. My eldest daughter was literally in tears when without a phone for a week because it was how all social interaction with her friends was planned. No phone … no invite (for a text of course… we have a house phone but who calls those anymore?).

      The constant need for stimulation was what had me. News Feeds; sports updates; googling some artist while you’re standing right there in front of his or her painting rather than just taking in the work itself… the blessing is how available everything is, the curse is the lack of depth with which we approach everything we find. We peck at the surface and then move on.

    • Smogranch says:

      Totally agree. The Googling instead of experiencing is a big one for me. It’s somewhat ridiculous.

  2. I still don’t have a smart phone: I’ve already got it “bad” with a laptop and an iPod on WiFi. I’ve had to force myself to turn things off to read, and one of the things I’ve been doing lately is reading about the history of photography, photographers from the first-half of the 20th-century, and looking at large-format photography books. I often feel the fog (or steam?) lifting after I read. There are bound to be some interesting sociological and psychological research/studies to occur in the next decade, if not sooner.

    • Smogranch says:

      Good for you. I feel the same about reading. It takes me a while to begin now but once I do I feel better after.

    • Paul Romaniuk says:


      A great example of how to feed the photographer’s soul. I find I learn a great deal from looking at the work of those photographers, and am constantly inspired by the masterful use of shape, line and tone in their B&W compositions. Last night, I delved into the Edward Weston Daybooks.

  3. Sharon says:

    Keep it up….You’ll make it!

  4. napper says:

    Interesting read here, Mr. Dan, reminds me of a fantastic book called The Shallows, by Nicolas Carr. I think, well, I hope, there is a growing awareness that there is a price to pay for speed and convenience as regards art and information….

    • Smogranch says:

      I’ve read that book, and yes, I was the case study (not really) for that little book that reads like fiction. It’s scary. I was sitting here writing a short piece for work and found myself writing a paragraph then spinning through my website and social media sites. I KNOW I’m doing it but I’m STILL doing it. Freaking me out.

    • Paul Romaniuk says:


      The Shallows was the book that got me started thinking about this, and lead me to read (!) several other books on the same topic.

  5. Joe Mozdzen says:

    I was going through some boxes of correspondence recently and I realized how nice my writing was several years ago. Compared to my writing now, it’s awful. I blame the computer and the greater horror of the loss of writing by pen or pencil.

    • Smogranch says:

      Joe Joe,
      I totally agree. My journal used to have much longer, more thoughtful pieces, and now it looks like a child scribbling after drinking a quadruple espresso. It’s ugly. My handwriting is so bad I’ve had people ask me what language I’m writing in.

  6. greg g says:

    I suspect that the attention span thing is deeper than social media. We’ve been living in a sound bite world since before FB. The Billy Joel “Piano Man” complaint that “.. it took me years to write it, they were the best years of my life, but if you wanna have a hit, you gotta make it quick, so they cut it down to 3:05” predates twitter by three decades or so.

    I’ve heard it said that socialization has become so much the measure of modern sanity that we feel crazy if we are required to be alone with ourselves long enough to do any really detailed, concentrated task.

    Some folks have postulated that the world is so complex these days that the limited human mind cannot begin to sort it out which sends many running for the seeming security of commerce with the similarly clueless (others for other sanctuaries).

    I certainly have my own addictive avoidant behaviors, they’re just not FB, texting, twitting, etc., Being a strong introvert, they’re different, but I’ve got more excuses than the nurse’s office at the NY School for Hypochondriacs. I have a friend who’s fond of telling me that when it comes to avoiding achievement, any excuse will do. I suppose he’s right, but it hasn’t seemed to change me much.

    They say that the only way to break a habit (or addiction if you will) is to replace it with a different habit. As I suggested above, I can’t claim any significant progress there myself, but I certainly wish you continued success on your own journey.

    • Smogranch says:

      HEy Greg,

      That’s interesting, one habit for another. I do agree, it goes way beyond social. It’s our culture. We seem to be wanting and needing more than every before, which tends to force people to make more decisions, move quicker and plan more.

  7. I am fortunate to live on the Colorado Plateau with its great expanses of wilderness without wi-fi or a cell signal of any kind where I often wander to lose the closing in connection of human chatter. Though I’m not religious, I find the practice of 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, even if it’s just car camping and only 4 days, a re-creation the creator.

    I do see you peeking through “mess”.

    • Smogranch says:

      Nature is a key for me as well. I don’t have the plateau but I have the Sangre de Christo’s and Santa FE National Forrest. Here in CA it’s the ocean, although I rarely find myself there even though I live so close.

  8. Hi Dan, I agree with you entirely here and tend to leave my i-Pad at home when I’m out at work.
    I too went through a phase of drawing each day and it was just so rewarding, the bonus (a real surprise as well) was that my handwriting improved dramatically – art really is good for the soul.
    “More power to your elbow as we say over here…

    • Smogranch says:

      I’m still finding reasons NOT to draw, so I’ve got some work to do. A writer I know has a cabin about 50 miles from town. He does most of his work there. I like that idea of full seclusion, no electricity. I know my bad habits are difficult to break.

  9. Mark Ivkovic says:

    Nail on the head (yet again) Dan.
    I too agree with other commenters here, the world / society seems to have fallen in love with the sound bite, the fast food, the disposable, the “now”. I think we can see that people rather have a mediocre product or experience immediately rather than wait or spend time on a well crafted product or great experience.
    We want it now and don’t really care how good it is.
    As to distraction, I’m guessing you’ve read “The War of Art”? That’s the resistance, a form of the fear that holds us back from creating. http://www.stevenpressfield.com/the-war-of-art/
    At the moment I’m starting to explore the whole turning my personal work & projects into books (you’re partly to blame for this), I have to turn the wifi off on my computer otherwise it’s just too easy to go find ice dancing catch and sneezing Panda on YouTube.
    I wish you luck, you’re obviously a creative guy so perhaps part of your solution will be found through using that creativity.

  10. Sadly, I can identify myself with the situation you describe. Do read Leo Babuta’s blog http://zenhabits.net/archives, and the books The War of Art (Steven Pressfield) and Ignore Everybody (Hugh MacLeod). These were really eye openers to me.

  11. Mike Clark says:

    By the time I got to the paragraph about you and your wife heading to dinner with a “clean” person I found myself scrolling down to see how much of the article I had left to read… you know, because I have better things to do and let’s get on with it already. I do have to say that my eyes only wandered off the article once to the top of my browser where my email tab is open – just in case I had gotten an email in that time… I would certainly have to see what it is instead of finishing the article. Happy to say that no emails came through and that I re-focused my attention and did finish. Gosh I’ve been struggling with this exact thing for so long… Thanks for the words.

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