Eat Your Heroes

After my post on Tuesday, Is Comparison Killing Your Creativity? a good friend of mine, Deane, sent me a lengthy response.

I have his permission to reproduce it here because it dovetails nicely with Tuesday’s post.

Deane has been a creative inspiration to me, even before I applied myself to writing, music and teaching. He’s the kind of guy whose artistic vision and creative endeavours leaves you slavering for more. When he talks about the things he wants to do, intends to do, gets around to doing, you want to go there with him and see it all happen.

Tuesday’s post dealt with the danger of comparing yourself to others and how it kills your creativity. Deane discusses the effect of slavish devotion and imitation of your creative heroes. And it comes with a warning. 

Eat Your Heroes


Even the most ardent and individual creator needs input to learn, excel and eventually dominate their field. We all want to be like the giants of our chosen art form, and we read their books, blogs and imbibe their art as part of the process of learning to bring our own endeavours to life.

I recently read the first chapter of a book created by a personal inspiration: photographer Gregory Heisler. The book delves more into the mind-set rather than the technical approach of a man who has shot more than 70 Time Magazine covers.

I have wanted to expand my photography. I have one light. I have one short lens. The only thing smaller would be a body cap with a hole drilled in it as a pinhole camera. I usually have 5 minutes or less to craft a portrait that is intended for a wall sized print.

But in the first few pages, the master suggests that he too wished that he had more than 5 minutes to take a picture. He emoted his desire to just travel with one light. His description of the need to keep a certain distance (not to close, not to far) suggested I had the perfect lens.

I was looking for the magic beans, the formula. Perhaps, dare I utter the words, a reproducible technique?

Heisler said in a recent interview, “You can learn a technique, but the first time you get in a situation where it doesn’t work, you’re done.”

As artists, we look up to the pantheon of heroes who have gone before us. Prize winners. Gallery wall limpets. Best sellers. Icons of cool.

We wonder if we need to have the same tools. Perhaps a Moleskine, or a Mont Blanc. An original Les Paul or a Steinway. Leica or Hasselblad.

When we grow up, or at least reach the understanding some tools are too expensive for mere noob mortals, we try and ape technique.

Portraiture is based on trust.

Everyone who has every written about Mr Heisler mentions how he gains the trust of his subjects – forging a quick but mutually respectful relationship. To him, trust outweighs any equipment, because his photos depend on a connection with the person (not merely a talking meat puppet) he is engaged with.

That’s who I need to become in order to approach that level of work in my field. That’s character, not technique. You don’t learn character in an ‘Idiot’s Guide to Legendary Artistic Achievement.’

I am all for learning the basics – and certainly practicing till your fingers or your neighbour’s ears bleed. But art is not a mechanical achievement. The mechanics are necessary, but they don’t put words in your head, a song in your heart or an image in your eye.

You must learn the heart of those who have gone before you. You must partake of their motives, their emotion and their reason. This is why you must choose your inspirations carefully.

Better to choose Christopher Nolan (Inception) than Lloyd Kauffman (The Toxic Avenger).

When selecting a role model, look at who they are – because that’s the direction your life is headed for at least the next few months or years. It’s who they are, their character, that truly informs their art.

This means you are free to be inspired by many people outside the narrow confines of your niche or genre. You can revel in the creativity of a wide range of very original individuals – and you (and your speciality) will be richer for it.

You are what you eat – and you will consume your role models. You will forage the interwebs for every morsel from their mouths and every project they every let loose in the public domain.

When you are ready to learn from a master, take a good long look at who they are and ask yourself: would I put that in my mouth?

Deane Patterson is a portrait photographer and sometimes composer and filmmaker living in rural New Zealand.

Visit him at

Find his work on flickr and National Geographic Your Shot.

One response to “Eat Your Heroes

  1. As always, such insightful, positive and useful wisdom from Deane.

    I have never really latched onto a particular writer to be inspired by. I’ve allowed myself to be inspired by those close to me and emulated, where it fitted, their philosophies and work practise.

    And then I read a Lauren Beukes novel. Now I want to consume everything she has written and now more about her. This is such a timely road map.

    It also reminds me of the lessons filmed in the Kiwi indie film “The Tattoist.” To be mindful of the impact of what you consume because it will change you for better or worse.

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