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A couple days ago I suddenly looked at my camera, and then looked at my gradient background, and at the pile of work I was set to photograph – I picked out a piece & snapped a few images & examined the result. Why am I always shooting in autofocus? I suddenly wondered. Totally out of the blue. Why not switch over to manual, maybe put the camera on a tripod, and try to stop the lens way down & change the film speed?

Well. There is a reason why I usually shoot with the camera mostly choosing its own settings – it’s that I really don’t know what I’m doing. The auto settings on a digital SLR are made for people like me, who kind of know the result I’m after but don’t know, really, what f-stop means. I put the camera down, suddenly. I better figure some of this out, I said. It was August 27, I think. I opened my studio notebook & took a few notes, drew a few diagrams as I read the Wiki entry called Camera Lens and fiddled with the settings on my Canon. Oh – I see – if you push & hold that button you can select which dot is the focus point.

That helps. And…oh, I get it…f numbers get bigger as the aperture gets smaller. Turns out f-stop is a ratio, not a measurement of the size of something. Hmm. I set the camera up & worked some more. I started getting better pictures. Wow, I thought. Why haven’t I dug into this before? It’s fascinating, and look how much more I can do with my camera.

It all seemed so sudden – the way I was struck by the urge to investigate when, on another day, with a different pile of work I’m supposed to photograph, I just keep it on auto.

I had the same experience recently with ash glazes. In this case I was looking at a great pile of bisqueware just unloaded & ready to be glazed – several days at least worth of dipping, brushing, spraying, pouring. Look at this bucket. Getting low – and hasn’t this recipe been troublesome for the last few firings? Those little bubbles…in fired work…let me look back & see about re-formulating. Maybe I shouldn’t have added all that ball clay. No – I bet those bubbles are because the glaze melts very early – becomes a liquid coating – while the claybody is still off-gassing. Probably if I backed off on the reduction…ah that’s a good thought! Write it down.

A red three-ring binder collects all my notes on glaze formula, along with observations of behavior, for a given glaze, in the firings – going back ten or even fifteen years in some cases. That red binder is sort of the brain of my studio, the conscience. To my surprise, as I opened it…look…it was exactly a year ago that I last re-formulated this glaze. And oh, what does it say there? The bubble problem is I think too heavy reduction too early.

I’m always saying to my students to just work, don’t anticipate too much, just discover as you go – observe closely what’s happening in the moment. I like to walk in the studio with no idea what I’m going to do that day. I like spontaneity, and I like to think that the new ideas I suddenly have are really new, and are really mine. Then I flip open that red binder and it turns out I already had that idea. Exactly one year ago, in fact. As though instead of spontaneity, which is what a good studio day feels like, really I’m adhering to an underlying pattern. Maybe the changing weather, these new, cool, mornings – are what make me look at that glaze bucket & suddenly want to investigate. Or to suddenly, out of the blue, want to know more about what my camera is doing. 

I think I’m having these ideas myself and that they’re totally new but…when I really look back – didn’t I write something else about my camera down? Back a few months ago? Let me thumb through the book. My studio notebook is a black hard-bound sketchbook, with heavy pages made for drawing. Oh here it is – good. F-stop: focal ratio, I wrote in the older entry, forty or fifty pages ago. Each aperture setting has half the light-gathering area of the previous one. I even made a little sketch and noted that going to a higher f-number is stopping down the lens. Hey wait – look at the date here: 8/26/15. Is that…can that be…exactly a year ago? Only one day off from my big investigation the other day into my camera, my motivation to learn how it works.

So what is the relationship, really, between patterned behavior & spontaneous, sudden, newness? To what extent am I winging it, and how important is routine? I love to think I’m making it up, in the studio, that I’m inventing and discovering, and that to be creative means somehow to generate something out of nothing. Instead – maybe studio work means just getting on board with the program – following along, like in a yoga class, enacting a pattern, a well-worn path, that is set out elsewhere and that you only occasionally get hints of the meaning behind.

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I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that – maybe jot a few words on the topic in my black heavy-paged notebook. I could do that – or maybe I should just thumb back and see what I wrote in there last year at this time.