Finding Your Visual Voice

*This post is created in partnership with Canon. I’m so incredibly proud to write that as I’ve been a Canon user from the beginning, going all the way to my first film camera. I’m currently shooting on the EOS 5D Mark III but recently had the chance to play around with the EOS M5 and loved that as well. It’s small, lightweight and very intuitive. Even for the not-so-tech-savvy person such as myself, I quickly figured out how to upload images straight from my camera to my phone. As always, the words and images are mine. I so appreciate your support towards the companies that help support Not Without Salt.

 

A few weeks ago I sat in our sparse office in front of my computer and talked into the little dot on the top trying not to look or feel too awkward. In the great beyond of the Internet there were dozens of people from all over the world staring at their own screens while they listened to me excitedly speak on finding your visual voice. Fast forward a couple weeks later and I was speaking at TechMunch on a panel about Instagram and giving a brief food styling workshop and found myself repeating the same messaging. I walked away from those experiences, from interacting with creatives and watching them fall deeper in love with their creativity and thought, hey, I bet some of the lovely people who read my blog might want to hear this too.

This is a message not just for photographers but for any of you who seek to create and share your creativity with people. It’s for those who want to be intentional about the messaging you are conveying through your creativity. It’s for writers, painters, photographers, dancers, ceramicists, doodlers and dabblers. And everyone in between.

 

“As an artist you have the opportunity to create your own unique stamp on the world. This is the artist’s voice and it’s a mixture of message, style, and technique. Everyone has a different process for finding his voice. It’s not something you can simply learn through books or study. It requires you to pull from deep inside yourself to find what moves you and to express that through what you create.”

 

What is Visual Voice?

And why does it matter?

 

Visual voice is the message that you convey through your creativity. In the lesson I taught I was referring to the visual voice you speak as a photographer so as I speak about visual voice here I’ll probably use that medium most often as a reference point. Visual voice is communicating your style and what you want to say through any image-based medium. With each image you share you have an opportunity to say something  – what do you want to say?

The importance of this? Well, do you ever feel like you don’t have a place in the creative world? I mean speaking specifically of the food blogging stage – it’s really crowded. Everyone is vying for attention and it can become so overwhelming. If you’re like me you may take those overwhelmed feelings and sit with them then listen to that voice that says, “What do you have to say? What do you think you can add to the conversation?” My voice isn’t saying that in a tone of genuine curiosity, my inner voice is quite mean and snarky. We’re working on that.

Remove the snark and that is a question worth asking. What are you contributing that is unique?

You. You’re contributing you and there is no other you out there.

Trends come and go and the temptation as a visual artist is to mirror the trend because if it’s working for that person over there it will work for me. But we don’t want to see more of the same – we want to see what you have to offer. Be bold. Be brave. Speak your own voice.

 

How do I find out what I want to speak?

 

Good question. I continually turn to a few practices to hone my voice and check in with myself to see if I’m speaking a clear and consistent voice. We are human, we continue to evolve and we can expect the same of our voice. So this is a process. Put it on your calendar to have a quarterly creativity check in. As you change so will your voice.

 

Pinterest

 

I have several boards on my Pinterest page, some public some secret, that help me tune in to my voice. If I’m in between tasks I’ll quickly open up Pinterest and scan through the screen pinning any image that grabs me. Anything, not just food photography. The lighting on a headshot is really striking or the cascading ruffles on a dress and this one that shows the fury of the sea. These images have nothing to do with what I shoot on a daily basis and yet they exist on my board because for some reason something inside of me sparked as I saw them. I’ll spend some time mindlessly pinning and then when I need a bit of inspiration I’ll flip to my photo board and get a glimpse into the sort of images I want to be creating. I notice the tone of the images, the lighting, their sparseness, and the feelings they evoke. As a group these images speak volumes to what it is I am hoping to communicate through my own images.

Look in Unlikely Places

 

As I mentioned above I’m not just studying other food photographers. I want to find inspiration in places that has nothing to do with food photography. Look in fashion magazines, go visit the art museum, take a painting class, study art 101, look through architecture books. Your own work will be enhanced by the quality and diversity of the imagery and experiences you are ingesting.

 

Your Three Words

 

This is probably the best and most practical bit of advice I can give you when it comes to finding and communicating your visual voice. And really, it’s not even my advice. Gabe took a photography workshop years ago and came home with this nugget and we’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Think about the three most important things you want to communicate with the work you do. It’s challenging to take a huge idea and whittle it down to something so simple but these words will be your marker for all the work you do (also, don’t fret it too much – they can, should and will evolve). They will help you clearly define your purpose and to continually reinforce your voice in all that you do. For me this is when I call in my trusted friends to help. I’m too close to my own work. I see all its flaws and inconsistencies so I can’t really get a clear read on what I’m saying. I could tell you what it is that I am hoping to communicate but asking a few people what they see or how they feel when they look at my work has really helped me clarify my point of view.

So for example in my most recent evaluation of my visual voice I came up with the words: Beauty. Truth. Action.

Beauty: Through my images (along with my words and recipes) I want to encourage people to see and seek the everyday beauty that exists if we have the eyes to see it. Most often my images aren’t overly styled. I don’t use a large quantity of stunning props to elevate the food, instead I want the food to stand up for itself. This is why you will see a lot of close up shots on my site. I want to encourage my viewer to look at onions, for example, in a new way. To help you say, wow I never realized just how beautiful they are.

Truth: We are a busy, loud, messy family of five with a moody dog. I’ve been tempted in the past to put forth the lies of perfection because honestly, people love to believe that perfection can exist and I have watched so many people come after me and rise to success in part because of the fantasy they are sharing. I know that sounds terribly biased and I really don’t mean it too – again, the point of all of this is to say there is room for us all. I can’t force myself to communicate a message that defies who I am and what I truly want to put out there. I mean I guess I could but that is a quick and painful road to burnout. Yes, I put up pretty pictures here and on Instagram but they are real beauty – not overly staged or styled. They are images of me striving to find the beauty in our everyday as a reminder to myself and to you all that there is beauty in our own reality. Joy and sorrow; pain and triumph can coexist. My own temperament easily feels the weight of the world so I have to fight wildly to see the joy in this world. (If any of you are familiar with the Enneagram it’s probably now quite clear to you that I’m a 4). Using words and imagery I am attempting to win that battle on a daily basis.

Action: I’ll make this one brief, however its importance shouldn’t be lost. Basically I’m hoping that through the images on the blog you are inspired to action. Whether that means looking at your own reality with a bit of a new lense or bounding into the kitchen to make the latest recipe. The images are striking enough to inspire yet give you a sense of “hey, I can do that too!”

 

On a date with creativity

 

My relationship with my husband, Gabe is incredibly important to me. So we date to stay connected and to ensure that our friendship is thriving not simply surviving the realities in our everyday. Your creativity is also a relationship and one that needs to be nourished like any any other. So date your creative self. Go for long walks, read, sketch, visit a museum, take a class, write and photograph just for yourself. Your creativity needs to be fed in order for it to be at its best.

 

Most importantly remember that your greatest asset is you. You bring a lot to the table and have something to say that no one else can say in the same way. Trust your natural creative instincts and build on that. It’s scary and overwhelming – no creative will deny that but fear is good as long as it never gets too powerful to keep you from doing what you love. I’ll let Stephen Pressfield, the author of The War of Art (my favorite book about living a creative life) explain:

 

“Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.

Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”

 

Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

 

Keep shooting, keep writing, keep painting, keep dancing, keep playing and keep being you.

 

Resources:

I love reading books about the creative life. There is comfort in the communal feelings of doubt, insecurity and fear. Here are a few of my favorite reads on the subject:

 

Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert

Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield

Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke

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Cardamom Cake, Plum Jam + Coffee Buttercream

To be perfectly honest, I’m not much of a cake person. In fact for my wedding I put in a request for pints of Ben & Jerry’s to be served in lieu of the traditional towering cake but was vetoed. I’ve since made up for that disappointment by eating my fair share of ice cream. My cake of choice – ice cream cake. The sort with no actual cake present.

But there are days when I’m struck with the intense urge to bake a cake. I’m not talking about snack cakes, by which I mean the kind where fruits and vegetables linger in the batter. I love those. I’ll take a slice of Grandma’s banana bread heavy with whipped butter slathered over top any day. That cake is different. Here I mean the kind that towers on a pedestal like royalty and something to be looked upon with honor. The sort with frosting that requires a pound of butter and sugar cooked to soft ball stage and forces me to dig out my old piping bag and tips to adorn the cake with a flourish that is worthy of its stature.

There wasn’t a birthday to celebrate when the urge hit, no grand occasion for such a cake but the ordinary day, as most of them are, was suddenly made remarkable by the presence of this cake. Most often we use food to bolster the occasion but I sometimes prefer the food to determine the occasion, to subtly and sweetly remind us that there is much to celebrate in the mundane. Our everyday is worthy of attention and looking on with fondness. A cake can help us mark the occasion of a snow day, or the day in which we are all healthy again, or just because it’s Thursday which is almost Friday and around here that is indeed a thing to be celebrated.

This cake comes from my friend Sarah’s gorgeous baking book, The Vanilla Bean Baking Book. It’s full of all the things I crave with soft twists that make me smile. Like this cake; heady with cardamom and iced with a bittersweet coffee buttercream. Of course those two flavors are natural mates as they cozy up in a cup of traditional Thai coffee – or the sort I’ve had at least but never have I thought to pair them together in a cake. Then for some reason I was reminded of the plums I had in the freezer and thought the brightness of a tart jam would sandwich the layers nicely. We loved this cake so much it has turned not one but two ordinary days into ones marked with the memory of a stunning cake and joy in the everyday.


Cardamom Cake with Plum Jam and Coffee Buttercream

Prep

Cook

Total

Yield 10 - 12 servings

Cake recipe adapted (oh so subtly) from The Vanilla Bean Baking Book

Ingredients

Cardamom Cake

3 large eggs

2 egg yolks (reserve the whites for the buttercream)

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup sour cream

2 cups all purpose flour

1 1/2 cups sugar

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 teaspoons ground cardamom

1 teaspoon orange zest (optional)

1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 1-inch pieces

Plum Preserves

1 pound fresh or frozen plums, pitted and halved

1/4 cup sugar

Coffee Buttercream

1 1/4 cups sugar

5 large egg whites

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 cup strong coffee or espresso

Instructions

For the cake:

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter two 8 by 2-inch round cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper.

Whisk together the eggs, yolks, vanilla, and sour cream in a liquid measuring cup or medium bowl. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cardamom, and orange zest (if using). Turn the mixer on low and mix until everything is combined. Add the butter while the mixer is still running and continue to mix until the mixture resembles coarse sand. Slowly add half of the wet ingredients and beat until combined. Add the remainder of the wet ingredients, speed up the mixer to medium speed then beat for 20 seconds. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, with a spatula. Finish the batter by stirring with the spatula a few more times.

Divide the batter between the prepared pans and smooth the top.

Bake for 17 to 22 minutes or until the cakes are golden brown and pulling away from the edges of the pan ever so slightly.

Transfer the pans to a wire rack and let cool for 30 minutes. Turn the cakes out onto the rack, remove the parchment and let cool completely. Once cool, the cakes can be wrapped in plastic. Well wrapped the cakes will keep in the freezer for one month. OR let’s get frosting!

For the jam:

Combine the plums and the sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes or until the plums start to break down and the juices look like warm honey.

For the frosting:

Combine the sugar and about 1/4 water in a small saucepan.

Bring the sugar to a boil then cook until 238° (soft ball stage) or until you can blow a sugar bubble through a fork (be careful!)

While the sugar cooks whip the egg whites to soft peaks.

Carefully stream the sugar down the side of the bowl with the machine running on medium speed.

Increase the speed and whip until stiff peaks form and the bowl is no longer hot.

Add the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. Whip until smooth.It may look like a mess but keep whipping until it comes together.

Add the vanilla extract, coffee (or espresso) and salt.

Pipe a border around the edge of the first cake layer. Fill with the jam. Add the other cake on top then cover the layers in frosting, starting with a thin layer just to cover the crumbs. Refrigerate for 20 minutes or until the frosting is firm. Add another layer of frosting then decorate however you like.

Our first cake was topped with a light layer of salty sprinkles which was completely delicious.

Courses dessert

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