by John Paul Caponigro

John Paul Caponigro

September 01, 2010 — Our work is as deep as the relationships we have with it. Mastery involves much more than researching subjects and perfecting craft, it also means doing some soul-searching. So how can you deepen your relationships with your work? How can you understand the inner life of your work better? One way is to associate freely.

Free association is a classic psychological technique that can be used to reveal and clarify internal relationships. While most association is done linguistically, you can use anything as a touchstone for association—sounds, gestures, tastes, smells, images, etc. Use one or more at the same time. Whatever you choose to associate with, record your associations with something that doesn’t get in the way of the free flow of your association process.

If you use words, use the language that comes most easily to you. If you use something else (colors, sounds, images) make sure that collecting them can be done fast, fluidly and flexibly. Do record your associations. If you don’t record them, you’ll forget most of them, and the patterns they make will elude you.

Simply observe what comes to mind. Don’t critique or censor yourself during the process; nothing shuts down this process faster. Let it all out. Be thoroughly spontaneous and utterly candid with yourself. You may or may not choose to do this with others. It’s your choice. Try different approaches and see how each influences the experience and results.

There are several ways to guide association. Linear association provides unpredictable results. One word leads to the next, and the next word leads to another, and so on. Linear association diverges quickly, twisting and turning, wandering, seemingly aimlessly, yet it still seems to have an uncanny logic guiding it. At first, the line used to organize the words may seem like the only structure apparent, but you’ll soon find other patterns will emerge within it. Use linear association when you’re not sure what to focus on and you want to find all the elements that are currently in play.

Clustered association provides focused results. All associations are derived from the same seed, always returning to the same source: white/black, white/cloud, white/spirit, etc. Often it’s best to place the seed in the center and cluster other associations around it circularly. Use clustered association when you want to find out more about one thing and its connection to 
other things.

You’ll get new results if you associate more than once. After you’ve gone through a process of association, take a break, give it some time, sleep on it, and then return. You’ll find that more material will rise to the surface. Often, with the passage of substantial time and the addition of new experiences, your associations will grow richer and more complex. Pay attention to both what changes and what doesn’t. Ask yourself why this is happening. This kind of self-reflection can bring a greater awareness to everything you do in life, including making images.

It helps to know how our minds have been trained to work. Many of our associations and patterns of association are conventional. Opposites quickly come to mind: light and dark, hot and cold, up and down, etc. Rhymes rise forth readily: 
see/sea, red/rose, blue/who, etc.
Culturally linked concepts repeat again and again: marriage/husband/wife, family/mother/father/children, etc. There are other patterns to be on the lookout for. It’s useful to know which associations are readily shared with others and which are not. You can be relatively confident that these types of associations will be readily shared with others.

Some associations are universal; all cultures think of red as the warmest color and blue as the coolest color. Some associations are cultural; black is associated with life in the Orient and death in the Occident, while white is associated with life in the West and death in the East. Some associations are individual; I associate the color fuchsia with overt emotional manipulation—I don’t expect anyone else to share this.

Associations that don’t follow established conventions may not be as quickly grasped but, when they’re not random, they may unveil what’s unique about your individual relationship to subjects.
Finding the right words can make a big difference. The first words that appear may be close, but not close enough. Get closer. List as many different words for the same things as you can. A thesaurus can be useful at this stage. Then search amid this pool for the words that have a ring of truth to them. Let your intuition guide you. Once you find the right words, you’ll find a newfound clarity and purpose has emerged in your work.

Nurture your inner life and you’ll find all of your experiences will grow deeper. Your life will develop a richer texture. Your understanding of things will become more complex and layered. This will be true for both your experience of making images, and the images you produce.

Next time you find new images, ask yourself a few questions. Did you show up? What are you bringing to the picture? What more can you add?

John Paul Caponigro, author of Adobe Photoshop Master Class and the DVD series R/Evolution, member of the Photoshop Hall of Fame, Canon Explorers of Light, Epson Stylus Pros, is an internationally acclaimed fine artist. A passionate teacher, he offers an array of workshops throughout the year. Get over 200 free lessons on this and other related topics and his free enews Insights at

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