Layers of Art Creation: A Comprehensive Guide

An approach to creating portraits in a changing world

Creating a truly meaningful art portrait often involves much more than settings, lighting and clicking the shutter of a camera.  We traditionally think of layers in the physical/digital realm as we create and post process our work.  But as I examined my own creative approach, I realized it has a multitude of layers that go into the creative process, each with its own unique considerations and challenges. In this guide, we'll explore each layer in detail and provide tips and insights to help you create your best work.

When you work in the business world, there is a lot of energy put into developing processes, from ideation to delivery and customer retention.   Companies often break down when they establish clear processes, but lack the execution to deliver meaningful work.

The same is true of creating an impactful portrait, where the intention is bring personal meaning to the subject.  As I work in both worlds, I spent a bit of time examining how I think about a single photo portrait concept, while also keeping in my mind that my style is very much improvisational.  This article represents my synopsis of this topic, which may or may not relate to you in the same way.   However I think it might help some people think through where they can expand their creative and artistic palette, and create meaningful work for both, the subject and the artist.

The Artist's and the Subjects History

When I start thinking of a portrait, I start with the people involved – our stories and what we bring to the project.

History, both highly personal and cultural, plays a significant role in the creation of art. Your personal story  informs the your artist’s perspective and influences artistic choices, while cultural history can inspire themes and motifs in the work. By understanding your personal history, who you believe you are and what and how you experience life, and the greater history of your culture, you can infuse your art with a deeper meaning and resonance.

However, you also need to take into account the the story experienced by your client – what do they think and feel and what has contributed to those thoughts.  Who do they believe they are and what are they trying to portray?  Powerful portraits can raise emotions, memories and revelations, and the more the photographer can learn about their subject, the more impactful the portrait can become.

To create an impactful work of art, consider exploring your personal history and culture, and finding ways to incorporate these influences into your work.  Listen to your subject, starting in the early meetings and interactions, learn a bit about their story and incorporate that into the concept to create a powerful statement.

People and their Personal Identity

Art has the power to capture and express the complexity of the human experience, including our identities and relationships. When you’re creating a  personal portrait, people and their identities are often at the heart of the work.   Who they believe they are, at that moment, is critical to the final outputs look and feel, and its impact on the viewer.

Let’s say you are doing an artistic portrait, a boudoir session or you were hired to capture a specific time of their life.  What does the client think of their role in the portrait, how do they view themselves and how does that change the outcome? Ultimately, who are they and how  and what do they really think?

I once shot a woman who hired me to do a boudoir session.  In our early conversations, I learned she had been attacked at knife point in a parking lot a year earlier, and this was one way she was exploring to help her love herself again, and become the person she was prior to that incident.   At the end of the session, without seeing a single photo, she told me that she already gotten what she needed from the session.  Year’s later, she shared that the photo shoot was a catalyst of personal discovery and her own abusive demons she had buried for a long time.  That is a powerful portrait experience!

Not everyone will want to share their story, so its important to look at different ways to get clues of where a person is at that moment – through posture, comments, energy and other signs. 

In short, when creating art that involves people, it’s important to consider the subject’s identity and how it can be expressed in the work. This might involve exploring themes of diversity, representation, or self-expression. By creating work that authentically represents people and their identities, you can connect with your audience on a deeper level.

The Environment

The environment in which we create and experience art can have a significant impact on the work itself. Whether you’re working in a studio or in the great outdoors, the environment can shape your perspective and influence your creative choices.

Consider the environment in which you create and how it affects your artistic process. Does the space inspire you or hinder you? Are there particular elements of the environment that you find particularly compelling? By being mindful of your surroundings, you can create work that reflects your unique perspective.

Create a feeling, using not only what is in the frame, but also leading up to it – the music you play, the culture of the studio, and if your outside, how does the weather effect the mood and impact of you and your subject? What about other people in the area? How much control do you have of the location?  Ultimately, the environment can set someone at ease or make them intimidated.  

Remember that their experience in the location may be very different from yours – so remember to read the room, and pick up clues – maybe a wrong musical style is playing, perhaps they are too cold or too hot, maybe they are scared in a neighborhood you are shooting in, or are overwhelmed by the number of lights being used.  Learn to be sensitive to the situation, and if you work with a team, learn to subtlety communicate to make the most of the session!


Every photographer understands, at some level, that lighting is a critical aspect of creating any visual art form, from photography to painting. The way light falls on a subject can dramatically change its appearance, mood, and emotional impact.

This is perhaps the most common training to learn – both online and through mentors (which I strongly suggest!).  Most of all, make sure you test, test, test!   The final photoshoots are often the shortest part of the process.  But understanding your techniques and what the images may look like before the shoot requires hours of understanding light, learning how to produce a particular lighting on demand, how to push the envelope and try knew things.   This requires lots of personal testing and education.

Seeing light is a learned skill – and a constant growth process, no matter where you are in  your career.

To make the most of lighting in your work, don’t forget experiment with different lighting setups and techniques. Pay attention to the quality and direction of light, as well as the shadows it creates. By mastering lighting, you can create work that is visually stunning and emotionally resonant, and therefore much more impactful to your client.

Interaction - the Subject/Photographer Dance

Interaction between the artist and the subject is a crucial aspect of creating portraits and other types of artwork. The dynamic dance during a session, between the artist and the subject, will greatly influence the final product, and a positive interaction can lead to more authentic and impactful work.

When working with subjects, take the time to establish a rapport and build a connection. Ask questions, listen to their stories, and be open to collaboration. By building a strong relationship with your subjects, you can create work that is both beautiful and meaningful.  This is one of the most important parts of creating powerful portraits, and like many of these layers, take time and practice. 

Acknowledge your own personality – extrovert, introvert, lack of confidence, attraction to the person – whatever it is, acknowledge it and accept it because it will come out in the session.  Pay attention to how they respond to you – if you are missing the look, change the dialogue and start fresh.  Remember, although it may be your concept, a portrait, by definition, is about them and they bring a host of emotions to the shoot. They also may respond in very different ways – embracing someones pain from an incident is drastically different than celebrating a major life milestone. 

Technology Considerations

When we talk about technology, it is really a consideration of the entire gamut of layers – from the initial contact, the workflows you build, the type of communication, the camera and photography gear and software as well as everything needed to build the final piece of art.  It’s not just what camera and lens are you using – its a whole package that impacts the subjects experience!

Furthermore, in this day and age of expanding AI and other incredible tools, technology has revolutionized the way we create and experience art, from digital painting tools to virtual reality experiences. By leveraging the latest technology, artists can push the boundaries of what’s possible and create work that is truly groundbreaking.

Explore new technologies and experiment with their capabilities to create cutting-edge work. Keep in mind, however, that technology should be a tool to enhance your creativity, not a crutch to rely on. Use technology to supplement your artistic vision and create work that is truly unique.

Post Inspiration

Post inspiration is about the impact of a piece of art on the viewer. It’s about how the art inspires and moves people. To add depth to your artwork, consider the impact your art will have on the viewer and find ways to create art that will inspire and move people.  There are many things you can do, for a final work, that may or may not have been part of the original concept.

This can be harder than it seems.  There are limits of your own creative output, their ability or willingness to express themselves that impacted the session, and sometimes, the grind can get in the way. 

Inspiration can come from many sources, and this layer is where the artist reflects on what has inspired them to create a particular piece. Whether it’s a personal experience, a cultural event, or a social issue, inspiration can come from anywhere.  Most importantly, it can come from your subjects story and how to best tell that story with the images you shot.

During this process, I take a step back and reflect on my work, looking for ways to improve it or take it in a different direction. I draw inspiration from a wide range of sources, including other artists, nature, and my own personal experiences. Sometimes, post-inspiration leads me to revisit a piece of artwork and make changes that I wouldn’t have thought of initially. 

Remember to be sensitive to your subject’s story – if you use the images for other art work, although technically legal as you own the images, you should get agreement from them – particularly in the AI space.


From brushes and paints to cameras and editing software, the tools that an artist uses can have a significant impact on the final piece. This layer is where the artist considers the tools at their disposal and how they influence the final piece.

The tools I use to create my art are an essential part of my process. I choose my tools based on the specific project and desired outcome. For example, when working with photography, I use a combination of natural light and artificial lighting to achieve the desired effect. I also experiment with different lenses and camera settings to capture the perfect shot.  Then add projection (front and rear), techniques pushing the limits of my gear, interesting lighting techniques and processes, and add in post prod tools including editing apps, AI tools, printing techniques and other aspects to consider. 

When creating art, the tools we use can greatly impact the outcome. Every tool has its own unique effect on the final product. It’s important to experiment with different tools to find the ones that work best for you and the vision you have in mind for your art. Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and try something new.

The Final Medium(s)

The final medium I use depends on the type of artwork I am creating. A traditional portrait will be very different from something experimental. 

Prints are still relevant – in fact in some ways, more than ever, precisely because they are outside the digital realm! Therefore, I learned about advanced printing process and determined the best paper for my subject, and invested in a professional printer.  I will  even discuss where the client is hanging the final work and what the lighting in that room is like.  

If you choose to outsource your printing, there is a dizzying array of options – although be careful about the long term quality – be picky who ultimately delivers your work as it is the center of your expression.

For digital art, I have also experimented with creating NFTs and other forms of digital art using blockchain technology.  However, the popularity and advancement of AI tools are exploding the creative scene, both embedded in traditional software as well as entirely new approaches.  Entire worlds can be created online, in VR, AR or as digital assets to be displayed on screens.  2D images can become 3D animations, the opportunities are almost unlimited. This is story telling on steroids!

The medium you choose to work with can also greatly affect the outcome of your art. Whether it’s a classic print or digital art, each medium has its own unique qualities and techniques that require different skills to master. Experimenting with different mediums can help you find the perfect fit for your artistic vision.

Final Delivery

The way I deliver my artwork to the viewer is also an important consideration. I offer a variety of delivery options, including prints, digital downloads, and NFTs. Each delivery option comes with its own unique considerations, such as file formats, resolution, and printing materials. I strive to make each delivery option as accessible and high-quality as possible.

In addition, what are you delivering? Do you offer an AR app so they can see the work before they decide on a final size? Have you discussed different mediums with the customer as well as explain how display, materials and sizes will look in their space?

Are you educating them on how to display digital art in attractive and contemporary ways?  It’s one thing to create digital assets or content as they are called – but a truly impactful piece should not be lost in the sea of 0’s and 1’s.  It should be experienced by people in an artistic and personal setting so that it has a life, similar to a print.

Finally, how are you delivering your message of thanks to the client – a personal note, a follow up email?  We are keen on surveys, feedback loops, and mailing lists.  Sometimes a simple thank you is the best way to gain a repeat customer!

The Viewer

Ultimately, artwork is created for the viewer. I consider the viewer’s experience and perspective when creating my work, from the subject matter to the way it is presented. My goal is to create artwork that resonates with the viewer and communicates a message or emotion in a powerful way.  However, if the work is for my own portfolio or interests, then I am very clear on that intention and give myself permission to not assume what a viewer will or will not experience and think.

Ultimately, the viewer is the most important layer of all. Without an audience, art is incomplete. It’s important to consider who your audience is and what they will take away from your work. Whether it’s a message or a feeling, knowing who you are creating for can greatly enhance the impact of your artwork. Art is a conversation between the artist and the viewer, and it’s important to keep that in mind throughout the creative process.  Just don’t try to assume they will think as you do – its a big wide world out there, with as much variety of people as there are thoughts!  And so the process begins again, with our histories!

In conclusion, art creation process involves a range of layers, from personal history and inspiration to the tools and mediums used, to the way the artwork is delivered and experienced by the viewer. Each layer plays an important role in the final product, and by considering each one carefully, you are able to create artwork that speaks to and resonates with its audience.

Keep exploring, keep listening, and try to stay out of your own way!  Happy creating!