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5 Things I Learned From My Post-Baccalaureate Visual Art Certificate Program

I just graduated from the Post Baccalaureate Visual Art Certificate Program at UC Berkeley Extension (UCBX). It has been a 1.5 year fabulous journey. This program is taught at their San Francisco Campus, near the Embarcadero BART station.

I decided I wanted a formal academic program to learn more about photography and art and to develop a portfolio. The program at UCBX provided all of that and a whole lot more. It exceeded my expectations!!! I loved my professors and classmates. And the work that I did surprised me!

The UCBX Visual Art Certificate program is robust and rigorous. It requires 13 classes and a final exam, including: 3 portfolio development classes, 2 art history classes, 2 mentorships, a final portfolio review to 3 faculty members, plus 6 elective art classes for a total of 13 classes and 25 college credit hours. The program is so good that my classmates and I are all taking more classes than required because we like them so much.

If I typed the lessons I learned they would probably take up hundreds of pages as is evidenced by the books and notebooks that are spilling out of my shelves. But I have five of the best lessons that I am sharing here. This post is in response to a lot of my photographer friends and family, who want to know what I learned as well as what is a Visual Art Certificate? What did you do there?

1) What is fine art? Fine art is about the why or the artists narrative as much as it is the aesthetic. It is so hard to grasp this concept until you have seen hundreds of examples, which we did in the comprehensive art history classes, the shows we curated, class lectures, our own artist statements, and on countless trips to local San Francisco galleries and museums. An artist’s personal view of the world and narrative, plus the innovation of his or her work, along with the aesthetic, is the key to being successful as a fine artist.

The Andersons, in their collection objectives for their abstract expressionism exhibit at Stanford, had the best criteria for innovative art. They asked, “have we seen this before and could we have thought of it?” If both answers are no, the art is very innovative and great!

Good examples of memorable artist narratives, combined with a strong aesthetic, include Jackson Pollock’s belief that he didn’t paint nature because he was the force of nature, throwing the paint onto the canvas; or that Walker Evans saw the vernacular as the subject and method of his Great Depression era portraits which are very profound today; or Dinh Q Le weaves long strips of photographs to make woven photographs that beautifully express his Vietnamese culture and history; and Cai Guo Qiang makes beautiful daytime fireworks exhibits to reflect on nuclear explosions and violence and to find peace in his art.

2) What makes a good photograph? The answer was discovered in an elective art philosophy class where I read four books to write a fifteen page paper comparing Walter Benjamin to Roland Barthes, two highly educated scholars who wrote about photography as it was unfolding in the Modern Art era. A great photo is always a moment in time, beautifully framed. But I learned that a photograph captures the aura and lives of the people in it. It is seen three ways: from the subject, the photographer, and the viewer. And it can capture a shock known as punctum versus being studium (Barthes, Camera Lucida). By understanding the difference between photography and painting, I understood what a photo does capture that a painting cannot. It is about the details of the people, recording history, and telling a story. And its significance on viewers, who view it as a truth, can be leveraged to take photos that create fantasies, alluded ideas, or altered truths. And, as my favorite photography instructor showed me with her critiques of my work, the best photography is of course about light and color but it is very much about an attention to every detail so you don’t capture details you don’t want to see! She was showing me the wrinkles in a fabric that I overlooked. I learned to see my work more critically.

This same fine art photography professor also gave us extraordinary lectures about the history of fine art photography and the artists who have paved the way with their innovative work. You can see a lot of it at Pier 24 in San Francisco. I highly recommend seeing that exhibit, along with the galleries at 49 Geary Street, and Minnesota Street Project. SFMoma has ongoing exhibitions as well as a permanent photography collection, too.

3) What is composition? Well, it’s certainly not just the rule of thirds!! I never really thought much about that rule once enrolled, to be honest.

As my favorite art professor said, composition is simply a balance of positive and negative space! It is about making both balanced and great, actually.

But you also need a variety of values with an effective use of them throughout the picture plane. And you need to use harmonious colors. I bought and read all of the theory books on color written by Albers, Itten, and Van Gogh. We studied color in figurative works, such as Matisse with his fauvism, and with abstract painters, such as Rothko, with his beautiful layers of color.

And for good composition you must have interesting arrangements of items. Crop something tight or give it ample space; make it big, make it square, make it long or tall or short. Rauschenberg is known for his amazing compositions. We took two fieldtrips to see his extensive collection of series.

It is so much fun to be with painters! My classmates, who were mostly painters, said, “make your photos look like paintings.” And they gave me ideas, “we think you should shoot like the Dutch artists.” It took me a year to learn to shoot good still life images. I did manage to compile a huge timeline of the history of still life paintings and photos and was especially fond of the modern ones by David LaChapelle. I am still learning and working on them.

My interest in LaChapelle’s work propelled me to meet him at the Taschen store in LA where he was signing 2 new books.

4) Have no fear! If you work hard enough you can do it! There were many times I had a freakout and was afraid of failure. Like in an advanced drawing class where we had to sketch a live nude model in ten-minute poses for three hours. Keep it loose! Or sketch seal bones in charcoal grounds by erasing the charcoal, or to make ink wash drawings, or use graphite to draw complicated still life scenes by adding hatched shadows. My drawing professor had an amazing group of lessons that allowed us to steadily build our skills and produce work that consistently made each student proud. She actually let me take her advanced class without the basic one so I could have a drawing class. I am so glad I did!

Just keep at it! Start at one corner and keep recording until you finish! And never stop practicing drawing. One graphic designer said you will never be a graphic artist if you can’t draw. I think that advice applies to all artists because drawing forces you to see details and to really compose well. Drawing taught me to make thumbnails of graphic art projects, photos, and paintings.

Here are the highlights of my drawing class. The first ones shown here are the ink wash drawings we did for our finals. I used some of my images from local farms and reproduced them in ink and gouache on Aquabord, making them a combination of fine detail and abstraction.

Graphite drawings balanced positive and negative space and they taught us about using values as part of the composition:

One lady on BART thought I was a forensic artist because she saw me sketching skeletons as part of my homework!

Here is the still life project which scared me to death and taught me I could draw, all at the same time:

And on the nudes, my teacher said, oh that does look like her!


Here are the beautiful seal bones which we rendered in charcoal by using a charcoal base and then removing color. And then adding dark shading and light highlights. I actually loved this lesson very much!


I also took an abstract painting class and learned color, line, form, values, composition, and most importantly that I can paint! I discovered that I love to paint and am very good with color!!

The funny thing is that I thought the abstract class would be a lecture until we were handed a materials list and I panicked!!! I would have to paint with students who had been painters for a long time!

But I watched a ton of painting videos (CreativeLive), researched my projects, enlisted the help of the Dick Blick staff for buying paints and then proceeded to paint a lot! I don’t have an easel at home so I used my stove! Early on I switched to gouache paint because I love the color and how it is chalky when it dries. One of the first gouache paintings I did got into a juried show and became the show’s poster and postcard.

Another project in the abstract class involved deconstruction. I used apple shapes and colors and reproduced them in gouache. I love these and want to paint more. They are already exhibiting in a juried show!

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Here is one more in acrylic:

5) Always research more! This lesson is from the girl who sat next to me in Photoshop and also from all the Millenials in my graphic design classes. I was able to add classes from their Graphic Design Certificate Program.

Watch a lot of YouTube videos and do something totally amazing that you love! Come in with something better than you were assigned.

In the Adobe Photoshop class on our first composite assignment, my friend came in with a mermaid riding a goldfish wearing Oculus glasses in a beautiful underwater city with glitter trails and a magenta sunset all composited beautifully whereas I tried to put a YSL dress on the Statue of Liberty, as we were assigned! We did get a Photoshop liquid tool lesson, though, to make my statue skinnier! My second attempt was much better.

In my Adobe Illustrator class I combined “do extra and draw well” for a project – this ad took almost 40 hours and is a realistic ad for a product drawn completely in Illustrator:

I also got certified for Capture One software and I learned really good hard and soft studio lighting outside of the UCBX program. I simply loved to learn!

Our Modern Art History class certainly included a lot of research about the history of the artists. I always looked forward to the lectures and loved how the entire class was engaged in critical thinking and discussion. I have a running notebook of the shows that I have seen at SFMOMA and the galleries in SF, especially the Minnesota Street Project.

I would highly recommend this program to any artist who wants to learn what fine art really is and how they fit into this amazing world. By developing your own vision and building a cohesive portfolio with a narrative you will take 1000 steps up with your work. You will do this through repetition, exploration, and the constructive feedback of your professors and peers. I feel very honored to have worked with all of the professors and my classmates for every class.

And I am now applying for a MFA.

The final series and portfolio is here. 

Here are some of my works of art in juried exhibits and a solo show plus I made the top 100 with 2 of my photos for the American Photographic Artists Something Personal Gallery Exhibition and Holiday Gallery, a huge honor. The peach photo has sold.




Finding A Client’s Voice

It is so much fun discovering a client’s story and advantage in the market. Recently I shot for Curry Pizza House in Fremont, California. They wanted their photos to look like a national chain’s pictures. They had done an admirable job shooting their own photos but now it was time to update their extensive web menu for clients who order online and I got called for the task.

One of the easiest ways for any client to shoot a lot of great photos on budget is for me to go on location. We agree on the style ahead of time to save time and I come in with all of the right lighting and props. I can shoot as many items as they can produce, using one or more setups. In a day’s time this is more than a thousand photos on average. A half-day can usually produce all the items on a menu with a cohesive, professional look that is guaranteed to raise sales and eyebrows.

When I read their menu, the main advantage jumped out of the screen to me. This pizza house is not only a classical fusion restaurant but a flavor powerhouse. They are using Asian and Indian spices on their pizzas to create very interesting masterpieces, unlike any other pizza restaurant I have ever seen. The seasoning blends were very vibrant and unique. There were fresh herbs, potatoes, tofu, and many fresh vegetables. I set out to create a great set that would be simple enough to show their many flavors.

Even better still, was the opportunity to discover the second and greatest advantage they have in the market that I spotted on the day of the shoot. The kitchen staff was so committed to quality and every ingredient was prepared from scratch. The national chain they wanted to duplicate is certainly not this good. I wanted to tell the story right away. And while I was waiting for them to prepare all of the pizzas for our shoot, I spent time in their kitchen and captured video on my iPhone, staging as we went. There were over 15 videos that got made into a 2 minute story to show their process.

The rhythmical sound of a French-fry cutting machine in their kitchen was dicing up ripe, fresh tomatoes. Cheeses were being freshly grated on machine versus being opened up from a plastic bag. All of the vegetables were sliced by hand from peppers to red onions to cauliflower. It was amazing in this era of processed food where you usually find canned or frozen foods being used to save time and money. The dough is even mixed fresh at each meal period. It is formed by hand into balls and then artistically and deftly created into the most beautiful crust by one of the cooks. He could put any TV chef to shame with his speed and dexterity. I simply had to capture it!

When it came time to style the hero shots, they fell into place. Out came the mango-yogurt drinks, the freshly crisped potato chips, the chicken wings, the beautiful bread sticks, the seasonings used to make them, and all of the beautiful pizzas. Curry Pizza House makes both American pizzas and the most amazing India-spiced concoctions. I used back light and a neutral background with a maple-wood board to really bring out the colors and flavors of the pizzas. A dark stone showed the chicken wings and all of their seasonings.

Check out a few of the highlights from this shoot:

Restaurant Open Table and Web Marketing 11-Point Checkup

If you are a restaurant owner, manager, chef, or marketer, you might want to take the time to compare your Open Table page and or website to those of your competitors. If a guest is looking for a restaurant in your area at 7:00PM don’t you want them to grab a reservation at your establishment first? A photo tells a thousand words. And customers make an instant decision and judgement based on a quick glance of what they see in 1-2 seconds. Can you really afford to use the photos that someone took with their smartphone?

Consider this Open Table, web, social media, and print advertising checklist:

  1. Does the establishment show its best side or view with beautiful light in your photos?
  2. Are the photos white balanced so that the food looks appetizing and not too blue or yellow?
  3. Is the food in good light and focused so everyone can tell what it is?
  4. Is the food arranged so that complementary colors are used and an abundance of color shows a story of graciousness and generosity? Customers can tell in a minute if you care. The right photos can set you apart quickly.
  5. Is the staff smiling? Are your customers having a great time in your photos?
  6. Do you have a representation of the diversity of your staff and customers in your photos?
  7. Are there closeup shots of the food that are so enticing people want to click “reserve now” without flipping through your competitor’s sites first?
  8. Is your menu up to date?
  9. Do your photos show your chef’s best and current work?
  10. Is there a cohesive style to the photos?
  11. Is your best foot forward in your photos and story?

It is a worthwhile investment to hire me to shoot for you for a quarter, half, or full day. You can have my food styling, planning and story telling talent, along with all of the pictures I can shoot in your timeframe. I aspire to deliver a lot of great photos for your every use. Download ExpressionFood brochure with story questionnaire and shoot planning list

I am dedicated to planning, developing your best story, and delivering an amazing aesthetic on the images I produce for you. When you win, I win. It’s that simple.

A new marketing director client was considering me (story coming up soon!) and she did pick me out of all of my competitors. Why? Well, for one thing I took the time to listen to her story, view her website, and then come up with a Pinterest board showing her the images I thought would be best to tell her story. Then I took a physical tour of her restaurant, developed the style, story, and props along the way. She was smitten. My vast culinary experience, artistry, and sense of style were engaged to pre-style the shots while we talked and toured every inch of the restaurant. We came up with new ways of seeing and showing the restaurant. New ways of showing the staff preparing the food. And a clean, exciting, modern way of showing the best part of their restaurant. The uses of the images will include Open Table, website, social media, email, brochures and an airport banner. The shoot is now scheduled.

Her comment was that she could not wait to set everything up like that every day including the day of the shoot. It is this vision and talent that I wish to share!

Why would I give away this time before the shoot to consult for the project? Because I want us both to win! To serve the customer with nothing less than the best is always my motto. The devil is always in the details and the preparation and the ultimate goal is to help us all look our very best. The time spent finding the right shot examples, discussing the shots, developing the props, light, style, models, and image samples is well spent. It means that we can set up fast, develop a beautiful shot you can see on my computer, and then fly to create the maximum amount of beautiful shots in a day.

I have spent my life with food and have an amazing vision that makes the food shots look like no other. My vision wants to make everything clean and simple with dramatic light that is sculpted to show the food. When you buy Expression Food services for a quarter, half, or full day you get the style and the photographs. By doing the work before the shoot you get a great deal of pleasure with the photographs that we produce as a team effort. Heaven help your competitors!