“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

– Edgar Degas, French Impressionist artist (1834-1917)

This is Part 1 in a series of articles dedicated to lessons I learned through my personal Beauty Photography and Retouching Journey so far, after a decade in the industry. My goal with this series is to distill the key components that fueled my rapid skill development in beauty retouching and photography, so I can apply the same framework to acquiring new skills within the visual arts to become a super efficient learner and skill acquirer overall.

If such a framework works for me, it will work for you too.

Keep an eye out for the follow-up articles, I will be linking them here for convenience.

Beyond Technique: Cultivating Visual Taste & Mental Representations

In photography and particularly in beauty retouching, similar to most artistic pursuits, there are always dozens of ways to get from point A to point B. 

But even with dedicated practice, you can’t expect to achieve brilliance simply by learning the basic rules, tools and techniques.

It’s obvious that it is rather unrealistic to expect to play Chopin’s 2nd Sonata like the maestro himself with mere musical literacy 🤷‍♀️

So what is it that makes some of us create greater visual artwork in any chosen field and learn to do that faster than others?

Through the years, I discovered that true progress hinges less on tools and techniques, and more on developing one’s visual taste, aesthetic judgment, and a discerning eye.

I saw this through progress leaps in my own artistic journey and those of my students, and now I found a scientific term and explanation for it, and I am excited to share it with you.

In their book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, psychologist Anders Ericsson and science writer Robert Pool describe mental representations as internal models or structures that hold information about a specific object, idea, or skill.

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A post shared by Julia Kuzmenko McKim 💄 (@juliakuzmenko)

These representations aren’t static pictures but rather dynamic structures that evolve with practice and experience.

Imagine a chess grandmaster visualizing the board and possible moves. Their mental representation isn’t just seeing the squares and pieces, but also patterns, strategies, and potential outcomes based on their knowledge and experience.

To give you an example that you can most likely relate to…

When I first got interested in beauty photography and retouching, I started collecting images of other artists as references. Obviously, I would only collect “perfect” photographs that I thought were great examples of composition, color grading, retouching, posing, and so on for me to strive towards.

I would analyze colors, skin textures, lighting, posting, and styling in them – those were my mental representations of where I wanted to take my skills.

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Fast forward to the midpoint of my own journey in beauty photography and retouching, I stumble upon an old folder called “Beauty Inspo” on my computer, and “OMG… How could I think those images were even good…” 😬

This change in my visual taste happened because every photoshoot, every resulting image scrutinized, refined my understanding and preference of all of those elements in beauty photography.

Back then I called it developing one’s visual taste, but it is just another name for the process of evolving mental representations within the art of beauty photography and retouching.

Think of it as an internal compass, guiding your aesthetic choices.

Here are some key characteristics of mental representations according to Peak:

  • Multi-faceted: They incorporate various aspects of a skill. It’s not just about technical prowess. Our mental representations weave together technical knowledge, aesthetic judgment, and even emotional cues. 

    📌 In our field, it is our internal preferences for color harmony, lighting and composition, beautiful skin texture detail, an understanding of flattering vs. unflattering posing and expressions, levels of makeup artistry, and so on;

  • Detailed: As expertise grows, these representations become richer and more detailed, allowing for fine-grained analysis and action. 

    📌 Each new photoshoot, examination of the resulting images, and viewing of the work of other experienced and talented photographers in the industry allowed me to dial in and finetune my mental representations, making them more nuanced again and again;

  • Flexible: Experts can adapt their mental representations to different situations and challenges, unlike beginners who rely on rigid, context-specific models.

    📌 To me, the ultimate implication is that this is what allows you to quickly pivot, come up with problem-solving ideas on the spot. For example, a model shows up for a close-up beauty shoot with slightly dry skin on her face. Your experience tells you that even with labor-intensive retouching, the results won’t be up to your current standards (i.e. your mental representation of how healthy well-prepped skin should look in beauty imagery). Through a quick conversation with your Makeup Artist, together you decide to slightly delay the beginning of the shoot so that the MUA can gently exfoliate and hydrate the model’s skin.

    In other words, you were presented with certain circumstances (a beauty model with slightly dry skin), and your inner vision (i.e. your mental representation) told you they wouldn’t lead to desired superior images as a result of this shoot.

  • Action-oriented: They guide thought and action, allowing experts to perform skillfully and efficiently.

    📌 The previous example extends to this point too: your improved mental representations of the look of healthy well-hydrated skin in beauty photography empowered you to influence circumstances, take action, and elevate the quality of your work as a result.

    Additionally, your experience allows you to quickly come up with steps to resolve problems and increase the chances of delivering a better result. In turn, every problem solved adds new details to your internal mental representations, further honing your expertise and expanding your creative toolkit.

As you navigate your artistic journey, you realize that those initial “inspo” images were just springboards for your mental representations’ development.

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A post shared by Julia Kuzmenko McKim 💄 (@juliakuzmenko)

Once you gain a good understanding of how to use your camera, lighting, basic retouching tools and learn some advanced retouching techniques, continue practicing and testing new approaches to refine your workflow.

I really like how the authors of Peak compare the process of developing and perfecting your mental representations to building a ladder as you climb it.

I will also drop a breadcrumb here and say that it’s not just any practice that propels you toward creative mastery, it is deliberate practice – we’ll dive deeper into this crucial concept next time 🤫

Key Takeaways

I am convinced, that the true magic lies not in the tools and techniques you use, but in cultivating your inner eye, refining your mental representations through practice, analysis of the successful artwork in the field, and allowing them to guide your creative evolution.

Each experience, each challenge, becomes a brushstroke on your internal artistic roadmap, leading you closer to your UNIQUE VISION of beauty and artistic excellence.

Learn the basics, practice a lot, keep what works, and ditch what doesn’t – the journey never ends, and neither does your ability to refine your artistic compass.

Till next time!

PS. Check out my Stop Doing These 5 Things If You Want Better Retouching Results blog post if you haven’t yet.