My Art PhD Experience And Advice For Those Considering Doing One

Several years ago I finished my PhD in new media art. It was an interesting and challenging experience.

My PhD started as a Masters degree in photography. This reflected where my thinking and expertise was, at the time. The intent was to look as Kabbalah and to explore it through photography. Kabbalah (spelt in many different ways) is a spiritual tradition which originated as an area of Jewish spirituality, but that also had developed a non-Jewish branch as part of what is known as the Western Mystery Tradition from the 15th Century onwards, where it was combined with Hermetic and other influences and evolved into a clearly distinct form from its Jewish roots. It was this non-Jewish, Hermetic Kabbalah, that I was interested in.

An image from the Time and Space series.

As often happens with post-graduate research, the project followed various twists and turns, dead-ends, and directions that I chose not to follow at the time, but flagged for future work, such as light art.

By the time I converted from a Masters to a PhD, the project had taken on much more of a video orientation. The final body of artwork consisted of a collection of heavily Photoshopped still imagery and a three-channel video projection.

I’m often asked “was it worth it” and “did I enjoy it”? The answer to both is a qualified yes. PhD’s are a huge amount of work, especially when substantial parts of it were done part time. Plus there was a lot of mess going on in the rest of my life. We were caring for my parents-in-law as they went through their end-of-life illnesses, plus one of my brothers-in-law suicided and the whole family mess that resulted from that. Add in an eventual court case over the family estate that we got dragged into and you can understand why my PhD took longer than ideal. In the end everything resolved well for us, but the journey was a challenging one.

Also from the Time and Space series

I learned a huge amount from the PhD. Since my earlier degrees had all been in science and engineering, I had a steep learning curve to understand how to conceptualise and write in an academic art manner. Plus, of course, academic writing is a complete style unto itself, and one that violates all the principles of good writing – succinctness, clarity and the avoidance of obscure language in favour of a simple, easy to understand word choice. The PhD did push my art practice in new directions and it really stretched me as an artist. It pushed me deeply away from straight photography into video art and installation, something I am extremely grateful for.

My PhD was a practice-based PhD, a form that makes great sense in the arts and also in many other fields. In comparison to a normal research PhD, the emphasis is on real-world, practical outcomes, such as a book, body of music or, in this case, a body of artwork. It also has a focus on your practice as an artist and the development of that practice. So, in a sense, it is quite ‘you’ focused.

Another from the Time and Space series

For the development of the final video piece, I decided to weave together three parallel narratives – my personal spiritual narrative, my family narrative and the narrative of the development of the Western Mystery Tradition. These three narratives interweave through a three-channel video projection, with the same imagery often serving different roles and meanings in two or three of the narratives. The narratives are also non-linear in form. All of this really pushed me to develop new ways of thinking about and developing my art. Along the way I developed a new art theory, the ‘Data-Algorithm Model’, which I used in the production of the artwork and that I am now doing further writing about and pushing it into new areas, such as education.

Tree of Everywhere Combination of Channels v2 from Dr. Wayne J. Cosshall on Vimeo.

I have definitely found it worth doing an art PhD. Professionally, it opens doors in academia and even in business, it makes people pay some extra attention to your experience. From my art practice perspective, it was also highly worthwhile. The opportunity to work with good supervisors who will push you is worth it.

Advice for those considering doing an art PhD

The following is my advice based on doing two PhD’s in my life.

Firstly, work up the idea for the project you think you want to do broadly. Understand that over the course of the PhD this will change. In fact at most Universities, at least here in Australia, whilst you need a proposal to get enrolled, you have around 12 months (full time) before you have to submit your real proposal of topic. This is recognition of the fact that there is a lot of work to be done in defining the exact research questions you will be attempting to answer.

Go beyond an idea of what you want to work on to consider process. Do you need studio facilities or do you have your own? Do some looking at research publications that touch on your area. The full literature search will come once you are enrolled, but some preliminary work is wise and will help to convince the supervisors that you want to take you on. Try to look at the most recent publications in the field so you understand the current focus and themes.

Note that there are more and more ways to do a PhD. There are, for example, PhD by publication degrees, where you publish as you go and the body of publications is what is examined at the end. Look into all the options that are available to you and consider what might best suit you, your processes and what you are doing the PhD for in the first place.

Secondly, stalk potential supervisors. Supervisors are, in many ways, much more important than the actual University you do it at. You want a principle and a secondary supervisor. Both need to have the time to support you properly. This often means avoiding the very high profile, late-career supervisor for someone earlier in their careers. Not always, but often. At least one of them needs experience in getting students through the whole process at the University you will end up doing it at. This is so they can guide you through the administrative hoops that the University puts in your way. Every University is different, and some change their processes frequently (like the one I did mine at). You need supervisors that you can get on with, who you understand (both language-wise and intellectually) and who will be focused on getting you through to completion. You should interview potential supervisors. Remember that, in reality, you are doing them a huge favour. Academics are under incredible pressure to publish and to see students through to graduation. So the power does not all sit with them. With the work you have done on examining the literature, you have the best hope of convincing them that you are serious, can do the work and will complete. Discuss with them the potential to publish as you go. This is attractive to potential supervisors and has a huge benefit for you once you graduate, as you will already have some publications behind you. I did not do this, and I highly regret it. Also explore with them about whether their department supports PhD students with offers of sessional tutoring or teaching assistant work.

Once you have chosen supervisors then the third thing is to actually enroll at the University. Make sure the University has experience with practice-based PhDs. You don’t want to be the guineapig. Consider carefully whether you will study full or part-time, as at least in Australia there are scholarship implications to this that can save you a huge amount of money down the track.

Once you are started, be as organised as you possibly can be. Develop a system to keep track of every piece of reading you do. Whether this is one of the referencing management tools, like EndNote or one of the other ones, or whether you do this manually in Word or on paper, develop a system and use it. Keep copies (preferably digitally) of all the papers you look at. Digital makes it much easier to do keyword searches to find that paper from several years ago.

Publish as you go, both papers and artwork into exhibitions. This builds your resume and gives you a head start if looking to build an academic career later. Your supervisors will love this as they get credit too and it helps to show the University that you are engaged and making progress.

Proactively drive the process with your supervisors. Schedule regular meetings and touch base frequently by email. Keep them in the loop and do not be afraid to ask for help, that is what they are there for. They get a massive benefit from supervising you, so do not feel you can’t disturb them. In Australia the University gets a huge amount of money from the government per PhD student. Make sure you get your money’s worth.

If you are doing a practice-based PhD then the thesis is shorter and is often called an exegesis. Mine sits in the 40-50,000 word range. Hire an editor. Your University should have a guidance document that spells out exactly what a PhD edit can and cannot do. Basically, it boils down to the fact that the exegesis has to be your words, they are there to help you make it read well and correctly. Universities in Australia have a budget to help you pay for editing. Ask about it. Elsewhere, there may be a similar source of funding, so ask your supervisors and read through all the documentation the University has for PhD candidates. Mine paid for almost all of my editing costs.

Writing up is a stressful process. Accept that. Be prepared to go through many drafts of refinement before it is ready to submit. Get your supervisors to point you to recent PhDs that have passed successfully in your department of the University and download the thesis or exegesis document from the library or University research repository. Use these to get an idea of how to approach and organise your work. The topic doesn’t matter, you are seeking help with how to organise your writing and what forms are acceptable to the University. This was critically important for me, as I was struggling with how to organise the vast range of ideas I needed to cover. I ended up finding one that ‘gave me permission’ to follow a narrative structure that worked for me and my work.

The actual examination process is also stressful. Generally, you have some say in who will examine your work. In Australia you can nominate who you might want to examine you. You can also state who you do not want as an examiner. This can be very important. Network with other PhD candidates and recent graduates in your field. They will have stories to tell about examiners. Basically the outcome of examination is one of three things – full acceptance as is (which was the case with mine), more work to be done, either minor or major, and outright rejection, which is very rare and should never happen if your supervisors have done their job properly (same with major additional work).

Hopefully it will all go well for you and then you are a newly minted PhD. Start using your title as Doctor immediately. You worked bloody hard for it, use it.

If you want to look at my academic work, you can go to my personal art website, where you’ll find the still image series Time and Space and the video piece The Tree of Everywhere, or my profile on My exegesis itself is available from the RMIT University publication repository.

Another Time and Space image

When Photography Crosses Into Art

Photography is sometimes art and art sometimes uses photography. But what is the determining factor?

The answer is that photography is art when it mirrors contemporary art concerns. So just what do I mean by that? Well tough as it might sound, contemporary art moved beyond just being beautiful or representational back with surrealism, futurism, and all the other ‘isms’ of the modern age. Now of course we are past modern art and into post-modern and post-post-modern. But a common thread in all the modern+ art movements has been to move beyond beauty and representation. What matters is meaning, having something to say, going beyond appearance to some deeper levels.

An image from my Time and Space series

Now that doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with beauty and representation. In fact contemporary art practice would certainly be all the better for some interest in beauty (IMHO). But it does mean that a work that is mostly concerned with beauty and representation is not contemporary in an art sense.

Another characteristic of contemporary art practice is a lack of interest in process. It doesn’t matter how you do something, all that matters is the final result and the meaning conveyed by it. This is another problem for a lot of photography to get past – much photography has an overwhelming concern with process. This is perhaps exemplified most by the alternate process people – those using gum bichromate or gumoil or some other long surpassed process. These processes appeal because of the beauty of the resulting prints and perhaps a sense of nostalgia for the believed simplicities of the past.

And I have to say that the absurdity of much of this alternate process work should be obvious to all. Not only can the look of most of them be reproduced quite well using the latest inkjets but so much emphasis is put on wonderful papers that are then matted and hidden behind glass for exhibition so it can never be really appreciated. It is what I would call process masturbation at its worse.

Does that mean that I would argue that you should not make beautiful images? No, of course not. Just don’t think you are making contemporary art necessarily. I make two completely different types of images – my contemporary art work which does not have a primary aim of beauty (though I do aim to make it so) and my landscape photography work, which is primarily produced to be beautiful but that I don’t fool myself is art.

This is what it all comes down to – what pleases you and what your priorities are. But don’t fool yourself that it is more than it is.

artCircles App for iPad from and Hot Studio Named App of the Week

SAN FRANCISCO, June 18, 2012 /PRNewswire/ — artCircles, the first iPad app released by, the world’s largest online retailer of posters, prints, and framed art, was recently named the iTunes App Store’s “App of the Week.” Conceived, designed, built, and branded in collaboration with Hot Studio, an award-winning experience design company, artCircles represents a new and highly engaging way for people to discover and interact with images hand curated from’s massive collection.

Experience lies at the heart of the free artCircles app. Designed exclusively with the iPad in mind, artCircles leverages the iPad’s high-resolution display and touchscreen capabilities to provide a unique and innately engrossing art-viewing experience. Anchored by a clever user interface (literally comprised of interrelated circles), the app enables easy discovery, discussion, and sharing. Deep social integration lets users share their favorite works of art with friends, while a Curators circle features hand selected collections from creative leaders like John Maeda and Yves Behar.
Setting goals that included thinking big and bold, the team from Hot Studio leveraged its collective experience on past award-winning apps, like Zinio’s iPad magazine reader, to help create a highly interactive, visually stunning application. Hot Studio’s visual designers, user experience architects, and technical engineers worked in lockstep throughout the process to design and build an app that fundamentally changed how people could experience’s image collection. Hot collaborated with on the app’s concept and strategy, user experience and interface design, engineering and integration, as well as the naming and visual identity.

“Congratulations to everyone at,” says Rajan Dev, Hot Studio’s President. “artCircles leverages’s great catalogue of images in a new way and we’re so happy that the app has been so well received.

Be sure to check out the app yourself, and download it from iTunes.

About, Inc.
With more than 12 million customers in 120 countries worldwide, Inc. is the world’s largest online specialty retailer of high-quality wall art. The company was founded in 1998 with one goal — to help people find the art they love so they can love their spaces more. Inc. runs three sites in the USA —, and — and has a strong international presence with 25 local sites in Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, Mexico, and South America. The company offers custom framing and specialty printing, interactive visualization tools to help people find the perfect piece of art for their space and an app for iPad called artCircles, that lets users explore art from a hand-picked selection of curated collections., Inc. is a privately held company headquartered in Emeryville, CA, with other facilities in Ohio, North Carolina and the Netherlands. “” and “artCircles” are trademarks of, Inc. For more information, visit

About Hot Studio
Envisioning, designing, and deploying innovative experiences since 1997, Hot Studio is an award-winning experience design company with offices in San Francisco and New York City. Dedicated to creating elegant solutions for complex design challenges, we collaborate with business leaders, community organizations, and emerging companies to create breakthrough products and services that have global reach and local impact. For more information visit

Copyright and the Artist in a Digital Age

Let’s be honest, copyright is a complete mess. There are differences in law from country to country and, in a day when putting an image on Facebook or your blog makes it vulnerable to attack under any copyright jurisdiction in the world, the risks are considerable.

The largest problem for artists is that techniques and approaches that they have grown up with do not apply in the digital. So I can legally take a magazine, cut out a photo and glue it onto a canvas to make a physical collage, but if I copy the same image off the magazine’s website and paste it into Photoshop I have breached copyright if I publish the result. It makes no sense, but unfortunately that is not a defence under the law.

Until the law catches up with the realities of the modern world we all need to be careful.

So what do I do when I need source images that I do not have in my own image library? Well, I do one of three things:

  • Buy them from a stock library, like iStockPhoto for a few dollars
  • Go out and shoot them myself
  • Google for open source or public domain images

My own image library is, of course, large. But it doesn’t cover everything. I have supplemented that with a number of collections of images on CD and DVD that I have bought the right to use. But what about when I can’t find what I want there either?

My preferred solution is iStockPhoto and the other micro stock libraries. I know I have the right to use and I have supported another artist in their activities. Everyone wins. This is the approach I use in designing book covers and also occasionally in artwork, though in my own artwork I prefer the integrity of using all my own imagery if at all possible.

Googling for open source, free or public domain images can be tricky. When you Google, what Google is doing is looking for pages where all those words occur. That means the words public and domain may occur on a page but not mean that the images are explicitly released into the public domain. To stand a better chance you need to enclose the phrases in quotes, as in “public domain’ or “open source” so that Google will only return pages where these expressions occur as is. Still what you then need to do is to then check the page the image occurs on to see if there is an explicit statement that the images are public domain.

Many government agencies make images available for use, such as US Government agencies like NASA. But you should always check the terms and conditions of use on the websites. They will be there somewhere.

In education it is common to take a more relaxed view over copyright when allowing students to experiment and develop experience and techniques. Note that while there are general exemptions under copyright law for educational uses, it is a grey area when it comes to then putting such images up on the Internet, which is effectively publishing. So students should be careful about publishing assignment work to Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc. While it may be acceptable to a teacher for a particular purpose, like a skill building exercise, that does not make it legal.

Photographers protect their work in many ways. There are encoding techniques that embed within an image traceable information that is capable for surviving extensive cropping and modification in Photoshop. This is a very effective way of identifying images on the net that have incorporated your work. Many professional photographers do this and it makes sense when your living is your images.

There is also the danger of urban myths. The main one relevant here is the idea that you can use a certain percentage of an image. This is just plain wrong. There is no percentage use figure in copyright law regarding images.

A complication is that copyright laws are constantly changing. Not only is there the general copyright law, which differs from country to country although there is general agreement on some aspects, as agreed by international conventions. Individual countries are also active with special legislation that covers certain areas of copyright. The US in particular is one country that has special digital laws and one where new laws are being proposed frequently in response to lobbying be areas of industry with particular interests.

All the above makes it a nightmare for digital artists. My advice is to be very conservative.

As is obvious, I am not a lawyer and this article does not constitute or substitute for legal advise. Seek the advice of a lawyer over your particular circumstances.


LoFi Gallery in London Call for Submissions For Their Opening Exhibition

LFG call for submissions

Are you a LoFi Fool?

iPhone photography by Wayne J. Cosshall

A brand new London gallery is looking for the best and most interesting images taken with LoFi cameras – that’s Holga, Lomo, Polaroid, Diana and iPhone – to display in their inaugural exhibition in August.

It doesn’t matter if you’re amateur or professional, young or old. If you have a catalogue of work or a single great image. We care about good pictures. Any selected photos will be featured on the online gallery, with a smaller collection featured in the gallery space itself.

All work featured will be on sale to the general public, and cash prizes will be awarded at the inaugural exhibition for the most interesting photographs in three categories.

If you have some great LoFi pictures, email photos@lofigallery for details on how to apply.

Entry fees may be applicable.

Google’s Art Project

Google has launched its Art Project, an ambitious project to bring the art works of the world’s galleries and museums onto the web in deep zoomable, detailed form.

Currently Art Project has work from the following institutions on show:

  • Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin – Germany
  • Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian, Washington DC – USA
  • The Frick Collection, NYC – USA
  • Gemäldegalerie, Berlin – Germany
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC – USA
  • MoMA, The Museum of Modern Art, NYC – USA
  • Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid – Spain
  • Museo Thyssen – Bornemisza, Madrid – Spain
  • Museum Kampa, Prague – Czech Republic
  • National Gallery, London – UK
  • Palace of Versailles – France
  • Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam – The Netherlands
  • The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg – Russia
  • State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow – Russia
  • Tate Britain, London – UK
  • Uffizi Gallery, Florence – Italy
  • Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam – The Netherlands

Each of those has chosen to show some galleries and some works. So this is a work in progress.

As a tool for art students, photographers (who can learn a lot from painting) and more this is a wonderful tool that will become more useful over time. While nothing is the same as standing in one of these great institutions and examining the work in person, this is a really amazing alternative.

The level of detail in some of these artworks is truly amazing.