What Moves You? Exploring Artistic Inspiration

I remember a time when I was first learning about art that I found myself amazed at how the play of light, shadow, and emotion could be created from a simple stroke of the brush. In particular, I was drawn to the Renaissance masters and the religious art meant to teach an illiterate populace the lessons of the bible without ever having to read a word. The lesson was in the compassionate pose of the hands, the elegant sweep of hair, the blush of divine light. Artists made a living from telling epic stories meant to move the soul.

Today, and many days previous, I find myself wondering how, as an artist, I can bring that same kind of emotion to my work. Like any mystery, it starts with the self and what affects you, personally. Have you ever found yourself staring at a piece of art? What causes you to stare at it longer than a simple glance? What grips your soul? What makes you think?

For me, there are a few particular pieces that make me stare in awe and trigger an unnameable emotion. The first would be the painting Saint Eulalia by John William Waterhouse.


Before I knew her story, I was fascinated by the delicacy of her skin and the gentle fall of snow. Not only was this piece visually stunning to me, but the contrast of such a violent act as the murder of a child with the soft fall of snow jarred me in some unidentifiable way. I went on to learn that Eulalia was a Christian child who taunted the Romans, and was later tortured with hooks and burnt at the stake, where she died of smoke inhalation. At the moment of death, a dove symbolizing the holy spirit flew from her mouth. A miraculous fall of white snow appeared to cover her naked form.

The next piece is one of my all-time favorite works of art and also my favorite sculpture. I hope to one day make a pilgrimage to the Louvre to see it in person. If you don’t know it already, it is the Pieta by Michelangelo.


Again, the subject of death, self sacrifice, and those who are left behind seems to be one that strikes me at the core. What greater pain could there be than for a mother to lose her child? And yet, there’s something endearing and brave in Mary’s gentle expression. Even in such a moment of pain, her serenity expresses nothing but pure love in the face of such sorrow.

I could go on about Millias’ Ophelia and Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott, but I want to hear from you. I seem to be firmly ensconced in works depicting the ecstasy and passion of martyrs. What this says about my work, I’m not quite sure yet, but it seems like I still have some exploration with subject matter to do beyond my current fair of ‘pretty things’.

What paintings or works of art move you and why? How has this inspired your own work?

7 comments

  1. ban says:

    oh yeah, waterhouse is an all time favorite of mine too. the lady of shalott is hung on my bedroom wall along with la belle dame sans merci. i’ve always had a soft spot for quo vadis by mucha and the finding of moses by alma tadema. those are the first that come to mind but all my life i’ve been influenced by art. guess that’s why i initially pursued illustration in college. (when i was little i wanted to grow up and be a disney animator 🙂

  2. Mwp1988 says:

    I love the first one its very dramatic, funny thing is I got a totally different story from it. I brings to my mind loneliness and isolation…..sadness so overwhelming that she just wants to give up and let go….of course that might just be that I have a soft spot of art that shows pain and the things that really happen in a persons heart and soul…with out all the rosy fakness I guess lol…

    I don’t know a lot about the old masters but there are a few that speak to my soul including;

    Frida Kahlo- Her portrayal of her joy for life and her pain among it.

    Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun-Her ability to show the pure untainted love that children have

    Salvador Dali- For his chaotic reality

  3. Ban, The Lady of Shalott was in my dorm room through my looong stint of college alongside works by Edmund Blair Leighton. Those two were just geniuses of creating a mood and story.

    I never had posters of Mucha for some dumb reason, but I’ve got a healthy collection of books with his work now. Alphonse Mucha by Sarah Mucha is a wonderful collection of his best full of information about the artist as well as beautiful full color reproductions.

    It’s interesting you initially pursued illustration. What major/profession did you end up in?

    I always wanted to be a comic writer/illustrator when I was young>_>

    Martha, I got the same sense of loneliness when I first saw this image. She’s much more serene and sad than the taunting Eulalia of the stories. I am also a fan of Dali as well. He seemed to throw logic, and people’s opinions, to the wind and have fun with his art all at the same time. Photos of Dali always make me crack a smile.

  4. ban says:

    actually, i ended up working in an emergency room for awhile, then did insurance verification and lastly i worked for a cardiologist’s office. now i’m a stay at home mom who works mostly with polymer clay. i make beads and sculptures, which i sell at shows, off myspace and etsy. i still draw now and again, and i’ll never give up on my beloved prismacolors but it’s for my own personal benefit now. (characters from my stories etc.) alas, the illustration field was not for me – i blank when restricted by anything but MY imagination, i don’t have a competitive bone in my body and i’m REALLY bad at selling myself. i’d just as soon give away my art as sell it – guess it’s a good thing my sister is my business partner 🙂

  5. Ban, sounds like you’ve had quite a wide array of experiences! I can’t imagine working in a medical setting. Hospitals make me nervous! Glad to hear you’re still able to fit in creative time for yourself. It’s a tough thing to keep up with when life comes stomping on through.

    Polymer is something I’ve always wanted to play with, but I don’t have the budget right now to indulge in all of my random would-be hobbies. *Stares longingly at the Sculpey*

    As for photoshop, it’s daunting at first, but familiarizing yourself with tutorials online can save you YEARS of learning. There’s a free basic course on the functions of using earlier versions of Photoshop but the basic functions really haven’t changed so it’s still pretty relevant! You can see it here: http://graphicssoft.about.com/od/photoshop/l/bllps5out.htm

    Good luck with it:D It’s pretty useful not only for digital painting, but for formatting many graphic projects.

  6. ban says:

    just remembered to check back … THANK YOU for the link – was noticing the many tuts online but i will look yours up first … ordered photoshop 7 as it was significantly less expensive than the newer versions, i see a lot of artists still use it and i’d hate to have spent hundreds of dollars if i end up hating it !

    and actually, i’m surprised i worked for the medical industry myself as i have a severe case of ‘white coat syndrome’ – thankfully it only kicks in when the attention is on ME – otherwise i enjoyed my work and now i’ve got a pretty good handle on what goes on in an er and a drs. office – the knowledge has already proven useful, maybe i’ll use it in a story someday !

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