Where Do Ideas Come From?

A conversation with a fellow artist got me pondering that age-old question again. Where DO our ideas come from?  There are so many books, lectures, and blog posts on the matter, but I wanted to throw in my two cents.
I’m sure many of you have gotten that question from someone “Where do the ideas for your paintings/writing/etc. come from?”  It’s always asked or implied with this far off look, as if we have this magical ability to pluck the ideas from the gauzy glitter spangled ether as if they are tangible things waiting for our nimble, magically imbued fingers.
Any successful creative professional will tell you that coming up with ideas takes just as much practice, if not more, than actually honing your skills and techniques.  Learning how to draw is only a small part of a larger equation.  In the words of one of my favorite characters, “…a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge.”

Just as an artist needs a healthy visual vocabulary of paintings, references, and experiences to keep their imagery unique and original.  Art isn’t just about drawing well, but making those little cross-connections between one emotion and another to produce something that is uniquely you and that others will also identify with.


Want to make great paintings? Study great paintings.  Learn what art impresses you.  Learn about who other people consider ‘masters’.  Familiarize yourself with what your tastes are.  How can you ever expect to make the connections that lead to discovering your own visual identity if you aren’t learning about the things you like and drawing the things that you like?

Chipping away at that nugget that is my visual identity as an artist is a slow process that only happens over a long period of time, practice, and study.  Yes, study. Even when not in school, one MUST study.  It’s when you’re an artist out on your own without an art teacher looming over your head making you study things you think you don’t really need to know that you realize it’s all on you, bub.  If you’re not learning, it’s your own fault and nobody else’s.   It’s not the fault of that artist who always gets better ideas than yours, either.  They worked hard to make those glimmering mental connections. They put in the hours of practice and expanding their  knowledge base and you have got to do the same.

For me, I have this idealized image of myself in my head that I’m slowly putting together from tidbits of likes and tastes that I am constantly accruing in a mental archive.  I want to be an artist with the beautiful sensuality of Mucha, the emotional depth of David Mack, the immersive qualities of Waterhouse, with the fairy tale sensibilities of Trina Schart Hyman.  This collection of themes that are to make up my perfect artist identity have nothing to do with style, but the ideas which I hope will drive the kind of work I would like to put out into the world.

Read the whole map on DeviantART to learn what the numbers mean.


But then I also want to be me and I’ll never be me until I distill all of my tastes into something else, altogether.  That’s going to take time and painting.  Then painting some more.  If I’m not evolving, if I think I’ve found perfection, I’m fooling myself. This goes for people I think have the best ideas in the world, as well. The moment they stop learning and growing, there’s something that’s going to stagnate in them, too.

I’ve also had another artist friend tell me they don’t believe in looking at other art for inspiration for a project because it corrupts what they’re doing.  I believe this to be one of the biggest fallacies I’ve ever heard.  If you’re never drawing on the energy of all the wondrous history of art that’s spread behind us, how can you ever do anything new in full awareness of what has already been done?  The connections won’t come to you in a void.  You’ll never learn anything new if you don’t expand your view forwards AND backwards.

This is why fashion designers, production designers, animators, etc. have things called ‘mood boards’ (collections of all the things they want their products to be like).  I think as artists we hate to think of our end result as a ‘product’ that is in any way ‘designed’.  It should be an emotional, deep ‘thing’ we experience without any help, or it loses value.  Yet another fallacy perpetuated by the  antiquated traditional ‘gallery’ institution of thought.
So if you find yourself thinking you’ll never have any good ideas, crack open a book, a movie, or, better yet, get yourself out of the house!  The biggest ingredient in good ideas is to go out and experience life.  That’s something that solitary artists easily forget to do.

DON’T FORGET that when you reach your saturation point for awesome ideas by other people to shut off the internet and use it to inspire yourself to CREATE instead!  It’s easy to get caught up in how great everyone else is in comparison to you. IT’S A TRAP!

Stop.  Breathe.  CREATE!

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