I get asked a lot of questions about my artwork, especially by non-artists who see it for the first time. One question that always comes up whether the asker is an artist or not is “Where do you get your ideas?” I believe everyone has an artist within them but most people either believe they have no talent (my views on that subject can and probably will make up an entire article of it’s own) or they are have no ideas for what to create and are stuck creating things only from kits or patterns if they create at all. The whole purpose of this article is to give my thoughts on how to stimulate your creativity and get ideas along with showing you how I get my ideas. I’m mainly a fantasy artist but this is definitely not limited to one genre of art and definitely not to any one medium. In my opinion it doesn’t matter what your subject or medium of choice is, the process of creating ideas is the same regardless.
Every artist gets artists block at some point, so even if you don’t need inspiration right now this might be of some interest to you anyway for those times when you’re stumped fgor a new idea.
I suggest you get out some paper or open up a text program like notepad and write down these brainstorming exercises as you read it. For all of these I want you to write down everything that pops into your head, don’t worry about if it sounds silly or if the idea is good. This is brainstorming, not everything needs to sound like a good idea right away, you’re the only one who ever has to see anything you wrote down.
Step 1: What are your interests?
If you already know some broad subjects that you are interested in exploring, for example fantasy, animals, history, etc. you can skip down to Step 4.
- Do you have any pets? If you do what kind of animal(s)?
- Do you like any wild animals? Which animals? Are they a wide variety or more specific like big cats, marine life, or birds?
- What about extinct animals? Are you interested in dinosaurs, trilobites, ice age animals like mammoths?
- Do you have children, want children, like kids?
- Are you religious? If so which one?
- Are you interested in mythology? If so which mythologies? Greek, African, Japanese, etc?
- If you could pick any 5 (or more) places to visit or live, where would they be? Rome, the shores of Loch Ness, the Amazon rainforest?
- What are your 5 (or more) favorite books? What genre are they? Fantasy, mystery, historical, etc?
- What are your 5 (or more) favorite movies? Again what genre are they?
- What are your 5 (or more) favorite tv shows? Once more what genre are they?
- Who are your favorite artists? What subjects do they work with? Wildlife, portraits, landscapes?
- What are your hobbies? Do you like fishing, cooking, fashion, cars, etc?
- What are your 5 (or more) favorite activities? Do you dance, sing, lift weights, practice martial arts?
- What are the 5 (or more) activities you’ve always wanted to try or are otherwise interested in but haven’t done? Sky diving, riding a horse, trying a suspension (see Odin’s Runesong).
- Are you interested in history? If so, what time period or location? Medieval, American Civil War, ancient China, the Inca?
- Are you interested in current events? If so which ones? Politics, technology, social issues like poverty, AIDs, cancer research?
- If you could have any career at all, what would your top 3 choices be (if you love your job add that to the list)?
- If you’re a student either in college, planning to go, or all grown up and wish you could go back to school, what are the top 3 things you’d like to study?
- How do you adorn yourself? What do you like to wear for clothes? Jewelry? Other accessories? Do you have tattoos? Piercings?
- Did I somehow miss an interest that you have? If so write it down now.
Step 2: Sorting your interests
First of all go take a walk, eat lunch, nap, whatever, just get way from the list for at least an hour. Let things settle in your mind. Okay photocopy, print, or rewrite a copy of your list. Save your original in some safe place you can come back to later if you want. Grab yourself a highlighter or pen.
Take your highlighter. Do not over think any of this. Go through the copy of your list and highlight anything that jumps out to you as being something you really like or is very important to you. Don’t agonize over whether it is or not it’s a good idea, if it jumps out at you highlight it.
Step 3: Finding important themes.
So what did you highlight? Are there any consistent ideas? Animals? Fantasy? Science Fiction? Outdoors? Faith? See if you can narrow it down to broad subjects. Now that you have those broad subjects you have some starting points.
Step 4: Pick a subject to explore.
I’m not suggesting you limit yourself to only one subject right now. I think it takes a while to find your niche. After a little while you’ll find yourself coming back to the same subject because you enjoy working with it, but for now unless you’ve already found that subject you should keep your options wide open and try this with all those subjects that interest you.
For right now I just want you to pick one of those broad subjects you came up with. Now since I don’t know which subject you chose I can’t give you an exact list of the questions you should ask yourself to further brainstorm but here are some general ideas, they hopefuly will suggest further questions to ask yourself within that subject you chose. I’m going to use animals for the examples from now on since it’s a subject most people have familiarity with.
- What are you favorite things about the subject. Don’t pick just one, try for at least 5. Example: elephants, zebras, tigers, wolves, dolphins
- Is there any scene that pop into your mind when you read the previous list? Example: Wolves hunting in the snow.
- What questions are brought up by each new thing that you right down? Answer those questions. Example: What are the wolves hunting? Answer – deer.
- Keep asking the questions until you run out of them.
Now you should have narrowed things down to a very specific idea to work with. Congatulations. You can use this process whenever you have a general idea you’d like to work with to narrow it down and come up with specific ideas to use. I use this exact process to come up with my ideas. Here’s an example of the process for the Octopuppy. Now I’ve gotten to the point where I do this in my head so the “questions” are more like how my mind came up with things not exact questions I asked myself.
Basic idea? Octopuppy a baby octopus.
Should it be cute or creepy? Both
What should I use for a base? Stick it in a jar.
The jar should be filled so it looks underwater, with what? Clear resin so the octopuppy can’t move around or water corrode the paint.
The jar is cute but not the lid, solution? Cover the jar lid with clay
Just flat clay is boring, how can it be more interesting? Well it’s a sea creature so do shells on the lid.
Okay so you have an idea. What do you do if it’s just an idea of things you like not somethign you know really well. For example I just think octopus are cool, I didn’t know much about them before makign the octopuppy. Well that leads us to the next subject:
Step 5: Research
Sorry to disapoint those who think art all comes directly from your head. Even abstract art requires some studying and research. This doesn’t neccesarily mean wading through books, though it can with subjects like mythology or history.
General Research: Observe everything. Pay special attention to universal things such as emotion and those things related to your interests. Use the internet to find even more information on your interests. Visit places related to your interests, if you love animals go to the zoo, if you love history go to the museum. Talk to people who might have something to interest you, artists who work in a subject you like, people working in fields related to your interests, to use animals again if that’s your interest talk to vets or zookeepers. If your interests are literary such as mythology or history, read books!
Research for a specific idea: Now you have an idea for a project but you don’t know as much about the subject as you would like. Read up on it, if you are doing somethign based on a mythical figure look him up that shoudl tell you what sort of pictorial references you will need. If you can observe the subject in real life and take photos or make sketches that’s ideal. However that’s not always possible. The internet is a great resource as is a library. Gather pictures and/or video of things related to your idea. If you are doing a unicorn go look at horses, if you are doing a tiger get pictures of those, if it involves people find photos of the poses you think you’d like them in or even better get a friend to pose for you or take photos of you posing, don’t forget the scenery gather pictures of landscapes, furniture, costume, etc. If you are going for realism or semi-realism research anatomy. There are lots and lots of books on human anatomy and quite a few on animal anatomy. Over time you’ll end up gathering a library of references for yourself.
Step 6: Keep an ideas journal
Get a small notebook or sketchpad that you can carry with you everywhere. When something strikes your interest write it down or make a quick sketch of it. If you come across soemthign you find interesting but need to learn more about make a note of it so you can research it. Then you can use this book of ideas as another source of project ideas. I’ve been keeping a journal for a while now so I actually have a whole list of ideas that I can choose from if I get stuck.
Step 7: Okay what do you have?
Now that you’ve gone through this you have some techniques for generating ideas. It’s not the only way to jumpstart your creativity or you may only find part of it actually useful, everyone thinks differently. Steps 4-6 are just what works for me when I have artist’s block. Steps 1-3 are based loosely on some techniques I learned from my creative writing teacher in highschool on choosing a subject to write about. Since writing is an art form itself and the techniques are related to those I use for artist’s block I’m confident they can help when you don’t even know what general subject to work with. If you have any tips or techniques, or think I’m completely wrong, please feel free to leave a comment about it. You may have a technique that works better for some people.