Beyond Inspiration: What it REALLY Takes to be an Artist

The Essential Ingredients for Making Art

The Essential Ingredients for Making Art

I talk a lot about inspiration. Being “inspired” is a powerful experience – it’s what kindles the need to make art (at least, for me). So it’s easy to believe that inspiration is the primary ingredient of art making.

Van Gogh was inspired by the colors of the landscape…
Tolkein was inspired by mythology…

Well, here’s the rub. Excluding the times when I’m sleep deprived, worn out from too many social events (we introverts gotta recharge, y’know), or stuck indoors for too long, I’d say I’m basically always “inspired”. There’s LOTS of stuff that gives me that hot-skinned, frenzied urge to make art. But am I always making it? Does every inspiration lead to a tangible creation on my part? No.

It’s a real coming-of-age experience when you grow up wanting to be an artist, only to realize that, just like everything else
it’s a lot of work.

Inspiration is a fine ingredient, but it doesn’t make art. It’s really only the first step.

Then comes the planning, the choosing of materials, the mastering of materials, the focusing (and re-focusing…and refocusing some more), and the entire process of getting it done.

It takes willpower. Willpower is the determination to get it done despite difficulty, unexpected turns in the process, and distractions. It’s having the persistence to practice and develop your skills, to force yourself to grow. It’s being committed to seeing it through, no matter what.

It takes purpose. There has to be a reason for why you are putting in the effort at all. If there’s no reason why the art should get made, then why not just stay in the comfortable, no-effort-needed state of inspiration? Inspiration itself is not a purpose, but wanting to SHARE what inspired you is. Knowing you have something you can give to the world is a purpose. (So is knowing that if you DON’T make it, you’ll lose your paying client. But that’s another story…). Connecting to people by sharing the way you see the world – that is a worthy purpose.

Being an artist also takes confidence. Throughout the process, you’ll have your doubts. You’ll think you’re doing it wrong, or that you have NO idea what you’re doing at all, or that you’re wasting your time. The process will start going differently than you expected, and you’ll start to worry that it’ll kill you in an inferno of fiery embarrassment. But if you know your purpose, then you can at least have confidence in your voice. And then you can decide, despite all doubts, to at least pretend you feel confident in your abilities. You SHOULD be confident! Skill-wise, you are where you are. You’re not perfect – you’ll always be learning – but for now, you’re exactly where you need to be in your development. For me, deciding to just be confident, regardless of how lame I actually feel, is the key to keeping unhelpful thoughts from convincing me to give up. It’s a way of prioritizing what self-talk I’m going to allow myself to listen to. I don’t have time for Mr. Brain’s negative propaganda. I’m only going to pay attention to the critiques that are constructive.

And finally, it takes faith. Faith that your project will turn out, even if you aren’t sure where it’s headed right now. Faith that your art will succeed at communicating something when it’s finished. And faith in art, period. You have to believe that art is worthwhile, that it is an essential part of being human. Believe that your contribution will provide something valuable to people.

It will. (But only if you share it!)

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10 Sources of Artistic Inspiration from your Everyday Life

I see the world through the artist’s lens. There are potential art projects in basically everything I behold. This can be exhausting (so many projects racing through my head, and I can’t keep up with them!), but generally, it’s a tremendously exciting way to view life. One of the goals of my blog is to help others develop their talent for seeing the world as a visual treasure trove that can inspire their own art.

In pursuit of this goal, I’ve created a list of 10 things that can help you get inspired to make something when you’re feeling stuck or out of ideas:

1.   Human (and Animal) Forms.


Stop looking at people without actually seeing them. In your head, you have this idea of how people look. When you see someone walking down the street, you note what they’re doing in less than a second, and then your mind plays a little cartoon for you of what “person walking” means.  I’m not criticizing—we all simplify what is going on around us, otherwise sensory overload would ensue and our brains would explode!

But you can choose to pay attention to how people actually look, and if you do, you’ll discover a wealth of visual resources for your art.  Pause and OBSERVE how surprising and intriguing the contours of people’s bodies are as they move, or as your point of perspective changes.  There are a wonderful variety of shapes the human body can take as it moves and interacts with its environment.

Do you actually SEE “James reading” over there? Look at him, hunched at the table, face close to the page (yes, I suppose this is objectification – but objectification WITHOUT judgement – it’s all glorious shape and contour!). If you drew only the contour of his form, you’d have an interesting result, and it would NOT be like the “headbone’s connected to the neck bone” nonsense you learned in elementary school drawing.


2.    Textures.

Textures are awesome because of how they make patterns out of highlight and shadow. The range of tones within textured objects is a renderer’s dream. The blue sponge by the sink? Thanks to the holes that give it its characteristic texture, it’s not only blue, but also cerulean, navy, gray, and a ton more colors, if you care to observe them. Wrinkles in fabric provide a feast of stark lights and darks for the eyes to gorge on. Warts on gourds manipulate color and space to such an addictive extent that we all buy them every year, despite the fact that they’re practically useless.

Why not celebrate, by means of art, the textures that catch your eye? You might make someone notice something beautiful that they didn’t appreciate before.


3.    Intriguing juxtapositions of different shapes, textures, and colors (or unexpected pairings of objects).

It’s useful to keep an eye out for juxtaposing opposites.  Look for colors that are opposites, like an orange tree reaching into a blue sky, but also opposing concepts, like an industrial, hard-edged concrete wall with a weed growing out of a tiny crack within it. This is a poignant juxtaposition of manmade lines and organic forms. Allow yourself to marvel at the spikes of the cactus that is growing next to the smooth-leafed jade plant. What about that dull colored, fuzzy kitten that is curled up against the smooth, blindingly orange pumpkin? Seemingly random combinations of things are often dense with thought-provoking textures, patterns, and colors that interact to inspire great artwork.


4.   Repetitions, collections, and infinite regressions.

It’s fun to imagine how you would simplify the repeating shape of things—like leaves on a maple tree, for instance—into a 2D pattern, or how you would capture the endlessly receding view of telephone poles in a visually enticing black and white drawing. Similar objects/shapes in abundance can make great artwork!  Notice the repeating shelves full of repeating cans at the supermarket. That’s worth drawing right there. But what if the cans were tiny little sofas instead? Now you have two projects worth drawing!

I just paused to take out the recycling, and on the short walk from my door to the end of the driveway, I noticed several different accumulations of repeating objects that I now want to draw: the sea of mums, bunched together with no gaps in between; the black walnuts that collect on top of the sewer grate after falling off the trees and rolling down the street; and the acorns that line the curb like a queue of folks waiting to buy the latest version of the iPhone.

Visually similar objects accumulate in all sorts of interesting environments, and paying attention to such groupings can be a fun game.

5.   Shadows.

If you’re on the same planet as I am, there are probably a multitude of shadows being cast all around you at this very moment.  Notice how the shadows of different things are different colors, depending on the color of the surface on which the shadow falls.  Shadows on snow are one of my favorites – they can be so richly blue and purple depending on the time of day.

When your surroundings seem bland, noticing shadows can be one of the best artistic jumping off points.  In addition to their unexpected colors, you can find a great wealth of inspiration in the shapes they take, variance of hard and soft edges, and their different sizes depending on their distance to the light.

Look at a parking lot surrounded by trees, buildings, and lampposts.  The parking lot is your canvas.  Now imagine the areas of shadow are the positive space, and the areas where light hits are the negative space.  Imagine an artwork composed of the details of the shadow world, where the space hit by light is rendered without detail, perhaps even left blank.  There might be some interesting shapes and colors that interplay there!

Right now, the shadows from the rails on my balcony are at such a stark diagonal angle from the vertical rungs themselves that it makes me want to draw some fabulously dense, detailed black line art.

6.   Contrast of color, light, shape, ideas.


This is similar to juxtapositions (see # 3) but different in that contrasts can lie within the same object and are polar – they are the juxtaposition of A and its seeming opposite Z.

There’s a black cat sleeping in the dark corner, with its paw dreamily extended into the light cast on the floor by the afternoon sun.  Mentally exaggerate that contrast of shadow and highlight to the point where the cat paw is coming out of a blackish, animal-esque blob that almost melts into the background. Voila! The result is delicious.

Contrast makes things dynamic.  Contrast is what makes us notice things (the old “you wouldn’t appreciate what happiness felt like if you didn’t feel sadness too” idea).  MAKE viewers notice things by using contrast to emphasize shapes you like, colors you like, and so on.  And make YOURSELF notice things by looking for contrasts.

7.   Things you see when you look down.

Chances are that you’re at your computer right now. Look down.  Are there curled up electric cables under your desk?  Any rumply socks? Both are very interesting. Both are worth exploring artistically.

Or how about this: See how humorously proportioned your lower body looks when you look down at it?  Sit in a chair, look down, and imagine that you didn’t understand the laws of perspective.  Your feet appear to be coming out of your shins!  What an excellent way that you could draw yourself!  Can you make a drawing that calls other people’s attention to how we take our depth perception for granted when making sense of objects in space?

8.    Things you pass by every single day, repeatedly, but don’t really look at.

C’mon, the light switch deserves its chance in the spotlight, too! People LOVE it when you show them the beauty in something they usually view as trite.

9.    Reflections in water, metal, glass.

Observing the way shiny things distort what they are reflecting can be an excellent way to get ideas about how to render reality in new and different ways. The crowded and humid sports bar looks a lot different when viewed in the reflection of your beer bottle. Maybe that is just the way you should draw it, in order to capture the way it feels to be there. Subjective experience looks different than objective experience, and noticing how reflections look can help you brainstorm ways to capture the subjective on paper.

Subjective renderings aside, reflections are just plain visually intriguing, and that is enough to make them worthwhile subjects of your art. The way my hand looks when it’s reflected in the metal of the can opener would make for a drawing worth staring at.

If you work more abstractly, you can use reflected images to your advantage by mentally removing them from their original contexts and using visual elements of them as balancing shapes and patterns within a piece of art.

10. Artwork that is all around you.

Get inspired by the art of your every day life, from the logos on packaging, to signs hanging on buildings.  Art lies everywhere: on printed fabric, bookcovers, magazine advertisements, credit cards…trust me, it’s EVERYWHERE.


I realize that this can be interpreted as a list of things that inspire ME, but with 10 things covered, I hope there’s something that can help YOU get inspired! I’d be thrilled to hear about your own ideas for how to get inspired. And please let me know if you try any of the things I suggested above!

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