In today’s podcast, we are talking about idea generation techniques to get art ideas. A few years ago Tara was a bit obsessed with learning about idea generation. It was to overcome that stuck feeling when she was working on a graphic design project. There are lots of different idea generation techniques, many of which you can apply to your art, so Sandra and Tara want to share some of their favourites creative thinking techniques with you.
Techniques for idea generation
There are lots of different techniques for idea generation. We are going to talk about some of the ones we have experimented with to get art ideas.
Use mood boards to inspire art ideas
What is a Moodboard?
A mood board is an inspiration board that you can look at to get ideas.
I would create a physical mood board. I would have a corkboard somewhere on the wall of my studio. Then, every time I see something that I’m inspired by, I would pin it on the board.
The kind of things I might put on mine might be clippings from a magazine that have inspired me. It could be a simple advert for beer, but maybe the can or glass has got beads of condensation running down. It might be just that part of the image that I’m inspired by, so I would cut it out and add it to my board.
Or it might be an image that doesn’t have anything to do with the things I like to paint. But it might have interesting colours that look lovely together. It could be a photo I’ve taken myself, or it might be a landscape photograph someone else has taken and there are gorgeous colours in the sky. I might think, I’d like to recreate that colour palette.
Equally, I would also pin written ideas on the board. Notes of things I’d like to paint one day. I might also add some inspiring quotes. Some people might think that’s a bit cheesy, but I think they work.
I first found out about mood boards years ago when I used to design watches for a plastic watch company. We used to have fashion designers visit every six months or so. They’d bring in mood boards with what was happening in the fashion world. Their mood boards would be bits of material, colour swatches as well as images. They were supposed to give a feel for what was happening in the industry at the time. It was an inspiration board that you’d look at and think okay, so I should perhaps be using those colours. And perhaps this type of imagery might be something I could use as inspiration.
I’ve used mood boards a lot as a graphic designer. For example, if I was working on a logo project and it was going to be a really upmarket logo, I might cut bits of images out of magazines of upmarket products. It might be the actual logos themselves, but it could also be the look of products. It was far easier than starting with a completely blank sheet of paper.
For art, I’ve used Pinterest to create my mood boards. I pin art I like. There might also be bits of art that I don’t like, but elements of it that I do. For example, I might like two colours that have been used together or I might like the way the artist has played around with the focus.
Create a mind map for art inspiration
Most people have probably heard of mind maps. One of the ways to use mind maps is to organise things, and they’re brilliant for that.
If I am using a mind map to generate ideas, I work much looser than when I’m otherwise organising things. So I might start with a central word, for example, ‘tree’. I would put the word tree in the middle of the paper in a circle. Then from there, I’d draw a line connecting to another circle, where I might write the word “bark”. I might even start drawing things as well; maybe a drawing of little bits of bark, because you can make visual connections, as well as verbal ones. Next, because I’m going for loose associations, I might go from bark to dog. You could connect all the words and draw them in some way, or just use it for ideas.
You can find a free online Mind mapping tool at GitMind
Art prompts from random words
Random words used as art prompts are a really good way of being inspired. It is something that’s worked well for me in the past. About 10 years ago I paired up with another artist called Suzanne Berry. She came from New York so we’d never actually met but we used to email each other back and forth. After chatting for some time, we both realised that we were in an art block.
So, what we did was take it in turns every month to pick five random words. The other person would then choose one of those words and then we would both create a painting that was inspired by that word. It gave us a much-needed kickstart. I think the first word I got was, ‘evidence’ and that one word inspired me to paint a teacup with a lipstick mark on it. That painting sold within a day of put it on my website. It was one of my favourite paintings at the time.
Use a random word generator
If you want to do something with random words on your own you can use an online random word generator. Don’t keep clicking and saying, “oh, no, I don’t like that one”. Just use whatever word comes out and go for it. It’s really surprising how much that does work.
Get inspiration from your day
You can also use inspiration from your day. You could write down interesting things you see, hear, or do and these can easily become some form of art. For example, you could use them to inspire journal pages. But one of the easiest ways to use these ideas is for cartoon inspiration.
If you think about a situation or something that you did or saw recently, and you put a little twist on it, you’ve got a cartoon. I used to do this all the time for a 100-day project where I created sticky note cartoons. You sit there and you think, okay, what have I done today? So, I’ve walked the dog. What happened when I walked the dog? It might not be a big thing. For example, I noticed that dog owners knew the other dog’s names, but not the people’s names. Then you think, how can I make that into a cartoon? Another day I created a cartoon comparison of me and my dog making decisions. So my big decision was deciding what career move to make, his big decision was deciding where to pee.
That’s very similar to how I created Felicity Fizz. Felicity Fizz is a cartoon character, perhaps a much younger version of me. She will do crazy things like dance around naked with a Hoover. I genuinely don’t tend to do that (not very often anyway). I share things very ‘loosely’ based on something that may have happened to me, but I take it to the extreme.
So for instance, there was one time where my washing machine broke down, and I had to get the repairman out. It was in the middle of COVID, we hadn’t had anyone over in the house for a year and we hadn’t been out either. So seeing a washing machine man was like oh, my God, another person! That inspired me to create a cartoon where Felicity’s washing machine has broken down. When her washing machine man came round, she handcuffed him to the handles of the kitchen units because she was so desperate for some company. I have to be inspired by the things I’ve done or those ideas wouldn’t come into my head.
I think earwigging also works well for thinking of a storyline or a character. I’m not talking about listening in on private conversations of the people you know. I’m talking about listening to others on public transport for example. I like listening in on people’s conversations because it’s so boring on a train. You get people that talk really loudly on their mobiles. I think if you’re going to talk loudly, then expect to be listened to! If I was a writer, I think I’d use that kind of thing as inspiration for storylines. I would write notes from things like that, or, or make little sketches to look back on for inspiration. When you’re running out of ideas, listening to someone else’s conversation is outside of your life completely. So it’s things that you might not ever think of.
Looking back at your old art and sketchbooks
You can look back on your own previous work to get ideas. I love to paint certain things and those things are what inspire me. Occasionally in the past, when I’ve had an art block, I’ve gone back to my website and looks at a page of paintings that I’ve done in the past. Not paintings that are for sale, but paintings that I did previously, a long time ago. I might see something and think, I remember painting that, I really enjoyed that. I’d love to do one of those again. That could send me running back to my easel.
You can do that with your sketchbooks as well. I was going back through one of them and that’s got me drawing the faces with doodles in them. I’ll go back and look at something that I forgot, such as little black and white sketches in my sketchbook. Then I’ll start developing that. I will think about how I could use elements of it. It’s your own work, so it’s not like you’re taking anything of anyone else’s. But it’s things that you have forgotten. Those things in your sketchbook are ideas you put by for a rainy day.
Freewriting for art ideas
Sandra and Tara both have different thoughts on how to use freewriting to generate ideas
I think the first time I heard about ‘freewriting’ was on someone else’s podcast. They’d done it while reading the book, The Artists Way. Neither of us was very keen on the book, but a lot of people love it. I did, however like the idea of freewriting. The idea is that you pick up a pen, and start writing without thinking. So you might start by writing, I’ve got no idea what to write, I’ve got no idea what to write, what should I write… You might say that about 20 times, but then eventually other things will start trailing off the pen.
The important thing is not to stop and think about what to write, but just to keep letting the words flow on the page. Do not hold back no matter how bad or how meaningless those words are. Just write it down anyway, because no one is going to see it. You’re not ever meant to read it back, you’re supposed to just get it all out, and then bin it. The idea is, it clears your mind to make room for fresh, new ideas.
I read a book on freewriting, but it was used differently. So imagine you want ideas for an art project. For five minutes write or type constantly. Write anything that pops into your head. Freewriting is supposed to stop you from censoring yourself. So, whereas your subconscious might say no, that’s rubbish don’t bother writing that. It will come out on the paper. There may be an essence of good in that rubbish idea.
The sticky note cartoons I mentioned earlier actually originated from freewriting. Originally I created the sticky note cartoons because I was collaborating with someone. She’d written a cartoon idea, which was a bit weird. She wanted a cartoon to go with it. I wanted to create a different way of drawing cartoons and I didn’t want a normal drawn character. So I started freewriting about it. One of the things that came up was sticky notes, I guess because you use them in business. I started drawing sticky notes and it developed into a cartoon. It was only later I started creating those cartoons for myself.
So Sandra’s method of freewriting clears out everything in your head to make room for ideas. Tara’s method of freewriting lets you concentrate on a problem you want to solve (ideas you want to generate).
Creativity Cards and Creative Thinking Apps
You can make your own creativity cards or you can buy cards or creativity apps. They can help you generate ideas when you’re stuck. A couple of examples are Michael Michalko’s Thinkpak cards and Creative Whack Pack Cards and app by Roger Von Oech
The idea behind creativity cards and apps is that you have a problem you want to solve. When I say problem, I mean that you’re trying to come up with an idea and you’re stuck. So you’ll turn over or click on one of these cards and it gives you a suggestion. Then you see how you could integrate that suggestion with what you’re trying to work on. For example, it might say something really simple like, what if it was in another country? It’s like throwing in some randomness
So are you saying that you get to a point writing a story and think I don’t know where I’m going with this? You could turn over a card that says “What if it was in another country.” Then you’d think oh, I know, my character could go on holiday?
It will just give you a random suggestion you can use. So if you had a card that said, “What if you broke it apart” you could come up with some possible ideas. If you’re writing a story you could think, Okay, so what if she has a breakup or what if something gets broken that she’s working on?
Make your own creativity cards
You could also make your own creative cards. For example, you might think, I’m going to have four categories. So you might have a category, that’s a medium eg, oil painting, watercolor, etc. You might have another category that’s a living thing. Under that category, you’ll have things like flowers, a dog, or anything that’s living. Then you might have another category that’s colour and another one that’s objects. Then you might pick one or two of each of these cards and use that to inspire a piece of art, or a book or poem, whatever you’re working on.
Doodle and let your mind wander
Doodling and letting your mind wander is another great way to get ideas
The other day I had a sketchbook out, but I wasn’t inspired. I usually know I’m going to draw faces or characters because I like drawing those things. But I wasn’t really inspired as to what face or what character. So I hold my pen loosely and draw a shape. And then look into it and think, ah I know what that can be. So I know I’m creating a face or character., but I don’t know what the end character or face is going to look like. The funny thing is that when I start doing that I won’t just create one drawing. Generally, there’ll be 2 to 4 sketches in a row. Because once I start I will enjoy it.
If you have no intention, you have little expectation of the results. So you’re more often going to be pleased about the result rather than disappointed as well.
You can also create paint splats and try and make those into something too. Someone in our group did this and created little characters, they were great. This inspired our podcast episode on using imagination in your art.
Take away the element of control when you’re drawing
Another idea that is similar to the paint blob, is to take away the element of control when you’re drawing. So you might wet your page before you start drawing on it. Then as you start drawing, unexpected things happen. It can create interesting effects that you wouldn’t have created yourself. I remember seeing a drawing by Susan Bell 10 on Instagram. She created this amazing face. I absolutely loved it. I asked her in the comments how she did it. She said she tied her pens to garden canes, this had created the mass of lines. Then she worked into it more.
You can even use blind contours. Do a blind contour where so you’re not looking at your paper, just at what you are drawing. Start like that and then afterwards work into it more. You don’t have to leave it as an unfinished thing. But, then you get interesting lines and quirks. I think that Felix Scheinberger starts some of his work stuff like this.
Setting yourself art constraints
You might say, I’m only going to use straight lines to this drawing and make yourself draw the whole thing with a ruler. Or you might say, I’m only going to use blue for this drawing, or I’m only going to spend 5 minutes on this drawing. Each of those things forces you to work in a different way to how you would normally and you’ll get different results.
Cut things up and rearrange them to get ideas
You could also cut up elements and arrange them in different ways. So you might get bits of magazines and create a collage with them. You could use the collage as the art itself or you might use that to inspire a drawing or painting.
I suppose you could also cut bits up to give you ideas for a painting composition.
You could make something surreal. So you could cut up a picture of a person’s head and then put it on something else, like a building. You can also cut out words to create poetry. I did this with spam emails a few years ago. I took spam emails and did screenshots of them. Then I cut words out of the spam to see if I could make interesting phrases.
That reminds me of Austin Kleon who makes blackout poetry
You can also make characters by taking pictures of objects around the house or using pictures in magazines. You might see a picture of a kettle, or fridge freezer or whatever. Then you’ll cut them out and you’ll put them together to make quirky characters. You can then draw them using the cutouts as inspiration.
Another idea of Tara’s, which bought me out in a cold sweat, was to cut up bits of your work and rearrange them. But I can see how this could be useful. If you’ve got a piece of work that just isn’t working for you, you could recycle the parts you do like and use it for collage.
Question your art
Another idea is to ask questions, such as what if. What-ifs are a great way to get out of being stuck. So you might say, What if it was huge? What If it had to fit in a circle.
What I mean by that is, if you’ve decided you’re going to draw a wine bottle. I might say to you, what if it was huge? You could then draw or paint the wine bottle, but then have a really small person standing in front of it. Or inside it.
If I said what if it had to fit in a circle? You’d have to think about how to distort that wine bottle, by bending and distorting it into a circle.
What if you switch medium?
There are loads of what-ifs, you can start asking. There’s also the obvious one, “What if you switch mediums?” So you break out of your comfort zone. Because sometimes we become so comfortable with our usual way of working that we get stuck in a rut. So, if I usually create art with Neoclor, but then I switch to a different medium, like my watercolor markers they force me to work differently.
Collaborate on creative projects
Another idea is to collaborate. This is something Tara and I do with our art podcast. This could be a straightforward sharing of ideas or it could be that one person starts a piece of work, and the other continues with it. Tara and I wrote a children’s book by doing that exact thing. So Tara wrote the first 250 words and then she handed it to me. Then I had to write the next 250 words, and so on and so on until we came to an end. The story took us to places that neither one of us would have got to on our own. Tara would come back to me with her part, and I’d think, how on earth did she get there?
I remember seeing a website where they would invite artists to go along and collaborate on the same canvas. I don’t think there was any planning, you would just start working. I don’t know if they worked on it at the same time or whether they would take it in turns. I’ve also seen online where one artist has done a blind contour, and then they’ve sent it to someone else. Then they worked on it.
Visit a gallery or museum for inspiration
One thing that almost always works for me if I’m running low on inspiration is to visit a gallery. I think all artists need to detach from their own bubble sometimes and just immerse themselves in other people’s art. When I do this, it brings a bit of fresh air into my own work. I can look around and think, I’d love to do something like that. I don’t mean copy, I just mean to see how other people are working and then let little pieces of information trickle into your brain.
Also mentioned in the podcast
The Kick in the Creative’s first course – How to Use Water Soluble Wax Pastels
Sandra also mentions the free fountain pen she got sent by GoldSpot Pens
A couple of Tara’s “The hidden wisdom of junk mail” from an old website that no longer exists
Please note, some of the links above are affiliate links. This means that we get a commission if you purchase something via our link. Thank you for your support.
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