Ask the Art Prof: How Do Visual Artists Come Up with Ideas for their Art?

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“How do visual artists come up with ideas for their artwork? Where should artists look for inspiration?”

The answer to this question will be different for every single artist. Everyone finds inspiration in a completely different way, in contrasting places. Since I can’t provide an answer for every single person out there, I can give advice about how to alert yourself to seeing possible ideas.  Essentially everything in the world has the potential to turn into an idea for art. What seems dull and boring to one person could be infinitely fascinating for another, and vice versa.

If that’s the case then, where do you start? Start with yourself and your own personal experiences. Many artists think that they have to search extremely far and wide and come up with an immensely complicated subject for their work to be interesting. I’m frequently surprised that the best subject matter is simply what’s sitting there right in front of us, something that we commonly experience but don’t generally recognize as being special. Don’t take any experience in your life for granted.  In my opinion, the most effective ideas are the ones that are personally driven, as they will have an authentic quality to them that cannot be achieved in any other way.


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Some of the best projects in my RISD freshman drawing class are ones that come from personally driven ideas. I have an assignment I give every semester called “Six Levels of Pain”, in which students are asked to create a project that provides a new visual interpretation of the Wong-Baker pain chart. (see above) The range of projects is astounding: some are heartbreaking, others are beautiful, and some are even humorous.


This project below was by a student who lost her brother when he was 13 years old. To represent the six levels of pain, the student measured her childhood house and reconstructed the house to scale using bristol board. She used india ink to create stains to depict six places where her brother used to inhabit the house. With a solid concept and phenomenally immaculate, pristine execution, this student was able to create a piece that was incredibly moving and powerful.

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This student below had kidney surgery. He used a format reminiscent of graphic novels to put together a narrative of images based on his experience with the surgery. The final charcoal drawing was haunting and mysterious, yet provided enough details for the viewer to understand what the drawing was fundamentally about.

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ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

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Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


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ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

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