Ask the Art Prof: When Should a Visual Artist Let Go of an Idea?

RISD Section 19

“When you’re stuck on doing an idea but it just isn’t working out, when do you recommend letting the idea go and starting over from scratch, and when should you keep thinking about it? I personally have a hard time letting go of an idea, I think I can just keep thinking about it and I’ll come up with something I’m happy with, but sometimes I should just put the idea away for later.”

This is a tough one, as the circumstances can vary so much depending on the person and on the ideas at stake.  It’s hard because no one wants to give up on an idea prematurely, before that idea has been given the time it needs to ripen.  Some ideas really do need a certain number of hours of labor to come to fruition. On the other hand, it can be frustrating to feel like you wasted your time on an idea that was no good to begin with. In my opinion, searching for and developing ideas is always worth your time. The brainstorming process is just as critical, if not more, than the execution of the final work.  Even the dead ends that you hit along the way are necessary, and inform your creative process in some way.  Accept that you will have to wade through an immense amount of bad ideas to get anywhere.

One approach that can help here is to try to push through each idea fairly quickly.  Resist the temptation to dwell on an idea for too long, especially early in the process.  Don’t develop “favorites” in the beginning of your brainstorming.  Once you’ve weeded through a good amount of ideas, and you’ve chosen your “finalists”, you can then give each idea more attention and time.

I look for certain signals in my work process when I have to make a final decision on whether to keep an idea or not. What I look for is how passionate I feel about the idea, and whether I think I can work with that idea long term. I imagine in my head going through every single step of the entire project, beginning to end. If I imagine this process in my head and feel excited and motivated by every task, that’s a good sign. If I feel tired just thinking about it, that’s a sign that my enthusiasm isn’t strong enough to sustain in the long term.

Letting go of an idea is always so hard to do, especially when you initially thought that idea had potential. It always feels like a disappointment when you have to let go; you feel like something you really wanted to believe in let you down. Facing the fact that an idea just isn’t working is never easy to accept.

Just remember that ideas don’t have to be permanently deleted from your brain, they can emerge again at a later time when the situation is more conducive to that idea moving forward. Sometimes it’s just not the right time and place for a certain idea to mature. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a substantial number of ideas that are on the back burner. I like that they are still sitting there, waiting to be called forward some day.

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Ask the Art Prof Live is a weekly live video broadcast on my Facebook page where I provide professional advice for art students and professional artists. Ask the Art Prof began as a written column in 2013 and was featured in the Huffington Post from 2013-2015.  Ask me your questions by commenting on the live video post as the video streams, and I’ll answer right away. I’ll discuss being an artist today, art technique & materials, work strategies for artists, career advice, teaching art, and more. Like my Facebook page and you’ll receive a notification when each live video begins.

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