11 Techniques from a Professional Artist to Come Up with Drawing Ideas
My old high school sketchbooks are full of some weird stuff: A snowy car crash scene, strangely colorful with blue vehicle, yellow headlights, and red blood on the snow; civil war era soldiers deserting their posts; an intricate illustration of an angel carrying a crystalline egg, the face of a screaming man trapped inside. A thinly veiled sketch of a boy I had a crush on. Cats. More cats. More boys.
Our art teacher required us to make a drawing every day and I gleefully gave life to the fanciful concepts that lived inside my head.
Years later, while on summer break from my college film studies, I worked at Orange County Fair’s Art Gallery, hanging pictures. The youth entries were not unlike my old sketchbooks. Wild, sometimes strange, fully uninhibited dreams. Though the hands that made them were still learning, some of my favorite art was in the youth section.
Interestingly, the adult entries, while more technically skilled, were often bland as far as their subject matter went.
Today, I absolutely cherish the collection of whimsical drawings I made in my sketchbook as a teen. Creating so freely became more challenging once I grew up.
For many, finding inspiration was easy as a kid, especially back then when there was little social media to measure yourself up against. You just followed the lead of whatever interested you. Because you knew you were still learning, you didn’t care so much about being perfect or “good”. You certainly didn’t care about making money. You just had fun!
As an adult, this self-consciousness sets in. This need to measure up to your peers, to be “professional”, to make a living. A burden of expectations and fears. That’s where a lot of “idea constipation”, or lack of inspiration, comes from, I believe.
It’s one of the most common woes I hear from artists. Knowing how to draw but not knowing what to draw is like having a Ferrari but no where to go. Thankfully there’s endless places to “go” with your art. Figuring out “where” can be a challenge, but I have compiled a list of my favorite tricks to help you on your journey.
Tips to Consider
Don’t be too picky
It can be easy to stagnate as an artist if you are too picky when coming up with ideas. If you need your idea to be absolutely the best ever, sent from God herself, you might hold yourself back. Don’t let having the perfect idea stand in your way of practicing, getting better, and making something new. After all, a concept that seemed average in your head may develop into something amazing as you start putting it down on paper, ipad, cavas, etc.
How picky you should be depends on how time consuming the art you make is, and how cost intensive. For example, if you make digital art like I do, and can complete a drawing in a day or two, you can be less picky. However, if you’re a film maker who’s concepts take several months to years to make and cost a great deal of money, by all means let those ideas brew longer.
Ideas don’t come from the void
When I was a budding artist, I had a lot of self-imposed ideas of what I needed to do to be a “real” artist. For example, I had it in my head that if I didn’t produce an idea 100% myself, I must be an uncreative hack.
Ideas do not just spring from the void. They all come from somewhere, inspired by the life around us. After all, without external input, there would be nothing to think about, nothing to see, and certainly nothing to draw/paint/etc!
There is no arbiter out there who decides how much external input you’re allowed to use to make your art (except maybe the copyright office, so don’t steal other people’s stuff!)
It’s perfectly ok to look to other artists past and present, photos, movies, games, books, nature, music, life for inspiration.
For example, sometimes I struggle to come up with color pallets. I often look at photos by my favorite photographers for inspiration. When I was developing my style, I looked to the old masters for techniques that made sense for the themes I was exploring and developed them from there. And when I can’t remember what a tiger looks like, I Google references. (You’d be shocked how many people think it’s cheating to use references!)
Learning from others is what good artists do.
The Blank Page is not Holy
A blank sheet of paper is one of the most beautiful things in the world to me. I love its smooth perfection, it’s subtle tooth. The woody, chemical smell when you open a fresh pack of copy paper. I love that it is full of endless possibilities for what it can become. The pregnant beauty of Nothingness.
But then a fearful thought would paralyze me. I was scared I’d sully that beautiful page with mediocre art!
This is a self-imposed fear that doesn’t need to exist. You’re allowed to make a piece of crap every once in a while. Everyone does. Everyone craps!
Pure genius does not need to come out of you every time you put pen to paper. Some ideas will be eh. Some will be good. And others will be great. But if you don’t try, your ideas won’t even be.
Methods to Gain Inspiration
Now for the good stuff. Here are a variety of tricks to help you on your journey excavating inspiration from your mind. I listed them roughly in the order I tend to go through them.
Art is communication.
Wherever you come from, most people have, at one point or another, experienced the same feelings, wants, and needs as you: Love for a romantic partner, longing for better times, loneliness, awe at mother nature, loss, anger, serenity, jealousy, fear, lust…
One of my favorite ways to come up with designs is to take a feeling that’s been recurring in my life and sit with it. What images come up? What colors? How can I convey this feeling visually? You don’t need to worry about being too literal (ex: Happiness need not only be conveyed with yellow smiley faces). Just see what arises and create it. Let your viewer interpret what they feel when they see your art.
If a positive feeling inspires you, that’s excellent. But if a negative feeling is the one that demands to be heard, don’t be ashamed. Pain deserves to be honored too. And, often, pain makes really great art.
2. Your Favorite Artists
I follow a ton of artists on Instagram. There is no shame in learning from others. Just don’t outright copy them or use them in a way that lets you to avoid flexing your own creativity. My rule of thumb is, if I’d feel embarrassed to show the artist what I made for fear that they’d feel ripped off, it’s probably too similar and needs a little more of my personal touch.
I have all kinds of Pinterest boards where I save art and photos I love. Some of them are for reference, some for inspiration. I have boards for skulls, flowers, animals, color pallets, medieval art, oil paintings, vintage art, architecture, etc.
Once your Pinterest account has learned what you like, it’ll show you all kinds of cool things in your feeed. Sometimes I just go through the boards looking at pictures until inspiration strikes.
4. A walk or hike in a beautiful place
“All truly great thoughts are achieved while walking,” Nietzsche said.
The world is full of inspiration. If you’re stuck, get out there and look for some! Or simply enjoy a nice, long walk. Exercise is good for the mind. Bring your sketch book.
5. Make Lots of Mini Sketches
I see a lot of beautiful sketchbook pages posted on Instagram.
I’ll be honest; most of my sketches look… really rough. I would almost be embarassed for anyone to see them. I’m making them quickly to lay down ideas, and they only need to be good enough for me to understand them. They're like visual shorthand.
Stephen King says to “write with the door closed”, meaning to write where no one can see your works in progress, so you have the freedom to make mistakes and even get a little bit crazy without fear of judgement. Draw with the door closed too.
Drawing with this mind set is incredibly freeing and can get those ideas flowing.
Typically, to come up with ideas, I make a digital page on my tablet and draw small 2”x2” rough sketches. Sometimes I do full color, sometimes just monochrome line art and add color later. The purpose is to lay out all the ideas that pop into your head, good and bad, then pick from what you come up with. I’ll utilize a lot of the other methods outlined here, particularly listening to music, drawing from emotions, and looking at Pinterest, for inspiration.
Many of my best selling pin designs were born from quick, tiny little sketches. This “Booobs” ghost sketch that I drew just for laughs turned into a pin that’s made me six figures.
Never underestimate the power of the doodle.
I love using one artistic medium to inspire a completely different one. What would “Let It Be” look like? What would it look like in my style?
I really like building playlists with a particular mood or inspiration in mind. If you don’t like lyrics, lofi music in all kinds of styles can be found. My favorite is Dated’s dark lofi beats.
Put on some music and let it guide you.
Have you ever had to get up early for some important event, but just could not fall asleep? The more you worry about it, the more awake you feel. And pretty soon you’re just lying there in a panic at 4am, begging your body to shut down. The same thing happens when you’re desperate for inspiration.
Like a Chinese finger trap, when you pull too hard you get further from your goal. Sometimes you need to briefly just STOP.
Meditation really helps me with these situations.
Here’s my crash course in meditation:
Sit or lay comfortably, and breathe. Focus on your breath and let go of the thoughts that plague your mind, keeping you stuck in the past or worrying about the future. Just breathe. Be present in your body. Feel the sensations of life ebbing and flowing inside you.
If your mind wanders, gently bring it back.
If I’m anxious about the time I’m spending doing this, I’ll set a timer. I’ll tell myself, “ok, 10 minutes to meditate, then back to work”. This way my mind isn’t caught up worrying about how long I’ve been sitting here for. Insight Timer is a great app I highly recommend for this.
Stopping to give the mind a brief break can open it up to new ideas by eliminating the stress keeping you stuck.
For an extra mood boost, when your meditation if over, think of five things you feel grateful for in your life. Really feel the gratitude in your body. Maybe even smile a little.
You’ll come back to your work refreshed and happy.
8. Dreams and the Subconscious
This one’s a bit weird, but, in art, weird is good. If you can find a weird thing that works for you, you’ve got a fountain of possible inspiration.
Supposedly, Dali used to sit in a chair with a bucket between his feet and a wooden spoon in his mouth. He’d sit for hours until he became sleepy. And as he’d fall asleep, the spoon would fall out of his mouth and into the bucket, clanging and waking him. In this liminal state between awareness and sleep, he’d find inspiration for his surreal paintings.
This would never work for me. What kind of olympic napper do you have to be to fall asleep with a wooden spoon in your mouth?
But what does work for me is to think of the thing I may want to create (a dress, a pattern, a pin, etc) as I go to sleep. I fill my heart with the intention of wanting to make this thing. Sometimes, my dreams answer.
Once, in a dream, I was working on a dress I was designing in real life. In the dream, I realized I forgot to tell the manufacturer which direction the print needed to face! The next day, in real life, I was able to correct the mistake before it was too late.
Another time I entered a big room with a gallery of fabric patterns hung on the wall, like paintings. I realized I was dreaming and got very excited, because I saw that my subconscious had produced all these beautiful images to inspire me! It was too good to be true! I came up with this:
It might benefit you to find your own weird thing. Maybe it’s asking a homemade oracle deck for advice. Maybe it’s gazing into the black abyss of a scrying mirror until images appear. The subconscious has always been the friend of creatives. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to access your own.
9. Take a (short) break
If you’re making art all the time, you can get burnt out. Take a little break. Maybe fifteen minutes to stretch. Maybe an hour for lunch. A day to rest. A week to recharge. You know you best. In my experience, though, the more you work, the easier inspiration comes, and the less breaks you need.
It’s wildly unethical of me to promote drug use, but let’s be real. A lot of artists partake. I’m not a doctor, if you have a bad time, don’t sue me. And if you’re under twenty one, just skip this section. But truth is, every once in a while I like to micro-dose weed and draw.
It puts me in a slightly altered state, and I produce different ideas than I normally would. It’s also relaxing, so the ideas flow easily.
However, it is critical that you don’t become reliant on substances to produce creativity (says the caffeine addict). If you go down that road, it can become expensive, bad for your mental and physical health, and, in the end, limit your creativity.
Think of substances as temporary helpers that unlock doors in your mind you didn’t even know were there. Once the door is unlocked, you can go through it anytime sober.
11. Practice with Drawing Studies
Sometimes the ideas just won’t come and we have to accept that, for the time being. But don’t let this deter you on your artistic journey. Use “inspiration constipation” time to practice and get better. You may be able to turn a seeming negative into a positive.
Find a photo you like and try to replicate it, either with realism or in your style. Drawing the same picture over and over, looking for ways to improve each time, is a great way to practice.
Have you been interested in trying a new technique? Practice that, redoing a previous drawing in a fresh way.
Or, take this time to experiment with a new medium!
Running out of ideas need not hold you back.
Don’t feel bad if you’re struggling to know what to draw. I’m willing to bet the vast majority of artists face a lack of inspiration at some point or another. Even Thomas Kinkaid probably had a time where he said to himself, “I just can’t even imagine another quaint building in an idyllic place that I haven’t painted already”. Then he remembered that lighthouses exist.
Ultimately, when lack of inspiration strikes, remember that this too shall pass. In my experience, the more you practice, the easier it gets to source inspiration, loosen up, and find that state of mind where ideas flow.