Finding Inspiration in Everyday Things: An Exercise in Creativity

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Look Around
There is a vast array of visual information out there just waiting to inspire you. Look around right now. Find an ordinary object you like, something you find aesthetically pleasing. Maybe it's your coffee cup or your wooden desk, or the jeans you are wearing. Try to stay away from big romantic things for the moment. Keep it small and simple. So don't pick a sunset, keep it mundane. If you are thinking of the forest, try to narrow it down to the bark on a single tree (and bravo for finding an internet connection in the woods). Seriously, don't cheat, find something that is actually near you right now.

Try to figure out what you like about that object. Don't think about what it is, think about what it looks like. If you like your coffee cup because it reminds you of your mother, pick something else, keep it concrete. Is it the shape, color, or texture? Describe it in your mind. Maybe your coffee cup has a nice shape with a subtle curve and clean lines. Maybe you like your desk because of the rhythmic patterns of the wood grain, and your jeans because you love the look of that faded blue. Get specific, try to isolate just one quality of the thing you like.

Now consider making your next art piece based around that single quality-- a color, a texture, a type of line. Then build it up from there. Maybe you liked the crescent moon the other night. Maybe the rough peeling paint on the back of the rusting dumpster behind your work inspired you. I once made a web design based around the colors of my cat. Remember that the point of this exercise is not to be literal. It's not about painting the moon or the dumpster, or putting cat charms on your next bracelet. Instead, consider knitting your next hat in the color of that dumpster's rust spots, or making a necklace in a crescent shape. Find the subtle motif. The web design I made had nothing to do with cats, but I liked the warm french gray, darker cool gray, white, and orange spots she had and realized it made an excellent color palette.

My latest inspiration from this exercise came from the spice rack in my kitchen. Cayenne, paprika, and cinnamon reds; curry powder, spicy mustard, and ginger yellows with sage green? Yes, please! So I made a bunch of lovely beads:

More on Color
Pure saturated hues get played out very quickly, and you have probably used them all in your work before. Look for the "off colors," the colors between the ones on the color wheel. Think of a yellow-orange, perhaps more on the yellow side. Now neutralize it. Beautiful thought, isn't it? A rich, earthy goldenrod! One of the great things about neutralized colors is that you can group more of them together in a single color scheme before you get nauseous. If you put a bunch of saturated primaries and secondaries together, your creation might wind up best suited for clowns and young children. I've definitely seen people pull it off, but it is rarely done effectively. If you are in love with a saturated hue, try using one at time in combination with a few neutrals.

But I Like the Sunset
OK, fine, but try to pick just one thing at a time that you like about it. The shape of one cloud, or just one of the colors you see. Find the concrete details. As you get better at this, you can let your choices become more abstract. You can even learn to use this technique on feelings. What are you feeling right now? Are you hungry? Make a hunger piece. The trick is still in narrowing it down. Choose one thought, one instance of hunger, or just the feeling of emptiness. Even that thought of emptiness can mean so many things. Maybe your next composition needs more emptiness-- more negative space. Keep narrowing it down until you find the essence of what attracted you to the object or feeling in the first place. I find that the most successful artists are more interested in how to express something than what they want to express.

Change the Way You See Your World
A side effect to this exercise is that you will start to like your life more. As your focus shrinks your world grows. You will realize not only that anything can be inspiring but that everything is inspiring. How about that litter on the street over there? I kind of like the way the light is hitting it...

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