10 Ways Artists Get Their Ideas and Find Inspiration

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Kevin Hayler: Professional Wildlife artist, author, and traveler.

How do artists get their ideas? I’m asked this all the time. In this article, I will outline the process for coming up with new ideas that work.. So, if you want to know how artists get their ideas, keep reading.

Artists get their ideas by observing and borrowing from the artists they most admire. They crawl Instagram, visit galleries, and buy art books and magazines. They get out, take notes, sketch, and take photos. Above all, artists daydream.

With that in mind, let’s go into more detail.

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1. Choose One Subject, Theme or Genre

There’s no point in trying to be all things to all people. You’ll end up pleasing no one and known for nothing.

People want to know who, and what you are, they need to put you in a box with a label attached.

People love to pigeonhole artists and why not? It’s branding, it’s the reason why people want to own and collect your work. Far from being a limitation, it’s actually the easiest way to succeed.

Focus on one thing and do it well.

Once you have chosen your subject matter, style, and preferred medium you’ll have a clearer sense of direction and it’s far easier to get new ideas.

But how do you choose?

Well for a start, what are your interests? What floats your boat beyond art itself? What are your hobbies and passions?

Concentrating on a subject you love is key to succeeding in the long term. You must find something that will stand the test of time and not bore you to tears after 5 minutes.

My own choice was simple.

I set out to make wildlife art.

I knew I could draw, I’m interested in wildlife and I like to travel. My mission was, and is, to combine all three.

With that in mind, I focus on popular wildlife subjects and all drawn in my own realistic style.

I have in effect limited my choices to create more ideas. It’s counter-intuitive but logical when you think about it. Creativity thrives within constraints.

Kevin Hayler drawing a leopard cub from his own photo.
Kevin Hayler drawing ‘Curious Cub’

That only leaves what animals to draw and where to get the references. And that’s what I’ll cover next.

If you are into wildlife art this is your shortcut: 12 Wildlife Art Bestsellers (Use These Subjects to Make Money)

2. Get Your Ideas From Life

It’s all very well knowing what type or genre of work you will do, quite another sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and wondering where to start.

Can you draw and paint from life? In the eyes of many, ‘real artists’ only create from life or from their imagination. That’s for purists but if you have the time, this is the way to go.

In truth, few artists have the talent or the time to devote to painting and sketching from life alone. Even with the talent, time is money, and that’s the bottom line.

It’s one of the frustrations of making art for a living. The pace of life and cost of living is a barrier to creativity.

Sketching allows you to distill the subject down to the bare minimum. You naturally draw only the most important key lines and features.

That’s a tremendous help when deciding upon the final composition. Knowing what to leave out is as important as knowing what to put in.

Get out of the studio (if you are lucky enough to have one) and walk. It’s amazing how a bit of fresh air and sunlight can lift your mood and enthusiasm.

Take a sketchbook and find a quiet corner to sit and observe. Ideas will follow as your mind empties on the task at hand.

Not sure where to start? Sorie will inspire you on Domestika

3. Take Your Own Photos For Inspiration

A good compromise is to sketch and take your own reference photos.

Ideally, you could sketch from life and use your photos at home for color and light references.

I said “ideally” because it’s not always possible to sketch in the field. How does a wildlife artist get a wild tiger to sit still for instance?

Everything I do, these days, is based on my photographic references. I envy artists who can draw wildlife from life in a few simple strokes. That is an amazing skill.

I lack the confidence to sketch animals. That might surprise some people who know my work, but I add more detail to compensate for my insecurities!

The drawing below is a case in point. Every wrinkle, every bristle, and every vein. Even the dribble. I must be mad.

Super detailed pencil drawing of a baby elephant drinking from a bottle. Draw by Kevin Hayler
‘Bottle Fed’. A detailed photo-realistic pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

You Get the Best Ideas From Own Photographs

It’s a mystery to me why so many artists are happy to use other people’s photographs. 

Why not use your own?

Searching for the material is part of the creative process and sometimes, despite your best efforts, you return home empty-handed, and it sucks!

At other times, you see compositions everywhere, opportunities suddenly appear, and you get buzzed with excitement.

Kevin Hayler looking for inspiration. The double-decker living bridges in N.E. India
Looking for inspiration is half the fun. I’m on the double-decker living bridge in N.E. India

Of course, serendipity plays a vital role in making a good image and you have to be ready to take advantage of situations as they occur. My camera phone is a Godsend. You make your own luck.

And don’t think that you need to capture perfect pictures either. Think of your camera as a notebook. You might see an amazing cloud formation, light on a landscape, or an interesting composition.

Do as I do and snap it all up.

I like to think about set pieces and staging. I can look at a hole in a tree trunk and imagine an owl looking back. A can imagine a big cat hiding in foliage, or a monkey sitting on a tree branch.

I’ll take plenty of photos and put them in a file, you never know, I might need them one day.

Life in the field is what it’s all about, not being stuck indoors sitting at a computer. You don’t have to go far. Your local park or country stroll can be enough to clear away the cobwebs and open your senses up to new possibilities.

4. Borrow, Adapt, and Steal Other Artists Ideas

You recall that I said most artists borrow ideas. Never has it been so easy to find the very best imagery out there. It’s all yours with a scroll through Instagram, Pinterest, and stock images.

“Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”


I get so many ideas just by flicking through my feed. I’m particularly keen to save and bookmark the images I find that remind me of something I’ve already got.

Let me explain.

Let’s say, for example, that I’ve taken some photos of penguins walking on a beach. The photos are okay but uninspiring.

At a later date, I’m flicking through some images and I notice a photo on the web that reminds me of those photos. The difference is that these images are inspiring with fantastic lighting and are composed brilliantly. 

My mind races. Now I can see my own photos in a different way. If I rearranged things slightly and altered the lighting, changed placements and sizes, my boring images could be fantastic. 

And that’s the advantage painting and drawing have over photography, I have the artistic license to chop and change everything at will. All I need is the kernel of an idea and I can expand it using the references I find to help me out.

Need a jog in the right direction? 120 Drawing Ideas for Beginners to Enjoy Without Giving Up

Browse The Internet, Books, and Magazines to Spark Ideas

I search the net and find new compositions, poses, and lighting that I would never have thought of myself, not in a month of Sundays. All the inspiration is out there somewhere waiting for me to discover and adapt for my own use.

My mind is so wired to recognize a useful reference that I can’t switch it off even if I want to.

I might flick through a magazine, a book, or a brochure, and PING something registers and it sparks a new idea.

We are bombarded with imagery, it’s everywhere and I’m alert to it. I might pass a shop window and see something, or notice an advert. If it’s useful I’ll record it.

This famous bestseller says it better than I can and in far fewer words.

Can You Ever User Other People’s Photos?

Absolutely. I use other people’s photographs to judge the correct scale of one object next to another. I may have my own photo of a Barn owl and a separate picture of an old fence post. The owl would look great perched on the post.

The problem is scale. How big should the owl be in relation to the post? I’ll find out by using an image search for a photo to get the correct proportions.

Likewise, I can place a zoo animal in a wild setting by searching online and finding out what the landscape and foliage would look like in real life.

If you’re stuck, this post will show you: How to Plan and Compose Your Art

I’ll even use references to help me change a pose. You can see how I’ve changed the eyes of the baby orangutan below.

The eyes in my own reference photo were looking away and I wanted eye contact, so I scoured the web and found the photo I needed to make accurate changes.

Changing details on an image. The original reference photo by Kevin Hayler and the subsequent drawing with the eyes changed.
Artistic license. Notice how I’ve changed the eyes.

Sometimes, I frame a shot badly, set the wrong exposure, or get the focus all wrong. Rather than abandon a potentially great image, a web search will eventually reveal a close match. I can use the online reference to add the missing details.

I end up doing this all the time. It’s part of my work process. I copy the missing details but nothing more.

5. Gain Inspiration From Other Artists

We all have our favorite artists and occasionally I will remind myself of their work and get re-enthused by their talents.

I find it important to look at better work than mine and strive to reach that standard. I may never get there but the inspiration remains.

There are 3 artists who have influenced me the most, and all for different reasons,

  • Raymond Harris-Ching. I admire his amazing draftsmanship, use of light, and extraordinary painting skills.
  • Robert Bateman. I admire his mastery of composition and atmosphere.
  • Gary Hodges. He gets my vote for proving (to me at least) that pencilwork can be popular.

There are more of course, but these three wildlife artists stand out.

I especially prize my Harris-Ching and Bateman books. When I get down in the dumps and struggle for ideas, all I have to do is flick through a few pages and my interest reignites.

Now let’s move on to the last and perhaps the most important way to get new ideas.

Stephen Bauman is a more recent discovery. I love his technique, it’s inspiring. A premium lesson but he’s one of the best.

6. Daydream To Get Great Art Ideas

There is nothing unproductive about dreaming. It’s an essential component of creativity.

Take the moment to look into space.

I get my best ideas when I have nothing much else to do. My mind is free when I take a shower, ride my bike, or sit on a bus or train.

Sometimes I just stop wherever I am and follow a line of thought. I can be lost in another world entirely. I know life is good when my worries are less important than my daydreams.

First I have the dream, then the plan, and finally put it into action. It can be a long time between the start and finish but where do you go at all without a dream?

When I dreamed of leaving the factory and traveling the world with my art, people scoffed, but I did it anyway. The dream of something better was so powerful.

I like to jot ideas down in a notepad. I’m like a writer, I have to record the idea before it vanishes. I rarely recall inspiration, it has to be captured at the time.

7. Sketch Anything to Get New Ideas

There are times when, for whatever reason, your mind goes blank. Every artist suffers from the same things.

One way to get back into the groove and beat the art block is to practice your skills and draw anything to hand.

There is nothing more defeating than a blank page and no enthusiasm. There is only one way I know to guarantee to get into a rut, that’s to walk away and wait for inspiration. It doesn’t work like that.

Sometimes you must force the issue. Drawing forces you to see the world in a different way. It trains your eye and brain to observe your surroundings in depth.

Drawing anything is better than drawing nothing at all.

There will be a moment when the cogs in the wheel will engage and a new possibility will spring to mind.

I’ve been there so many times. I’m in my 60s now and believe me, these things come and go. You will get an art block, and it will end at some point. The trick is to make it end as quickly as you can.

8. Revisit Old Artwork For Inspiration

There are times when I will take a moment to revisit my earlier artworks and see them with fresh eyes.

It’s only by detaching yourself from the process and time it took to create the work, that you can objectively judge the art.

I’m my own worst critic yet there are some drawings that I created that seem too good to be mine. I even struggle to remember exactly how I did them.

I have to re-examine them and remind myself what I’m capable of.

Then there are the failures. I keep a few of those to remind myself where I came from. Drawings that I once thought of as progress and ‘good enough’ are laughably lame by comparison to my present work. That has an uplifting effect.

Sometimes I will look at an old sketch and see a glaring error or suddenly realize what it lacks. It’s far easier to adjust an old drawing than to start a new one, and it can fire your imagination again with a minor win. Sometimes it doesn’t take much.

9. Seek Out Inspiring Company

Nothing beats bouncing ideas around with other people.

Most of us know someone who is so easy to relax with, that you cheer up as soon as you get together.

Talking is the best way to get new ideas. An innocent aside can spark a thread of thoughts that leads to new and exciting ideas. Good company is often the missing ingredient.

If your social circle doesn’t feed you with stimulating ways to see the world, perhaps it’s time to join a group of like-minded people more likely to be on the same wavelength.

You can join groups online, but text is a detached way of communicating. It’s far better to be laughing around with colleagues.

Look for local painting groups, classes, or even societies not directly related to your art, but perhaps related to the subjects you like to paint or draw. You’ll get a different perspective.

10. Travel Frees Your Mind

This is an outlier. I know it’s not possible for most people to just to take off and leave life behind, but getting away can dramatically alter your outlook.

It doesn’t really have to be travel to far-off lands. although that’s great if you can manage it, it can be an area close by that you’ve always meant to visit, but the time was never right.

Personally, I get away every year for months at a time. It frees up my mind and allows me to look back on my life and put things into perspective.

In my experience, it’s only by being far away that my problems, which seem overwhelming at home, can be seen for what they are, trivial.

Kevin Hayler and local guides Fishing in Gunung Leuser NP in Sumatra
That’s me and my guides in the Sumatran Rainforest.

I find travel to be liberating. My senses are stimulated with new sights, sounds, and smells. I’m freed from those social constraints that tie you down at home, I’m almost starting from scratch, I have no history, and no baggage. I am just me.

I find my mind turning a gear, I gain positivity, I suddenly see things as opportunities, and I start planning.

Fresh ideas race around my brain. I have so much time to think. I’m a different person.

When I’m in another culture I see everyone as equal. I accept people for who they are and at face value, and less how they appear to be. I can’t pre-judge.

Travel is a form of mindfulness. You are in the moment. There is one thing to do. Get from ‘A’ to ‘B’. The humdrum routine of life at home and the burdens of everyday life are irrelevant.

There is only the journey, new people, and new experiences. It’s all in the present.

If you need inspiration for your art I recommend getting away if you can. You’ll return with a list of ideas and projects that would never have occurred at home.

And if they did, the crushing effect of those self-limiting beliefs that develop in your own culture would stop you from pursuing them.

How Artists Get Their Ideas: Final Thoughts

I can’t finish without talking about using stock photos, and photos obtained with permission

I’ve used both and I can assure you that using other people’s imagery is a dead end. How are you going to forge your own unique style by copying someone else’s work?

There’s very little satisfaction in it. You’ll never be able to say, hand on heart, that it’s 100% your own creation.

A collaboration? Yes. Yours? No

A piece of art has to be about you and your story or it’s nothing. Who wants to know that you copied someone else’s photograph, where’s the story in that? 

I asked an artist online why her wildlife art references were not her own, and she replied that she hadn’t the money to go abroad. A lame response that neatly side-stepped the obvious, like visiting a zoo.

These are my tips for Where to Find Wildlife Subjects to Draw, Paint, and Photograph

To grow and reach your full potential, you should use your own references and get inspiration from others.

A final word of caution: Copyright Is Not to Be Taken Lightly

Don’t be tempted to use a great image for free without permission. You’ll be found out.

I saw one of my images on a T-shirt once. It was my lion portrait but with a crown added. Presumably, the thief assumed that by tweaking the image he had somehow made it ‘his own’.

It’s not enough to slightly alter an image. If it’s recognizably and substantially the same, it is a copyright infringement.

For more information, look up the relevant U.S. and U.K. copyright laws

…and read this: Can You Copy Art and Sell a Painting of a Painting? I Found Out

In my experience ideas come in waves. At points in life, you are on a crest of a wave, and ideas and challenges are bouncing off everything around you. At other times you dip to the bottom and your ideas dry up.

Most artists have their ups and downs. That’s life really. Artists are no different from anyone else.

Experience teaches you that everything is temporary. Take a break, the good times will return and your art will be better than ever.

Elephant family pencil drawing by Wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Family Life’ by Kevin Hayler

If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit

If you dream of selling your art and traveling I can show you how to do it. All you have to do is copy what I do. It’s all here, take a look and see!

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How Do Artists Get Their Ideas? 5 Tips For Inspiration
The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
I can show you how to do it. You’ll find a wealth of info on my site, about selling art, drawing tips, lifestyle, reviews, travel, my portfolio, and more. Enjoy

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