How Do Artists Get Their Ideas? (It Might Surprise You)

How do artists get their ideas header image. i
Ideas and synonyms in colored text

Where and how do artists get their ideas? I’m asked this all the time. In this article, I will outline the process.

To summarize, artists tend to steal, adapt, and borrow from each other. Very few artists create a totally new and unique work. Call it what you will, being influenced, mentored, or inspired, the process is usually the same. The artist ‘borrows’ an idea and tries to outdo, improve, or match it.

How Do Artists Choose A Good Subject?

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

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

People love to pigeon-hole 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.

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?

The key to succeeding long term is to concentrate on a subject you love. 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.

Artist getting ideas. Kevin Hayler drawing from his own photo
Drawing ‘Curious Cub’

That only leaves what animals to draw and where to get the references. And that’s what we will discuss next.

How do Artists Source an Image?

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.

Drawing from Life

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.

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

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.

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 leave in

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?

Taking your 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. But at other times, you see compositions everywhere, opportunities suddenly appear and you get buzzed with excitement and enthusiasm,

Artist 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 arrive, my phone’s camera 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 interesting composition. Anything that later on you might need for your artwork. Snap it up.

I like to think about settings. I can look at a hole in a tree trunk and imagine an owl peeking back. A tiger might be hiding in foliage, or a monkey sitting on a branch.

I’ll take a photo and put it in a file, you never know, I might use it one day.

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

The Internet, Books, and Magazines

You recall that I said most artists steal 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.

I get so many ideas just flicking through my feed. I’m particularly keen to save the images I find that reminds me of something else I’ve already got. Let me explain.

Let’s say I’ve taken a photo of some penguins walking on a beach. It’s ok but uninspiring. Then I see a photo on the web of something similar with fantastic lighting and composed brilliantly. 

Now I can see my own photo in a different way. If I rearranged things slightly and altered the light my dull image could be fantastic. 

And that’s the joy of painting and drawing over photography, I then have the artistic license to chop and change everything at will. All I need is the kernel of an idea and expand it using the references as an aid.

Searching the net, I find new compositions, expressions, and lighting that I would never have dreamed up myself, not in a month of Sundays. All the info is out there waiting for me to discover, get inspired, and adapt for my own use.

My mind is so wired to recognize a useful reference I couldn’t switch it off even if I wanted to.

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

Permissions and stock images

I can’t finish this section without talking about using stock photos and photos with consent.

I’ve done 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 will never be able to say hand on heart, that it’s 100% your own creation. A collaboration? Yes, Yours? Nope

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, wheres the story in that? 

I asked an artist online why her wildlife 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.

To grow and to discover your potential you should stick to your own work and use your own references.

Can you ever use outsourced photos?

Absolutely. Obviously there are times when someone wants to commission you and supplies the photos themselves. In my case, it’s usually a poor snap of a dead pet!

There are also friends and well-wishers who like to offer their own photos. I always politely decline, but many people take up the offer. They are free right?

Yes, they are but you might have a problem later on if you decide to publish. Copyright is a bit of a minefield.

I’ll also use other people’s photos to judge scale. I may, for instance, have taken a fine picture of a Barn owl. In my archive, I also have a picture of an old fence post covered in ivy.

The problem is scale. How big should the owl be in relation to the post and the ivy leaves? I’ll find out by using an image search.

I’ll do something similar if I need to add some context to a captive animal. If I want to add some authentic foliage, I’ll search online and find out what it looks like.

I’ll even reference how I can change a pose. I might need to see how eyes might look if they were looking in a different direction or how a shadow would lie.

Artistic licence. Changing details on an image. Good ideas for artists
Artistic license. Notice how I’ve changed the eyes.

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

I end up doing this all too often.

Warning: 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.

How To 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.

Three artists 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 are my reference points. They get my mind rolling, and to that end let’s move on to my last and perhaps the most important point

Why Artists Must Daydream To Get Great 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 at times when I have nothing much else to do. A shower is a good place for me, riding my bike, or sitting on a bus or a train.

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

First, it’s the dream, then the plan and finally the action. It can be a long passage of time between the start and finish but where do you go without a dream to follow?

Everything starts as a fantasy. When I dreamed of leaving the factory and traveling the world with my art, people scoffed but I did it. All I needed was the dream of something better.

Conclusion

In my experience ideas come in waves. At some 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 lets you know that everything is a phase and temporary. If you experience an ‘artists block’ step back. Do other things for a while. It will all return in time and after a good break, your art will be better than ever.

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where do artists get their ideas? Easel in a studio photo. For Pinterest

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