Themes and Inspiration

Generate More Satisfying Art Ideas: How to Start Today

Are you a visual artist struggling to find ideas for a new piece of work? We have a five step formula for you that is guaranteed to get the creative juices flowing and kick-start your imagination in a meaningful way. Use this formula to generate more creative and satisfying art ideas from today forwards.

Ready to beat the starvation of art ideas ?

It’s sometimes one of the biggest struggles in our vocation. Your creative fuel dries up and you just cannot get the ideas flowing. Ten times worse when you have a looming deadline of course. So what are we going to do? Head to the nearest café to drown our frustration in cake and fine coffee? Throw a moody and be grumpy with the rest of our close friends and family for the rest of the day? Strike a melodramatic pose until the muse decides to visit?

Here at the night studio we don’t believe in any of that. Creativity is a muscle that needs exercise and sometimes a little kick start. Let’s accept we are where we are and move on to fix it without wasting our time waiting on ‘the muse’ to arrive in her golden chariot. So instead we’ll apply some good pragmatic idea making techniques to the day and finish with a flourish. No divine intervention required.

Is it important to be original?

Let’s debunk a myth that you need to have inspirational, bolt from the blue ‘original’ thoughts to be creative. For the most part this is simply not true and my evidence for this is the many successful people like Steve Jobs (the founder of Apple) who said that;

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they really didn’t do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

Steve Jobs, American entrepreneur, industrial designer, business magnate, media proprietor, and investor

This is a theme that recurs again and again in analysis of creative practice. Have a look at what is already inside you and look for connections between things. To make your potential for creativity richer, add more inputs…have more experiences. Read more, study more things, go out into the world more and feed your inner library. 

What do you need to cook up some ideas?

One of the problems with trying to be creative consciously is that we often try to do too much in one step, select components, connect them together and build a narrative all in one step. Trying to nurture creativity alla-prima style. I’ve found much more success getting my creativity flowing by breaking the process down in to stages. Rather than trying to force out a complex network of inter-related ideas we’ll take break the process down into steps. Here is a little list of ingredients for our ‘idea baking’ recipe before we look at how to put it all together:

A range of inputs

You need to put some raw materials in to the mix. We need raw material to work with and that can be literally anything that you have noticed, connected with or observed. This stuff is in your brain already, stored in memory waiting to be used. You have this, we just need to tease it out in the first part of the process.

A change of perspective

We mentioned above that making connections between things is key to the process of creativity. We’ll use a basic technique to randomise some connections below. Think of this as kick starting your engine. The connection forming part of your mind is a bit cold and not turning over very well so we’ll help it with a little battery booster.

Tools and environment

We don’t all have the luxury of a secluded studio space do to our thinking uninterrupted but this technique needs only some sticky notes or paper and a pen so go somewhere that freshens your mind before you start.

There is a belief that changing your physical location can change your perspective and many great thinkers have adopted this approach and valued walking and change of environment to take their brain out of a situation that re-enforces the same behaviour patterns. I’d recommend taking even a short walk before you start.

Head space

This recipe will take some applied thought so you need to avoid a casual approach. Switch off your phone, or put it on flight mode for a while. Remove yourself from any distracting situations, people or objects. You need some time to think in a focused way at the start of the process and some break time to think subconsciously later.


Decide now that you are going to see an idea through to completion of concept at least and then use that momentum to move on to the next idea by going back to the start of this process or jumping off on to your own usual process. It is important, like trying to jump start a car, that you keep this vehicle moving once we get it going.

This is the list of building basic ingredients. Add too much extra and you might end up making the flavour overly complex and indistinct. Leave out something crucial and it might come out, well…half baked. 

The recipe for creation of new art ideas

Time to take the ingredients listed above and get started. If you are anxious about something or have an overwhelming thought that is dominating you today unrelated to your creative work then either put it aside for a moment. If you really cannot do this then accept that today may not be the most productive day creatively.

Visual metaphors help me with this, imagine taking whatever it is that you are worried about and putting it away in a locked box for a while. Alternatively imagine handing it over to a helper to look after for you. I value meditation to clear my mind at the start of a process like this.

Step One: Brain mining, gathering the raw materials

Give this 20mins max.

We need to tease out the raw materials in the form of a range of ideas, memories and/or observations from your mind. We’ll use pen and paper to write these down. Write these down on little post-it, label sized or playing card sized bits of paper (that way we can re-arrange them easily later).

Don’t try to come up with a fully formed and connected idea. Just start to empty your mind out on to the paper as if you are pouring out a jug into a basin. I find it easier to start thinking about tangible objects that interest me and then other things start to come to mind; ideas, colours, themes. You may wish to number your items as you right them down. I’ll explain why later, but this is optional.

Nothing is wrong

There is no incorrect entry, every idea, object or phrase that you write has some meaning for you albeit subconsciously. Your list of elements can be as long as you like. You’ll probably find it hard to stop once you start. Every time you ‘finish’ the list other suggestions will start to come to mind. It’s difficult to turn the tap off once you start. Set a timer and decide that once that timer is up you will stop.

You can repeat the exercise as much as you want remember so no idea needs go undiscovered. The first time you do this may seem a little forced but your ability to let the thoughts flow more will develop over time, with practice.  

Focus on listing

When we are trying to force creative thinking it often makes the block worse. Using this technique you are freeing your thought process from the connection making and relevance sorting of ideas. Focussing on just gathering random elements puts no responsibility on your thought process for ‘being creative’. We can all sit and come up with a list of things, even if they are all seemingly random objects.  

When this step is complete congratulate yourself! You’ve just taken the first step to being more creative and tapped into the rich vein of resource that you have hidden away in the corners of your mind. Next step is to start building something with this stuff.

Step Two: Creating connections between elements

Give this 30mins max.

We’ve spoken lots about the main ingredient of creative thinking being connecting ideas to each other. Ideally that will happen naturally while you are being reflective about your work and life experiences but of course this does not always happen. We often get stuck in patterns of thinking that are repetitive and predictable or worse we get completely gummed up and cannot think of any ‘new’ ideas to work with. This is where the concept of randomness is going to help.

For this stage we are going to create random links between the elements that you have. If you have the items written down on separate cards or pieces of paper you are at a distinct advantage here.

1. Turn all your cards/pieces of paper face down, gather them together and shuffle as best you can, you now have a randomly organised set of ideas and elements from the library of thoughts in your head. Alternatively you could use a numbered list and random number generator or dice for this stage.

2. Deal out the bits of paper into groups of three or four, they don’t need to all be the same. There are no strict rules about this. Some groups might contain three pieces other might contain four, that’s perfectly ok.

3. Now turn the pieces in each grouping over to reveal what they are. You are looking for useful, inspirational or surprising combinations of elements. When you find one of these take note of those pieces as a combination. Sometimes I’ll take these elements out of play, more often I will return them to the deck and shuffle.  

4. Put the pieces back together again, shuffle and repeat until you have three or four groupings that you think are interesting enough to work with.

Great work if you’ve got this far in the process. You have started to connect and select element groupings from random ideas in your head. That’s a significant part of the process achieved and all you’ve had to do is pick the best from the groupings that the universe gave to you. Easy work so far don’t you think?  

Step Three: Narrative building

Narrative is an optional element here but it is a useful one. You have groupings that are interesting and hopefully make sense to you as the seeds of an idea. That’s a great root, to encourage further growth we can use narrative boosters to develop the potential idea further. To do this take an idea from the short narrative structure list provided here and use it a multiplier for your idea development.

Selection of a narrative framework from the list below could be randomised as well if you wanted to introduce random number generation to the process.

Best and worst

Rate the different elements in your group then swap best and worst elevating the ‘worst’ element to be the focus of the idea.

Conflict or contradiction

Where is the potential conflict or contradiction between the elements in your group? Find it and amplify it. Inflame the differences. Show the conflict in the image.

Chaotic or ordered

What do the elements in your group look like if they are organised chaotically or if they are ordered carefully. This could apply to ideas as well as objects.

Sacred and profane

Divide your group of elements into sacred and profane. Think about why. What elements might be sacred to some and profane to others?

Imminent threat

Cast one of your elements as an imminent threat to the others. Why is it a threat?

As a journey

Think of your elements as stages in a journey, it could be a literal journey or a symbolic journey. Do the elements have an order? Which element represents a destination?  

Created as a joke

Deliberately try to make the worst idea you can from the elements that you have. Think about the worst possible way to combine them.

Zoom in or zoom out

Take one or more of your elements and either look into the extreme detail of their composition or look at them from a distance, as smaller parts of a whole.

Decayed or preserved

Which of you elements would last longest? Which would be temporary and decay? Think about the lifecycle of the elements and how they appear throughout their lifecycle. 

Period of history

Imagine your elements through the lens of a period in history. How would they change? Would their significance diminish or grow?

Use one of these narrative ideas and apply it to your grouping of ideas from above, write a few sentences that explain the product of this. You don’t need to represent these narrative ideas literally, think of these as oil on the gears to help add some spin or context to your initial ideation. Use these narrative stumps to start ideas flowing.

Once you get the grey matter moving you can abandon your narrative vehicle at the side of the road. We are only using it to get ideas moving.

Step Four: Percolate (walk it out)

Give this at least 60mins but hours or days are better.

This part of the creative process is very often skipped or not acknowledged but it is important.  When we have loaded up our conscious mind with ideas, the most productive thing to do then is step back from the whole process and let the subconscious mind do some work. You can step away from this whole process and engage yourself with a manual task of some sort. I like to tidy my studio space or do something manual like washing the car I need to do something that is manually engaging but not cerebrally challenging.

Walking is the way

A walk is often a good percolating tool. I live in Scotland and occasionally go hill and mountain walking, this is my best time for thinking creatively. When I am mentally and physically far away from the concerns of everyday life and when walking alone especially. It’s just me and my inner monologue talking over my thoughts (did you realise that some people do not have an inner monologue? I found that fascinating).   

Now we can’t all vanish into the mountains of Scotland to do our thinking and time is precious so adapt to your circumstances. Most of us are lucky enough to be able to go for a walk no matter if it’s urban or rural or indoors. Don’t underestimate the power of this. There is evidence to support the idea that the act of walking increases your creative output ( and mental health (webmd). It seems that it’s the act of walking itself that is important, not the environment in which you walk.

Fermentation brings life

The point is that the focussed work that you did earlier needs time to bake or ferment. You have started to make connections between elements and these will be in your subconscious, so stepping away for a while lets the brain work away on its own with less distraction. If you’re not used to this idea it seems counter intuitive but your brain can often work away on problems unfettered by conscious decision making processes (Psychology Today 1 & 2).

Step Five: Ideate

Give this 40mins.

If you have followed the process you are likely ready to start ideating. That means creating rough ideas from your first thoughts on this spurt of idea development growth. There are many ways to ideate of course and this could involve written notes, mind mapping or even focused visual research but I find thumbnailing to be the one that works best for me and often leads to the crystallisation of subconscious thoughts more directly. There’s an article on ideation drawing that you can read on the site if it’s new to you.

There should be some stumps of ideas starting to form now. They might not be fully formed but they are seeds and you know of course that from small seeds carefully sown, great things can grow. I’m willing to bet that you after a brief look at your stimulus and notes from the first four stages something will start to happen for you. I’ve seldom found this technique to let me down, when it has it is because I have been so consumed by thoughts of some other overwhelming issue in my life that my focus is almost entirely eaten up.

Moving on and adapting this process

If you’ve tried this technique you’ll find I’m sure that it helps get things going and that it provides some starting point for your own development, especially when you’re struggling, in a rut, or suffering from creative block.

The process outlined here is a generic one in terms of theme but it could be more focussed on a particular set of elements to generate new ideas within a set of limitations or pre-defined specification.

For example, if you have already done some research into your theme and have a collection of elements that relate to that (maybe a sketchbook with pages of complete visual research) then you could number the separate elements in your sketchbook and generate groupings of ideas that all come from your research. This way you are still using some random groupings and perspective changes to generate surprising or interesting combinations from your initial thoughts and investigation.

Remember to have fun.

Further reading