The empty canvas gets a sick thrill out of mocking you.


Its stark white face, like that of a psychotic clown, stares back at you, laughing at your lack of imagination. At least that’s how it feels. And the longer you wait to start painting, the worse this feeling gets. Waiting for inspiration sucks.


So stop doing it.

Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to do an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.

Chuck Close

Your muse might be dragging her feet, but she’s waiting for you to start moving your hands.

Just start painting

The only way out is through, so pick up your brushes and get to work.


1. Tone your canvas first


Bright new canvases are the work of Satan and his minions. When I say “tone” your canvas, this means putting down a layer of color so it won’t be white anymore. Not a dark color, something you can make marks on and still see what you’re doing.


It doesn’t matter if the color you put down first will be the main color of your background. It might be better if it isn’t, so that you can leave a little of it showing through. Broken color helps add areas of interest that delight a viewer’s eyes.


2. Try making shapes by writing words on the canvas


Letters themselves are little drawings. We don’t think of them that way because we’re so used to translating them into sounds and words so fast we barely pay attention to what they look like. But our alphabet is made up of 26 totally abstract drawings.


Even if you want to paint something representational, having some lines and shapes down can start to suggest imagery you can then pull out and turn into whatever you want. I build up layers of text between glazes, scumbling, and layers of matte medium to build up a texture I can bring into the foreground.


3. See how many different marks you can make


Play with your brushes in ways you’ve never used them before. Make as many different kinds of strokes as you can. You don’t have to use paint brushes, either. My two favorite things to paint with are old toothbrushes and crumpled up wads of paper.


Anything that can hold a bit of paint can be used to make a mark.


4. Pick 3 colors you’d never use together and see how many ways you can mix them


Ever wonder if you can make a painting with Phthalo green, Quinacridone violet, and Titanium white? Sometimes I will just separate my tubes into dark, medium and light hues and pick three at random.


Even if you pick three that you think will look wretched together, try it anyway. Giving yourself a limitation like that will present your brain with a problem. Humans like to solve problems. We’re too curious not to.

Step away from the canvas and open your sketchbook

5. Draw scenes from your dreams


Even if you don’t remember your dreams very often, there’s usually enough raw material in one to make a few sketches every so often. And weird shit happens in dreams. Turning those scenes into drawings can conjure some powerful imagery you can use in your work.


6. Illustrate something that happened on the news


There’s another huge bank of inspiration for drawings in the news. People are always doing crazy things, for one. Recently an arrest warrant was issued for a man in Ohio who cut cable wires on a bunch of houses to take down the “slave database.”


My sister and I drew sketches of what we thought he looked like based on the information in the news report and came up with stories to explain why he did it.


If you’re not going for crazy, it could come from a story that warmed your heart, made you laugh, or scared you. Things like this can easily spark your imagination and help you get out of a rut.


7. Do blind contour drawings


This is one of the easiest ways just to begin shoving that pencil over the paper. Get some marks down. It doesn’t matter what the drawing looks like when you’re done.


Actually, the more you practice this, the more accurate your blind contours will be. It improves the communication between your eyes, brain and hands.


8. Go through photo albums or social media profiles and practice portraits


Everyone looks different. If you’ve gotten stuck drawing people the same way every time, this is the perfect way to remind your brain-hand connections that there are different ways to draw people. And it’s a good way to practice drawing clothing. Especially fabric folds and patterns.


9. Doodle with your non-dominant hand


This will be uncomfortable at first. There’s a useful purpose for that. Sometimes you’ll do your best work when you go outside your comfort zone. It’s good to get used to working with both hands.


If you’re right-handed and start practicing with your left hand, something strange happens. The editorial part of your brain shuts off. Suddenly that inner voice that criticizes your work while you’re painting falls silent as if someone put a strip of duct tape over its mouth.


You feel lighter. Your fine motor coordination takes a while to catch up, but it’s oddly satisfying to notice how different your line quality is. Practice this enough and you’ll be able to draw and paint with both hands.


At the same time.


10. Reduce a famous painting into geometric shapes


This is a great way to see how the masters arrange their composition without getting lost in details and brushwork.


All you need to do is print out a copy of a famous painting. Big enough to fill the page. Get a sheet of tracing paper and trace the painting’s simplest shapes. If you don’t have any tracing paper you can hold the papers together against a window and see the shapes with the sunlight coming through.


Whether you choose to use the same palette or change it, you’ve got something to start with.


11. Do studies of subject matter you have problems with


Have trouble drawing ears? Fill a page or two with ears. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but that’s a good thing. Perfect is dreadfully boring. But you’ll get faster and better at drawing whatever it is you’re having a problem with.


Faster and better lets you make more art you’re happier with.


12. Go draw in a different location


Sometimes your brain makes associations anchored in geographic location. Especially memories. You know how when you go into another room to get something and forget why you went to that room once you get there? Then you have to go back to the first room to remember what it was?


This is because your brain stores memories according to physical location. If you’re in your usual location to draw and can’t seem to get started, taking your sketchbook outside or just to another room can help.

If you need even more ideas

13. Switch things up


Do you normally paint realistically? Try a few minimalist color or texture fields.

Make a collage or two. Or a few sculptures. Those can give you subjects for drawing and painting. Have you ever tried to draw an abstract painting with a pencil? I did this once, I got really good at shading by the time I was done.


Using scratchboard even helps – instead of making marks to build up an image, you’re removing material instead and have to work in reverse.


14. Do some art history research


There must be a few artists whose work you love, but you don’t know much about. Spend some time in someone else’s world. Where did they grow up? What was going on in their world at the time? Who inspired them? Who did they love? Why did they make the art they made?

What about an art movement you don’t know much about?


15. Start an art group and give each other assignments


It doesn’t have to be a big group, and you don’t have to meet up in person. I did a small quarantine project with my sister and a mutual friend. Every day we had a theme that we took turns deciding and have a group MMS chat where we share the photos of what we make.

Taking turns coming up with the assignment for the day made things easier. I only have to come up with an idea every third day and the other two days the idea comes from someone else.


It was great. Try it out.


16. Create an image bank


Every creative person should have one of these because we should look at art frequently. The Web and social media have made this easier than ever. There is a ton of art being shared on Twitter, Instagram, Vero, Facebook and DeviantArt.


Spend some time looking at what other people have done. It’s hard not to get ideas when they come from other people.


17. Use song lyrics or poems to spark ideas


Sometimes if your mind is devoid of images, words can pick up the slack. Great writers can invoke powerful imagery with words. Like this:

With a perfectly breath-taking suddenness several mast sheaves of varicolored rockets were vomited skyward out of the black throats of the Castle towers, accompanied by a thundering crash of sound, and instantly every detail of the prodigious ruin stood revealed against the mountainside and glowing with an almost intolerable splendor of fire and color.

18. Get a little buzz going first


I learned this trick in a MOOC I took on Coursera. The class was called Learning How to Learn and was taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley. She provides a model of two modes of brain function involved in learning:

In one of the lectures, she gave some tips of how we can put ourselves in a diffuse mode learning state. One of her suggestions was to have a glass or two of wine.


Why would being slightly tipsy help you learn something?


Because it helps your brain go into a more relaxed state in which you can find familiar patterns in seemingly unconnected ideas.


As far as I can tell, this is how creativity works, too.


19. Stop making art for a while


A lot of artists will tell you that you should make art every single day. Some are so militant about it that they’ll claim you’re not really an artist unless you do.


I think this is damaging not only to your creative process but also to your self-image as a creator. Trying to tap your creative resources every day, day after day without fail, is going to burn you out.


It’s like going to the gym every single day to do weight training. Ask any personal trainer or knowledgeable fitness buff if that’s a good idea. They’ll tell you it’s counterproductive and can injure you.


Every artist goes through a fallow period sometimes. This is normal and nothing to worry about. It’s healthy to let your brain rest and replenish its creative resources. Use this time to take in artistic nourishment. Go to museums and galleries. Take a road trip and take a bunch of photos. Get outside and do something physical. Read books. When you’re ready to start putting these ideas to work, you’ll know.

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