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How to Find Painting Ideas

Never be without an original concept for a painting again.

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If you haven't got great painting ideas, then all the technical painting skills in the world will be near useless. So where do you find ideas you can use to create and develop your own, distinctive paintings ? Here are the options and approaches I believe in.

I also think it's crucial to allow time to experiment. Be gentle on yourself and allow yourself to make mistakes, to go down dead-ends, to see what might develop. Use each of these painting ideas as a starting point, not the end point.

1. List Your Options, Your Likes and Dislikes

Where to find painting ideas
Image © Marion Boddy-Evans
You can't have painting ideas without having an idea of what style of painting you want to make, or what genre. So the first step to finding painting ideas is to make a list of what you options you want to consider.

What subjects / styles do you think you'd like to make (also list what you know you don't want to do), then narrow it down from there. For example, do you want to paint figures, landscapes, abstractions ...? What style do you want to use: realistic, expressionist, abstracted ...? Are you going to use a limited palette, or have one color dominate?

Too many options is as paralyzing as too few, so narrow your list down to one or two and start working with those. Use these printable art journal pages to get going.

2. Put Painting Ideas Down on Paper, in a Sketchbook or Journal

Record painting ideas in a sketchbook or journal
Image © Marion Boddy-Evans
Don't be misled or intimidated by the pages you see reproduced from sketchbooks where everything is immaculately executed, with every page a perfect sketch. A sketchbook is a working tool for ideas and record keeping, not a work for display. What you put in it and how you do it is entirely personal, like a diary.

I use a sketchbook more like a creativity journal, with as many words as pictures. I have a pocket sketchbook and pen with me most of the time, and a larger one for when I'm painting on location. I don't worry about being neat or organized, I'm merely recording thoughts and ideas for possible use on the proverbial rainy day.

See: Keeping a Painting Creativity Journal and Sketching: Is there a Right/Wrong Way?

3. Gather Painting Ideas from the World You Live In

Where to find painting ideas in the world around you
Image © Marion Boddy-Evans
While I love to travel to new and favorite locations, the place to start gathering ideas is where you are right now. Your living room and kitchen will provide props for a still life. A garden will provide plants and flowers that change with the seasons. A scenic viewpoint will provide a landscape or cityscape that changes with the time of day. Persuade family members to pose for you, or sketch passer's by from a coffee shop. Paint the family cat or dog when its asleep. Take photographs to use as reference if you can't spend much time at a location.

See: Tips on Painting from Reference Photographs and Reference Photographs for Artists.

4. Use an Idea More than Once

Use painting ideas more than once to paint a series
Image © Marion Boddy-Evans
There's no rule that says you can use an idea only once. On the contrary, a painting idea can be used to create a whole series. Take an old painting you like and work on variations, pushing the idea around and further e.g. different color sets, different angles, different lighting. Just look at what Monet did with his haystack paintings.

To quote that motivational book that's such a favorite of mine, Art & Fear (on page 56): "One of the best kept secrets of artmaking is that new ideas come into play far less frequently than practical ideas -- ideas that can be re-used for a thousand variations, supplying the framework for a whole body of work rather than a single piece."

See: Painting a Series called "Heat" and Creating a Body of Work

5. Ask Other People for Painting Ideas

Ask other people for painting ideas, they're sure to have different ideas
Image © Marion Boddy-Evans
Ask other people for ideas, you never know what they might come up with, and look at the work of other painters (both living and dead). Make notes of paintings that caught your attention. Create your own versions of other people's paintings (with an acknowledgment of the source) as a starting point, then push the idea further.

The Painting Ideas Machine contains a collection of ideas and will randomly generate a suggestion at the click of the button. Approach it with an open mind and give each idea some thought for where it might lead. Dismissing multiple ideas with only a moment's consideration is a loser's approach.

6. Expand Your Knowledge of Painting History

Get painting ideas from art history
Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans
Don't ignore rich heritage and sources of ideas from past centuries of painting. If you got put off art history by a college course you found boring, or think it's something too academic to be interesting, then approach the past through artist's biographies or TV documentaries and films instead. It's not the subject that's boring, it's how it's written or approached that makes it interesting (or boring). If you've never read any painting history, I'd start with Simon Schama.

See: Great Art Reads for Painters and Books for Creative Inspiration and Ideas for Artists. (And don't forget About.com's Art History site.)

7. Get Off Auto-Pilot and Try Ideas in a Different Medium

Where to find painting ideas
Image © Marion Boddy-Evans
Instead of changing your painting ideas, change what you're using to paint those ideas. Try a new medium, or a combination of mediums (aka mixed media) to free up your brain from automatic and jaded painting styles. Stop reaching for your favorite paintbrush and putting the paint on the paper in exactly the same way that you find comforting and easy. Stop using your favorite colors and try some new combinations.

Make a huge switch by trying something such as watercolor pencils and a water brush, or encaustic painting. Or if you're used to working with wet color, try working with dry color in the form of pastels. Or add a medium to speed up or retard the rate at which your acrylic or oil paint dries.

8. Painting a Day Ideas

Painting ideas for doing a painting every day
"Apple on a Reflective Surface" © Papaya
If you're looking for ideas for doing a painting a day, or perhaps a painting a week, here are some lists to get you going:
Daily Art Ideas (including photo galleries for sharing your paintings)
31 Painting a Day Ideas
28 Painting a Day Ideas
31 Painting Ideas from Poetry
30 Painting Ideas from Idioms and Sayings
31 More Painting Ideas from Idioms
30 Painting Ideas from Classic Novels

9. Monthly Painting Projects

Find painting ideas in the painting projects
Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans
Take a look through the list of project for this year and previous for painting ideas, and browse through the photo galleries to see what other painters have done with the ideas.

10. Painting Photo Challenges

Butterfly photo painting challenge
Photo © Anne (Aroma2)

Enjoy using a photo to jumpstart a painting? Join these regular challenges to create a painting using the reference photo provided, in whatever style you choose. Subject range from a sunflower to a castle.

11. Artist's Birthdays

Painting of Famous Artists Impressionists
Painting ©2010 Papaya Shrl

Why not use the birthday of an artist as the starting point for a painting idea? Paint in their style or perhaps make a copy one of their famous paintings?

Artist's Birthdays in January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August | September | October | November | December |

12. Drawing Ideas

Want yet more creative ideas? Helen South, About.com Guide to Drawing and Sketching, has all sorts of drawing ideas, from everyday objects to fantasy.

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