Developing ideas


Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote, “I need help with ‘developing ideas.’ I have to show I can do this in my portfolio to apply for art school and although it is an admission of a lack of imagination to ask, I really need a structure to help me. I have to do more than supply completed works. I know that artists get ideas while working, but how do I develop themes and explore subjects?”


Expressions of Fury, Horse study
Leonardo da Vinci

When I first read this it made me think that if you aren’t overwhelmed with ideas already, you shouldn’t be thinking about art as a career. But then I realized that the pros use all kinds of tricks to keep the good stuff coming. Also, art schools ask these sorts of questions in order to determine a student’s potential. Here are a few ideas that might give you a few ideas:

You need to do some “web-thinking.” Using large sheets of paper and starting in the middle, jot down some random ideas and potential projects. Start with your current interests and add fantasies, secret passions and ambitions. Let one idea lead to another and connect them with lines like a spider’s web so they begin to “breed.” Let your thoughts range from simple exploratory sets of works to complex mind-bending installations. You need clear time to take this task seriously so that the process becomes natural to you. Evolved artists habitually and actively bounce ideas between hemispheres. Natural to some, the art of yin-yanging can also be learned. Don’t share with anyone. Live for a while in the embrace of your imagination, no matter how outrageous. Mind-test and envision but don’t give in to early rejection. Associate freely. Anything goes.


Study of Five Grotesque Heads
Leonardo da Vinci

Think about your web-thinking at night, while you dream, while putting out the cat. If you are drawing a blank, check out the cat, or the wall behind the cat. Also, think how your ideas might move people, mountains, nations. When you have several sheets filled start evaluating and modifying with a pen of a different colour. Pick out a selection of ten or more and rewrite as if you were proposing film-treatments. Make them short and punchy. If they run from the practical to the impossible, so much the better. As part of your application, present this material using the heading: “Ideas I am currently developing.”

Best regards,


PS: “Stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places — you may find marvelous ideas.” (Leonardo da Vinci)

Esoterica: Give value to your best ideas forged alone. Charles Brewer, the founder of MindSpring, said, “The good ideas are all hammered out in agony by individuals, not spewed out by groups.” What an artist does with her own web may be the most valuable exercise of her creative life. Web-thinking teaches personal creativity and individualist vision. “I suppose it is because nearly all children go to school nowadays and have things arranged for them that they seem so forlornly unable to produce their own ideas.” (Agatha Christie) Art teachers know this.


This letter was originally published as “Developing ideas” on August 6, 2004.

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“The idea or the faculty of imagination serves as both rudder and bridle to the senses, inasmuch as the thing imagined moves the sense.” (Leonardo da Vinci)