Developing ideas


Dear Artist,

On Wednesday, Norma Laming of London, UK 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?”

Thanks for that Norma. 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.

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.


Template needed
by Don Toffaletto

Regarding your concept of “web-thinking,” perhaps you could produce a template that might be downloaded and used as our personal ‘web-think pads’ when we feel the need to explore or freshen up. I know ‘ideas are the easy part’ but I send this one along because it may be useful and productive. Who said ‘work is a gift’?

(RG note) Thanks, Don. Web-thinking starts out on a completely blank page and it is perhaps because there is no structure that it becomes a structure. Mary Madsen’s letter (below) draws attention to Tony Buzan’s excellent books which well describe the process.


Tony Buzan’s mindmapping
by Mary Madsen, Las Vegas, NV, USA

Your idea generating method sounds a great deal like Tony Buzan’s mindmapping techniques. I learned something very much like that technique years ago in a college composition class, and at that time it was called cluster writing. It’s a free association of the bits and bobs that wander through the mind. Tony Buzan took clustering to a new level and dug deeper into the mind to understand how it works. The human brain takes in 40 million bits of information per second, yet recent studies in the cognitive sciences estimate we can only hold in consciousness somewhere between 16 to 54 bits of information per second. Second by second, we are each creating our own reality. Second by second, we are unconsciously filtering out information we have somehow determined irrelevant. Cluster writing and mindmapping are both metaphorical ways of casting our nets to gather those bits we can’t consciously snag. Buzan has turned his theory into quite a few good books and of course there are others who have developed software for mindmapping. offers a free download to mindmapping software to get the process going. I always keep a pouch of different colored Sharpies with me to write down and follow the map of ideas, as well as an electronic voice recorder I can talk into. Colors, as you well know, make things pop. Thoughts, too, have color, and using color to write them down is a way of rap-tap-tapping on the wellspring of our reclusive ideas and forcing them to speak.


Selecting from the mind-map
by Richard Tomkinson, La Connor, WA, USA

Far harder for me, after the “mindmapping” is “selection.” I call it the tyranny of choice. I have so many ideas and sources that my actions are like unto a honey bee from flower to flower, stopping only long enough to sample mayhap enjoy before the breeze of distraction presents the next great opportunity. Thanks to digital my reference files now are in the tens of thousands yet somehow still accessible and still each stirring me with the refrain, “pick me, pick me.” Every outing I suffer the bliss/agony of yet another artistic vision captured, savored, but finally not ‘developed.’


Choose what you love
by Brian Knowles, CA, USA
When I took an art class at Pasadena City College our instructor explained that he had been a high school art teacher. Each year, at the end of the semester, he gave an assignment in which all of the students could do a picture of any subject they wanted. A surprising number of girls chose horses as their subject. Most of the boys picked cars. Boys loved cars. Girls loved horses. The boy’s drawings of cars and the girl’s drawings of horses were better than their drawings of other subjects done throughout the year. My instructor concluded, “We do best what we love most.” I learned from that to paint subjects I love to paint. Over and over again I return to certain themes because those are where my heart is.

Paint what you love, and the ideas will never stop coming. Choose subjects about which you are passionate, about which you truly care. It could be environmental issues, endangered species, the aesthetics of mist, clouds and fog, the play of light on trees, bodies in motion, bodies in repose, faces, anti-war, the glorification of war, childhood, old age — whatever. Think about what you want to “say” about your subject. What message, if any, do you want your viewers to take with them? What effect do you wish to create in the hearts and minds of those who see your work?


Limitations breed originality
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA


“Beachhouse Porch”
original painting
by Eleanor Blair

When I first started teaching art to children, I thought that the best way to encourage creative ideas was simply to give out the art supplies and say, “Do whatever you want.” What I got was rainbows and unicorns from the girls and aircraft carriers and robots from the boys. I discovered that the more limitations I arbitrarily created (for instance; the picture must be square, must incorporate five colors, must be imaginary, or must be something in the room, must be composed only of straight lines, or curved lines, must recreate three different textures, must be done in thirty minutes, etc., etc.) the more amazingly original everyone’s work became. Ideas seem to be born within structure. So my advice to Norma Laming is; define some parameters for yourself. All limitations in art are arbitrary and imagined, but creativity seems to flourish within a random boundary or two. Just go ahead and make up some rules, and have some fun!


Connect with an audience
by Dan Young, Van Nuys, CA, USA


“Excited Freedom”
acrylic, 36 x 48 inches
by Dan Young

Art that connects with the audience strikes an emotional cord. To generate ideas ask yourself what makes me mad, sad, angry, repulsed, happy, glad, thrilled, frightened, lost, overwhelmed, etc. Check in with yourself every day. How do I feel? How do I want to feel? How do I never want to feel again? If art does not evoke a response it becomes a decoration. My continuous series that best connects with an audience depicts running horses. It is also my symbol for escaping a very restrictive background.


The flame of change
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia

The strongest image generator is the ever-changing flame. At all the world nature both in physical and spiritual forms of life is of atomistic type, i.e. levels of idea buildings — large global idea of life, current year main idea, current art work main idea, technical painting ideas. The artist is the man changing the World (example: Picasso’s “Guernica” did setup of brains for many heroes), but small business of flowering of surfaces is very good business to change environment, especially that where women are present.


“Ideas I am currently developing”
by Jan Zawadzki

0) De-sanctify the subjugation of the planet by self-purpled people (criminals)

1) Westernize all conceptual thought by dying through every war. Goes for the East also.

2) Learn who are the stubborn and ignore them

3) Forget everything I’ve learned

4) Pay attention to non-descriptive detail

5) Pay attention to descriptive analogues of detail

5) Learn how to squeeze the paint back into the tube

5) Count no further than five

(RG note) Thank you to the dozen or so artists who sent “sample” lists that started with “Ideas I am currently developing.” Jan’s (above) was the most definitely off-the-wall, and though we didn’t offer to do this, we are sending him a free book just for fun.


Ideas within your “theme”
by Beaman Cole, NH, USA


“Bell bop”
original painting
by Beaman Cole

I buy 9 x 12 inch white sketchbooks and use them as “idea” recorders. Absolutely every idea I have goes in it. I usually write a headline titled “Idea,” then I draw the idea or write a description of the idea or both. I often go on for pages drawing variations and other possibilities as thoughts come up. I date every idea. Most ideas are threaded from previous ones. Some are new. Some are outrageous and I’ll never take anywhere. Other ideas are good but don’t fit my “theme.” When I finish the sketchbook I write the start and finish dates on the cover along with a list of ideas or drawings covered.

I usually make paintings when I realize that I can fit my ideas into my “theme” as an artist. Having a theme or a motto as an artist gives you a “look” when combined with a technique. Having this “theme” is what all or most artists come to eventually. My theme is “Fun or Joie de Vivre.” I use that theme as a filter for my ideas. If an idea cannot be interpreted as “fun or joyous” I don’t paint it for presentation. Coming up with this theme is deeply personal and has to “fit” with who you are. As a professional you will have to keep painting in this theme for a long time. Check out artists from the past and see their “theme.” Other “themes” could be: majesty, peace, spunk, grace, flow, excitement, angst, toil, friendliness, fear, etc. Every element of the work should support your theme, from your point of view, including coloration, paint handling, size, canvas shape, and subject. There is a lot of room with the subject but, for example, I will probably never paint something like Millet’s peasants as I can’t think how I can make it appear “fun.” I will however paint some peppers picked by the peasants as I can think how to make them appear “fun.”


Write down your dreams and ideas
by William Lathrop, Chicago, IL, USA


oil, 30 x 24 inches
by William Lathrop

Before I began focusing on painting the landscape, I painted surreal, contemplative and confrontational subjects. I found my ideas from my dreams and within the world around me. There were two critical sources for ideas and these helped unlock my creativity: I learned to always have a pen and paper. Ideas come at the least convenient time. But, when they come, they must be captured while the intensity is there. Also, remember and record your dreams. There is a lot going on in dreams. Write down your dreams as you have them.


Art school dynamics
by John Ferrie


John Ferrie

There is a lot of weeding out at art school. There is stuff and instructors you just don’t respond to. I remember looking at one instructor as he told us about our project for that day and thought “you want me to do what?.” However, these days it seems I draw on that instructor’s teachings more than any other. Becoming an artist is about developing a dialogue between what you are communicating and what you’re absorbing from your surroundings. This is also what an art school is looking for when it comes to applicants. They want to make sure you are taking the place and going to make something of your time there.


Protect your ideas
by Kathleen Arnason, Willow Island, Canada

As a conceptual artist I have discovered it is important to include a disclosure at the bottom of your idea page that these ideas are the intellectual property of the author. I have been the victim of many a stolen idea which is usually watered down by the thief. Since I have made copy statements of ownership I have received far more respect. Always remember “If you cannot imagine it you cannot achieve it.” I also believe ideas are gifts and that if you are listening and in a state of awareness you shall find a universe of ideas. Just Ask!


Intuition and faith take over
by Judith Schaechter


stained glass
by Judith Schaechter

Ugh. I groaned with nauseous pain when I read that demonstrating the ability to develop ideas is required for admission into an art school. Just ignoring for a minute the fact that maybe that’s something one learns, oh, say, over a lifetime, I would suggest that it contributes to the ass backwardness of creating work from the idea down (to the object).

I have been a teacher at an art school for close to ten years and it is my observation that asking a student what their ideas are tends to have the unintended result of tying the project down with a ball and chain to its original inception. There is a peculiar notion that the seed which inspired the work in the first place must be evident in the final piece. There is the presumption that there is something identifiable as an “idea” which can then be put through a process which results in an artwork. I wish!

By telling students it’s important that they know how to develop ideas, I think we create artists who are alleviated from ever truly experiencing creativity. It’s important to discuss ideas but it’s more important to surrender control and preconceptions!

I have been a working artist for over twenty years and for the last five I have been actively interested in how my ideas develop into objects. And what have I learned? That it’s different every single time — sometimes radically different. That it emphatically defies verbalization. That the more I attempt to pin down the process the more ephemeral it gets. There’s no “there” there. First of all, as silly as it sounds — I have given up even defining what an “idea” is. Is an “idea” an advance visualization of a piece? Part of a piece? If anything — if it hasn’t already evaporated, it’s one of the very first things sacrificed during the actual process of making something. Second of all, knowing ahead of time how it might develop just kills it. Original artistic invention demands that even the inventor be surprised.

To suggest to such a young artist that they should be able to codify this process is dangerous. It might start out as a useful structure — but how fast until it becomes tyrannical and anti-creative? By the very next piece — that’s how fast. I would imagine that when it comes to this subject, its not all that bad to be clueless. Intelligent, but clueless! Preconceptions and knowledge really only get you to the edge of where creativity begins. Then intuition and faith take over, hopefully.






Chantel, back, on couch

by Joris Van Daele, London, ON, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.

That includes Joseph Tany of Alhama de Granada, Spain who wrote, “Developing ideas is unnecessary. Every step one makes, there will be an entirely new land expecting him. Just make your step.”

And also Jerry Waese who wrote, “I am getting too many ideas in the bathtub and I often forget to bring a pad. Soap bubbles just don’t last!”

And also Kelly Borsheim of Cedar Creek Texas, USA who wrote, “All of my ideas happen because I first observed something that pleased or intrigued me. Then, a line was drawn. And then another.”




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