This article was first published as The Nature of Inspiration (II) on Blogcritics.
In my last post, I talked about how Hollywood myths formerly shaped my ideas about artistic inspiration, and some of the influences that helped change my mind about it. This post discusses a few of the “how-to’s” that overhauled how I thought about, found, and used inspiration.
Several things helped me reform my view of inspiration:
- I read how Leonardo Da Vinci advised painters to look for pictorial inspiration in stains on walls and the veins in marble. This approach can also be applied to many other “random” markings in nature: clouds, pond ripples, dune shapes, etc. This works because the human mind seeks out similarity in patterns—even between quite different objects—in seeking to understand how the world is put together. So we do look for patterns in the clouds (eyes, question marks, heads, faces, elephants, anvils) even though we know they’re meaningless to understanding the essence of what clouds are. But searching for these patterns does serve a purpose: it stimulates our imaginations powerfully.
- Another influence was the Notebooks section in the posthumous collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essays, The Crack-Up; here at least was a behind-the-scenes look at how a creative artist found, noted, and stored up material for future use.
- On a winter painting trip in Maine during 1983-84, I read an article in The Artist’s Magazine that recommended using index cards to make reference-note sketches of landscapes for use in composing paintings later on. Using a number/letter/symbol code, the painter could cram a lot of information about the appearance of a scene onto a 3 by 5 card (called a “notation sketch”) and reconstruct it later in a painting. This approach worked so well for me that I started carrying around index cards and using them to jot down lots of ideas or sketches of other things than landscapes (thoughts, agendas, ornaments, patterns, thumbnail composition sketches, concept sketches of mixed-media compositions, designs for jewelry and sculpture); I’d also write down interesting quotes, or photocopy and paste them on cards. I found that if I drew or wrote on only one side of the cards, I could lay them out side by side, mixing and matching them and looking for connections among them. Eventually, these cards (which now number several hundred) formed the nucleus of a creative idea file that I’ve maintained for over 25 years. They’ve become a combination idea notebook-incubator-laboratory that now supplies me with a backlog of creative inspirations.
- The index-card approach to painting and composition made me aware that painters (and by extension other artists) gather the material for any single painting from many sources. Nearly every painting or piece of sculpture — if not literally created in front of its subject — is a kind of collage. So is any other artwork. (An earlier post, titled “Collage = Reality,” discusses this idea in a wider context.)
Slowly it dawned on me that what I was doing was being receptive to inspirations that were all around me. Collage is partly the art of drawing inspiration from found materials; in order to do collage, one must be receptive to the creative possibilities in found images and objects. Wasn’t my creative idea card file a sort of collage over time?
I also realized that artists need never run out of creative ideas if they stay receptive to the potential inspirations inherent in anything. Creativity and inspiration together: a two-in-one package!