If you’re not sure what art to make, take inspiration from what you love, or what you’re most curious about. You don’t have to look far to see something you can draw, copy or recycle. Use a source and tools you enjoy and make something today. Here’s some ideas to get you thinking…
Art materials: paper, ink, pencil, paints, wool or unconventional materials like food dye, coffee, nail polish.
Colours/shapes: use only your favourite colour, only draw circles, repeat the same pattern you enjoy making in different sizes.
Reading: draw a scene from a favourite fiction book, make a diagram of info from an interesting non-fiction book, copy a drawing from your favourite children’s book, choose a page number and draw the first noun or verb on that page, draw or paint over a magazine article.
Watching: pause the screen and draw what you see, draw doodles while watching media, draw your favourite or movie character.
Random: currently fascinated by zombies? Draw one. Love listening to the same track over and over? Scribble while you listen. Love visiting the beach? Take some paper and make art while you’re there.
Loved ones: draw a cartoon of someone close to you, draw your pets while they sleep (they are the best models), draw yourself using a mirror, use the blind drawingmethod.
Mine your life for your loves and use them as inspiration to make something today.
Trying a completely foreign way to making art allows us to step away from convention and embrace a new messy way to making art. Switching from your usual way to make marks – i.e. using your dominant hand – to a unorthodox approach forces you to be uncomfortable because you loose control technically. But this is a wonderful thing for your creativity. As Mary Lou Cook encourages, “Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes and having fun.”
You will need: paper and a pen, ideally one that doesn’t require you to use much pressure. Felt tips work better than a biro.
Hold paper in place with your hands either on a flat surface or against a wall
Clean drawing tool and place in your mouth
Clean drawing tool when finished
Ideas to try:
Experiment using more colours
Hold your head steady and move the paper instead
Use a paintbrush and paint
It’s going to feel very strange at first, especially if you’ve never tried drawing with your mouth. Be careful you don’t push too hard to avoid injury. This unusual way of making marks forces you to make messy, imperfect marks and the quicker you accept your lack of control, the more you can enjoy the process. The artist Alberto Gioacometti describes drawing the unknown “When I make my drawings… the path traced by my pencil on the sheet of paper is, to some extent, analogous to the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness.” Loosing control and experimenting in the unknown is a wonderful tool to help unleash your creativity.
“It’s when I draw conclusions, that they end up looking like a bunch of jumbled squiggles on a piece of paper.” – Anthony T. Hincks
While making art with no fixed rules or set objectives can be a freeing experience, sometimes you don’t know what to make next which can hold you back from starting anything at all. Setting yourself a project could help with getting unstuck because there’s a clear focus for making. When you know where you want to head, it makes it easier to make decisions along the way. And if the infinite possibilities of making anything feels too overwhelming, then a project approach to art making could be for you.
In the Art For All podcast, Danny Gregory and Ros Stendahl talk about the power of projects: “A project is a blueprint for your free time, a series of assignments that will add up to something grand when it’s done. But more important, will be really fun doing, getting there, making.” Stendahl explains “Whenever I do a project, I like to set parameters because I find that parameters not only focus you and make it more likely that you’ll achieve your goal of doing it every day, but they also help you discover more clearly what it is you’re looking for… you can create something substantial in a very brief time period.”
If you’re feeling even more adventurous, consider having multiple projects in the go at once. They could be similar and interlink or be vastly different and you rotate through working on them depending on your mood and interest each day. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity describes how a E. O. Wilson “typically works on several projects at once, using different methods. This again is a common pattern among creative individuals; it keeps them from getting bored or stymied, and it produces unexpected cross-fertilization of ideas.”
One project or several, it doesn’t matter the number of projects so long as you find it a helpful approach to get you regularly making your art.
Collage is easy and fun process to make art out of existing art. While this experiment focuses on using just images, you can also collage with paper and typography. By using preexisting images, you don’t have to worry about drawing anything from scratch. If you are a beginner and worry about your art being messy or imperfect (which are vital aspects of art-making), this might offer you the freedom you need to get started creatively. Rod Judkins in Figurative Painting with Collage quotes Nita Leland: “Collage is like a hall of mirrors. Every direction you look, you see something different and visually stimulating.”
You will need: photographs or images from magazines, books or any paper source. Scissors or scalpel knife. Optional glue or sticky tape and a tray to put things on or work from.
Cut out images that catch you eye. Don’t overthink: cut out and create a pile.
From your pile, pick images and start arranging. Play around with different combinations without thinking of a final look.
If you like a combination, take a photo or fix it in place with glue or tape.
Optional: Set a timer for 2 minutes to force quicker decision making so once the time is up, the work becomes finished by default.
Ideas for further experiments:
Cut out words or letters to add to the images.
Draw over or around images to add details.
Take photos of selected images to create digital versions and play around with layouts on the computer.
Have a jar/box/folder/somewhere to keep all the images you cut out as anything unused can be used at a later date. Sometimes you might spend your time cutting images and other times you may spend your time arranging. Having an image bank to draw from allows you to get creating much quicker in the future.
The artist Max Ernst in Max Ernstbelieved “Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them.” Collage quickly allows you to bring together unexpected images and arrange them however you like. The process is one of trial and error but also very ‘low-risk’ because you don’t have fix anything in place. Because there are so many strange and different possibilities with collage, you’re only limited by your imagination.
“The only way to be creative over time – to not be undone by our expertise – is to experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don’t fully understand.” – Jonah Lehrer
Rubbings or frottage is an old technique of printmaking where you take a rubbing from an uneven surface to create a textured piece of art. It’s a very quick method of mark making that has a bonus element of mystery because you can’t predict what surfaces will work best until you have a go. You become a kind of creative detective, hunting out patterns and testing them collect results.
Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire in Wired suggest that some common strands in creative fields are “the ability to extract order from chaos, independence, unconventionality, and a willingness to take risks.” Margaret A. Boden explains that exploratory creativity, one of the three types of creativity, “can produce highly valued (beautiful, useful, interesting…) structures or ideas.” That this approach “can often offer surprises that are rather deeper than merely seeing the previously unseen.” Surprise marks may emerge with each movement of your hand so you don’t always know what you’ll end up with.
You will need: paper and a pencil. Optional to use crayons, charcoal or chalk.
Find some textured surfaces or objects.
Place paper over your chosen area.
Use side of pencil to rub over the paper to reveal the hidden pattern.
Repeat the process with a different surface.
Some of the rubbings in the image above hardly show the pattern beneath so weren’t as successful as the clearer pattern created by the decking. That feedback helped scout future rubbing subjects so no “failed” attempt was actually unsuccessful. This experiment is perfect to take with you on the go so if you ever spot an interesting wall texture you can quickly take a rubbing. The more you do, the more you build up your knowledge around what surfaces work better than others. Because it takes so little time, the focus becomes more on quantity and testing than perfecting which is a much freer (and fun) way to make art.
This fun line drawing experiment is easy to get started and has endless creative outcomes. As an art-making beginner it can be hard to know where to even start. Setting rules and constraints gets you to go from being paralysed by choice, to taking clear action immediately. Making something is always a better than making nothing when it comes to your creativity.
Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire in Wired to Create explain “Because of our natural adversion to uncertainty, there are very few things in life that we enjoy more than a sure thing or a tidy solution! But in order to think differently, the fear of uncertainty has to go.” This experiment is great because it starts you off with a clear objective, which will keep your mind from being paralysed about what to do next. But once you start drawing lines, there’s no one solution so you start to tap into your creativity. In a way it’s a safe kind of uncertainty.
You will need: paper, pen or pencil. Optional: felt tip pens, crayons, coloured pencils and ruler.
Add dots randomly on your paper. Do this quickly, don’t overthink it.
Join the dots using a pen or pencil freehand.
Optional: use a ruler if you want a straighter line.
Ways you can approach experimenting:
Change the quantity of dots: make lots or a little to get a different starting point.
Change the quantity of lines: make lots of a little.
Change quantity of colours: use multiple colours to draw the lines.
Let your instincts guide you where you draw your next line. There is no ‘wrong’ line you can make, only 100’s of possibilities. In a speech on creativity, John Cleese suggested, “it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.” Start with little and as your confidence grows with practice, you can gently push yourself to create more ‘complex’ or unusual patterns if you wish. Or continue to keep things simple and enjoy the process of making patterns from the random dots.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” — Steve Jobs
Not sure where to start making art? Get a piece of paper, a pen, decide on some constraints and make some marks. Gather evidence about what you liked and didn’t like and repeat the process. By giving yourself constraints or rules, it frees you from paralysis of choice and the never ending question of what should I do next? When you can make anything, the magnitude of choice is too overwhelming.
Austin Kleon in a Hurry Slowly podcast interview, says “I think every practising artist figures out pretty quickly that when you can do anything, you do nothing because you’re paralysed. And so one of the first things to do if you want to make work is to give yourself some rules, give yourself some constraints… I think that when you have too many possibilities it can be impossible to know what to do next.”
Constraint could look like putting ideas in a jar and pulling them out to determine what you draw. Set a timer and write down whatever words pops in your head for 2 minutes without stopping. Don’t overthink it — simple words like blue, cat, tree, laugh, boat etc. are great. Then cut up the words and put them in the idea jar. Start simple, take action, collect data and repeat. Anything that gets you away from overthinking all the possibilities, to actually making art is a huge step.
Improvement happens tiny step by tiny step. Brick by brick.
Sometimes you’ll take a leap and it feels wonderful to make big steps forward. Such noticeable progress feels reassuring and can be a reminder that the thing you’re working on is worth your time and effort.
But most improvement results from a slow and steady approach. Our ego would love for things to move quicker because it stubbornly only wants instant gratification and success. But success isn’t a finish line in the distant future – success is building something brick by brick, even in the face of doubt, discomfort and adversity.
As the saying goes, life is a marathon, not a sprint. There is plenty of time so there’s no hurry to work it all out right now, in this moment. Place the next tiny brick and keep repeating until it’s time for a leap.
If a white piece of paper blinds you with too many possibilities, starting with another piece of art and editing that can get you straight into the art-making process. Creating instant restrictions creates less resistance to getting started because there’s less choice on offer. Austin Kleon in The Steal Like An Artist Journal encourages us “If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.” By mixing up existing art into something new, you’re creating your own art and experimenting with what you like visually.
You will need: Text (or images) to cut up. Pencil and ruler if you want to be really accurate. Scissors or scalpel to cut. Glue if you want to fix permanently in place.
Divide your chosen text into squares of equal sizes and cut out
Optional: Use pencil and ruler on the back if you don’t want to do it by eye
Seeing something arranged differently and changing your perspective will feed back into other areas of your life in a positive way. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity says “Good scientists, like good artists, must let their minds roam playfully or they will not discover new facts, new patterns, new relationships.” By allowing yourself to playfully create new patterns using what exists around, you opens yourself up to other unknown possibilities.
Look what’s already laying around your home that you can cut up and rearrange and go have a play.
“…nothing is completely original. All creative work builds on what came before. Every new idea is just a remix or a mashup of one or two previous ideas.”– Austin Kleon, Steal Like An Artist
Roald Dahl explained in a 1985 interview how his first story got published. “I remember saying to myself, my goodness, it can’t be as easy as all this? … It’s terribly hard work [writing] but it’s easy the way that if you do work hard enough, then it appears that what I write is enjoyed or bought always.” Looking back now given Dahl’s success, it’s may be no surprise that he was able to become a writer without resistance from the outside world. Perhaps it was enviable that he was to become a prolific writer, or luck; being in the right place at the right time.
David Bowie said inBowie: The Man Who Changed the World, “I don’t have a problem writing. I do write a lot over the course of a year. It’s never really been hard for me to do that.” That’s not to say other elements of Bowie’s career weren’t hard or challenging, but the process of regularly writing was straightforward.
While hard work is often required to achieve your goals, there’s a difference between it being a struggle and getting down to work on something with focus, grit and determination. Satisfaction can come from “working hard” on something you’re interested in. But is there a link to needing to feel like you’ve you really struggled through something or overcome adversity in order for you feel good about reaching a goal? I’m only worthy of the win if I’ve had to fight to get it?
Tara Mohr in Playing Bigsays “…often our fears about playing bigger find cover under the conviction that we have to build something large and complex.” Perhaps building, making or trying something small and simple is just as rewarding, nourishing and beneficial for growth?
“The cake you baked is delicious!”Oh it’s from an old recipe I’ve been using for years, it’s nothing really.” It feels like nothing because you’ve done it so many times and don’t even have to look at the receipt to know the measurements. It’s easy to make that delicious cake so it’s not worthy of the praise because perhaps you didn’t really EARN it. You didn’t stay up all night working on it, it wasn’t effortless but it wasn’t burdened with effort. Don’t diminish your skills that come easily; they are your silent superpowers.
Danielle LaPorte asks us “Ever feel suspicious when something is all flown and easy and just comes together? Same. We should probably get over that.”
Easy can be as valuable as hard, if you acknowledge it.
The cut-outs by Henri Matisse are some of his most colourful and playful work, made simply with paper and scissors. He even created some art from bed as his health deteriorated. It’s inspiring that he continued to make art into his 80’s and right up to the very end and was still doing it with such passion and commitment.
“During the last decade of his life Henri Matisse deployed two simple materials—white paper and gouache—to create works of wide-ranging color and complexity. An unorthodox implement, a pair of scissors, was the tool Matisse used to transform paint and paper into a world of plants, animals, figures, and shapes… He described the process of making them as both “cutting directly into color” and “drawing with scissors.” – MoMA explaining Matisse’s process
In Matisse A Cut Above the Rest as part of BBC The Culture Show 2014, his work was referred to as “Simple, almost childish, blazing with colour,” and “He had the audacity of simplicity.”
The simplest of ideas is usually the best. We tend to over-complicate, wanting things to be more complex in order to be ‘good’. Danielle Krysa in Collage, reminds us “You don’t need any fancy equipment or a workshop full of tools – every household has a pair of scissors and some glue or adhesive tape. In the book she interviewed Anthony Zinonos, who spoke of a special relationship with his tools: “My scissors and glue have become my best friends, they never judge me.”
Spending time moving paper around with no final outcome in mind can be very meditative. It creates an intuitive, loose method working as nothing has to be fixed in place until you’ve settled on a final look. Even then you can take a photo of the arrangement and not commit to sticking it permanently which is perfect if you change your mind a lot!
Considering starting a creative project? “That sounds great,” you think. But time passes and nothing happens. You’ve been wondering about it though. Is it worth spending your time and energy on this thing that seemed small and easy at first, but now seems much bigger?
Advice? DO IT. Take action and THEN have a think.
Wondering if you’ll like it won’t give you the whole picture because you only know what you know (i.e if you haven’t tried, how can you really know?). And what if this little project is the beginning of something magic? Compare that to taking action and finding out exactly how you feel. That’s a lot more data to work with and more accurate than looking into your imaginary crystal ball.
“Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.) Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)Lose control. Don’t think. Don’t get logical. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)” [emphasis added]
Advice not just relevant for writers, but for any art-makers.
How to start? Jump in for 2 minutes: set a timer and start making. But only for 2 minutes so your ego doesn’t talk you out of it. Commit to repeating this daily for a week. Then see if you can do 2 weeks. Maybe you’ll start to feel 2 minutes isn’t long enough, maybe you get on a roll and surprise yourself. You’ll most likely feel different doing it on day 1 compared to day 7, gaining a dash of confidence along the way. If you can get over the scary hump of “I’m rubbish at this, what’s the point?” then magic is waiting for you (hint: the answer is to regularly show up in those 2 minutes).
If you feel terrified at the thought of making art, this is a perfect exercise for you to feel more in control. Danny Gregory in Art Before Breakfast says “Creativity is the act of shaping the mush of the world around us into something – of creating your own order.” You make your own rules. You don’t have to commit to any arrangement so no decision is made in stone. It’s about playing around and seeing what turns up. And because you’re rearranging shapes, you don’t need any creative skills to get started. You can dive right in.
You will need: paper in different colours, photographs, images and text from magazines, books or any paper source. Scissors or scalpel knife. Optional glue or sticky tape and a tray to put things on or work from.
Cut out shapes. Squares, triangles and circles are the easiest to start with.
Cut out images. Don’t overthink it, cut it out and add it to the pile.
From your pile of cut out elements, pick some and start arranging on a piece of paper. Play around with different combinations without thinking of a final look.
If you like a combination, take a photo or fix it in place with glue or tape.
Feeling overwhelmed with choice?
Pick one colour and only elements that match it
Only use coloured paper and shapes
Only use two colours or two shapes
Set a timer for 2 minutes to force quicker decision making so once the time is up, the work becomes finished by default
Have a jar/box/folder/somewhere to keep all the things you cut out in one place so you can revisit them quickly for future collages. It becomes your material for another day. Danielle Krysa in Collage says “Generally the actual making of a collage is a quick process – the groundwork of searching and collecting materials having already been put in place.” She encourages us to get collaging considering that “Collage is cheap and accessible to everyone.”
The more you make, the more you learn what you like and don’t like. Practice brings more decisiveness about knowing when your collage is finished.
“So how do you create with no map of where you are going?… Creating in this kind of ambiguous territory can present some definitive challenges, but opening yourself up to the unknown can also be invigorating and deeply revealing… It’s such a naturally human tendency to want to plan and plot. However, the more you flex your brave intuitive muscles, the easier letting go becomes.” – Flora Bowley, Creative Revolution.
Sometimes when getting creative, we get caught up in judging our art before we’ve even finished making it. Focused on wanting to make something ‘good,’ we limit our potential by having such a low tolerance for ‘mistakes’. There is so much potential in making strange and weird marks, allowing for spontaneity and happy accidents, that making bad art is a way to get better a making good art. Sam Anderson suggests blind drawing is “the fastest way to break them out of old bad habits, to make them unlearn lifeless conventions.” As well as being “Joyful and meditative…you can do it anywhere, anytime, with any subject. It will flip you, like a switch, from absence to presence.” It’s a kind of active meditation where you let go of the outcome and get very still while drawing.
You will need: paper and a pencil or pen. Optional board or book to fix the paper to, if you find the paper keeps slipping.
Fix your gaze on your chosen subject and without looking at your paper, slowly draw what you see
Take your time to finish your drawing without looking at your paper
Kimon Nicolaides reminds us that “a contour study is not a thing that can be ‘finished.’ It is having a particular type of experience, which can continue as long as you have the patience to look.”
A couple of variations you can try:
close your eyes and draw from your imagination
set a timer and draw until it goes off
Place the paper within your peripheral vision so that it’s still fuzzy but you can see where your pen is in relation to the paper. This creates a sort of 1/2 blind drawing, allowing more control
Use your non-dominant hand to draw and either choose to look at what you’re drawing, or not. Be prepared for some fun mark making!
Your first attempt is likely to make you laugh because it will be so strange and bad but that’s exactly the point. Art should be about having fun and letting go. Blind drawing is a wonderful exercise in letting go, embracing bad art and getting clumsy like Piasso. But with practice comes improvement, more speed and confident according to Felix Scheinberger. “As strange as it may seem, blind contour drawing will teach you to observe more closely and to draw more confidently.”
“Lately I’ve been experimenting a lot with “un-perfecting” as a way to loosen up, embrace the grit, and explore new kinds of energy in my paintings. While a highly refined painting can certainly be lovely, I find raw, messy, human expression and experience to be incredibly compelling – and refreshing… One way to achieve this kind of less controlled look is to explore using your nondominant hand.” – Flora Bowley, Creative Revolution.