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Inspiration in Visual Art: Where Do Artists Get Their Ideas?

Author: Lucy Lamp

Inspiration: Where Do Artists Get Their Ideas?

Why do people create art? What is the driving force behind creation?  People have been making visual art since the beginnings of human history, for a myriad of compelling and complex reasons. If you visit an art museum you can see how true this is.  It’s overwhelming and impossible to really take it all in.

The process of artmaking begins with the question, “What should I create?” You, as an artist have to ask the same question: what do you want to create? Maybe you don’t know where to begin. Even if you have an idea you would like to explore, it is valuable to expand your horizons by considering some of the ideas that other artists have investigated.

Following is a list of a number of different purposes, motivations, incentives, rationales, intentions—the ideas behind the art. You can add your own.

As part of a ritual, ceremony, or cultural tradition

These objects are created for a specific purpose. They have meaning and significance only within that context. Once that purpose is finished they are no longer needed, and they are ritually destroyed, or discarded. They are created with aesthetic considerations, with a strong emphasis on craftsmanship. However, they are not created in the sense that we consider art today, as something significant in and of itself—an object to be preserved, maintained and experienced on its own.  In the long history of artmaking—many, many thousands of years—most of what we consider art falls within this category.

Yamantaka Mandala
Monks of the Gyuto Tantric University, 1991Colored silicate and adhesive on wood
Dimensions:96 x 96 in. (243.84 x 243.84 cm)Creation Place:Asia, Tibet
Gift of funds from the Gyuto Tantric University

A mandala, or circle, is a representation of the Buddhist universe. These cosmograms represent in symbolic color, line, and geometric forms, all realms of existence and are used in Tantric meditation and initiation rites. The creation of a mandala, considered a consecrated area, is believed to benefit all beings.

"This is the Yamantaka mandala, a cosmic blueprint of the celestial palace of the deity Yamantaka, Conqueror of Death, who is represented at the center by the blue vajra, or thunderbolt. It consists of a series of concentric bands, the outermost representing eight burial grounds with a recognizable landscape and animals symbolizing our earthly plane of existence. Moving inward are a circle of flames, a circle of vajras, and a circle of lotus petals. These bands circumscribe a quadrangle with gates at the four compass points, suggesting the realm of form without desire. The innermost square is divided into triangular quadrants, and an inner circle is subdivided into nine units containing symbols representing various deities. This is the realm of absolute formlessness and perfect bliss. In the four outside corners are the attributes of the five senses (smell, sight, sound, taste, and touch), reminders of the illusory nature of our perceived reality.

All mandalas represent an invitation to enter the Buddha’s awakened mind. Tibetan Buddhists believe there is a seed of enlightenment in each person’s mind; this is uncovered by visualizing and contemplating a mandala. The complex symbols and exquisite combination of primary colors are considered a pure expression of the principles of wisdom and compassion that underlie Tantric Buddhist philosophy.

This mandala was created to honor the 1.2 million Tibetans who have lost their lives to political/religious persecution during this century.

The museum thanks the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota for bringing the Gyuto monks to Minnesota and for their efforts to preserve Tibetan cultural traditions."

Source: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, verbatim from their website,

To express the spiritual in tangible form

·     Indigenous Australian "Dreaming"

Rocks at Lupulunga by Makinti Napanangka  

Synthetic Polymer on Linen, 2000

The Dreaming is a term that refers to the indigenous Australian concept of the "timeless time" of original and perpetual creation of the world. This painting is an example of artwork that represents  the dreaming--an embodiment in physical form of a spiritual concept--creation--which gives meaning to everything in life.



Source: Illustration (p.117) of McCulloch, Alan; Susan McCulloch, Emily McCulloch Childs (2006). The new McCulloch's encyclopedia of Australian art. Fitzroy, VIC: Aus Art Editions in association with The Miegunyah Press. ISBN 052285317X. The caption in full reads

To record history

·   Spanish Resistance to Napoleon's Army, 1808


The Third of May 1808

Francisco Goya

oil on linen, 1814  Dimensions 268 × 347 cm (106 × 137 in)

Museo del Prado, Madrid

This painting commemorates Spanish resistance to Napolean's armies during the occupation of 1808. This painting confronts the viewer in an intimidating way because of its large size and dramatic composition, a powerful remembrance of courage and bravery.

Source: Image courtesy of

To teach something, using visual rather than verbal language

Chartres Cathedral

Northern rose window of Chartres cathedral, stained glass

Chartres, France     Cathedral constructed between 1193 and 1250

At a time when most people were illiterate, images were used to teach and to help people remember religious concepts and history. The rose depicts the Glorification of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by angels, twelve kings of Juda and twelve lesser prophets. B elow the rose, the five lancets represent Saint Anne, surrounded by the kings Melchizedek, David, Solomon and by Aaron, treading on the sinner and idolatrous kings: Nebuchadnezzar, Saul, Jeroboam and Pharaoh.

Source: Photo taken by Eusebius (Guillaume Piolle), 2009. © Guillaume Piolle / public domain

To tell a story—from mythology, literature, religion, poetry, music

The Tale of Genji


Nishikawa Sukenobu
Japan, 18th century
Woodblock Print
Size: 6 7/8 x 10 11/16 in. (17.5 x 27.2 cm) (image, sheet)
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Louis W. Hill

This print is from the Edo period in Japan (18th century). The tale of Genjii is a classical Japanese story. The inscription reads: "Once upon a time, a man met a woman in Kasugani Village in Nara"






As a portrait of someone, which can include physical characteristics, personality, the artists’ interpretation of or relationship to that person

The Mona Lisa

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa or La Gioconda, 1503–1505/1507

Oil on poplar   77 × 53 cm (30.31 × 20.87 in)     Louvre Museum, Paris

Leonardo's Mona Lisa is one of the most well-known--and mysterious--portraits in the world. The portrait is of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy silk merchant. Unlike most portrait paintings of its time, Leonardo omits all personal items-- jewelry, objects such as a book or musical instrument, clothing embellishments, lace or fur, a lap dog--anything that would identify her as a member of the upper class. This adds to the mystery of the painting and much discussion about the true identity of Mona Lisa. The portrait is relatively small, in a gallery room filled with large historical paintings, but her expression commands attention.

Source: Image: Cybershot800i. courtesy of

As a self-portrait—an exploration of the artists’ sense of self

Frida Kahlo


Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907-1954)

Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940

Oil on canvas, 61.25 cm x 47 cm

Nikolas Muray Collection, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

At the age of 22 Frida Kahlo suffered a tragic, near fatal bus accident that severely injured most of  her body and left her in much pain. She spent three months recovering in a body cast and suffered from pain and health problems the rest of her life. While she was bedridden her parents gave her paints and had a special easel made for her so she could paint in bed.

She painted many self-portraits and often incorporated personal experience and symbolism within them. Of her 143 paintings, 55 are self-portraits. She said, "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best."

(Andrea Kettenmann, Frida Kahlo. Frida Kahlo, 1907–1954: pain and passion page 27)

Source: Image courtesy of, originally uploaded from

To reflect the beauty of nature--landscape

Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole (American 1801–1848)

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow

1836(1836)   Oil on canvas       130.8 x 193 cm

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City      Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908

Thomas Cole founded the Hudson River School, an American art movement of the mid 19th century known for realistic and detailed portrayals of the American landscape and wilderness.

As illustration—narrative, medical, biological, botanic, diagram

John James Audubon

john James Audubon (American, 1785-1851)

Golden Eagle, 1833–4

Plate 181 of Birds of America by John James Audubon, watercolor

Audubon spent countless hours observing, preparing, studying and drawing the birds he portrayed, Unlike the stiff paintings of his contemporaries, Audubon's paintings of birds are portrayed in action, in their natural habitat.

Source: Image Source, File:181 Goldon Eagle.jpg

To express the ideal

Classical Greek Figurative Sculpture

The Doryphoros
Polykleitos   120-50 B.C.
Marble, 78 x 19 x 19 in. (198.12 x 48.26 x 48.26 cm

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Polykleitos is considered to be the first to incorporate naturalism in figurative sculpture (unlike the stiffness of earlier Archaic period figures), using mathematical proportions and scale to create the ideal figure, perfectly proportioned. This was a reflection of Greek cultural beliefs and philosophy of the time.

To expose the real

Kathe Kollwitz

Kathe Kollwitz,

Woman with Dead Child

etching, 1903, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Kollwitz--a German painter, printmaker, and sculptor "offered an eloquent and often searing account of the human condition in the first half of the 20th century. Her empathy for the less fortunate, expressed most famously through the graphic means of drawing, etching, lithography, and woodcut, embraced the victims of poverty, hunger, and war." (

Source: Quote and image courtesy of

To provoke others to think about or see something in a new way

Claude Monet

Grainstack, Sun in the Mist
Claude Monet
Oil on linen    1891
  23 5/8 x 39 1/2in. (60 x 100.3cm)33 x 48 3/4 x 3 7/8 in. (83.82 x 123.83 x 9.84 cm) (outer frame)
Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Claude Monet was interested in how we see things, especially how different types of light, atmosphere, and weather affect visual perception.  He explored this concept by painting the same subject—usually very simple-- in varying times of day and types of weather.  He studied grainstacks in different seasons and changes in sunlight. This painting was done in the autumn, at sunrise. The light frames the grainstack with a halo of light. If you look at the painting up close, the subject is not recognizable. All you see are brushstrokes of many colors. But from a distance, the grainstack comes into view clearly.  Monet had a way of creating shimmering, translucent light in his paintings.

To record dreams

Salvador Dali: The Persistence of Memory

  Salvador Dalí
  1931 (1931)
  Oil on canvas
  24 cm × 33 cm (9.5 in × 13 in)
  Museum of Modern Art, New York City

This is one of Salvador Dali's most famous paintings. It is filled with symbols and personal iconography inspired by one of his dreams.  The figure in the middle represents the fading aspect of figures we see in our dreams. The clocks may suggest the strange sense of the passing of time that we experience in our dreams. Dali sometimes used ants (seen on the orange clock) to symbolize death.

Source: Image courtesy of, taken from

To experiment with formal elements

Wassily Kandinsky

Yellow -- Red -- Blue      Kandinsky, Wassily     (Russian, 1866-1944)  

o/c Musee Nationale d'Art Moderne (Centre Pompidou), Paris

Kandinsky is known as the father of pure abstraction--that is, art that does not refer to any subject matter outside of itself--the use of formal elements like color,shape, and line as the subject of the work.  He wrote many books and articles that discuss this philosophy in great detail, assigning  conceptual qualities to specific formal elements.

To experiment with qualities of a particular medium, i.e. paint, metal, wood

Jackson Pollock


Jackson Pollock, No. 5 1948

Oil on fiberboard   2.4 m × 1.2 m (8 ft × 4 ft)       Private collection


Pollock developed a style of painting thst he called "action painting". He defied existing painting practices by working ov very large sized canvas placed on the floor, and used houshold paints rather than traditional painting media.

"My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.

"I continue to get further away from the usual painter's tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass or other foreign matter added.

"When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.

-- Jackson Pollock, My Painting, 1956, as quoted in

Source: Image courtesy of Mareino on

Other Sources of Inspiration

I have shown examples of some sources of inspiration for artists.  There are many more.  Here are some others, with links to examples of each.


There will be exercises that you can do in each learning packet of this series, and in the series on formal elements. You might want to get a sketchbook or journal that you can keep and explore ideas in, as well as working on the exercises. Any size or type will do.  You can choose whatever media you want to work in--pencils, pens, crayons, tempera paints, watercolor--whatever you enjoy working with. You will need some basic colors in the media you choose for many of the exercises. 

How will you come up with your own idea? 

  • What inspires you? Brainstorm and list as many things as you can that you are interested in or inspired by.  You can do this in many ways: a list, mind mapping, scattered words across the page, sketches or whatever way works best for you. Remember that in brainstorming there are no wrong wrong answers. Come up with as many things as you can without judging them.   Do this quickly, before  your mind starts to judge the ideas.  If it helps you can set a timer for 5 minutes and free write---just write without thinking anything that passes through your mind.  it doesn't have to make sense, or stick to a topic. It will be random, scattered, and disjointed; flowing, like your thoughts throughout the day.


  • After brainstorming, think of and list
  1. a memory 
  2. something you believe strongly in or value i.e. spiritual, religious, philosophy, ethic, etc.
  3. a story
  4. a dream (or if you don’t remember your dreams, a daydream)
  5. a hope, goal, or aspiration
  6. something you enjoy


  • Keep all of this in your sketchbook/journal. You will need them for the exercises in this series.