What Sparks An Artist’s Ideas?

Have you ever wondered what sparks an artist’s work? How they’re motivated or inspired? Where ideas come from? There are as many answers to those questions as there are artists.

Painters, writers, sculptors, musicians. All view the world differently than most. They notice the minutest details in a scene, hear the faintest of sounds, latch onto the oddest ideas and don’t let them go until they experience a sense of fulfillment. Some feel gooseflesh rise on their skin, or feel a warm, tingling sensation when something special is happening. With these senses always on alert, inspiration can arise anywhere, anytime. As a painter, when I feel a pleasant surge of energy—like stardust sparkling in my abdomen—I know I need to get to the easel A.S.A.P.

Ideas come while eavesdropping on a conversation, driving a car, washing dishes, pulling weeds in the garden, walking in the woods, being lulled by music, or listening as raindrops fall on a metal roof. I can be watching television, viewing a highway billboard, reading a book, staring at a forest through frosted windows. Suddenly a complete composition or a beautifully worded phrase comes to me… and I’m off.

“Ideas come while eavesdropping on a conversation, driving a car, washing dishes, pulling weeds in the garden, walking in the woods…”

Wendie Donabie

Other ideas arrive at inopportune moments, yet it’s important to capture those sparks before they fizzle out. Like awakening from a powerful dream and trying so hard to remember all the details, inspiration can be just as ephemeral. Sometimes ideas thunder in like stampeding cattle; we must grab them quickly before they vanish into the dust. For a fraction of a second they appear as clear as crystal; the next moment they’re kaput.

As a visual artist, I carry my camera with me often, though not always. Cell phones come in handy to capture images for future paintings. For writers, a note pad or a phone app can work to jot down ideas, a phrase, or piece of dialogue. A notebook and pen waiting by my bed ensures I can record a fleeting picture, or a feeling from a dream.

Every artist experiences dry periods. What does an artist do then? Often, it’s as simple as doodling with no destination in mind. Suddenly a stroke of the pencil leads to another mark and another, until an image begins to emerge, and the artist’s senses awaken. Writers can break through with a word prompt, or simply by freewriting: following a stream of consciousness until the brain makes new connections and a story takes shape.

One of my favourite paintings began by simply playing with ideas. I wanted to work with transparent acrylic glazes on a canvas to learn what effects I could achieve. As I began applying the paint, an idea I’d been pondering surfaced. Could I inscribe the shape of the double-helix, twisted ladder of the DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule in the paint to illustrate the shared origins of life on our planet? I felt a quickening and, without hesitation, used my brush handles and pallet knives to mark the painting with floating images of DNA. The result appeared like a scene below the ocean’s surface.

I liked what was there; however, it didn’t feel complete, and I had no idea what to do next. More than a year later, while listening to John Denver singing I Want to Live, I knew how to finish it. When I heard the lyrics, “Have you heard the song the humpback hears five hundred miles away? Telling tales of ancient history of passages and home?”, the image of a mother Humpback Whale and her calf came as a flash of inspiration.

“Once it was finished, a friend suggested the title, GENESIS, which means creation.”

Wendie Donabie

Once it was finished, a friend suggested the title, GENESIS, which means creation. This fit perfectly with the DNA molecule, the basis of all earthly existence, and the ocean from which life first emerged. The image of the whales reminds us of our connection to all living creatures and the need to protect those endangered species who share this world with us.

While ideas can provide a jumping off point for a project, I feel an idea without the gut reaction of inspiration only produces mechanical work. It may look or sound good, but a viewer, reader or listener will sense something is missing. The passion resulting from that fiery spark can make all the difference between beautifully composed, technically correct artwork, and one filled with the heart and soul of the artist.

To me an artist’s calling is to respond to those inklings of inspiration, to do more than simply scrape the surface of our creative spirits, but to delve into the depths of our beings to share what is unseen, unheard, unknown to the rest of the world. It only requires tuning in and responding to those creative nudges and urges.

That’s what sparks an artist’s work.

About the Author: Muskoka writer and visual artist Wendie Donabie paints pictures with words and flavours her creations  with alliteration, similes and metaphors. When words won’t do the job, she turns to her easel and paints what stirs her heart and soul – most often her love of the natural world. Wendie has published work in magazines and in poetry and literary collections. At this time, she is working on a murder mystery set in a forested resort area somewhere in North America. Wendie is co-founder of Muskoka Authors Association, operates Heron’s Nest Studio Gallery and is one of the organizers of  ARTrail Muskoka. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram and www.WendieDonabie.com.

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