Charles Griffith asked:
The artist’s inspiration has been the object of wonder and misconception ever since early Man created the first painted images on the walls of his caves thousands of years ago. In truth, there is nothing mystical about creative thought; the average person uses it in his daily life to solve everyday problems, just as the engineer, scientist and architect employ it in their professions. And to expand the mind’s ability to conjure new ideas can be accomplished by simply learning to break free of restrictive ways of thinking, and by exposure to new and stimulating experiences.
Everyone falls into a mental rut sometimes, where habit takes over. But habit is the enemy of creative thinking! You have to open your mind to new ways of experiencing and perceiving in order to gain fresh ideas. There are many established ways to improve your ability to think creativity. To begin with, you should always strive to avoid time-worn cliches; for the visual artist, this could mean taking a common subject, such as a still-life, and injecting some new element into it that normally wouldn’t be associated with that subject. Consider my painting “Voodoo”, found on my website. Instead of the usual flowers and vase, I have used an African ceremonial mask and a human skull, adding a darker twist to the traditional still-life genre.
Many innovative ideas originate in the subconscious mind. Therefore dreams have often been the source of new ideas for the artist, and for Surrealists such as Salvador Dali they were usually the main source of inspiration. Sometimes the mind can be stimulated simply by drawing or painting in a different location than usual. I often find walking or pacing helps me to think and sort out any confusion in my mind. Trying your hand at other fields of artistic expression, such as writing or music, can give you new perspectives. Literature and film can also be rich sources of ideas. I found that studying poetry helped me to draw more upon the subconscious, and to gain a greater appreciation of the principles that are common to all art forms.
One of the greatest obstacles to creativity is conformity. Don’t allow yourself to be restricted by what is socially or culturally acceptable; society encourages uniformity of thought and attitude–this is the death of creative thought! Follow your own instincts, believe in your own view and perceptions; don’t be afraid to be provocative if that is what your concept demands. Look at my works “The Lady Of Ill Repute” and “The Years”–certainly not everyone’s idea of beauty. But beauty can be found in the truth expressed in these women’s faces and in their lives, like the beauty found in the ruins of a forgotten temple. In these women one sees the scars of past experience and the price that time exacts from the human soul. In short, they tell a good story, something art should always strive to do.
It is a great mistake to think that every idea that you arrive at should be a good one. The creative process is by nature somewhat chaotic–this naturally means that some of your ideas, perhaps most of them, are simply bad. This is fine! Even a bad idea can be of value, as it may lead you to make an unconscious connection that eventually matures into something useful. In fact, sometimes deliberately coming up with a bad concept can open the mind to something better. It’s all a matter of making unconscious associations.
I have come to believe that there is no truly original idea. Everyone builds upon the work of others. Consider Van Gogh’s style: his use of color comes from the Impressionists; the hard outlines and flat forms from Japanese woodcuts; his everyday subject matter from earlier artists like Millet. Perhaps his fluid brushwork is his only personal contribution to his distinctive style. But by blending these different elements he came up with something totally unique and personal. This is an example of combining influences. And there are other approaches, such as modifying, maximizing, minimizing, substituting, rearranging, reversing, exaggerating and separating.
Inspiration is always an uncertain commodity; some people will always have the advantage over the rest of us when it comes to innovative thinking. But everyone can expand their capacity for creative thought by ridding themselves of old ways of thinking, and by exposure to new experiences. However, it isn’t always necessary to be clever; the most important consideration for the artist is to have something to say, and to say it well. I hope that the methods discussed here will help you to do just that.