Why we so often look to art for creative inspiration

Whenever I talk about inspiration, often art is one of the first subjects that comes to mind. From the enormous scale of work in the sistine chapel or the minute details in the gaze of Mona Lisa, to the impromptu yet calculated works of Banksy or the curious splatters created by Jackson Pollock, art has inspired and caused many aheads to wonder.

Art naturally causes something to stir up in the mind; be it curiosity, awe, frustration, or boredom. We can be surprised by artwork and the insights it unveils in our own minds, or question the artist’s intent and their ability to create worthwhile work.

What exactly is it about art that causes us to think creatively or feel inspired? Why is art capable of causing a change in perspective; of what it means to work or create or, in some cases, live?

On the one hand the artist’s lifestyle represents so much of what we lack in regard to daily life: the freedom from rules and rigid constraints. Art is wild and imaginative, seemingly crafted from a place only art can come from. The ability to create something from nothing, often for the sole purpose of having done so. The artist is romanticized to this point: alone in their studio, fighting against the normalcy of routine or the 9 to 5 job.

Photo by  Ståle Grut .

Photo by Ståle Grut.

The artist is free to pursue their ideas and dreams while the rest of the world struggles to fulfill the conquest of someone else—the higher ups or “the man.” Ask a child if they have interest in becoming an artist and they’ll excitedly reply yes. Ask an adult the same question and they’ll likely respond: “if only there weren’t bills to pay.”

Beyond the romanticized lifestyle of the artist, the artwork itself comes from a place distant from reality.

We often turn to art for creative inspiration because it represents pure ideas and histories, born of little else but supplies and the artist’s mind or memory. Artwork can feel limitless, “anything can be art,” we tell ourselves.

The reality is of course that art stems from constraints, boundaries, and rules just as anything else does. But I think what art does well is it shows us a perspective of things we may not be used to or which we do not have easy access to.

Art signals expression in a pure form, free from an explicit purpose or expectation. The best art is the work that makes us think or debate its value. It pulls our minds into a different point in time, a different location, or story, or existence.

Perhaps that’s what makes art so unique and valuable when it comes to creative inspiration: art gives us a picture we can walk into at any time to see things differently. It presents us with an alternate or modified reality we can freely explore and wander about entirely in our own minds, before walking out of again into our regular lives. Like a waking dream we can enter at any moment.

Good art tells stories, the catch is the stories take place entirely in our own minds. The artwork—the painting, sculpture, song, or writing—serves as a means for us to escape into a different mentality. Artwork allows us to temporarily shift our perspective.

As a creative maker or artist our job is not simply to create: it’s to captivate and share part of a vantage or perspective—even if imaginary—with those who might come across our work later on. Rebecca Solnit elegantly summarizes this point in her book The Faraway Nearby where she writes:

“To become a maker is to make the world for others, not only the material world but the world of ideas that rules over the material world, the dreams we dream and inhabit together.”

We turn to art for inspiration because it allows us to travel somewhere else, to jolt our perspective into something we may have not seen before, for the benefit of comparing that experience to something else.

It’s not only paintings or sculpted statues which enable us to be transported to a different time or place. Solnit explains that each object of creation has the same potential:

“Every book is a door that opens onto another world...The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates.”

Artwork is often one of the easiest tools to use for changing our perspective, entering a different time or place, and fueling our imaginations. Often the impact art has on us is small, a seed, but once exposed to it the germ spreads and grows into something only each individual’s mind is capable of creating.

Destroy your work in order to fully explore it

I don’t write to preserve my thoughts or ideas. I write so I can destroy the ideas I produce in their entirety and see what happens as a result.

Artist Oliver Jeffers chooses to “destroy” his beautiful paintings by dipping them in paint in an effort to purposefully hide parts of the artwork beneath a solid layer of color. The result of the destruction is always a secret preserved in vibrant elegance. It’s a result only possible by destruction of the original piece.

“I was fascinated by this idea of hidden variables,” Oliver said in an interview with The Guardian. “When scientists and mathematicians take into account forces at work that they have no idea about… I became really fascinated by that – so I started making art then hiding it in some ways, to push this idea that if people couldn’t see it, was it still a piece of art?”

The dipped part of Oliver’s paintings is permanently covered. Only Oliver and a small handful of people, invited to witness the dipping, ever see what lies beneath the solid barrier.

“The act itself is simple,” writes Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “Jeffers paints a portrait of someone who has suffered loss, then in a small, secret ceremony, half submerged the picture in a vat of enamel paint so most of it is concealed forever. No photographs or records of the portrait are taken; the only people who ever see it in its entirety as the small audience invited to the ceremony. After it is dipped, it exists only in their memories.”

Steve Jobs believed in the power of destruction. In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson wrote: “One of Jobs’s business rules was to never be afraid of cannibalizing yourself. ‘If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will,’ he said. So even though an iPhone might cannibalize the sales of an iPod, or an iPad might cannibalize the sales of a laptop, that did not deter him.”

Perhaps we should reserve our frustrations, our fears, around creativity not for the part that involves first taking action. Why destroy an idea that doesn’t yet exist?

Nobody crumbles up a blank sheet of paper, Seth Godin once wrote.

Instead, we should preserve most of our ability to destroy for what comes after we first act or create. We should preserve our energies for the self-editing, the ability to see what you’ve done and tear it apart willingly.

Focus on first acting—getting the ideas into the page or put into the world—then purposefully taking it apart, ruining it, or otherwise destroying it, just to see what happens as a result.

Of course, if the idea of destroying your own work, your own ideas, seems frightening, consider that every act of creation is first an act of destruction. Writing destroys the blank canvas. Invention destroys the status quo.

To really create we must destroy, sometimes that means even destroying what we’ve already created.

Creativity is not art


It seems as though any time you talk about creativity with somone who doesn’t consider themselves to be very creative, the conversation typically revolves around art.

Drawing, writing, sculpture, photography, music, dance, you name it. But art isn’t creativity, and the reverse is also true.

Actually, creativity is the mental capacity to generate novel and useful ideas, more or less. It isn’t about art or design, writing or music. Creativity is, at its core, about ideas and how we develop, understand, and communicate them. Not just in terms of the arts, but in every realm of thinking and work.

Of course, some art requires creative thinking, the ability to see what nobody else can see, to create what nobody else has created. But art itself is not creativity incarnate.

Why do people tend to talk about the two as though they were inexplicably connected then?

I believe we often talk about art whenever the topic of creativity comes up because it’s easier to believe that everything outside of the world of art has concrete rules which we cannot break. Whereas art, with its freedom to interpretation, only has loose rules which are broken often and freely in order to create higher caliber—or questionable—art.

Mathematics, nutrition, and physics, are a lot more restrictive in how we interpret and work with them. There isn’t a lot of room for rule-breaking in the realm of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

But, of course, that isn’t true either. Most problems are not like math problems. Still, there are plenty of opportunities in the world of STEM to think creatively. Elon Musk and his company SpaceX are pushing the known boundaries of engineering by creating rockets that can go into space and then come back to Earth and land, upright, on a autonomous drone in the middle of the ocean. In mathematics creative strides have been made throughout history: calculus, binary logic, and matrix algebra, to name a few creative breakthroughs.

Not only that, but math has been used as a fundamental creative device for propelling innovation forward over the last century.

If we look at creativity as being about expression, or about solely existing in the freeform world of art, we diminish its power. Unsurprisingly, by doing so we also give ourselves an excuse: I could never be creative, we tell ourselves, because I only work around logic, reasoning, and science.

The reality is creativity exists in many different forms across many different areas of work, thinking, and problem-solving.

It’s worth repeating: creativity is about ideas and how we develop, understand, and communicate them. Not just in terms of the arts, but in every realm of thinking and work.

If you think you’re creative or not, you’re right. Even if you aren’t an artist, or a scientist.

Creativity from the ugly foundation

The process behind creating something beautiful is often ugly itself.

As a creative worker, you can’t let that notion prevent you from working on the things that matter, though it will sometimes make it hard to do so.

Imagine an amateur artist sitting in her studio, as an example. She arranges her easel and brushes and starts out on an endeavor to turn the images in her mind into a tangible work of art.

After two or three hours of work, the canvas is a wreck. There are odd shapes scattered across the white background. Ugly colors blend and drip and droop all over the place. Lines aren’t where they were supposed to be.

Two or three more hours of work and the canvas doesn’t look any better, in-fact, it appears to be in arguably worse shape.

At this point, the artist has two decisions to make. With each decision, the first option is always rational, the second more irrational but worthwhile.

First decision: to scrap the painting or not. To throw away what’s been made and simply start over with a fresh set of brushes and a spotlessly clean canvas. Or to keep painting, repeatedly, over the marks that currently sit on the canvas, using them as a guiding foundation for what strokes to paint next.

The second decision the artist has to make is whether to scrap the idea itself or not. If the canvas isn’t turning out how it was envisioned to be in the first place, maybe it’s a poor idea after-all, right? Or keep playing with the idea, seeing if there’s a way to make it work.

Whether you’re an artist or not, you have to make these same decisions any time you start a new project. You’ve made these decisions one way or the other many times in your career already (whether you’re a student, amateur, or expert). Can you think of a time when you did?

Throw away the work and start over. Or keep the work and build from it, improve it and see what it can become.

Throw away the idea and wait for a new one. Or keep playing with this one, discover what it was meant to be all-along.

To get the most value from our ideas and our work as creatives, I’d argue that the later decision is always the best one. Without building from what you’ve got in front of you now (and without holding onto an idea until you can at least see its true potential), you’ll never know what you’re fully capable of.

If you look at any creative work near the beginning, it’s ugly. But come back to the work when it’s truly complete (or, at least, closer to being complete), and you’ll see something worthwhile.

In a 1974 interview, Ray Bradbury articulates the importance of building on the founding, ugly work in order to build something worthwhile. He did so by pointing to the artistic process of famed painter Henri Matisse. Bradbury shared in the interview:

“Matisse does a drawing, then he recopies it. He recopies it five times, ten times, each time with cleaner lines. He is persuaded that the last one, the most spare, is the best, the purest, the definitive one; and yet, usually it’s the first. When it comes to drawing, nothing is better than the first sketch.”

In 2010, MoMA curators set out to uncover Matisse’s process by taking an x-ray scanner to one of his most prominent works: ‘Bathers by a River’.

What the curators discovered was line after line of work that Matisse had drawn, painted, then covered up with other lines or paint. To Matisse, the original work was ugly enough to be covered but important enough to be used as a foundation (both literally and figuratively) for the final product.

For Matisse, this process took eight years, from 1909 to 1917.


If you had looked at that first work in 1909 you would have wondered why Matisse even bothered to paint it. Compared to the 1917 work, though, you can see clearly the importance of those first, ugly strokes.

When you first set out to work on a project, know that the process will be ugly at first. You may not like what you see, or hear, or feel.

But take the time to build from the first iteration, to tinker and explore what’s possible with the idea itself, and you’ll find that you not only grow as a creative, but that the work itself grows.

The work grows into exactly what it needs to be.


A note on creating something imperfect

Your decisiveness and ability to create

Picasso on Intuition, How Creativity Works, and Where Ideas Come From

Illustration work by Troy Wandzel.

Finding inspiration in the tiniest of details

You’re looking for the next thing – the next line to your book or poem, the next clip for your video, the next word for a tweet, the next chord to a song – and nothing is coming to mind.

Creative block feels like a dead end, like there’s nowhere to go from here.

But what if, instead of stopping in our tracks when we reach the block, we focus on the details of what’s in front of us now? Magnify what it is we’re working on to see the details and expose them as the very thing that comes next.

Undoubtedly the best thing about magnification is that it’s nearly infinite.

Nathan Manire looked at the details of our skin, with the tiny dots of pigmentation, and zoomed in on them to create stunning dot portraits.

Then there’s photographer Ian Ruhter who looked at the relatively small size of today’s cameras and ended up turning a truck into a giant, mobile camera for producing large, wet plate photos while traveling.

Ian’s photos focus on the details, because of their large size and the difficulty in both capturing and printing them. The details are what matter to Ian and his team.

Or take artists Andy Miller & Andrew Neyer, who wanted to focus on the details of the tools used to create art rather than the art itself. So they created a great 24 ft mural in a studio and then invited people to color the mural themselves with 5 ft markers.

The result was that zooming in on the markers (and then zooming back out to make the magnified markers life-size) created a fun and inspirational piece of artwork. Watch the video to see how it all came together.

Whatever your work is: if you’re feeling stuck, look at the details. Zoom in and magnify them. Whatever you find there can help you to get unstuck and keep working. Go!