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.

Tayarisha Poe: You’ve got to be dumb and stubborn to get good

“A whole world of thinkers and creators would have died before they began if they had listened to the people telling them what not to do.”

There’s a certain level of naivety that must be in-place for creativity to occur.

When we get too comfortable with the way things are – or when we heed the guidance given to us by those who are, themselves, overly comfortable with the way things are or have always been – we close ourselves off from the doors of original thought.

If we listen to what we’re always told, we greatly hinder our ability to explore what’s possible.

It’s only by embracing naivety and finding our own way that we can open ourselves to creative thought.

Such is the case for writer, photographer, and videographer, Tayarisha Poe.

In her youth, Tayarisha had a sudden realization, that she could create what she loved most: books.

Once I figured out that all the books I loved as a kid were written by someone else, I realized I could be someone writing books too.

So she started writing. Nobody came out and told her that 13 year-olds can’t write books. So she wrote.

Then, in high school and college, Tayarisha began experimenting with other means of telling stories: through photography and video. Only this time she faced those who told her what to do and how to do it.

The professors and counselors told her she couldn’t be a photographer, and a writer, and a videographer. Instead, they told her, you have to pick one and become an expert at it.

“In college, at first, I kept being told that I had to choose between writing, filmmaking, and photography,”Tayarisha tells me, “I ignored that.”

“I can’t think of one without the other, they’re so intertwined. Of course, that isn’t to say that I don’t write stories that are only meant to be read or take photos that are only meant to stand alone. But when I’m starting a larger project, I tend to think of it as all three of these mediums coming together to tell a story.”

The result, it seems, is more vivid stories, more powerful photographs, and the combination of the two to create captivating video.


“It was in college when I realized that people usually tell you that you can’t do something because they’ve never thought to do that thing, or because when they tried it, it didn’t work. Who is to say that you won’t be the one to make it work?

Tayarisha has been diligent to work across all three mediums – the written word, photography, and videography – and her luck seems to have paid off. Her latest project, Selah and the Spades is a beautiful story in the making, paired with humanistic photography and vivid details like those you would see in a film.


It all stands to remind us that it’s not enough to do what others tell you to do (or not to do) or what works and what won’t.

To be creative is to find your own path. Listen to the advice, of course, but in the end you must find your own path to truly be creative.

You’ve got to be really dumb and stubborn in order to get good at something.

Browse Tayarisha’s portfolio, or explore her latest project: Selah and the spades.

This article is part of the Creative Something Footsteps series, exploring the stories of creatives from around the world to share insights and wisdom. Submit your story here.

Read this next: The power of naive questions

Enter your work into the official 2014 Adobe Youth Voices Awards


If you’re an artist, musician, photographer, designer, or otherwise creative person between the ages of 13 and 19, this is for you.

For the third year in a row, Adobe is running the Youth Voices Awards. They want you to enter a digital piece of art that drives social change in your community, whatever that means to you.

This is your chance to not only win some really sweet prizes from a global creative powerhouse like Adobe, you’ll also have the ability to get your artwork seen by the entire world.

20 entries will be selected in seven different categories to be featured on the Adobe website, where a panel of international professionals will then pick three winners to take home a ton of great prizes. Including software from Adobe, hardware, and the ability to say “I won first prize on an official Adobe contest!”.

This is pretty damn neat. I don’t typically post things like this, but when Adobe reached out to me to help spread the word, I couldn’t say no.

Past entries have been pretty inspiring. The cause is great, and if you participate you’ll be getting your work in front of the entire world (even if you don’t win).

Head over to the Adobe Youth Voices Awards website to get all of the really important details, learn how to submit your artwork, and see past entries. Deadline is April 18th to get something submitted, so get over there now.

Then be sure to like, reblog, tweet, and share this post so your friends and fellow artists can have a chance at entering too. The more artists we get involved, the more of an inspirational powerhouse this contest becomes for all of us.

What if you started with ‘what if?’


What if you wrote daily about your struggle to become a professional artist? Then published those entries as a small ebook on Amazon for $5?

Or what if you recorded a short video explaining your struggles as a budding writer? You could syndicate it to writer communities and invite them to your blog or website to follow your journey.

What if you offered to do a lecture at a nearby University on the topic of working a full-time day job while compiling avant-garde poetry into a small book at night? Then invite students to read the book for themselves and tell their friends about it.

What if, instead of complaining that you don’t have the right tools or connections to do what it is that you want to do, you took those feelings and those constraints and made something completely different? Something fast, tangible, that you could benefit from making right now?

The worst case of following-through with such “what if” scenarios is that you end up with something you can sell for money to fuel your dream, or something to giveaway and start making more of a name for yourself. The result could lead to gaining a following that might, if you’re smart, pay you to follow your dream later on.

The best case is you learn something in the process of making or doing that other thing; you find some hidden inspiration or motivation and get back onto the path of doing what you wanted to do in the first place.

But you can’t simply ask “What if?” all the time. You have to follow through, or at least try to.

You’ll find, I think, that most of the time it doesn’t matter what types of “What if” questions you’re asking. All that matters is that you are asking them as you go, and that you’re following through with answers. This natural curiosity and experimentation often leads to creative insights. You benefit.

Start with ”what if.“