How to Generate Painting Ideas

Display of items to generate painting ideas

The Spruce / Lisa Marder

An idea is a thought or plan about what to do. Where do ideas for painting come from? Although at times it may seem mysterious—flashes of inspiration that come like a divine intervention—the truth is that sources for ideas exist everywhere. It is up to the artist, though, to not only be open and receptive to ideas but also to actively pursue them.

Get to Work

To that end, the number one way to generate painting ideas is to paint. Picasso said, "Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working." While ideas can certainly come to you when you're not working, and in fact, often come when your mind is seemingly "at rest," you are nurturing these ideas when you are working, allowing them to gestate and come forth at some unpredictable time. 

Practice and Paint Daily

Everything takes practice, and, as the saying goes, the more you practice the better you get. Not only that, but the more you do, the more easily the ideas flow. So make sure to draw or paint every day. Even if you can't spend eight hours a day in the studio, carve out some time each day to fuel your creative juices. 

Mix It up and Try Different Things

We love this quote from Picasso: "God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat. He has no real style, He just goes on trying other things.” As an artist it is good to be open to everything, trying new media, new techniques, different styles, different color palettes, different painting surfaces, etc. It will help you make connections and expand your creative repertoire.

Rest Your Mind but Don't Be Afraid to Write Notes

Oftentimes it is when our mind is in neutral that ideas come to us. You may find yourself getting many good ideas on walks, but unless you have something to record these ideas on—a smartphone recorder, or notepad—they often slip away by the time you get home and get caught up in the flurry of daily life. Try a slow walk, too, so that you're noticing things you wouldn't normally see along the way. And who doesn't get good ideas in the shower? Try a mountable waterproof pad to make sure those great ideas don't go down the drain.

Carry a Camera and Take Many Pictures

Cameras are now relatively inexpensive and digital technology means that you can take many pictures without wasting anything more than a little space on a digital chip that can easily be deleted. With smartphone technology, you don't even need an extra camera, so take pictures of anything and everything that catches your eye—people, light, the elements of art and design (line, shape, color, value, form, texture, space), the principles of art and design. See what you end up with. Are there common themes?

Keep a Sketchbook or Visual Journal

In addition to having a camera, or in case you don't, make sure to carry a little viewfinder (an old slide holder) and a pen or pencil to take notes and do some quick sketches of scenes or images that inspire you. Keep a sketchbook or visual journal to record your impressions and observations. 

Keep a Journal and Write Anything

One type of creativity informs another. If you feel like you're stuck visually, try getting your thoughts down in words—whether in prose or poetry. You might find that writing down your thoughts can unlock the painting process.

Painting and writing go hand-in-hand. One informs the other. In Natalie Goldberg's inspiring book, Living Color: Painting, Writing, and the Bones of Seeing, she says, "Writing, painting, and drawing are linked. Don't let anyone split them apart, leading you to believe you are capable of expression in only one form. The mind is much more whole and vast than that." (p. 11).

Experience Other Visual Arts

Look at other artists' work. Go to the theatre, dance or musical performances, museums, and galleries. Read a novel. The seeds of creativity are the same no matter the area of specialty, and you may find a concept, image, phrase, or lyric that sparks your own creativity. 

Be Informed, Read Newspapers and Magazines

Keep up with current events and what is important to you. Collect images from newspapers and magazines that affect you. Keep them in your journal, or in a notebook in plastic pages. 

Look at Your Old Artwork and Sketchbooks

Spread out your old work and sketchbooks on the floor. Spend some time looking at them. You may have forgotten previous ideas and may be inspired to pursue some of these again. 

Keep Lists

These seem obvious but bears reminding, in fact, because it's so obvious. Keep lists and post them in your studio where you can see them. List emotions, abstract concepts, themes, organizations that you support, issues that are important to you. How do they relate to one another? 

Take Classes in Art and Other Subjects

Take art classes of course, but take other classes that interest you, too. The wonderful thing about art is that it embraces all subjects, and it can be inspired by anything! 

Look at Children's Artwork

Children's artwork is very innocent, straightforward, and authentic. Young children's art beyond the scribbling stage uses symbols, representing things in the real world to tell stories, which are an important part of any message. 


Travel as much as you can. It doesn't have to be far, but getting out of your immediate environment is always good. You see new things when you travel, and when you return you tend to see the familiar with new eyes and from a new perspective. 

Work on Several Paintings Simultaneously

Have several paintings underway at the same time so you always have something to work on when you reach a dead-end on a particular piece.

Clean Your Studio/Declutter

Make sure your workspace is conducive to working. Cleaning up and throwing away junk and clutter can actually make room for ideas to emerge and come forth. 

Make a Collage From Magazine Photos or Your Own

Clip anything and everything from a magazine that speaks to you and make collages from the images and/or words with no predetermined outcome in mind. Let the images guide you. Let your soul speak through the collages. Do the same thing for photographs you've taken. Rearrange them and make them into collages. These can be revealing ways to uncover what is important to you.

Divide Your Time Between Painting and Business

Work in blocks of time, that is, compartmentalize your time and plan to do your creative activity when, in fact, you are most creative. While for some of us it is first thing in the morning, for others it is late at night. While many of us multitask, it can be useful to devote exclusive time to being creative—working in the right-brain mode—and exclusive time to doing our marketing and business work—working in the left-brain mode. This gives our right-brain mode a chance to rest and re-charge. In other words, paint without worrying about selling your painting, but rather for the pleasure in its creation. 


If you're not worrying about your next show and selling your art, then you will feel freer to play. This will help you access the authentic quality that all children's art has. Play with your medium and let it guide you rather than the other way around. Be open to where it leads you, and to the happy accidents that occur.

Get Together With Other Artists

Make sure to get together with other artists and creative people. They will help inspire you and fuel your creativity. Invite someone to paint together, get together with artists for a group critique of current work, start a book group about artists and creativity, take classes, teach classes, join online art communities.

Paint in Series

Once you decide on an idea, stick with it for a while and explore it deeply, working on a series of related paintings.

Simplify and Work Within Limits

Work within limits. Simplify your palette, your tools, your medium, your subject. This will force you to be more creative and not rely on the same old ways of doing something. Work under a time constraint—do ten paintings of the same subject in an hour, or three of the same landscape in an hour and a half, for example. 

If you're still struggling with ideas, go back to the first suggestion and get to work. Just get started and paint.