Hello hello! You know those odd days when you want to make something, but you are just stuck for ideas? It’s awfully strange, when you think about it. There are days when you are truly inspired and the art just pours out of your hands. Before realizing it, you might spend the entire day with your sketchbook or a canvas, without ever thinking about exactly how to come up with a drawing idea. Then there are those days when you end up not drawing at all, simply because you’re not really feeling it. And that’s okay.
But the most mysterious day is the day you have that itch to create – you’re just so excited to get going – but then you have no ideas of what to draw! Here are some tips for coming up with a drawing idea on one of those strange, strange days.
Words on Paper AKA Brain Mush
I’m sure you’ve done some form of this exercise at some point before. I’ve seen it called Word Web, Word Association, and simply brainstorming; but I like to call it Brain Mush, because you take everything that’s floating around in your brain and mush it all onto paper. 😀
The idea here is to get out everything that’s floating around in your head. This is where we scrounge around for scraps of ideas: unused and alternative concepts from previous projects, idle little musings that have been swept off to the side, and ideas we’ve always wanted to employ but never had the chance.
Empty your brain out onto the page, jotting down every word that comes to mind. Don’t filter yourself and don’t put too much thought into it. If it helps, put on some music and listen closely. You’d be surprised at how many scenes manifest themselves in your mind’s eye when you are willing to let them in. Sometimes the lyrics of a song give you an idea, literal or metaphoric; while instrumentals can give you a sense of atmosphere and story.
Once you get started writing down words, other words will pop into your head, and you should write those down, too. Let your mind go running off – the more ideas, the better. Before long you’ll have a page full of words and strings of words, and hopefully one will spark an idea for something you can draw.
If you like, you can even take some of these words with you to the following exercises…
Dice Idea Generation Game
I’m a big fan of anything that generates random ideas (as you’ll see in the following tip as well). Dice have always been a favourite object of mine, and it turns out they can be quite useful for art!
There are many different ways to use dice for this exercise. For now, let’s just assume you have one standard six-sided die (or D6) on hand. To start, you’ll want to decide on a list to make. This exercise is incredibly flexible because it can be tailored to your preference. The simplest is to write up a list of six options, presumably based on a theme. Some example themes might be: style, medium, subject, reference, etc. Here are some sample lists based on these themes:
- Cartoon or Comic
- Sketchy & Loose
- Tight & Precise
- Pencil/Coloured Pencil
- Pen & Ink
- Watercolour/Acrylic/Oil Paint
- Other (may be stamping, embossing, etc.)
- Book or Magazine
- Movie (or Movie Poster) or TV Show
- Music (can use cover art)
- Video Game
- Product Packaging
Okay, so there are some lists to get you started. You can roll your die twice to combine lists if you like; for instance, you might roll a one and a five on the first two lists, so you would make a painting with a cartoon or comic style. You might paint a favourite character from a cartoon you watched as a kid (or currently), or maybe a superhero out of a graphic novel. If you’re not feeling it, why not reverse the rolls? Maybe you’d prefer to make a bold coloured pencil drawing instead.
Or let’s say you were using the third and fourth lists and rolled two threes. There are several ways of tackling that challenge: you might look for a CD cover with a picture of a vehicle and draw from that. Or you could listen to the music and imagine what kind of car the artist might drive, or see what images come to mind. Since I listen to a lot of power metal and dance music, I can easily picture a fantasy village with horse-drawn carriages, or a bright, neon-coloured sci-fi car zooming down a dark street.
If you’re a nerd like me and have specialty dice lying around (like a D8, D12, D20… You get the idea), you can make good use of them here, too. Ideally, I think it would be worth using a 20-sided die (or at least a 10-sided die) so that you can make a longer list of items. For longer lists, I would go more into specifics; for example:
- Off-road vehicle (ATV, Snowmobile, etc.)
- Military Vehicle (Tank, etc.)
- Hang glider/Parachute
- Construction Vehicle (Dump truck, Bulldozer, Front-End Loader, Cement Mixer, etc.)
An alternative option would be to use several D6’s (you might have to raid a Yahtzee or board game set) and adjust the list according to the lowest possible roll. This way, you can build a list of up to 11, 16, or even 20 items using two, three, or four dice, respectively. Make sure you start your list items at number two for two dice (2-12), three for three dice (3-18), etc. since you won’t be able to roll lower than the total of one on each die.
You can go absolutely nuts with this exercise if you want to. I really like to make lists and then sub-lists for some or all of those list items; for instance, taking that list of vehicles above, you could make a sub-list for each of those 20 items. They can be as long as you like; you don’t need to go and make a 20-item sub-list for each 20-item list you make, and you don’t always need to make a sub-list at all; but I might go ahead and make a list of specific types of cars (since there are so many), or maybe a sub-list for those that have a lot of options: the construction and skateboard ones are practically six-item sub-lists already!
Take this idea and run with it. Have fun! Sometimes just creating the list(s) for this game gives you a lot of ideas!
Make an Idea Bag
Not unlike the dice game, this exercise consists of list-making. So I hope you like lists! That said, it is much less complex than the dice game. A bag, a marker, and some wooden craft sticks are all you need for this exercise. I use a craft gift bag since it looks classy and was easy to decorate, but any bag will do. You might even pick out a nice gift bag so you can always have the gift of inspiration for yourself! 🙂
All you need to do is write out some ideas on the wooden craft sticks, then toss them into the bag. Before you know it, you’ll have a bag full of ideas! You can make as many or as few idea sticks as you like, but I say the more the merrier! Like the previous exercise, it helps to think in terms of themes.
If you’re having trouble coming up with words to write on the sticks, take a look around you. Again, you can pull words out of music you listen to. You might also watch a video or two and write down some objects you see on screen, or think of words related to your favourite show or book. Be sure to include nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Once you have a nice bag of ideas, shake it up and pull out a stick. Then you just start drawing!
I like to grab two to five sticks from the bag at once and try to combine them into one image. For example, you might pull the words “alligator,” “dance,” and “top hat.” In that case, you could draw a dancing alligator wearing a top hat! Even if you you get words that are difficult to work together or that you simply don’t want to draw, they might give you ideas for other elements you could use instead. In this scenario, you might want to give the alligator a cane or a suit to go with the top hat, or you might have a different animal in mind altogether.
You might also grab a handful of sticks and choose just one or two to draw. The more sticks you add, the more possibilities you’ll have in your bag!
- Types of animals, vehicles, plants, etc.
- Names of actors or characters on TV or in a book or game
- Adjectives (spiky, flat, chunky, shiny, bright, etc.)
- Types of food
- Cities/Countries of the world
- Materials (wood, stone, metal, etc.)
- Body types/ethnicities
- Drawing fundamentals to practice (perspective, composition, light & shadow, anatomy, etc.)
Words From Elsewhere
This post is meant to help you generate ideas when you have none. Now, I realize that the first three exercises consist of coming up with words, to an extent, on your own. I know this can be kind of tricky, especially if you’ve come here completely stuck and seeking outside inspiration. So in this exercise you won’t have to come up with a single idea by yourself!
The goal of this exercise is still to use key words to get inspired to create something, but the process is a little different. This is probably the simplest exercise when you have absolutely zero ideas to work with, and you’re looking for something – anything – to get you started. All you do is set yourself up with something to watch or listen to and go from there.
Put on a TV show, movie, song, podcast, video – anything. Open up a book, magazine, or newspaper. The first word that jumps out at you will be your key word. If you want to be truly random about it, or if you’re particularly stuck and nothing in particular jumps out at you, you might want to fast-forward to a random spot in your chosen form of media and jot down the first word you hear, or the first thing you see. If you have text in front of you, close your eyes, flip haphazardly to any page, and point to a word at random.
There, draw that! Even if you don’t feel like it, just make yourself do it. Oftentimes just the feeling of making marks on the page will give you an idea or urge to keep on going, and that’s ultimately what we’re after.
If you don’t get an idea from the word for a scene or composition, draw an interpretation of the word itself.
All right, you’ve read through all these awesome (if I do say so myself!) idea-generating exercises – now give one a try!
You’re still here? Well, be sure to report back once you’ve had a chance to try out an exercise or two! They work wonders for me, so I’d love to hear about others’ experiences. Let me know in the comments section, and if you have any exercises you use to get inspired, please do share! Have an awesome day!! 🙂