8 Tips for Starting an Idea File

“I often hear, ‘I don’t know what to paint’ from my students,” says Alan Wylie, a watercolorist and oil painter living in Fort Langley, British Columbia. “I tell them that if they had idea files, they could look through them and find something.”

An idea file is a collection of objects and references that inspire you to create. It doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to be fancy. And it doesn’t have to be neat (though some organization is a plus). But it should contain images, notes or examples of whatever it is that inspires you. And once you start collecting ideas, you can use them for more than inspiration: You can also use them as references—examples of what you want to draw or paint.

  • Ask yourself what catches your eye. Keep in mind that you may not be attracted to the same things as other artists.
  • Keep a small notepad and/or camera with you at all times so you can capture fleeting thoughts or scenes.
  • Go for regular walks.
  • Be open to observing everything around you and be sure to look beyond the surface of whatever you’re looking at for that unexpected gem of an idea.
  • Don’t forget to check out magazines, books, television, newspapers and the Internet for inspiration.
  • Organize your inspirations, whether it’s by subject or color. This will help you know where everything is, so you don’t have to spend too much time looking for it.
  • Look through your idea file on a regular basis, whether you’re searching for your next painting subject or simply keeping your creative muscles in shape.
  • Clean out your idea file regularly so you don’t become overwhelmed by the sheer number of ideas.

Mark Gottsegen is an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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