How can you think of what to draw? How do you think of ideas? Often we see the beautiful end result of an artist’s labor, but we have so little insight into how that artist came up with the ideas to create their drawing in the first place. The cool thing about drawing is there are many unique ways to come up with original ideas for a drawing. The creative process can be different for all artists and that makes total sense because all art should be unique. The question still arises… How to think of what to draw? In this post I’ll be laying out a ton of ideas for coming up with how to go about thinking of what to draw.
Just like writer’s block artists may also have difficulty deciding what to draw. Read through this post and I think you will get inspired to draw. Not all of the ideas presented will strike a chord with you and that’s fine. Like I mentioned earlier, drawing is a unique process and how you come up with ideas can be just as unique as the artwork itself. With that said, hopefully you will get some ideas and continue creating fantastic drawings.
15 Ideas for What to Draw:
When I was a young child I used to wake up super early on Saturday mornings to watch this show on public television called “Patchwork Family.” It aired in the 1980s and occasionally had this segment in which an artist used to create these imaginary scribble drawings. It’s been about 25 years since I saw the program but here’s how I remember it: Without looking the artist would scribble all over a piece of paper with a broad circular motion making sure to make large passes all throughout. He would then open his eyes and look at the scribbles he just made and try to see things amongst the scribbles. He would find an alligator or a tree for example. Finally he would use those discoveries to outline what he saw and turn it into a picture. After watching the show I also used to create drawings like that as well. It was a great exercise in using my imagination. This type of imaginary drawing doesn’t have to be limited to children; I think adult artists could benefit from such creative exercises as well. It was Pablo Picasso who said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
2. Visit a Museum
I’m always shocked at how seldom people interested in learning to draw actually go to museums. Museums are buildings filled with ideas for what to draw! The next time you can’t think of what to draw, spend an afternoon at an art museum. Bring a notepad to write down ideas and record inspirational thoughts. Or you can even bring a sketchpad and create drawings as you get inspired! Of course, check with your museum’s policy on creating art during normal museum hours. Most museums allow simple sketching but prohibit anything messy such as paints. While visiting, force yourself to check out some art exhibits that you normally wouldn’t gravitate towards. If you’re into realistic drawings, go check out some abstract sculptures or perhaps some nonrepresentational works of art. Keep your mind open and enjoy your experience, that’s precisely when an idea for a drawing may creep into your consciousness.
3. Take a Bath
I read an awful lot about a variety of things. Not only do I read about art, but I also read about technology, science, and economics. I guess I really just like to learn. A few years ago I read Alan Greenspan’s book: The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World. Alan Greenspan is an economist and was previously the chief Federal Reserve chairman for the United States banking system. There’s one short passage in the book in which Greenspan talks about coming up with his best ideas and doing so in the bath tub. I thought that was an interesting self realization. Here we have this super influential, financial world power talking about getting creative in the bathtub! I suspect there isn’t anything magical in his bath water and it probably has to do with having a ritual and time to yourself more than anything else, but I certainly like the idea. The next time you need to clear your mind and come up with some drawing ideas, take a bath; make it a bubble bath! Let the world slip away and I’m sure you will think of what to draw before long. And if not, at least you’ll be clean and stress free.
4. Unexpected Combinations
Can’t think of what to draw? Sometimes you need to mix it up a bit and try combining some outrageous combinations. This goes for not only your subject matter, but for your media as well. Are you stuck drawing the same old black and white pencil sketches? What would happen if you combined some colored pencil or pastel into your normal drawing work flow? Perhaps you can tint your drawing slightly with watercolor paints. How about finding some objects that seem to have nothing to do with one another and combine them into an original drawing? Anybody envisioning an engine block filled with jelly beans surrounded by dancing clowns or is that just me?
5. Take a Closer Look
Sometimes just drawing something from a different viewpoint can yield wonderful results, letting your viewers enjoy your subject matter in a new and different way. Try taking some normal everyday objects and zooming in on them. Draw them larger than life! You could draw paper clips 25 times larger than they normally appear for example. You could zoom in on a portion of an adjustable wrench and draw just a portion of that wrench only really big in comparison to its real life size. I occasionally give a drawing assignment like this to my art students and occasionally I get a drawing that is so cool to look at and so unexpected even though the student was working from an everyday, rather boring object. The way that student draws the object so that it is cropped, the way they composed their drawing and the extreme close-up view often makes such an interesting looking work of art. It can almost look abstract at times only adding to the drawing’s interest. Try taking a closer look.
6. Limit Your Color
If you’re used to working with a full palette of colors the next time you draw try limiting your color range. Try this. Lay out all your colors, close your eyes and pick four random colors. Put all of the other colors away, out of your reach. Now you’re ready to create! Draw what you would normally draw only this time with your new limited color palette. This will certainly put you out of your comfort zone and that’s the whole point. You will be forced to make color transpositions. Try blending colors together in new ways rather than relying on all the color choices you normally had when using a full palette of colors. The juxtaposition of color can lead to some really interesting results. Artists famously known for their heightened use and experimentation of color became famously know as the fauvist artists. Fauvism was an important art movement at the start of the 20th century. While the fauvist artists didn’t limit their palette per se, they did explore a juxtaposition of color by substituting one color for another.
7. Hack Your Drawing Tools
Sometimes we get too comfortable with our own art tools; comfort that can stifle creativity and suppress ideas for what to draw. It’s good to step outside your comfort zone from time to time when looking for inspiration for a drawing. Rather than spending money on new art supplies you can modify your existing drawing tools or even use them in a different way. You can split pencils in half, remove the pencil lead and modify the lead directly. You can cut v-shaped notches out of the pencil lead so when you make broad, streaking passes with the bare pencil lead it creates unique textures and patterns. You can do similar things with charcoal and conte crayons. You can also cut and modify your erasers. If you change your tools you will get a different look to your drawings which will put you into a different state of mind and promote new ideas. Don’t be afraid to hack your drawing tools from time to time.
8. Change Your Lighting
If you’re like most artists you illuminate your subject matter from a single light source. This allows you to see simple highlights and well defined cast shadows. This style of lighting has been used for centuries and is precisely how I recommend beginners illuminate their still lifes and portraits. But what if you have been drawing for a while and you need some new ideas? You need something to jump start your thinking on what to draw. What would happen if you changed your light source completely? What would happen if you used two light sources instead of one? You might get some interesting results: multiple highlights and cast shadows that stray off into opposite directions. What I’ve always found interesting about cast shadows is that when they are caused by multiple light sources they double in their darkness when they overlap. Pretty neat huh?
How about the color of your lighting? I bet you would get some interesting effects if you simply changed the color of your lighting. Imagine lighting your subject with a blue light. You can find colored lights at most home improvement stores. Some interesting color effects occur when objects are illuminated using colored lights. For example: under red lighting the color cyan (a blue-green) will lose most of it’s saturation and appear nearly black! This is of course under the assumption that you have eliminated all other light sources except your red source(s) of light.
You can even change the angle of your lighting. Artists always tend to position their lighting from above and on a slight angle to the subject matter causing cast shadows to travel off to the side and slightly behind the objects. How about lighting your subject from below? How about lighting your subject from below in a different colored light? I realize this is not permissible if landscape is your subject matter, but you can always choose a different time of day from which you create your drawings. I’ve seen some really great compositions when artists use back lit landscapes. This is when the sunlight originates from behind the subject and causes long cast shadows to move toward the viewer.
The possibilities are endless. Start getting creative with your lighting and you just might find yourself coming up with some great ideas for a new series of drawings!
9. Let the Sky Speak to You
Maybe it’s the kid in me but when I lay back and watch clouds roll on by I start to see things. I get into this relaxed, meditative state that enables me to see things that are not really there. It’s bizarre sounding if you haven’t tried it, but it does work. I do a ton of reading outdoors and every so often I put my book down, lean my chair back and stare at the sky. It clears my mind, and allows drawing ideas to creep into my thought process. As my brain is slipping into this meditative state I actually start to see things within the clouds and my mind even occasionally makes up stories to support what I am seeing. It’s super rejuvenating and sometimes this experience is the precursor to a little nap. I have also done similar activities with the nighttime stars. If I can relax my mind enough and remove all distractions I begin to connect the stars and see shapes and images. It’s amazing how creative your brain can be if you just give it the opportunity to roam free!
10. Take a Trip
When my wife and I were first dating, we use to take day trips often. It was a way for us to connect and make good use of our time together. We would pack a lunch and go sightseeing at a seaport, an artsy village, or even go on a long hike through the woods. Over time we got to see some really fascinating scenery and met some interesting people. I always made sure to pack my camera when we went on our expeditions. I would photograph lakes, streams, swamps, bridges, fields, bustling streets, unique shops, anything I thought I might use as inspiration for my artwork. Over time I wound up with a massive collection of images that recorded our travels. Some of the photographs became references for my landscape paintings while others documented interesting aspects of our travels; both which can foster ideas for art making. I was, and still have never been desperately in need of landscape photo references. All I have to do is look through our day trip travel photos (which are grouped by year/location) and I have enough photo references to inspire years worth of artwork.
Besides the great scenery and the good times I have had travelling around, my wife and I always made sure to visit art galleries while we were out and about. We would see what kind of artwork was being shown at local art galleries during our travels. This is another great way to get ideas for your drawings. Go away, even if it’s just for the day. Bring your camera, a sketchbook even, and get ready to be inspired!
11. Peruse Websites
The internet is a never ending source of information that just keeps growing. One of the growing problems however is that there is too much information. How does one cut through all the noise and get to the useful information when looking for ideas on what to draw? For starters you can limit the majority of your time to reputable websites that are designed to showcase images and artwork. Websites like pinterest, instagram, tumblr, and flickr are websites dedicated to showcasing images with the artist in mind. Whether you are looking for photography or actual artwork created by other artists you will find and endless supply of ideas on these websites. I really like pinterest and have been amazed by some of the beautiful compositions and extremely original ideas I have seen. The internet has allowed seemingly regular people to state their voice and showcase their artistic side for all to see. I think the biggest problem you’ll find using these image sharing websites is not a lack of ideas for your next drawing but, knowing when to stop looking! You can really get sucked into browsing and find yourself surfing more and drawing less. Set a time limit, then put your ideas into action by getting back to drawing!
12. Choose a Principle of Design
When I dine out at a restaurant I first check the specials of the day. I often find the selection and range of options easier to take in as compared to the overwhelming choices associated with the main menu. Sometimes the best approach to being creative is to limit your scope altogether. Often with an endless supply of possibilities you can feel overwhelmed when trying to figure out what to draw next. Why not limit your choices right from the start? Try limiting your next drawing idea to a principle of design.
The principles of design are:
Take one of the principles of design and think about what the principle means. Take pattern for example. What does it mean to incorporate pattern in your drawing? Can you compose a drawing that utilizes pattern? Does this mean you will limit your use of pattern to the background portions of your drawing or can your somehow create patterns with your subject matter too? Limit yourself to a single principle of design and make the message obvious to the viewer. This may take an extended amount of thinking on your part but the process will be rewarding once you stumble upon a great set of new drawing ideas.
13. Tell a Story
People love stories. They love to tell them and they enjoy listening to them equally as much when we are thinking about what to draw we often forget to include a narrative. Now, you don’t have to hit your audience over the head with the narrative. I’m not suggesting that you have to create a step by step story such as with a cartoon or incorporate words into your drawings. Some of the more interesting narratives are the ones that leave some holes in the tale; holes that your audience can fill in with their own imagination. Take a simple still life for example. The objects you choose to include in your drawing can lead the viewer to make up her own story.
When I was in college one of my first successful still life paintings did just that. I painted a loaf of hearty bread, with a fancy bottle of olive oil, which stood next to a head of garlic and a plate of butter. This was a tale about garlic bread. I didn’t need the chef, oven, or recipe. By choosing some specific objects that viewers could relate to I was inviting my viewers to create their own story! It was no wonder that many people liked that painting. It was a work of art they could not only relate to but put themselves into the narrative as well.
14. Use Index Cards
Take a piece of paper and without much thinking, start brainstorming things that come to mind. Anything, not just things you would like to draw.
Your list should comprise of anything that comes to mind:
- Principles of design (see above)
Next transfer that list to a stack of index cards. Each index card should get one item from the list. Now all you have to do is shuffle the deck of index cards to generate a wild assortment of drawing ideas! Pulling a few random index cards and trying to compose a drawing from about 3 cards is a good place to start. So if you ended up with the three cards that read:
- My dog
- Warm Summer’s Night
It looks like your newest idea for a great drawing could depict your dog and elicit the feeling of a warm summer’s night while conveying rhythm. Don’t like the cards you get? …shuffle and try again.
15. Copy an Artist
Good artists copy; great artists steal. – Picasso
Originality is definitely an important thing in artwork but originality has a dark side that is seldom talked about. All ideas are somehow born out of pre-existing ideas. This means that we never really come up with ground-breaking new ideas out of thin air, rather we build upon our prior experiences. There’s a great book on this topic called Where Good Ideas Come From by Steve Johnson. The author touches on this concept numerous times and is referred to in the book as the adjacent possible.
If you are still thinking about what to draw, why not draw from another artist’s artwork. Use another great artist’s work as an opportunity to study some new techniques and subject matter. You might want to choose an artist who you admire greatly or an artist that creates artwork that is radically different from your own. If you can, study up on the artist as well, read about their motivations and artistic philosophies. After much drawing and reflection, eventually you will come up with your own drawing ideas and develop your own artistic visions, but copying another artist may be a good way to start.
Remember This When Looking for Drawing Ideas…
Don’t expect all of these drawing ideas to work the same for everybody. More than anything this list is just a way to get you outside your comfort zone and force your mind out of the drawing rut that it may be in. Good things happen when you are open to new experiences and can allow your mind to occasionally wander without the day’s daily list of distractions. Remember that ideas are seldom great ones right out of the box. Ideas, like great art itself, require gentle weeding out of bad ideas and progressive nurturing. Try some new drawings, reflect on them, continue to be inspired, and over time you will have an interesting history of creative drawings; a history that effectively records the progression of your artistic growth and drawing ideas.
And for those of you who are in a rush and need to think of what to draw right now!…
The Short List -15 Ideas for What to Draw:
- Scribble – Let random scribbles force your imagination into seeing objects.
- Visit a Museum – Let other artists inspire you.
- Take a Bath – Isolate yourself from distractions and let your mind slip away and discover drawing ideas.
- Unexpected Combinations – Combine and draw some outrageously different subject matter.
- Take a Closer Look – Draw something from an extremely close view.
- Limit Your Color – Draw with a limited range of color / restricted palette.
- Hack Your Drawing Tools – Modify your existing drawing tools to get new effects.
- Change Your Lighting – Use more lights, a different color bulb, or a different placement for your next drawing.
- Let the Sky Speak to You – Drawing Ideas can be found in clouds and stars.
- Take a Trip – Go somewhere inspiring and take photographs and work in your sketchbook.
- Peruse Websites – Websites such as pinterest, instagram, tumblr, and flickr have an endless supply of drawing ideas.
- Choose a Principle of Design – Before you draw, Instead of starting with the subject matter begin by planning the message or feeling you want to convey and let the subject matter come last.
- Tell a Story – Provide some kind of narrative that links your subject matter.
- Use Index Cards – Brainstorm a list of ideas and randomly combine three random ideas to create a drawing.
- Copy an Artist – Try working in the style of an artist that is attractive to you or vastly different than your own artwork.