How do you decide what to draw?

On a couple of online forums I follow, I frequently see postings from young artists along the lines of “I don’t know what to draw! Can someone give me some ideas?”  This question always baffles me.  Not because I have no ideas; quite the contrary, I have enough reference material and ideas to keep me busy for the next several years, and my difficult decision is usually “Which should I draw next?” Following are some ideas to help you have my problem instead of theirs!

Ever since I started drawing in earnest again, I am always looking around, spotting scenes that I think would be interesting/challenging to draw or that would make for interesting artwork.  I take a digital camera along and organize the photos that have “artwork potential” on my computer.

My high school art teacher had us students start a “picture file”–a folder of clippings of photos from magazines that might come in handy as reference material for drawing or painting.  This is something I still do today out of habit!  From these clippings, you can do things like zero in on a very small section that looks interesting on its own, like a single fold of satin fabric.  If you come across a photo of, say, an old oak tree, you can refer to it later when you want to include oak trees in a background, to get their shape and proportions right.  Or you can just draw the photo as you found it, for technique practice (but please don’t try to pass it off as your own composition later).

My fellow CPSA member J.Y. Chang won an award last year in the CPSA’s annual “Explore This!” competition for a simple closeup of a fork and spoon on a white table! Click here to see it. It wasn’t the subject matter that made it worthy of recognition, it was the light and color in it; the utensils and cloth glowed with the multicolored lights in the Las Vegas casino restaurant she was dining in at the time.  Mundane objects can be elevated to fine art through observation and skilled execution.  It’s the artist’s job to show the viewer something they haven’t seen before.

In my own artwork, you’ll see there are certain subjects that I visit a lot, like flowers and monarch butterflies.  Does this brand me as a “flower and butterflly” artist?  I certainly hope not, because I’ve also drawn many other scenes that struck me in some way: rusty tractors, doorways, baskets of spices, buildings, dead birds…and I’m just getting started.

Look around you!

It’s not the tools

“A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said ‘I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.’ He said nothing until dinner was finished, then: ‘That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific stove.'” (Stealing this great quote from Art Wolfe’s photography fan page on Facebook.)

This anecdote is about photography, but I can identify with it as an artist and as a motorcyclist, too.  How often do we find ourselves admiring someone’s skill and thinking “Well, if I had the same X that they do, I could do that, too.”  We forget that while good tools can make a task considerably easier, they don’t make up for talent, basic skills and lots and lots of practice.  If you’re not practicing, you’re not improving.  World-class dancers, athletes, motorcycle racers, photographers, artists, you name it–they all make their job look so easy that upon watching them or seeing their work we’re inspired to rush out and try it ourselves.  Some people are frustrated immediately.  Some try it just long enough to familiarize with the activity and move on.  Some dabble.  But to achieve real results we have to dedicate real effort and focus.  That’s what separates the wannabes with tool envy, from the achievers.  So get out your tools–whatever they are–and practice!

As it’s often said it the motorcycling realm, “It’s not the bike, it’s the rider.” and “A good rider can make any bike go fast.”