Design Monthly 1: Eight ways to get ideas for art.
I am part of the Twelve by Twelve group, a collaborative art group who have produced 288 twelve inch art quilts. Wherever they are shown together viewers say. “ I don’t know where they get their ideas. I could never do that.’ Hearing those comments makes me very sad because those people are talking themselves out of the joy of creation, a joy that is available to every single person.
Design can appear to be a magical thing. People believe that there is some peculiar talent that creative people have that is not available to mere mortals. The assume that if they are not themselves bursting with ideas every day they will never be able to make art or design a house or even make dinner without a recipe.
So I am going to let you into my secrets of how I get my ideas and how some of my friends did it. Not to show off but to show you that you too can do it. Then, in the privacy of your own home you can try too,
1. Don’t over complicate – do what it says on the tin
The very first theme the ‘Twelves’ worked to was ‘Dandelion’. If you look at the gallery of those works you will see that many people simply depicted a dandelion. Sometimes there is no need to get over clever or search beyond the obvious for an idea.
2. Look closely at the obvious
Taking a cropped view or looking only at one characteristic and exaggerating it can work well.
3. Look at what is not there and be willing to take a tangential route.
When this theme was announced the Twelve immediately started blogging all the pretty pictures of dandelions in various states of bloom that they had taken in their neighbourhoods. I was working in Hackney in inner London. I remember being on the phone to my husband panicking a little. ‘There are no dandelions in Hackney! There are no flowers! In fact there is no yellow even!’
Oh hang on, there’s an idea. There’s no yellow in a dandelion puff either, I thought. Where does that yellow go? And where does it go in a city? It goes on warning signs. And so my quilt Where does all the yellow go? was born.
4. Try word and memory association
Take pen and paper and write down as many words as you can associate with the theme word as possible. Allow yourself to stray off topic. Let associations come freely. If you get stuck, pick one of the words you already have written ( any one will do) and start associations from that word. Think of the senses you associate with it, the childhood memories, the political and social connotations, anything at all. Repeat until an idea strikes. If it doesn’t, sleep on the list and come back to it.
I did this for chocolate. After a while I got to ‘chocolate teapot’ a phrase my biology teacher used to use. It meant a useless thing. I began to list useless things and then I realised I was doing what the Pillow book of Sei Sonognon did and making lists. The melting teapot on the quilt is on a printed extract from the book.
5. Think over literally and / or figuratively. Ask questions as persistently as a two year old
For the shelter theme I made a shelter. Obvious but not so obvious because quits are not expected to be 3D. The idea came by pushing the literal thought. What if I didn’t make a quilt about a shelter, what if I made an actual shelter. Other quilts were about the type of places where one might feel sheltered and safe. I thought about that too, pushing again beyond the obvious by asking a stream of questions. Buildings and structures keep you sheltered. What do we mean by structures? What kind of structures are there other than physical ones. Social ones, maybe. What kind of social ones. Law. How does law shelter us? From injustice. What sort of injustice… and so on until by answering my own questions I got to human rights law and the holocaust which provided the writing on my shelter and the photo inside the shelter.
6. Replace the literal with the symbolic.
Our chair theme produced a lot of, um, chairs. Again, no need to over complicate. But, there are a lot of chairs to pick from and I thought a wheelchair would be different. Portraying a wheel chair alone would have been perfectly good art. But I got to asking questions again. Why might I be in a wheelchair? I might have a broken spine. Replacing the literal back of the chair with the broken back of a person made the quilt all the better.
Work in a series
For my current 20/12 series the size was set by the group – 20 inches by 12 to reflect the year we were in. I added some parameters of my own even before the first theme was announced. My quilts would involve some elements of surface design, would have a link to Africa and would have a human rights or human interest message behind them. You might that that would make it harder but in fact by focusing my thoughts on a specific range of possibilities it makes it quicker. The decision to keep them all the same colour range and with a thin blue line evolved with the second quilt and made it even easier. See the whole series so far here
8. Use Google
Google has been indispensable to me in finding suitable subject matter for my 20/12 series. All it has taken is a few Google searches using the word of the theme ( or very similar ones) and words like Africa or the name of a specific place in Africa and I have been lead to site that have inspired me. You can read more about that here and here.
So, if you are a bit stuck, why not try some or all of these methods? if you are looking for themes to try out the following list, all of which come from existing calls for entries for shows or group challenges I am considering working with soon:
- text message
- maps and aerial views
- Broad Changes
What helps you find ideas for your art?