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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,

Blowin’ in the Wind by Diane Perin Hock

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.


Where does all the yellow go? Helen L Conway


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.


Unsuitable Things by Helen L Conway

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.


Shelter by Helen L Conway

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


Urban myth by Helen L Conway

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
  • transitions
  • Broad Changes
  • sweet

What helps you find ideas for your art?

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I get quilt ideas from lots of weird places – designs on napkins, stationary, rug catalogs, tv commercials, photographs, borders in magazines, doodles, etc.

    November 5, 2012
  2. Alison Reeves #

    Interesting – I’ve always thought I’m not creative as I rarely have a ‘unique’ idea. However I’ve always been able to take something I’ve seen and extrapolate and come up with something different to my original inspiration. I’m coming to realise that this is fairly standard practice and how all creative people work – there is probably not anything that is truly original – just ideas that use other ideas as a ‘jumping board’. I will have to review my idea of myself a little! With quilts I am still in the learning stage of making them, so tend to stick to traditional ideas, but play with colour themes. I’m sure as I become more proficient and confident I will be thinking up my own designs and themes.

    November 5, 2012
    • plancrea #

      Very standard practice, Alison! There was an article in a recent Oprah magazine showing how different designers had based this years collections on famous paintings. I know for sure that once you get your quilting basics under your belt that you will start to do more original works.

      November 6, 2012
  3. Gwyned #

    My ideas come from many sources. Most are within head and surface during those moments of free association, such as when I am running, brushing my teeth, taking a shower or just waking up in the morning. Recently, I have worked through ideas in my Yoga class during the final five minutes of relaxation. I use Internet searches, not so much for ideas as resources to see shapes of flowers, leaves, birds, and most recently sea shells. The idea for my current WIP came from an embossed print made by my sister-in-law 40 years ago, that I have always admired, Mondrian and a series of free motion quilting assignments I have been doing with Leah Day.

    November 6, 2012
  4. Brigitte Red #

    Wow! You have eloquently decribed some of the methods I have used to generate ideas when challenged by my fibre art group. It tells me that perhaps I am on the right track when it comes to “creating art” be it fibre or otherwise.

    November 7, 2012

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