How to choose subjects for your art

Posted In: Art | Creativity

I am often asked where I get my inspiration from or why I choose to create what I do. It’s not quite straightforward as I create for many different reasons with many mediums, and each of those with their different reasons for exploration.

Inspiration is everywhere and limitless. Life inspires me, the miracle of living and my personal choices within it inspire me. Everyday is different and my interest are vast. I have been advised many times to specialise, but that’s just not possible right now, or maybe ever.

Saying that I do find there are some basic categories that begin the creation process for me:

  1. Commissions
  2. Self generated art
  3. Skills and research development


Commissions /commercially driven subjects / briefs / requirements

If you are already an artist working in the industry, or wish to be, you will be creating based on a brief for your client. In my line of photography, I shoot for restaurants and hotels and this comes with a basic repeated brief.

All dishes, interiors, portraits etc.  As an artist, I’ve been asked to draw, portraits, chefs in action, meal times, and someones idea of a sheep farm. They all have a basic outline and although you will interpret it with your own style and flair, the bones of the art work are predetermined for you.

Some artists thrive on this as it gives them direction, or a solvable scenario which they can work at. Others prefer to create what is in their heads, and others are like me that like both as one discipline informs the other and there is evolution.

Commissioned portrait in digital oils for American photographer Jim Sullivan. I worked directly from a photograph he sent met. First drawing it in pencil, then taking it into Photoshop to create a digital wet-medium finished image.


Self-generated subjects

These artworks are created by artists who have a vision or idea burning in them that they must interpret and get it out of their minds and onto a canvas, paper, video etc.

This is the category that gives me the greatest pleasure and frustration. I am free to create whatever I want, but sometimes there are no ideas. Usually the creative drought comes right after a huge project completes and I am left alone with the tumbleweeds in my head.

This is when I go in search of inspiration. Instagram, Pinterest, Youtube, cycling in my neighbourhood with open landscapes, my book of past ideas, and I also have a file of downloaded images on my computer.

These inspiration images are also mostly high fantasy, sci-fi, myth and legend. They are mostly illustrated. They remind me of the vastness available to me to create. It puts me in the limitless expanse to remind me of the scope of possibility.. These images spark or jump start me. I do not intend to copy them, they literally make me think of other things. They all have an aspect of arresting beauty that capture my eye.

Looking at these images reminds me of the heights I want to feel when creating, what I’m reaching for – a high level of arresting beauty.

Sometimes I like to just paint a spoon but sometimes I like to create an entire universe of space travellers and earth – bending superheroes, both are available to me.

I also watch a lot of cartoons and fantasy movies, and read childrens’ book with beautiful illustrations.

Inspiration from being in nature, and my own hair – drawn illustratively from imagination

Inspiration simply from an object I find beautiful and charming – drawn from life

When trying to figure out what to paint or draw, think of what you like. I like food. I paint food. I like eyes. I draw eyes. It’s that simple. Start with an eye, you will finish it then want to draw another and then a whole face and then you will remember that your sister or friend is beautiful and sent you a photo of them and you are inspired to draw that, which leads to you doing a series and before you know it you have an exhibition. Art is that open -ended. Inspiration is everywhere and anything is possible.

The question is, what do you like? Pink hair and piercings? Cool. Find some images on Instagram and make a mood board. Of the 10 images you find, 1 will stick out. Draw that. Do you like it? Paint it too.  In the beginning of your skills development, its fine to copy photographs in order to practice, but when you want to create saleable art you will need to create your own reference photos, or create from imagination.

I have thousands of my own reference photos to use so I don’t struggle much here, but sometimes I ask other photographers if I can paint their photo and they have always said yes. But I ask before sharing and always credit. Other artists have also used my photographs to paint etc. This is sharing happily to help others evolve. I search tags on Instagram for model and modelling agencies. These are the mecca of face options to draw. Luckily I have spent a few years shooting models so I have many reference photos to use with rights, but I like to look at online images to spark a love and stream of energy to create.

Making a composite of images you find and making a new subject is also fine. You can reference someones eyes and a different nose and surround with the portrait with roses from different sources as an example. There are many websites that offer free photos to use.

But you will find that the better you get at art, the less you want to copy other peoples reference photos anyway.

This is a sketch to practice  Asian features. It has been take directly from the internet of a very well known model. If I wanted to convert this for sale, I would definitely ask the photographer and model for permission. I am prepared to pay them for this.

I have seen many well-know artists using faces of celebrities and models that have been published online.  How many times have you seen Nelson Mandelas’ face being painted? A photographer somewhere took that photo, yet no one asks if they can use it. It seems to have become a commonly accepted thing that if your photo is online it is fair game for re-interpretation. Models are especially subject to being appropriated. I do not know if I would put so much effort into this as it feels half-baked to copy another artists work completely. At least give it your own flair, otherwise you will experience a half-reward. It is a super grey area legally as we are still coming to terms with what is allowed in the digital age.

I was inspired by this photographers chosen pose. I just wanted to practice my pencil work in my sketchbook and asked the photographer if she was happy for me to share it. She said yes! I only sketched a part of the image, not the entire image, this I feel is my personal flair. This was not intended as a finished piece, but should I wish to convert it for sale, I would ask the photographers and models permission again.

This image is an exact copy of a photograph. The only one I’ve done so far. I asked the photographers permission and he agreed. He would not accept my offered payment. This is going to be used as part of a commission for a client. This is also the first drawing using coloured pencils, so my inspiration for it came from all directions.



Skill development


This is a necessary and ongoing daily practice for all successful artists. Sketchbooks are filled with iterations of the basics, like anatomy, flowers, leaves, wheels, boxes etc. The basic building blocks of all great representational artworks. I use whatever images I feel like for this, mostly mine but if I am looking for something specific I get it online. Its only to teach me and I hope my photos allow others to learn in the same way.

When the ideas run a bit dry, reach for the sketchbook and practice your basics. 99% of the time ideas will come while you are warming up.

Whether you have been asked to illustrate motorbikes or hairstyles, or if you want to draw a whole cityscape, doodling and mapping out these ideas first in a sketch book will be invaluable. You have no obligation to create a masterpiece and no on will see it. So just draw, figure out what you are trying to say with your subject.

A good exercise is to pick a subject and draw variations. You want to be good at faces? draw 3 pages of eyes – open, closed, looking up, looking sideways, winking etc. then draw the nose, the hair etc. Over and over again. until you can draw it automatically. This is how you get away from reference photos. Unless you want to draw celebrities, in which case you will need a reference photo to make them perfectly recognisable.

No matter how good you become you should always keep drawing your basics so your big pieces are executed with a flair of experience.

I attended an art exhibition recently and took a photo of this girl in a crowd full of people taking photos. I have no problem with selling this image. It is not precisely her.

Painted from imagination

Drawn from a tutorial. If I wanted to sell something created in this manner I could, I have been offered it by means of the tutorial, so I have the right but it is someone elses’ art and not mine, so an empty sale.

This is an hours exercise I did from a tutorial I bought on Udemy.

I also recently completed a sketchbook based on one expansive subject – Italy. In this I drew everything from buildings, to people, to cookies. It was an exercise of creation without worrying about what to draw or even making it perfect. It was meant to be deliberately sketchy, a lesson in learning basic line drawing and I gave myself my own brief – Italy. So in between projects I could just sit down and draw some stairs in a little village I visited, or the ice cream we ate, or the view of the city. It was prescribed, and purely academic. It resulted in some awesome pieces that have led me to create other bigger formal pieces.

Its also extremely valuable to draw things you don’t usually feel drawn to. Accomplishing these drawings inspires confidence and directly influences and informs the process of creating the things you choose to turn into bigger pieces of art.

The tram was drawn from my own photo. The city skyline I found on a free image website. There are many of these sites.

Drawn from my own photo

Painted from my own photos that I composited. I often photoshop many photos together to make my final image.

The quick sketch of bravery on the left showed me that I had the potential to create a bigger piece. Sketching builds confidence and bridges gaps in your skills.


My last bit of advice is to draw, paint, illustrate what inspires you to live. Things that make you sigh and close your eyes, reach your face to the heavens, things that make your heart skip a beat, things that make you do a happy dance, and things that say This is ME.

Because I draw female faces I feel they must all have an expression of deep emotion. Even being emotionless is a state of emotion. So I choose to use their expressions to communicate a feeling. Defiance, self confidence, vulnerability, sadness, bliss, kinship, understanding. These are things I want people to feel or relate to because we all experience it. If drawing girls with wings makes you feel that then that is what you should draw or paint.

Often times when I am faced with ‘what should I create now?’ I make sure I am not answering with any kind of monetary influence. Eventually you can create a piece specifically for selling, but that will not solve your issue of what inspires me? Create what you love with passion and the money will come, no worries there.

Think about it in terms of looking back on your life. Did you paint what made you happy everyday? If you had 6 months left to live what would you draw?

This is why I find myself getting results, I remind myself that life is precious and not to be wasted so I get busy with the highest levels of excitement.

Today it’s a face with long eyelashes, tomorrow it’s a landscape , last week it was just a feeling and on it goes. I go with it, following the flow of my hearts’ flutter.

It stops me in my tracks and says ‘ Melt into my beauty and you will find the meaning of life’.


How does this painting make you feel?

A road trip kind of feeling

Pure joy of dripping red paint


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    A night at the Pot Luck pass
    Schoon bakery