How Do Creative Ideas Happen?

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where do creative ideas come from

Where do creative ideas come from?

I used to be one of those people who said, “I never have creative ideas for my art. I just photograph what I see.”

That was a pretty true statement for my photography for a long time.

While I captured beautiful scenes I didn’t set out to say something with my art or to express a feeling.

That began to change this year when I participated in a 15-day content creation challenge by Brooke Shaden. The idea was to create something every day for 15 days with a focus on a word chosen by Brooke.

It was hard, especially at first.

I would not have completed the class had I not signed up with a couple of photographer friends who also committed to making a photograph each day for 15 days.

But I’m so glad I made the effort to take and complete that class.

It changed how I make photographs and it changed how I see myself as a photographer. I’ve moved from passively recording whatever I happen to see, to actively planning and seeking out opportunities to express my vision.

My photographer friends and I continue to pick a word each week (sometimes every other week) and we commit to making a photograph that is somehow sparked by that word.

Over the past few months I’ve learned that creative ideas don’t simply pop into my head. Several things contribute to generating new ideas.

Trigger Word

Another group of artist friends and I also pick a word twice a month and some of us create art based on that word to share with one another. The past two weeks I’ve been working on creating something for the word TOUCH.

At first I thought about the current mood in the United States where accusations of sexual misconduct are finally being taken seriously. I imagined how to photograph something that addressed the topic of touch including welcome and unwelcome touches.

I’ll be honest with you. I couldn’t go there. It felt too hard, vulnerable, and painful. And I couldn’t think of a way to address the topic positively and respectfully.

Letting Go

 And I made a choice to let go of that idea. I stepped back from the word TOUCH for several days, letting it simmer in my subconscious but not pushing myself to figure out what I was going to create.

Then several things came together for me in my dining room still life photo studio.


A little over a week ago I happened to borrow an artist drawing figure from a friend to work on a photo project idea. I imagined photographing the figure in various poses to express different emotions and then compositing the figures into other photographs. So far I’ve photographed the figure in a couple of poses but had no brainstorms on scenes to add the photos to.

Earlier this week a bouquet of flowers at Trader Joe’s also happened to call out to me with it’s bright colorful white-edged flowers. I imagined making multiple exposures of the flowers to create a sense of dizzy movement. I experimented with multiple exposures, different layering techniques, and camera movement but my creations were disappointing.

Showing Up

This morning I decided it was time to work on a photograph for the word TOUCH. As I gazed at my messy still life set in the dining room my thoughts, the artist figure and my flower bouquet came together with the word. I looked at my still life setup with a vase full of flowers and a wooden figure drawing form and realized that I adore flowers! They touch my heart. Voila!

An Idea is Born

I decided to show how the beauty of flowers touches me using the figure drawing form to represent me in the photograph.

First I tried making a photo using the artist figure touching a flower in my flower bouquet. I wasn’t impressed.

Not quite right…


I tried taking the photo into Photoshop and adding some background texture with layers…Better but still not terribly impressive.

Not quite right…

A few flower blossoms had broken off during transport of the flowers and I had saved them.I decided to try placing them in the arms of the wooden figure.

Better, but not quite right…

Then I realized that the flower stems of the flowers in the vase needed to be trimmed shorter so that less of the stem and leaves showed. I trimmed the flowers and rearranged my little still life.

Better but still not quite right…

Hmmm… the proportions are all wrong. What if I move the vase back and the figure forward?

Definitely better but can it be improved… I notice that I love the way the single green leaf angles off gracefully against the vase and decide to make sure that I use that going forward.

What if I decrease the depth of field so that the vase of flowers is blurrier in the background.

Oh, this is getting interesting…but the flowers in the figure’s arms messy looking and bedraggled.

I cut some fresher flowers and placed them in the figure’s arms, moved my camera up so that I was shooting down more towards the figure. Then I took the photograph into Photoshop and added background texture and color.

How do ideas happen

Several different variations of textures and cropping finally yielded a photograph that I finally felt expressed what I wanted to express (see top photograph in this post).

This is not something I sat back and pre-visualized. It emerged through several iterations and steps that helped creative magic happen. Those steps:

  1. Start with a trigger word.
  2. Think about what you want to say about that word and how you might say it.
  3. Let go of any preconceived ideas and simply let the idea simmer for awhile.
  4. Set an intention to create something, pick up the camera and pay attention to ideas and thoughts that pop up. Allow serendipity and happenstance to surprise you.
  5. Once an idea is born, work the idea, try different things, play the idea like improv or jazz. Stop when you feel satisfied with your creation.

Another really important tip is to find or create a support group with other artists. Cheer one another along. Challenge each other. And most importantly support one another.

We are all creative and we all have creative ideas.

Not every idea works. Not every idea we come up with appeals to us. Often circumstances create an opening through which our ideas emerge. The trick is to show up, pay attention, and play! Don’t take yourself too seriously. Creating regularly is as necessary for photographers as daily practice is for a musician.

What do you want to create?

May you walk in beauty

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