Visual Tastebuds

In recent weeks I’ve been thinking deeply about one question. Where do new ideas come from?

If you’ve read my previous blog you will know what sparked this curiosity.

I’m always inspired by being out in nature, especially when it is stormy or raining. I love dramatic lighting. Big brooding skies or the sun’s rays cutting through the trees and hitting the forest floor. My mind is flooded with ideas and images.  I can see myself painting, laying brush to paper and seeing the colours flow. I feel inspired.

Is it purely the beauty of the scene that grabs my artistic attention, or does my experience influence what I am drawn to in the first place? Why is it that I am inspired to action by these scenes yet other artists would be drawn to concrete buildings or portraits?

Is it our story that leads us to these unconscious choices, these new ideas?

Is it in our DNA? Or is it less complicated than that? Do we just like something the same way we like tea but not coffee, like having visual taste buds?

I’m currently painting for an online exhibition I will be launching later this year. The series is called Ancestral Woods and was inspired by my family history research. One branch of my family tree were woodsman from Norfolk. I was inspired by a visit to the church in West Harling where they are buried. The church is surrounded by woodland. It was very moving to be standing where they had stood 200 years ago, surrounded by trees they would have seen. I felt connected to them and the idea came to me to paint their landscape. Why was this? Was it purely emotional?  Is this woodland ‘in my blood’? Or is it just a simple, artistic response to a beautiful landscape? Why did the idea come to me in that moment to paint this scene?

So, where do new ideas come from?

There has been scientific research into the creation of new ideas. Three separate studies independently came up with the same procedure, that if followed, will generate new ideas. Although worded slightly differently from each other, the results were presented in a simple step by step list like this; 

  1. Do lots of research into your subject and collect all the information you can on the area you want ideas for or the problem that needs solving.
  2. Mix all this research together, play with the different ideas and possible solutions then do something else while your subconscious does the work.
  3. A new idea will burst forth.
  4. Review and refine this idea.

 Now, my arty crafty brain is rebelling against having a procedure for something that feels magical and mystical to me. Yet, when I look at the steps more closely, my experience does follow the pattern above.

Using Ancestral Woods as an example;

  1.  I decide to paint a series of woodland scenes from my time spent in Norfolk. From then on, I see pictures of trees, articles about trees, books about trees, tv programmes about trees everywhere I look. I consciously and unconsciously absorb this information. It feeds my excitement to paint.
  2. I play with ideas and techniques, different surfaces and paints, oils and watercolours, pencil and ink.
  3. Suddenly the ideas flow and beautiful artworks appear on my paper and canvas.
  4. I look back at what I have painted and see what new techniques and colour combinations I have learnt and make mental notes to remember for next time.

 As you can see,  my experience of inspiration and creating new ideas and paintings does roughly follow the pattern the scientific research discovered..

BUT,  this research and subsequent process doesn’t answer the question.

Where do new ideas come from? If all the science, collecting of ideas, merging information and mixing lots of other people’s ideas together, created a new idea in one simple process, we would use it all the time. But we don’t because this research still relies on the mystery of the Eureka moment. The bit where something deep in our subconscious clicks and a new idea ‘bursts forth’. The results of the research have given us a structure to help us in the cultivation of new ideas, but the actual moment of a new idea being born is still a mystery. It is still only explained as our subconscious doing the work and producing the new idea. We cannot control the creation of the idea, we can only feed our minds with images, sounds and words and leave it to work its magic.

So again, I come back to the same question, where do new ideas come from?

What is it that triggers the brain in that lightbulb moment? Is it a biological process that takes place inside us or is it something spiritual, mystical, or magical that is occurring within and around us?

The Oxford dictionary defines inspiration as “The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative”

Webster’s Dictionary however defines inspiration as “a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation”

They are two very different definitions.

Which one do you think explains the Eureka moment best of all?

Paul McCartney dreamt about his mother one night during a period in his life when he was very troubled. He had yet to meet his future wife Linda, the Beatles were having problems as a band and he was feeling isolated living alone. In his dream, Mary spoke to him and told him to “let it be”.  And a beautiful, haunting song was born in that moment.

Surely that has to have been ‘divine influence’ and ‘sacred revelation’?

Elizabeth Gilbert has a theory that inspiration is a living thing.

In her book Big Magic, she tells us of her belief that ideas exist in the world in their own right, as bundles of energy looking for humans to collaborate with in their quest to be created. The idea will search for someone to help it come into being. It will seek out the person who is the right fit, who it thinks will say yes to the invitation to work together, persisting until the chosen person is ready. Or if the chosen person doesn’t come through, then the  idea might move on to find another person to work with.  She talks about working with inspiration as if it is a living thing. Committing to it. Turning up everyday to work hard at your chosen craft so that if inspiration did show up, you are ready and able to accept its invitation to work with you.

Now, I know there will be people reading this who’ll think this theory is nuts.

To be honest, I really don’t blame you. It is quite bonkers but I love the ‘divine influence’ behind it.

It explains why sometimes, I have a spark of inspiration, but by the time I sit down to paint, weeks later, the energy in it has gone and the idea feels lifeless and empty. Inspiration has clearly got bored waiting for me and gone to find another more willing soul.

It also explains why my idea for a series of tree paintings came to me three years ago, and then returned to me again eighteen months later. Big life events had got in the way but the idea came back when I was ready to work with it again.  Nobody else will be able to paint this series from my perspective, so it has to be me to paint it. If the idea went off an chose somebody else, it would be a different set of paintings altogether.

It explains why nothing happens if I just wait for inspiration rather than sit down and work for inspiration.

Could it also explain why the scientists of today have yet to discover how, from the existing information in our brain, a brand new idea is born?

Elizabeth Gilbert’s theory really resonates with me.

I love the craziness of it, I love the magic in it and I have decided that, until a better explanation comes along I choose to believe it.

It fits with how I paint and how I experience the creative process. It fits with my belief that the world has a spiritual, mystical dimension to it.   And so I choose to believe in this divine influence and sacred revelation. It’s much more inspiring and magical than “the process of being mentally stimulated” don’t you think?

What do you think?

Have I challenged how you think about ideas and inspiration? Has this sparked a new idea in you? Do you agree or disagree with the things I have said? Tell me if you think I’m wrong, or let me know if you are right there with me. Where do new ideas come from? Tell me what you think.

Thank you so much for reading this far. If you want pop over to Facebook or Instagram, I’d love you to be part of the conversation there too.

See you back here next month for a look at Seasons of Creativity and how to get the most from them.

Have a good few weeks.

Laura x