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Where Images Come From

Posted on September 22, 2011 by in Making Art | 8 Comments

I’ve found, as a commercial artist, that personal pieces are surprisingly hard to do.  I say surprisingly, because this is what we want, right?  No client,  no rules, we can paint whatever we want!  What I’ve found is that personal pieces resist “designing”.  The process I usually go through when preparing for a painting:  come up with an idea/sketch/shoot reference/paint to resolution, almost never ends with a satisfying image when I’m doing a piece for myself.  I have done a number of personal paintings over the past few years, and I thought I’d share my mental process.  I’ve always rejected the idea of the “inspired” artist as a mythical construct.  I’ve worked for 21 years as an illustrator, and if I’d required inspiration throughout that time, I would have gotten very little painting done.  That said, my most satisfying personal pieces have all grown out of something that could be described as inspiration.  The human imagination, I’m discovering the further I go along, is a weak, anemic force without some strong, underlying reality for it to use as a springboard.  Think of an entirely invented creature vs. one that’s based on real creature anatomy, coloration, etc…  In the illustration world, it’s an axiom:  the more you know about animal anatomy, the more compelling your invented animal’s anatomy will be.  Similarly, I find that, in order to really commit to a personal piece, it has to begin with something I feel strongly about.  This is particularly true with a conceptual piece, as opposed to something like a figure study or a plein-air painting.  So, as much as I’ve resisted the idea of the “inspired artist”, I have to admit that there’s some truth to it.


Artists communicate visually.  It’s what we do, at the most basic level.  Musicians communicate with sound, writers with words, dancers with movement.  The language we use, as artists, includes symbols, colors, stories, composition, mark-making.  While I’ve always known that, I’ve never thought to apply it to my internal dialogue.  What do I mean by that?  I’ve found that there are moments when the language I use in my internal dialogue can, very naturally, shift from words to visions.  This usually happens when I’m meditating, or when I’m falling asleep, or in the morning, when I’m deciding whether I should hit snooze one more time or get up and face the day.  Those dream-like, half conscious moments are times when images and thoughts link-up very naturally.  

Here’s an example:  the idea for the personal piece above (“Waiting for Europa”), came when I was having trouble drifting off to sleep.  I was agitated, one part of me feeling old and useless after my divorce, another part feeling angry and defiant.  I’m not useless!  I thought “I should paint this”, and let my mind drift, imagining what that painting might look like.  Word-thoughts fell away, and image-thoughts took over.  I saw a huge-bellied bull, standing on a dark hill.  Very still, but radiating a deep, hidden power.  He was mostly in shadow,  lit only by a slanting golden light.  He was so huge that he dominated everything.    My initial vision had a small, pale-skinned woman standing in front of him, but she disappeared when the painting actually happened.  As I painted it, I was reminded of the myth in which Zeus came down from heaven in the form of a bull and ravished the human woman Europa.  In my vision, he became a tired, passive, chained god, looking sad and still, but capable of divine fury.  Instead of “The Rape of Europa”, it became “Waiting for Europa”, which just felt exactly right.

Another example of this is an idea for a painting that’s come out of my experience keeping chickens in my backyard.  Several of the chicks I raised over the summer turned out to be roosters, and I had to cull a few of them or they would fight one another.  I went out one morning at 5am, when they were sleepy, and wrung the necks of two of them.  It was a profound and awful experience.  Ever since, I’ve had this vision of a rooster, like the bull in “Europa”, mostly in shadow.  His proud, erect head and neck are lit by a golden light.  We see him from the back.  His head is turned, his proud comb blood red.  He’s fixing the viewer with his piercing, golden eye.  I haven’t painted it yet, but it’s a tremendously powerful image for me, that touches on my own feelings of guilt and sadness and identification.

Obviously not all personal work comes from the same place, but at this point in my career, I have to have an emotional hook before I can feel confident about where I’m going with a personal painting.  When that hook is there, I find I can invest fully, and that other ideas suggest themselves as I’m working, so that a whole series of associated images can grow from that initial seed. 

I have no idea where this sort of image-making will lead me as an artist, but it’s tremendously exciting and satisfying.  After 20 years, it’s helping me forge a strong, new relationship with my art.  If that’s something you desire, I would encourage you to carve out some time in your schedule and see what happens.  If you find yourself struggling with a personal piece, seek out those moments of mental open-ness, and do what artists do best. Think visually.

8 Responses to "Where Images Come From"

  1. Jeff Laubenstein
    - September 22, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Hi Chris,
    Thanks for articulating the stuggle we all face and for doing it so elequently. It’s very difficult to create images “for fun” so to speak. The usual chaos of social, familial and work obligations scramble for your limited time and butt up against the sometimes unsurmountable dilema caused by the simple concept of “what would I lke to paint” can be incredibly frustrating. I’m with you regarding the “dream time”. Ideas seem to come easiest when I’m distracted or not looking for them. I hope that you have success with the Rooster and whatever else your mind finds to capture your attention. In the meantime I’ll see about finding time for some new work and will look for the ellusive muse while I too wait for Europa.
    Thanks again. ~ Jeff

    • Jeff Laubenstein
      - September 22, 2011 at 3:13 pm

      Of course spell check or re-reading the text before sending it would be useful too. =)

    • chris
      - September 22, 2011 at 4:59 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts, Jeff. There really are a lot of barriers to creating work for yourself, when you also do it to make a living. How do you justify painting something without an obvious audience when there are bills to pay? What I find equally daunting are the internal barriers that prevent us from generating subject matter on our own. We usually have some sort of jumping-off point, even if it’s only the Pope telling us that the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel needs some religious illustrations on it.

  2. Steven Belledin
    - September 22, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Chris, this and the email you sent really mean a lot to me, and both have helped me understand quite a bit about the source of my block. The tapping of those emotions we feel and that are urgent to us in some way, I think, can be of the utmost importance not only in coming up with imagery, but also putting momentum behind it. That’s been where I’ve fallen short in my recent endeavors and reading this really hammered that home. The “coolness” factor of things is where I’ve been hung up and it’s the opposite end of how I should have been approaching things. I think. Either way, thanks for sharing this.

    • chris
      - September 22, 2011 at 4:53 pm

      A similar story: I was working on a graphic novel script a year or so ago, and was making no headway. It had all of the “cool” stuff I thought would excite me to paint, but I felt totally disconnected from it. A friend suggested ” Write about what you’re interested in, right now. What you’re going through.” I threw out the script and started from that point, forgetting about trying to create what I thought SHOULD interest me, and thought seriously about what DID interest me. Right that minute, without worrying too much about an audience, or my preconceptions about what had interested me in the past. It helped. Good luck, Steve! Your instincts are pointing you in a healthy direction, I think.

      • Kairam Hamdan
        - September 23, 2011 at 7:34 am

        These are great advices.


  3. =shanewhite=
    - September 23, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    Great article, Chris.

    The way you describe it makes me believe the work we do for money is done to connect an idea or message to an audiences’ feelings and the work we do for ourselves is to connect to our own.
    I totally support this.

    That in-between state of sleep and wake I sometimes will grab a large drawing pad and draw on it in the dark and not worry about it. Just draw with my minds eye and by morning I’ll see if it resonates.


    • chris
      - September 24, 2011 at 12:07 am

      “I sometimes will grab a large drawing pad and draw on it in the dark and not worry about it. Just draw with my minds eye and by morning I’ll see if it resonates.”

      What a great idea, Shane! Whatever it takes, I think, to move past the language barrier and start thinking visually. We do it all the time when we’re solving visual puzzles for our clients, so it should come naturally if we can learn to switch that part of our brains on in the service of our own explorations. I was reading a book about Waterhouse today, and was struck by how deeply emotional his pieces are. I would be curious to know what his process was.