How do you begin?

by , under 200 level survey

I am struggling with the most essential question: how do you begin? I can’t even write this without overthinking how to start. You find yourself so intimidated by a blank canvas and a thousand potential directions. You edit and re-edit until you get frustrated and throw them all away, because after a certain point you feel like you  stop making sense. So how do you solve that?

I met with a handful of classmates to talk about brainstorming and problem solving strategies. Where do you begin? How do you decide how to proceed? Everyone seemed to approach it differently, but everyone seemed to gain something learning how others worked. It seems to me that students can learn more studying other artists’ process than they can by studying their finished pieces.

So here’s what we got out of it:

Writing can open up your mind. Word associations, literary devices, synonyms, antonyms, onomonopias, hyperboles, personification, etc. Making lists and checklists, write critiques, recording things and returning to them with a fresh mind later.

Remembering the principals and elements of design to help hone your purpose and help eliminate superfluous features.

Relating imagery to push things farther. Get weird with it. Using google image search or looking through your own library of collected photos or artists can take you places you weren’t expecting to go. Setting up your workspace to be surrounded by inspiration, weather it’s from artists or your personal experiences.

Creating limitations for yourself with mediums, elements, etc. so that you are forced to experiment with what you have. It will keep your experiments controlled and force you to work differently.

Making duplicates with slight variations in composition or color. This can create dialogue or solutions for later projects. Using digital tools can help you visualize variations quickly without altering the original. Or make adjustments with elements and experiment with layers using tracing paper if you prefer to work with paper.

So how do you begin? How do you simplify a thousand possibilities?

  1. Lila B

    Personally, I just take mental or literal note of things that I like and dislike. They need not have a thing to do with graphic design.

    Wow, the grime on this toaster oven sheet looks like the wall in that video game I was playing earlier. What a nice texture, mayhap I can use its texture or colour scheme in something later.

    Oh hey, what an interesting constellation of toothpaste spatters on the mirror. I could use this in an illustration!

    Gee, this fellow ahead of me on the bus has really strange-looking ears. Would it be weird if I sketched them? The folds just make such a nice composition…


    Wow. That logo is so so terrible that it saddens me deeply. Ooh, I could make it better if I did [xyz]. Hey now, I can use that process elsewhere!

    I find that looking up the work of other artists as I am trying to create something myself just leads me to copy them no matter how hard I try to resist. The real trick is just being able to pop out useful articles of my collection of idea fragments when I need some. Then, to keep myself from running amok, I’ll set myself some kind of rule to follow until I see it fit to be broken, eg: use of the number four, using angles that only end in 7, having three iterations of each element, et cetera and so forth.

    I say all this as if it were a flawless process…it usually results in me throwing down something savage to salvage into something savoury.

    Also: since when/how can students make blog posts, eh?

    • Leah S

      Lists are definitely a huge help to me-being able to blurt out whatever thoughts I have about a certain subject helps me to open up my mind to ideas relating to my topic that I didn’t even know I had!

      I would agree with Lila wholeheartedly however-pulling textures, shapes, etc from my own reality-my daily life-is very refreshing. It’s nice to have my compositions stem from something I have actually seen and experienced.

    • Sam W

      Wow, that’s an interesting approach to finding inspiration. I’ll definitely have to use that in the future. I have gotten inspiration from everyday objects, but I have never thought to turn to specific things in my personal daily life. When I have “artist’s block,” I tend to turn to works from other artists or cool imaged I find on the web, but you’re right, I find it hard to produce an original work only stemming from inspiration and not just copying exactly the same elements. The rule idea is also a good idea. It’s a great way to keep your work grounded without straying too far until you feel that it’s necessary for its progression.

    • Khalan S

      I begin with identifying what the actual task is. Meaning, why am I even at this blank canvas? Once I identify my objective of the work I begin just kind of letting my mind wander. Letting various possibilities come to mind. I then begin to narrow things down by looking through inspirations, whether it be personal photographs, previous works of art, or even surfing the internet. I like to explore different sites like tumblr and instagram for inspiration. I feel that it kind of allows me to loosen my brain up and just become creatively free. Also when looking at images I keep in mind the elements of art and principles of design. This helps me really determine what images will help and not hinder what I am trying to create. Honestly, the discovery of what I want to create is the best part to me! I enjoy seeing how far my mind can take things. As a result, it is very rewarding to see and create something that you came up with in your mind.

      I am excited to try some of these other methods to begin a work and see what works best for me.!

  2. Michaella Jelin

    Awesome post Caitlin! Definitely a constant struggle of mine as well. Personally I try and find inspiration in everything I do. I save images I find, or just take notes of ideas I have and pile them up so that when I do have assignments, I have somewhere to start. Lately with our word projects, since they are something I know I have to do every week, I try and keep it in the back of my mind throughout the week and pull inspiration from things around me, or other art assignments I’m working on so I have somewhere to start. Also, having a theme or a concept is always a good place to start for me. If I start a project completely directionless, I end up wasting so much time trying to create, and get frustrated with everything I do. Whereas if I have at least some direction I’m going in, the process goes a little bit smoother. Although design is really just a trial and error thing sometimes. Especially at this stage when we’re still playing around with it and learning so much, sometimes the best way to create is to just mess around and see what happens and where you can go and what you can learn from your own design experiments.

    • Julie Rodriguez

      I have a lot of trouble starting with the blank 11 x 17, or an open ended assignment. Once I get going, I am usually thankful for the freedom and thrive in the possibilities and potential for trying something new. But the beginning, for me, takes forever. I hadn’t really considered “creating limitations for myself” as a good step to take in my initial process until my classmates and I were having this discussion on process. Jointly, I think making some kind of checklist for what I would like to achieve in a certain piece, based on, say, the principles of art from previous classes, comments from critique that Tony or my classmates said, terminology from Tony’s lectures, or particular elements of other artist’s work I enjoy — could be a great way to be intentional about beginning a project, instead of fiddling around with images, colors, and designs until I find something visually appealing–which is an easy thing to fall into after getting frustrated about where to begin.This week, when just messing around making some designs for fun, I’ve been challenging myself to use a certain image of my tool that I haven’t explored yet — so that I don’t get lost in the sea of pictures I’ve taken of my tool. I think creating a framework for myself to start working with will help me push forward a lot –to be more intentional about which things I need to explore more, get better at, and learn to understand.

    • Sarah Wingate

      Thanks for the helpful post, Caitlin!

      For me, scrolling through the internet and looking through books and magazines usually does the trick for me. As soon as I see something I like, it reminds me of yet another thing I like, and my process continues from there. Once I’m inspired, I feel like I could create things for days on end. It’s just getting to that point that’s the difficult part.

      There are never ending ideas out there just waiting to be explored and whether it’s by making a list or researching hundreds of artists, we are all capable of creating beautiful, endless amounts of artwork. If we all take what we’ve learned from every assignment I know we will continue to grow more and more every day.

  3. J Smith

    When starting out with a specific design or project, I personally find it easier to first ask yourself some questions. What am I trying to accomplish? Who will be viewing the final product? How can I satisfy my own objectives while at the same time achieving the goal that has been placed. After answering these important questions, I go looking for inspiration on the web. Using many search engines ( Google mainly ) and certain websites ( Behance/Deviant Art ) , I can get a source or multiple sources to pull inspiration for my own project. Once my goal and inspiration is found, its very easy for me to replicate what is in my head. Of course, it won’t always be exactly how you thought, but you change as you design. Which in turn can create a better result.

  4. Andrew Chun

    Don’t be afraid of failing.

    Keep exploring – don’t throw away the work that you believe sucks.

    Try new things.

    People try to make work that appeals to the audience; however, that’s a double edge sword. Your work should be your journey – your experience. Yeah, it feels great to get a pat on the back, but in the end, are you happy? Now, this doesn’t mean just make whatever and be out of control. Stay in control and do what you do best – design. I know every person in our class is amazing at drawing.

    Be patient with yourself. Think and then grow. Whatever work you make, keep it. Don’t throw it away. I would love to see the work that you struggled with rather than a work that you breezed through. Believe in yourself and think of everything you learned in your life. Your life is filled with unique stories that are dying to come out in your work.

    So I guess my advice is – find a story that you love the most and tie that with your word. An element of creativity is connecting things that aren’t related. It’s fun. You got this! Keep up the good work :D goooo team! yeyuhhhh~~

  5. Phenix P

    It is always hard to get an art work started, but once you get yourself into the mood, everything just comes along the way. What I do is I have a basic mindset in my head of what I want to do. Such as for the friday assignments, I tell myself that this week I want to focus on typography, so I would look up icons and different fonts and start playing with what I have, and I usually discover new ideas as I’m working. Creativity and ideas are always hard to come up with, but there is an infinite range of styles that we can work with. It is common to get stuck and think you are going no where. The key is exploration and experimentations.
    Learn to love what you do, keep searching and never give up.

  6. Darya

    This was so well written, you did a great job of summarizing the discussion :)

    Lila made a great point and we didn’t really discuss that on Sunday. I would agree, at times I see some art pieces (whether it be on Tumblr, in class, wherever) and I’ll think “Oh, I like that color scheme” or “that style” or “those lines” and those elements that tend to stand out are the things I never thought of or incorporated in my work before. So then when I begin something new, I go back to those pieces that inspired me and I’ll want to experiment with that color scheme, or style, or line work. I guess to sum it up, I take bits and pieces from everything around me and I ask myself “How can I make this mine?”.

  7. Jordan

    When I start the process of making something, I usually have the same struggles as all of my classmates. I try to think of daily inspirations based on all the senses. “Oh man that coffee tasted so good this morning, I really like that girl’s outfit,” etc. The problem with all of it is how to translate that into design. Most designers work towards a purpose when designing for a specific group, is the piece approachable and does it speak to the “right” people. A designer has to take in all of the inspirations of their daily lives and make it applicable to whatever they are making. All of the things mentioned are good in theory, but to me the only way to begin is just knowing who you are and what you like, then taking the plunge.

  8. Joshua Gilley

    When beginning, I first mull over the task at hand. I do this for hours, maybe even a day or two, just reading and researching anything that has to do with the project. Once I feel that I’ve looked at all that I can, I start with small sketches and notes of what I think could work. These thumbnails help me flesh out ideas, and I may even continue with more than one idea once I’m done with this stage. I try to draw inspiration from what I researched at the start, then I put my own spin on it. I simply my ideas, and I follow through with them from start to finish. As the weeks have gone by, I’ve learned to expirement and not be afraid to step outside my comfort zone. It can be a good thing.

  9. Lydia (Giraffe) Davis

    Well, people, I honestly couldn’t answer this question maybe a week ago. But I think (and I wrote this in my self assessment) I’ve discovered photography and film are my two primary sources that answer to my “artist’s block.” Whenever I lack an idea or concept, I draw ideas from movies and photography. As I watched Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius yesterday, I realized I could design an entire world and base the color on the concept of domination and study what it would look like as a color scheme.

    Colors have slowly begun to fascinate me this semester. I stepped in as a black and white lover. And I’m predicting I’ll leave with a splash of color in my eyes.

    So I’m thinking if I ever struggle with asking myself this question, I’ll have proactive tasks that will spur my imagination.

    1. Look at images and ask them questions (but don’t expect any responses)
    2. Watch films and put yourself in the characters’ shoes (if they’re wearing any)
    3. Create color schemes (this doesn’t produce any images, just acts as a kind of therapeutic exercise; thanks, Moon)
    4. Brainstorm during critique. Change everyone’s project in a direction you’d like it to go.
    5. And finally listen to your favorite music. Nothing gets me going like Radioactive or the YMCA

    Each week I start out having no idea what I want to do. But it’s been different each week for the word assignment. Gradually, I’ve built a sturdy foundation for brain storming. I’m still pretty bad at it. But I’ve had my bad weeks and I’ve had my good weeks. And I feel the above steps have had something to do with my good weeks.

    As far as crits go, I honestly never take into account what students say. Okay, rarely do I take into account what students say about my work. I trust everyone’s opinion but I change my work based on my personal criticisms going on in my head. “On the wall, that looks different. It should be this instead,” or “I should have gone this direction,” or “what the hell was I thinking?” So each week I base my next project on what I could have done differently and create a new idea based on old stuff.

    So do I honestly know the answer to this question? No. Not yet.

  10. Drew Halbert

    So, My Grandfather is freakishly amazing at crossword puzzles. He does the Daily Puzzle in the New York Times in pen. He never messes up; he never needs an eraser. It’s totally wicked. And the trick, he says, is to never to try and do it all at once. You can never underestimate the power of a fresh mind.

    We’ve all sat at a desk, trashcan overflowing with paper balls, or at the computer staring at a white square on the screen unable to make ourselves like anything we try and put on paper; frustrated beyond belief. But at that point, the point where you feel like you can’t squeeze out one more idea because it will ultimately go nowhere: WALK AWAY! It may only take an hour it may take a day. Watch tv, Check Facebook, go for a walk, do some laundry, but eventually come back and take another look at your crossword puzzle.

    Revisit a few of those trashed ideas, who knows where they may go? There may be an obvious solution you just weren’t seeing before. Combine elements from some of them, or start fresh all together, rinse and repeat if necessary. Designing in iterations, I believe is the key to not only making successful designs, but also to arriving at finished product that you enjoy while maintaining a full head of hair.

    I would also like to add to the consensus above on the usefulness of the Internet to draw inspiration. We have the ability to draw upon centuries of artistic innovation and influence at our fingertips, but I would also like to point out that not everything on the Internet is gold, use that knowledge to your advantage. Ask yourself, How is this composition successful? How is it not? How could I utilize/improve upon the concepts used here? I would also advise against finding one artwork to use as a reference for your own work. The Internet has a funny way of teaching you only as much as you’re willing to learn. You should be using it to learn a (to use Tony’s term) “language.” When you use one piece as a reference it’s more like only learning how to ask where the bathroom is (a skill only useful in a handful of scenarios).

    In closing, I’m glad we’ve started to communicate and express our ideas like this (*hat tip to Caitlin*) I feel like its another way for us to grow as artists and designers together, and another way to tighten us as a community. Thanks for reading my whole post (sorry it got kinda long) and I look forward to continuing to read more posts!



  11. Ina Zap

    That is a very good approach. I shall try doing word associations!
    If I am out of ideas or feeling uninspired when starting a new art project, I will begin very similarly to how I would approach a literature paper: do research, look up some information, read material, look at pictures, pull from what I know and have seen. Then, write these things down into brainstorming clouds and connect the ideas that seem to go together.
    However, I usually have a set of ideas tucked into my sleeve. These are anything from techniques I have always wanted to try to a texture I have always wanted to use. There is never a shortage of that if you are constantly taking pictures, making observations, and seeing art.
    Let me just say, that you shouldn’t worry so much about originality. It is okay to be inspired by another artist, as long as you do it tactfully. The art world won’t move foreword if you regurgitate what is already out here. This will only produce inbred, retarded work. Obviously, ripping off someone’s ideas is bad, but as long as we are still students, I feel it is okay to try someone else’s approach, aesthetic, or element of design.
    In the end, it gives you a starting point, and if you feel that the work is not your own, then change it until it is.

  12. Derek Pellegrini

    Personally, I just start thinking of ideas and keep a mental list, envisioning each possibility. Then when I think of an idea that I can really get behind and will expand on it and flesh it out. I’m not one for writing things, mostly because I’m lazy, but I think I will try to write my ideas down more in the future. Also looking at others work, taking what they’ve done and making it your own by applying your own personal style to it is a great way to create for a different perspective.

  13. Ruby Lin

    You know how sometimes there’s a word on the tip of your tongue that you just can’t seem to find? That’s how I always feel about my works. Word associations and the like are very helpful but the thing is, sometimes it’s hard to find one idea to stick to and expand on. I constantly feel like I’m stuck in the beginning stage of a work. No matter how developed my art seems, to me, it’s still just the beginning. I never feel like I’m done.

    For me, making lists help, A LOT. I always try to keep the assignment in the back of my mind and while looking at other works, an idea will pop into my head and I’ll jot it down. The trick is though, not to over think that one idea, rather, I revisit it later in the day when I barely remember writing it down. Starting fresh really helps. Visiting an old idea allows you to think about it in different ways and not be constricted. Never throw away an old idea that you feel is bad! You could see it as something completely different and amazing the next day. This is why I have so many incomplete works, I always go back and look at them to see what I can change.

    The internet is also one of the best sources available. I always visit blogs and scroll through other recommended sites to help find inspiration. Sometimes I find pieces that I really enjoy and I print it out and stick it in my sketchbook for later references. Observing not only your own process but other people’s is definitely the best way for me to begin a piece. Always jot down all ideas and keep them in the back of your head.
    Ideas sometimes come at the weirdest moments.

  14. Danniel Angulo

    Starting a creative endeavor is weird. As many times as I’ve made things, I never get any better at being sure of my first stroke.

    What I’ve found from my own experiences has been that, while it’s fine to have a general idea of what you want the end result to be, it should never be taken too seriously. By trying too hard to stick to the original concept you close your mind in a box and there’s no more room for exploration.

    So what I’ve learned to do is just to get something on the page. A random curve or shape or word, anything. Once a bunch of random stuff is on the page, even if it has nothing at all to do with what I’m supposed to be doing, our brains as meaning-making machines will somehow make the randomness on the page have something to do with the project at hand. What’s crazy about it is how unexpected it feels, but how it literally never fails to happen. Letting go of expectations frees up our minds, when we’re most free is when we’re most comfortable, and when we’re most comfortable is when we’re most likely to take risks. And that’s kind of the point of art/life is taking risks.

    Just a strange lesson learned over the years from drawing and especially playing guitar.

    • Danniel Angulo

      just wanted to clarify: i don’t mean that the random stuff becomes the work itself, but that it naturally leads to further ideas that are less random

      • Caitlin L

        I agree with this completely. More often than not I aside elements that for the mood I’m going for and then arrange/refine them. For me it’s a habit from Editorial design.

  15. meg johnson

    Starting a project is my favorite part. I love a blank piece of paper. I have a constant rolling list of things I’d like to try- font I’d like to work with, mediums I want to explore, styles I haven’t tackled, classmate’s work I would like to influence my own, context I haven’t gotten to the bottom of. All those things are pretty consistently bouncing around in my head and every week I look forward to snagging one and seeing what happens. I, honestly, don’t usually have an exact plan…my work is about process and intuition. I am ever searching for ways to create subtleties and surprises. I feel the work takes on its own life, and the subconscious of the work and my own intuition guide the process. Is that finished piece always what I expected? No way. Do I love when I surprise myself? Definitely. I read a quote recently (probably on pinterest if I’m being honest) about how when you’re starting out that you are inevitably going to make things you aren’t in love with. The quote continued to say that it was SO important to persevere and continue to make- that what makes a young designer relevant is their ability to recognize what good design is. To keep making until you get there yourself. I think there are a million different ways to start, but the important part is that you are continually starting… Always starting, always making, always growing. I don’t think that should ever stop.

  16. Stacey Suss

    Personally, I often gain inspiration for projects based on what is currently going on in my life. Just went to a really cool event/concert/convention? Maybe take elements from the sights and sounds of that memory and incorporate it into a piece. Been watching a lot of shows about superheroes this week? Maybe find inspiration for a project within that theme.

    Like many others have mentioned, the internet is a place where I gather a lot of ideas as well. Seeing beautiful or moving art/design on sites like tumblr or google images is an effective way of recognizing elements of successful composition, which I can then take bits and pieces of and alter them to make my own.

    But when it comes down to figuring out a new idea for a project, I find that I try to brainstorm and exhaust all possibilities. Lists can be helpful, but usually it is just a thought process for me that ends in an ‘aha’ moment when I come upon an idea or word association that piques my interest. Then I take that idea and run with it. However, I think it’s important not to get too attached to an idea. If you are initially excited about an idea but it is not working out for you once you begin putting it on paper, be honest with yourself and don’t be afraid to start anew.

    Most of all, I believe it is important to be creating designs that you enjoy. Yes, keep in mind your audience, but don’t let them completely rule you. In order to remain continually inspired, you need to have passion for your craft. As long as you do, ideas will come.

  17. Nicole Wasson

    I’d like to begin by saying how helpful it has been talking with all of you and reading your processes. It is a lot helpful!! I am glad we are spending more time asking ourselves these questions and putting a greater amount of thought in to answering them. A few weeks into the class I struggled with creating pieces I was truly happy with. Something was missing and I could not figure out what. I needed to go back to the basics. Revisit the principles of design. Gather inspiration. Try different techniques–go crazy and then rein it back in. When I set out to begin a new piece I make a list. I draw, and draw, and draw, and draw some more. I make thumbnails and fill up my page with notes–thoughts on placement, thoughts on symbolism, or color, scale. I have not been doing this lately. At least not as indepth as I would normally do. When I get into putting the idea on paper, finalising the design and figuring things out, I use tracing paper. It is almost like illustrator or photoshop except not on the computer. I have all my elements. I can move them around figure out what I like. I have just started using photoshop more to play with scale. I scan my drawings in and create my work space there. It is important for to me to see everything I am working with in a big, unconfined space and then take it from there. Adjusting to the computer was different. Nevertheless, I like to plan. Whether it is on the computer or my living room floor. My inspiration comes from things that make me happy. Most of my work in this class has been quiet and simple. I’d like to step away from that for a little while to explore more and maybe find other ways to work successfully.

  18. Emily B

    LISTS, LISTS, LISTS! I always have something to write with and I’m constantly searching for ideas.

    Another thing that helps me a great deal is finding something that interests me outside design. Reading about something different helps me create a new set of ideas. For example, I’ve been reading a lot about the Mars Rover Curiosity right now . Following this rover’s journey around the planet Mars has given me fuel for the fire.

    As a designer you can’t just design, you have to live. That’s a big thing I struggle with. Having time to relax and take a breath always helps my creative process.

  19. Guess Who

    Trust your intuition, don’t think so much before making a mark, it can always be altered, everything can always be changed.

    Nothing is ever permanent.

    Thoughtless marks can be just as successful as a thoughtful mark. These are the most creative marks possible because they organically flow from our inner being.

    This mark is a sum of all experiences, visual and physical, we have encountered since we opened our eyes.

    – Thats how I tackle a blank canvas –