Finding Inspiration: The myth of motivation | Christiaan

In Brooke Shaden's book Inspiration in Photography she states that “…there are two types of inspiration. There is internal inspiration, which comes to us from our own experiences and perceptions of the world, and there is external inspiration, which comes from other people”[1].  Many artists choose to believe that the only, or best time to work are those very rare times when inspiration hits them, like a light bulb turning on in a dark room- artists who choose to believe this are limiting themselves. Waiting for inspiration as if it comes only from outside of ourselves limits artists to working only when it does come around; when if we know how to find it, inspiration can be found anywhere. Inspiration is not an all elusive concept that dangles like a prize just out of reach, artists are not Tantalus, perpetually reaching and never grasping the golden apple that is inspiration.


The myth of creative inspiration is an insidious one, kept alive by humans that know no better, perhaps because they lack a creative flair or thought of their own which perpetuates a cycle of continuously looking for that golden apple rather than creating it. Others find they are inspired from the moment they wake up to the moment they sleep, and a few are inspired specifically by their dreams.  If this is the case then perhaps inspiration is not as elusive as one would first think.  Perhaps, inspiration is a mindset. Shaden states on the cover of her book that “training your mind to make great art is a habit”, habits, by definition are things we do without thinking about them, thus suggesting that if we train ourselves to receive inspiration whenever we search for it we can find it without having to wait for it to come out of nowhere.  This is great news for working artists because it gives them permission to throw out the idea that inspiration is fleeting and work from the basis that they can come up with ideas for art at any time they like.  It is this ability to break free from the constraints of external inspiration that can bolster an artist’s ability to create a substantial body of work in a much shorter period of time.  Rather than waiting for inspiration to strike, they can create inspiration internally and turn that into solid ideas which can then be turned into a physical piece of art.


Admittedly, while internal inspiration is more personal and comes from within we cannot displace external inspiration as a legitimate source for inspiration in artworks. Without it we would be without great works of historical and cultural value. In fact one of the greatest influences on the way we express ourselves comes from our personal history and culture.  Everyone is influenced by what they see, hear, and do and this can show up as a sort of “personal-bias” in our artworks. Therefore regardless of whether the inspiration comes from external or internal sources, there will always be the fact that the external world around us shapes the way we see and do things and thus has an influence on our internal thinking. 


One of the greatest influences on inspiration can be our cultural art and heritage, an interesting observation made by Lucy Lamp states that when it comes to art from the worlds cultures “They are created with aesthetic considerations, with a strong emphasis on craftsmanship. However, they are not created in the sense that we consider art today, as something significant in and of itself—an object to be preserved, maintained and experienced on its own”[2], what is so interesting about this is the extent of influence that these works have over our modern day arts. One such example can be seen in the recent upsurge of Adult colouring books found on the market.  Many of the designs incorporate Mandala, each one unique but all influenced by Buddhist culture and their use of mandala in their day to day living and rituals.


How then do we create an environment that consistently pulls out that internal well of creative ideas? Scheduling and routine: James Clear states that “The work of top creatives' isn’t dependent upon motivation or inspiration, but rather it follows a consistent pattern and routine. It’s the mastering of daily habits that leads to creative success, not some mythical spark of genius”[3].  This is explained well by some concepts found in the field of psychology.  William James, widely considered the progenitor of modern psychology is famously quoted as having stated that a strict routine will “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action”[4]. This idea that a routine and daily habits has been articulated and shown up many times over the course of history from Einstein and Steve Jobs who wore the same or similar clothes each day to Ernest Hemmingway who was up at 5.30 every single day no matter the amount of alcohol consumed the night before.  The basic idea is that each person only has a certain amount of cognitive “bandwidth” an idea that is supported by cognitive dissonance theory as well as the cognitive bandwidth theory.


When we make habits our brain bypasses making a decision on something and this frees up cognition to work on the things that matter such as creating art in this instance.  In further support of the idea of not wasting your decision making capacity- a 2012 Vanity Fair article on Barrack Obama written by Michael Lewis stated the following “You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” .He mentions research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions”[5]. Put simply, if we wear the same clothes, or eat the same foods, or wake up or go to bed at the same time we free up the cognition needed to work on more taxing decisions such as what or how to make art.


Repetition is one of the ways we can build these habits to force our minds to get used to finding inspiration.  Just like a runner, artists will have days where their output is rubbish, the work they create is junk and it could feel like a wasted day.  However, without these days where the output is bad, can we ever truly reach the highs of an amazing piece of art? Without putting in the time, it is unlikely that a style and conceptual voice will grow, because part of the experience of art is that even when you are creating your worst work you are still learning how to do things, how not to do things and what works for you as an individual.  On the other side of the argument for scheduling and repetition when it comes to your hours and days of work, how are you able to move forward if you have no specific work time forcing you to deliver?  A routine and repetition then are your best tools for creating art and finding inspiration.  Once some form of rules relating to timeframes and deliveries is in place each week or day, you no longer waste time thinking when you will get a chance to do work but can focus on what you are going to do with it.


How then do we conjure up new ideas consistently and with more regularity?  Despite all of what has been said previously it all comes down to finding your passion and harnessing it.  To understand what drives you, it is worthwhile sitting down and figuring out why you love it so much.  Shaden states that if your passion lies in cinema for example “why not ask yourself why you like cinema so much? Is it because you get lost in the world of the movie? Is it because you love watching the period style, plot, wardrobe, set design, or the emotion portrayed on the faces of the actors?”[6], why an artist would choose to do this is simple, once having done so you can channel that love into your own work.


To come up with ideas that excite you each time you set out to create a piece of art takes practise, fortunately when you know how to come up with the ideas then it all becomes much easier. Many artists struggle with the concept of finding inspiration and what can help is defining your style. Once you know what your style is it is very easy to keep yourself within the definitions of that style. Shaden suggests coming up with a list of keywords that “are not only how I see my photography, but how I want other people to see it[7]. Once an artist has this definition it is easy to see when you are heading off track and not staying within your parameters. The trick is to stay distinct and consistent, and it is always worth questioning why any single piece is heading away from the parameters previously set, are you moving away from them because you have grown and have moved beyond them into a new set of definitions or are you off track and need to re-centre yourself.


As artists it is our duty to set ourselves up to succeed, using routine and habit to make art consistently is one of the most important ways we can overcome the idea that inspiration is fleeting, once you understand what drives you and what your parameters are you need to be able to come up with ideas.  This can take some time and is different for different artists Remember if you follow your interests regardless of the outcome on a single piece; the inspiration you find will be deeper and more constant. As artists, we must be willing to search inside of ourselves for our inspiration and not rely on outward sources to create the base of our own art.  Finding our passion is the one way that our personal reality or storytelling ability can come to life in our art and while it may be influenced by the life around us, it will consistently speak our voice, our perception and our inner self.



[1] Shaden, B. Inspiration for Photographers: Training your mind to make great art a habit. Ilex Press, 2013, Location  318 kindle edition.


[2] Lamp. L, Inspiration in visual art:where do artists get their ideas<>

[3] Clear, J. The Myth of Creative Inspiration: Great Artists Don’t Wait for Motivation (They Do This Instead), Sited December 20, 2015 <,>

[4] Clear, J. The Myth of Creative Inspiration: Great Artists Don’t Wait for Motivation (They Do This Instead), Sited December 20, 2015 <,>

[5] Lewis, M. Vanity Fair 30 sep 2012, sited 20 dec 2015 <>

[6] Shaden, B. Inspiration for Photographers: Training your mind to make great art a habit. Ilex Press, 2013, Location 356 kindle edition.

[7] Shaden, B. Inspiration for Photographers: Training your mind to make great art a habit. Ilex Press, 2013, Location 386 kindle edition.