The Ultimate Guide to Interpreting Inspiration for Your Art or Design

Creating visual art or designing for any purpose is so much more fun and fulfilling if you can integrate meaningful messages — also known as content — into your creative process. Here are all the things Laurelow considers before beginning a project for leisure or work.

Emotions

No matter how you experience the world, you feel significant emotions from each moment to the next; they are foundational to how we all interpret our surroundings.
Certain colors, for example, are known for triggering specific emotions. Decide which of those plus the following emotional associations make sense to you, but give yourself room to generate other ideas.

  • Artists often convey positive emotions such as happiness, hope, and comfort through rounded, continuous shapes and lines along with light values, vibrant colors, moderate use of white space, and smooth textures. For negative emotions including sadness and loneliness, they tend to use broken lines along with sharp, pointed shapes and textures with dark, desaturated tones.
  • When viewing emotionally-charged artwork, you may see subjects either crowded close together to indicate intensity or placed very far apart to show isolation. Think about how the shapes and lines you create might converge (join), diverge (separate), or overlap.
  • Be conscious of the direction of the most noticeable lines you see; are they horizontal to suggest stability, depth, or distance? Are they vertical to show growth or strength? How about diagonal lines, which can convey a lack of balance or an abundance of change?
  • Emotions are not limited to the mind; we also physically experience them. Most people will describe calmness as a lightness in their chests or anger as a heat in their heads. Whether or not you are creating figures, these feelings make for meaningful material. The location in which they manifest through the body can also be transferred to a corresponding location on your paper where you symbolically express them.

Keep reading for guidance about even more ways to express emotions and the events that provoke them in your artwork.

Experiences

Events of your daily life — no matter how mundane they may seem, and whether they’re several seconds or entire life stages — are often full of unrealized potential. From all you experienced through your senses to the emotions you felt to the thoughts or existing memories that passed through your mind, these snapshots in time may also bring you closer to your audience through relatable themes.

Sight

Clearly, the most important sense for visual artists is sight. However, what you see is not always what meets the eye!

Serene plen air waterscape painting  |  Photo credit: Enrique Hoyos – Pexels

For example, consider not just the people, places, and objects you see, but also how they move throughout their environments, and how their environments move around them.

  • Consider borrowing the techniques of post-impressionist and abstract expressionist artists such as Vincent Van Gogh or Williem de Kooning, who utilized loose, expressive lines to suggest the moonlit, twinkling breeze of a starry night or a rush of waves.
  • Similarly, comic book artists help readers quickly understand where there is motion or pressure through motion lines. These may follow characters as they move quickly and form circular shapes to represent impacts or bursts.
  • Comics are also known to reveal what characters are thinking or saying through speech bubbles or thought bubbles. Question marks, exclamation marks, or various types of lines may surround their heads to indicate unspoken questions, concerns, or feelings.
Speech bubbles, thought bubbles, and representations of impact or surprise with motion lines

Do you have a unique interpretation of an existing visual masterpiece, such as a drawing, painting, or sculpture? Depict any feelings the piece evokes for you through your own artwork. Its historical and cultural context may also be important; try to envision the artist’s daily environment, and even do some informal research if you need to. This is a great way to clear your mind of your existing influences and find new ways to be creative.

Sound

Allow yourself to be influenced by sounds as well: anything from the natural rustle of wind to spoken conversations to pre-recorded or live, interactive music.

Group of friends enjoying live music  |  Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio – Pexels

With its complex, intentionally-organized compositions and lyrics, music is another form of creative work that invigorates artists of all kinds. Here are some ways it might inspire you, too.

  • Pay attention to a song’s overall structure, which often consists of a theme — a memorable first section that establishes the mood of the song — and then variations of that theme. This can help you determine the placement of items on your page.
  • While a song’s structure can help you determine your art or design’s structure, musical ornaments, which are unnecessary but interesting stylistic choices, are comparable to extra visual decorations. Consider a song’s tempo — the speed at which it’s performed — as well as rhythm, a pattern of how long or short notes are when compared to each other. Both tempo and rhythm can be slightly altered through the ornamental extra note of a trill (rapidly vibrating or quivering sound) or acciaccatura (a very short note played right before a main note).
  • Similarly, articulation can tell musicians exactly how to play or sing a note or chord. Slurs (played “in legato”) consist of multiple notes played as continuously as possible; on the other hand, staccato notes are played very quickly. Accented notes are played louder than usual, while “ghost notes” are softer than usual.
  • How loudly or softly is the song played, and does its overall volume change over time through the sudden articulation of accented notes? Are there gradual dynamic changes of crescendos (gradual increases in volume) or decrescendos (gradual decreases in volume)? The dynamics of music can visually translate into boldness or subtlety.
  • How do the melodies and harmonies sound — cheerful, somber, jarring, a combination of all three, or neither? Allow these descriptions to inform your colors, lines, shapes, and more.
  • The timbre — or quality of any sound, from light to smooth to rough — can vary depending on which instrument is used or which singer is performing. In addition, when discussing music, musicians refer to texture as the sounds that result when instruments and voices are layered over one another. You might represent these characteristics and layers through any patterns, types of surfaces, and levels of complexity you illustrate.

Mark Rothko, for example, often combined many thin layers of paint to achieve emotionally expressive combinations with open yet interesting space.

  • Lyrics offer a clearer way for songwriters to make their thoughts known. They can beautifully complement — or sometimes contradict — the mood created by a song’s instrumental side. You may want to communicate such a complement or contradiction in your work, incorporate its most important word or two, or portray what exactly about the lyrics you find important.
  • Think about the time in which a song you’re listening to was created, and how that time period influenced the composer and/or musician’s work. Was it written within the past few years, more than a century ago, or well over several hundred years ago? How did the time, place, and unique experiences of that person or people affect the instruments and style of performance you hear?

Even more art forms that can guide your information-gathering process are theater performances, cinematic shows, and written or spoken literature.

Touch

Think about all the literal textures, temperatures, and levels of pressure you have felt through touch, whether they were sharp or soft, warm or cold, and so on. How did you react to them physically and mentally, and how can you showcase those reactions in your artwork?

Smell

In addition, consider the sense of smell, which can help us encounter an unbelievable range of invisible qualities, from fruity to earthy to pungent and nearly anywhere in between. Smell is especially known for its ability to trigger vivid memories and immediate emotional reactions. This is likely because the olfactory bulb, which helps us interpret smells, connects directly to the limbic system, the area of the brain that regulates emotion.

Taste

Smell also helps us anticipate and appreciate five distinct tastes, which can combine to create various flavors.

Lauren Bigelow sipping coffee while reading newspaper
Lauren enjoying a cup of coffee

Keep in mind that the following tastes will be described here from a globally Western — more specifically, American — point of view. Various cultures, especially those in the Eastern hemisphere, vary greatly in the dishes they have grown accustomed to and enjoy.

  • Sweet tastes often evoke pleasant feelings and light, airy associations.
  • Salty tastes tend to be strongly liked or disliked depending on the types of foods that contain them, as well as how much salt they contain, since the substance in isolation can be overpowering. Because of this, salt can symbolize polarization and volatility for artists, who may express its taste through contrast and disorganization.
  • Sourness is usually recognized as unpleasantly acidic and may be a sign of decay in some foods. It produces startling, urgent emotions such as surprise, disgust, or even fear that can be shown through brightness, sharp and intense lines, colors, themes, and subject matter.
  • Bitterness also tends to be unpleasant and is rare in traditionally-Western dishes, but it does not contain the acidity of sourness; however, our taste receptors are most sensitive to bitter tastes and they still produce very negative emotions for us. With their intense, earthy flavors, bitter foods might prompt you to draw with literal and metaphorical heaviness and darkness.
  • More recently, scientists have recognized another category of taste called umami — a pleasant, savory experience that we can get from most dishes. Visual work based on the umami taste can look simple, tranquil, and recognizable.

Spicy foods are not sensed by our taste buds in the same way as sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or umami tastes; rather, they create the illusion of warmth by triggering receptors that typically detect temperature changes or pain. Note whether the food you’re enjoying is actually hot, cold, or room temperature as well.

Any food’s texture can also play a role in how we perceive it, whether it is solid, liquid, dry, moist, soft, crunchy, smooth, chewy, or a combination of several characteristics. Also pay attention to how long its flavors last.

Your options for depicting the world as you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste it are as open-ended as the freedom you have to take in your surroundings.

However, regardless of how much your life and art may differ from that of your audience, your expressions from the heart will likely resonate with and inspire them. We’re all a part of the human experience, and our emotional responses are universal.

Historical and Current Events

All kinds of newsworthy events draw attention because they are, in and of themselves, creative. They result from distinctive discoveries, actions, and trends, which in turn generate new ideas and engaging discussions. The following are several ways you can draw inspiration from events you may or may not have been around to witness yourself.

  • Do you wonder what life was like in a particular moment, year, millennium, or an even greater stretch of time? Learn all you can about it and try to create artwork from the perspective of someone who was immersed in it.
  • Do you wish to capture the historical context of an earlier time in your own life? Consider not only the surroundings you sensed and the emotions you felt, but also all of the things that occurred in your city, state, nation, or even the entire world during that time. Has your view of this time and place changed since your original experience, if at all?
  • Think about a social cause you care about. Which decisions, events, and movements have influenced that cause’s advancement or regression up until the present day? How would modern society differ if this issue were not addressed, or if it were addressed in a different way?

Gathering insight from events with far-reaching impacts can be a great exercise in seeing from and empathizing with other points of view. It can also help you look forward to creating a better future and influencing later generations — no matter how noticeably — through your actions and your art.

Dreams

If you’re lucky enough to remember them, your dreams can provide insight into thoughts and memories that may be outside of your conscious awareness, or that help you gain fresh perspectives on experiences you already consider important.

To best capture fleeting creative ideas, keep a dream journal in which you describe your dreams in as much detail as possible within five minutes of waking up.

Dreams are, of course, often unrealistic, but here are several ways you as an artist can benefit by embracing their absurdity.

Example of a dreamlike drawing from Laurelow

Analyze your dreams to find common themes, words, or colors that you can explore more often in your creative time.

  • Try depicting any surreal concepts that have existed in your dreams.
  • Bring different aspects of several dreams together.
  • Think about how the situations in your dreams compare to and contrast against your everyday life. This involves contemplating the associations and metaphors your dreaming mind might construct to represent real topics you’ve encountered in your waking life. For instance, fearful dreams that seemingly have no relation to your daily activities and involve falling, being trapped, or being chased may occur during a time when you feel a loss of control in any area of your life — and vice versa for positive dreams.
  • Notice how your visual dreamscapes might change depending on your emotions.
  • Take note of your other sensory perceptions during dreams and how you can express them using your existing knowledge.

After pondering these ideas, you will hopefully be able to gather ideas for drawings, paintings, or digital designs beyond your wildest dreams!

To get specific ideas for developing, describing, and/or requesting your own work, I recommend that you download and complete the free worksheet below.

Laurelow | Inspiration from Sensory Descriptors | Worksheet

Three Pages  •  Electronically Fillable

After you’re done with the worksheet, you can also reach out to Lauren for more ideas about how to kickstart your creative brainstorming.

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