Sunday, August 25, 2019

Inspiration: the Sacred and the Mundane

7/15/19 Wedgewood neighborhood

Long ago, over the course of the many years, I repeatedly tried to learn to draw but quit as soon as I got bored or impatient. I read many how-to-draw books and took classes, and inevitably an exercise would call for setting up a few items to make a still life. I would try to find interesting things in my house to draw, but nothing inspired me. In class, it was even worse: The instructor would arrange a bunch of cubes or ugly thrift store vases, and I would be so bored by the subject matter that I would associate that boredom with the practice of drawing.

Recently a friend mentioned that she often has difficulty finding interesting subject matter to sketch, even if she’s motivated to practice. In online forums where sketchers discuss process (Sketchbook Skool, for example), many people express the same frustration: wanting to draw but not finding things that inspire them. The same friend observed that I don’t appear to have this problem. (She has seen from my many sketches of trash bins, utility poles and ordinary parked cars that I have very low standards for “inspiration.”)

How did I get past the hurdle of boring still lives to feeling “inspired” by utility poles? One answer is that I discovered urban sketching, which has become an endless supply of subject matter that resonates with me simply because it tells the story of where I live.

8/17/19 peach and banana
Another (perhaps more practical) response is that I try to view any subject matter as abstract. Doing that leaves me with nothing but the challenge of capturing what I see as shapes in light or shade and elements to compose. That challenge – not the subject matter – is what “inspires” and motivates me.

This brings up an observation I’ve made about the difference between travel and the familiar views at home. When traveling, everything is exciting and fresh. Instead of difficulty finding inspiration, the problem is choosing among an overwhelming number of possibilities! With truly inspiring subject matter – all the spires of Holland, for example – I find that it’s much harder to see abstractly because I am so dazzled by the details, beauty and history. If I want to tackle a sketch, however, my practice must be the same: I still need to look at the subject matter abstractly and simply compose the elements as shapes in light or shade. And I’m ready to do this because I’ve practiced countless times with familiar fruit from the kitchen counter or mundane street scenes in my neighborhood.


  1. Thanks Tina for this great article! I hope you write more on this subject. I love to draw but get caught up in producing something that is considered “art”, or framable. Do you have any advice on how to add color to your drawings? Thanks!

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Cathy! I'm sure I'll be writing on this subject again sometime! ;-) Re: adding color: That's one I struggle with, too -- how much is enough? I think it's the same as figuring out the composition in general: The color will always attract the eye first, so put it where you want to show that your attention was there, too.

  2. I think urban sketching makes us look more for the story than the inspiration. Also having done the Scavenger Hunts on Wet Canvas for so many years has made me less concerned about things that "inspire" and look at shapes of things like you do. It also has given me the practice and the confidence to sketch anything that comes

    1. Yes, absolutely, Joan! Even the most mundane, ordinary things all qualify as practice, which then makes you ready to tackle the things that truly inspire you.


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