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Inspiration, idea, expression and design. These terms get thrown around quite a lot. For some they hold no meaning, for some they’re just smart talk, deterring rather than encouraging, yet for others they’re the basis on which they build their work. To me, they represent a system, a sequence. I think of them as the four major steps each of us take when creating an artwork, either knowingly or unknowingly. It is the context of our creative decisions.

I want to speak of all four of them briefly and share my thoughts on how they function. This is not something I’ve been taught. I am not trying to rephrase a tried and true theory, but rather propose my own thoughts and conclusions on the process of art making and my own way of thinking and approaching it. This is the result of study and practice. This is what you may read in my diary if I had one. And so I hope that these thoughts, however unfinished or unrefined, may give you something to think about and provide a new perspective on your own creative process. Please keep in mind that I am a practicing artist, not a theoretician nor expert, so this is the view from which I’m speaking.

In today’s article I’m going to talk about the first two points, Inspiration and Idea, or the Why and What of the creative process.

Inspiration – The Why

The trees reflecting in a lake, the sun shining on the city, the intricate silhouette shape of a rustic chair and its shadow, a group of boats in the distance – white spots enclosed by a mass of blue midtone. Inspiration may be all of these things, or none of them. Because each of us is different we react differently to the stimuli around us. And so rather than the things we see, inspiration is our reaction to these inputs. It is not that which speaks to our inner selves, it is our inner self. It is our reason to pick up the brush. It is the reason we get out of our bed in the morning. It is not things and places, but our drive to make something worthwhile and lasting. It is the energy we draw from what we love, transformed within us into the urge to create.

In a sense, inspiration can also be something much less romantic though still viable. It can be money. It can be influence. It can be our patrons.

Most often, I think, it is a combination of those above. Whatever it is, it keeps us working and brings us back to our studios every day.

Idea – The What

What I consider to be the idea element in our work is what our painting tells the viewer. The idea, I think, is the sensible, the intellectual, the content of our work.

The way I see it is that the idea element can be either literal or metaphorical, or a combination of the two. Let’s look at some examples.

The literal aspect may be, for example, the following painting. It shows the obvious and is not concerned with addressing deeper truths. It does recreate the world from my point of view though, which means that if you were to visit this particular place yourself, most probably you wouldn’t see it like in my painting. One may argue that this picture holds little value. And, strictly speaking, from the content point of view this would be somewhat true. It doesn’t tell you much more than what a lovely place I visited, though that by itself may be considered reason enough to paint.

©2016 Daniel Novotny. Watercolor on Paper, 11 x 15 in.
©2016 Daniel Novotny. Watercolor on Paper, 11 x 15 in.

This next example has more depth as to its content. The idea here is the manipulation of space and form, resulting in a semi-abstract image where “what may be” becomes “what is”. The shapes are condensed into a collage-like composition. The whole is more important than the parts. Even though I used a real life reference for this painting, you would never be able to find this scene anywhere in the world. The idea in this painting is the creation of a new world, a personal world, one that did not exist but which is now very much real and alive, almost tangible.

©2016 Daniel Novotny. Watercolor on Paper, 11 x 15 in.
©2016 Daniel Novotny. Watercolor on Paper, 11 x 15 in.

A different angle on the concept of idea is found in the next example. Let’s go back in time and use an etching by Rembrandt titled “Christ Preaching”. We can see Christ preaching, a small crowd grouped around him, listening, begging, pleading. This is what we see, what the picture tells us, the obvious, the “plot” if you will: Christ surrounded by a crowd of people.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ Preaching (The Hundred Guilder Print), circa 1649, Etching, drypoint and burin on japan paper, 28 cm (11 in) x 38.6 cm (15.2 in).

If we look closer, we can see a halo around Christ’s head. This reveals to us that he’s more than just a man. The halo used here is an element of the symbolic language of our culture. We associate holiness with it at once. This creates context for us, gives the work deeper meaning that goes beyond pencil or brush marks. His posture is also suggestive, hinting at openness and love and no one else in the picture expresses the same.

For my last example I decided to use a painting by Paul Klee. And here the use of symbolic language is more prevalent still. By using symbolism to create context, Klee made a painting that is not as readily “readable” but has an additional layer of depth, one that is symbolic in nature. The painting is a metaphor, which means it is not literal in its expression of the idea element. Instead, it is suggestive and requires interpretation.

Fish Magic by Paul Klee, y.1925

Here a short analysis of the painting by Douglas Hall, which I believe should give you pretty good idea about how far can an artist push the idea element in his work with the use of symbolic language.

“Fish Magic is inspired by the theatre, or more probably the puppet theatre. Curiously, Klee has pasted a separate piece of canvas to the left center. The resemblance between a fish tank and a stage did not escape Klee, who has fostered it by a hint of curtain at the top left corner, and by the odd little figures who look out from inside the proscenium opening. But this is no ordinary aquarium, nor stage, inhabited as it is by fish, plants and celestial bodies all together. Their timeless world is observed by two ‘representatives’ of the human race, and is invaded by time in the shape of two hour-glasses and a steeple clock lowered into the scene in a net or fish trap…the additional piece of canvas represents a zone of time, through which fish pass indifferently but which alters the character of the principal human figure, whose head it divides into halves. This little person with two faces looks solemn on the left within the human time-scale, joyous on the right within the time-scale of the natural world. Klee’s work shows many such analogues of divided humanity, contrasted with the unitary laws of nature.” -Douglas Hall

All four of these works contain the element of idea, each reaching a different level of development. The first one is quite superficial, almost infantile in that it is predominantly a study of appearances; the second is a bit more evolved still and the idea is closely tied to the design element. The Rembrandt is quite literal in the depiction of the idea but does an excellent job of enriching the scene with hints of symbolic elements. “Fish Magic” by Paul Klee is more complex and requires interpretation of the symbolism in order to fully appreciate its meaning.

These examples should be enough to illustrate my point and hopefully show that content in painting is an important part of the painting process. I am not saying what’s right and what’s wrong. As in life, variety is found between extremes.  And so I hope that this article may be of help to you in recognizing these extremes and the variety in between, when you look at any artwork. Perhaps it will even encourage you to seek more meaning in your own work.

This topic is obviously of great interest to me and I have a few more thoughts I’d like to talk about. To keep this article somewhat concise I may share them with you some other time. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this little talk. We discussed the Why and What today and next week I’m going to talk about the How. If you found the article interesting, please consider sharing it with your friends on social media – you can find the share links down below. Also I’d love to hear what you think, so leave me a few words in the comment section down below.



  1. Kamil January 14, 2017 at 11:46

    Good stuff!

    1. Daniel Novotny January 14, 2017 at 20:22


  2. James Hill January 14, 2017 at 08:58

    Good stuff Daniel. Both you and Russell Black are producing very thought provoking posts at the moment. Your work is appreciated.

    1. Daniel Novotny January 14, 2017 at 20:22

      Thank you very much James. Glad you’re enjoying them.


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