“My biggest goal during my daily routine is to evolve as a professional,” award-winning illustrator Emiliano Ponzi says, “Every job is a new, challenging opportunity to be different from anybody else.”
Inspired by the Japanese idea of Shokunin (mastery of one’s profession), Ponzi sees being an artist is a long-term commitment, marked by periods of growth and evolution. It’s more about putting in the hours and the sweat than it is about waiting for inspiration. He tells us, “In an ideal world, I would do and redo the same image hundreds of times because I’m sure that I could learn from each previous version of it.”
Motivated by Ponzi’s dedication to hard work, we compiled this list of creative prompts–both from art history and from talented artists working today. From art school assignments to everyday exercises, these prompts are meant to help you overcome creative block, tap into your imagination, and generate unique ideas. Most of these assignments you can do alone in the studio, but for a few of them, you can invite your friends and colleagues to participate as well.
The Plywood Challenge
“I really like limited-material assignments,” mixed-media sculptor Michael Alm says. “The classic one is, ‘What can you make out of a single sheet of plywood?’ I enjoy seeing how different artists approach these challenges.
“Do you cut it into a bunch of thin pieces so you have a lot more material to work with? Do you separate it into shapes that you glue together to build a big object that can be carved down? Everyone has their own techniques, and it drives people to think in new ways. Limitations are often a benefit to an artist. It forces them to be more creative.”
The Stream of Consciousness
We normally associate the stream of consciousness with writing, but according to sculptor and glass artist Megan Stelljes, it can work just as well with sketching. Draw whatever comes to mind, and don’t be afraid to go down any associative rabbit holes that might present themselves. The only rule? “No judgement, no evaluation,” Stelljes stresses. “Just let your pen–or colored markers–go. I think it’s important to allow yourself a sense of freedom to allow your ideas to present themselves.”
The ‘Love Letter’
Some artworks are made for the public, and others are made for individuals. This assignment isn’t about a literal love letter (though it can be); instead, it’s all about making something with a specific person in mind. “One of my favorite prompts in getting my creative juices flowing is making a handmade card for someone I care about,” painter and illustrator Kelly Bjork explains. “This can be so fun for me because there is no pressure. I can get as weird as I want, as it’s not for anyone but the person the card is for.”
The Singing Challenge
“When I was in graduate school, I was lucky enough to meet Sean Landers, who was spending a few semesters at Yale as a visiting professor,” painter Matthew Hansel tells us. “His class was filled with amazing class-wide projects that really ended up being performances unto themselves.
“One of my favorite assignments was designed to stress the importance of really going for it artistically. We (the students) had to pick a song to perform a cappella in front of the entire class. On the designated evening, we all took turns standing on a sculpture plinth and belting out our chosen ditty.
“The idea was that those who really put it out there would inevitably be repaid with a raucously positive response from the audience, while those who tentatively held back received a tempered but respectful round of claps. It’s something to keep in mind when making your work. Even if something strikes a fowl chord, your audience will always appreciate an unbridled honest attempt.”
The ‘Boring’ Object Challenge
“My favorite thing to do to get creativity going is to find something ‘boring’ around my apartment or studio–something I’ve looked at a million times–and paint from it,” Los Angeles-based artist Nick Runge explains. “After all, it’s not about what you paint necessarily–but how you paint it.
“People often overlook what’s right in front of them because it doesn’t seem like an exciting subject. Everything is exciting. It just needs to be expressed in the right way. Taking a simple subject and creating an interesting study can then make a more intriguing subject even more exciting.”
The Group Painting
“In art school, we would occasionally do an exercise with a model where we would move around the room every ten minutes painting on every canvas,” painter Robert Xavier Burden tells us. “You would see the model from every angle, and you would be forced to adapt to the partially finished canvas in front of you.
“By the end of the assignment, everybody had contributed a few minutes to everyone else’s paintings. As a group, we had just made fifteen paintings together. I haven’t done this exercise in years, but I teach part-time at a college in San Francisco, and I often have my students do this.”
The ‘Expensive Paper’ Challenge
When Josef Albers taught at Yale in the 1950s, he encouraged his students to be economical and not waste their materials. If he felt they were wasting too many pages on work that wasn’t up to par, he’d ask them to purchase a more expensive brand of paper. The exercise slowed them down and limited the amount of drawing they could do–but it also made them more conscientious about every mark they made.
Here, we’ve put “expensive paper” in quotation marks because these days, this same assignment can be applied to almost any media. The goal is to choose a pricier material than usual. You’re output decreases, but you might find you’re more in tune with your instincts and thoughtful about your decisions.
Learn more ways to express your authentic artistic self with Emiliano Ponzi’s new Skillshare Original, The Art of Illustration: Find, Develop and Express Your Creative Voice.
Cover image: ‘the road back’ by Nick Runge.
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