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In our fast-paced world, it’s easy to prioritize your finished projects, whether you’re posting a photo to Instagram or hanging an oil painting on a gallery wall. But sometimes the beginning of the creative process is just as intriguing as the end result.
We asked eight artists to tell us the kinds of thoughts they consider when they are just starting to embark on a new project. Take a peek behind the curtain and learn the crucial questions leading illustrators, photographers, installation artists, and more ponder every day.
We’ll also share a list of questions to ask artists yourself, so you can be inspired by the creatives in your own network.
According to artist, author, and Skillshare teacher Adam J. Kurtz, this could be the most important question you ask. “It sounds obvious maybe, but it is shocking how often we have an idea and start working without defining any of the parameters,” he tells us. “Deciding on a format and having a set of rules to follow will help you reign in your ideas.”
Your thoughts and motivations for creating a work of art can be complicated, but when you focus on the concrete details of its execution, you take one step closer to your goal. If you’re working on a book, for example, Adam suggests planning out the dimensions, the colors, the binding, and the image resolution.
Taking the time to consider these elements will help you bring an abstract idea into the real world. And as Adam points out, you can always change your mind as you work. He urges, “Have an idea for the end product, but if you find halfway that something else might work too, or instead, let yourself explore that!”
Several of the artists we interviewed, including Craig Reilly, co-founder of the popular photography collective Street Photography International, ask themselves this question. “With an ever-increasing online pool of photos (especially in street photography), it’s getting harder to be unique,” Craig explains. “So producing something different is my first priority.”
It’s okay if the answer to this initial question is, “Yes, this has been done before.” From there, the question can become…
“The most important question I ask myself in the planning stage—and the one I suggest other artists consider as well—is, ‘How will I execute this project to ensure that it ultimately ends up being work that only I could’ve created?’” NYC street photographer Jonathan Higbee explains. “If the concept or theme has been done before, fine, whatever. But as long as the realized project is art that no one else in the world but me could’ve made, I’ll consider it a success.”
According to 3D artist Martin Vokatý, this question generally has one of three answers. If the answer is “yes,” your path is clear: go for it! If it’s a hard “no,” move on and pursue something that will be more fulfilling. If the answer is “no, but they pay a lot,” Martin suggests trying to find a way to make it enjoyable. “Maybe you try a new tool or try to convince your client to give it a slightly different twist that you would like more,” he explains.
Choosing projects you like ensures your own well-being, but it’s also a smart business decision. As Martin explains, potential clients will look to work you’ve done in the past to see if you’re the right fit for the job. If you’ve invested your hard work into projects you loved, you’re more likely to get commissioned for similar projects.
Once you’ve decided to go forward with a project, contemplate what you want it to convey. Your “statement” can be simple or complex, and it can change over time.
“Storytelling is a very important part of every creative process,” Martin says. “Your work should always have some kind of purpose, or it should evoke emotions in another human being.”
This question is probably the most difficult, so try not to put too much pressure on answering it all at once. “I think that this takes years, even decades, to master,” Martin adds. “For sure, I am not one to talk about this. I need to work on it as well.”
This question goes hand-in-hand with the last one, but it’s slightly different. If you’ve already determined your message or statement, it’s time to dig deeper and think about why it’s also meaningful to you personally.
“Before beginning the project, I really want to connect with why this idea matters to me,” painter Emily Jeffords tells us. “I can think up a thousand rad or aesthetically pleasing ideas in a day, but if I don’t have a very deep connection to the work, it won’t sing.”
Creative revelations are often the result of pushing yourself to try something different. These challenges can be big or small. Before getting started on a fresh project, installation artist TadaoCern asks himself, “Is there something new in it? Am I stepping out of my comfort zone? Am I taking any creative risks?”
“Unless I am working on a commission or a writing deadline, I actually try to clear my mind of anything,” artist and writer Jenn Ashton explains. “My process is very intuitive compared to how some artists work. I don’t have any preconceptions, and so I am rarely disappointed.”
Asking yourself questions is an invaluable part of the artistic process, but so is knowing when to let them go. You don’t have to have all the answers. “There really is no right approach to preparing yourself for a new project,” painter Laura Wood says. “Sometimes overthinking and planning can disrupt the natural progression of the work. I tend to trust my gut and just paint.”
If you’re not yet at a place in your career where you’re ready to ask yourself questions for artists, it still may be helpful to solicit the advice and experiences of your peers and those to whom you aspire. Here you’ll find plenty of questions to ask artists, how to interview other artists, and what questions you should avoid.
What Are Some Good Questions to Ask an Artist?
Think of your fellow artists as your best resources for your own creative journey. Use their experiences and processes to consider your own.
You may ask what inspires them, or what they consider to be things every artist needs. You can also ask why they chose their particular medium or creative space, and what propelled them down that path versus the myriad of other artistic ventures. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box with your questions.
What are Some Art Questions Artists Commonly Get Asked?
You may not be surprised to find that art is a highly collaborative community. Artists often work in a solitary space but they often want to connect with other creatives and share their work. This type of environment is ripe for great conversation! Here are some examples of the kinds of questions that artists typically encounter, and might be art questions to ask yourself:
- When did you first become interested in art?
- Have you always operated in the same style and medium?
- What helps you feel inspired or come up with new ideas?
- How do you set yourself apart from other artists within your space?
- What is your best advice for other artists or new artists?
- What do you consider to be things every artist needs?
What Should You Not Ask an Artist?
Though there are plenty of great artist questions to ask, it’s important to be mindful of questions that you should avoid, as well.
Generally speaking, you don’t want to ask artists how much money they make or what they charge their clients for their work. Aside from the fact that this will likely vary from artist-to-artist, based upon their experience and their own costs, it can be invasive and inappropriate unless you know the artist extremely well or they’ve explicitly opened the door for this type of discussion.
Additionally, avoid asking the artist to expound upon any sensitive personal experiences that may have inspired their work. For many, art is therapeutic and may be the result of trauma or negative experience. They may be put-off or made uncomfortable by deeply probing questions, and it’s better to let the artist tell their story on their own terms.
How Do You Interview an Artist About Their Work?
You’ll often find that artists are willing to talk about their work and to give advice and feedback to others. Start by simply asking an artist you admire for a half hour of their time, stating that you’d like to learn more about their work and creative career. Once you have an affirmative answer, share an invite for the date and time you’re meeting (either virtually or in-person).
It’s important to be respectful of the artist’s time. So ensure that you’re prompt, that you have questions prepared, and that you have either a notebook for jotting down ideas or a recorder available to preserve the interview (with permission from the artist, of course). Always send a “thank you” note, even if it’s just via email, to let the artist know how much you appreciated the interview.
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