I am a huntress of rare grace. A pursuant of everyday beauty. A seeker of hidden inspiration. Take me to the beach, and I’ll walk the shore for hours, looking for pretty seashells. In the forest, I’m like to pick up golden acorns and lacy leaves, stowing them in my coat pockets for later. Even in rest stop meadows, I’ll gather honey-scented clovers to tie into chains and crowns, leaving them for passersby. Beauty and inspiration hide everywhere, I’ve found. And what joy is the hunt!
Online image resources like Google Images or Pinterest can seem far removed from a forest or shell-strewn beach at first glance. Yet they also hide great treasures, provided you’re willing to hunt for them. How fortunate we artists and creatives are, to live in an age of information and online image databases.
My first boss, a kind mountain man and great nature painter, had filing cabinets full of images and photos he’d cut out of magazines, nature guides, and books over the years. So if he asked me to paint a diamondback rattlesnake (I painted museum casts all throughout high school), I had to dive into the cabinets, wading through folder after folder in order to cull just a few pertinent reference images. One day I dug into the filing cabinets to find reference pictures of a certain type of tree frog, only to discover an enchanting photo of a hawk (thus fueling a years-long obsession with raptors). Now, all I have to do is type my query into Google or Pinterest. Some say that we have lost the magic of accidental discoveries all for the sake of convenience. I would argue the contrary.
Silly though it may seem, I generally start an illustration (or even piece of writing) with a cursory image search, usually both on Google Images and Pinterest. Not only does this reveal what’s already out there, but shows what’s been done before, and how. Sites like Pinterest can also be useful for observing current trends, a feature I made great use of when I worked in commercial fabric design. But I distrust trends. A) because they won’t last (especially in areas like publishing), so that by the time you’ve “caught up” and tailored your style to match current fashions, the trends will have moved on and more importantly because B) your work and style should be your own, made for your own pleasure and edification, not to please an invisible and ever-changing market. It seems a simple thing to say, yet it took me years to truly learn. That said, I do like to see how others across the world have interpreted a concept. I like to keep my searches simple and broad: a few key words (such as “summer twilight,” “Arctic forest,” or “yew tree”), which I can then refine further if need should arise. Google Images and Pinterest also allow you to search or browse through related images, a feature I find myself using frequently.
Often I find treasures buried in the related images (though sometimes four or five tiers down). Maybe my keywords weren’t specific enough, or perhaps searching in English limited the results (I do search in other languages from time to time, such as when doing research for my picture book set in Arctic Norway, I’ll usually search in Norwegian). Of course, as anyone who has used Pinterest (or similar sites) before knows, there is always the danger of falling down the rabbit hole. I admit to falling into this trap numerous times (especially when researching book things or reference images, since I can tell myself I’m “doing work” even though I’m not being productive in the slightest). And sometimes those journeys into the Deep Dark Pinning Depths (which I imagine to look something like the depths of Moria) do result in a rare gem that sparks inspiration, but more often than not, I find that it’s yet another disguise for procrastination.
I also enjoy watching documentaries while I paint or listening to TED talks. Netflix has a wonderful selection of science and nature documentaries that often give me new ideas or perspectives for the project at hand. Similarly, I’ve found that if I’m actively engaging different parts of my brain while I paint (even if it’s trying to keep up with a TED talk on neuroscience), it helps deepen my experience of painting and view the work from new internal angles. Or at least bring different ideas and perspectives into the work.
Yet my greatest source of inspiration is always nature itself. A walk in the woods is my creative panacea. Every time, I find it leaves me refreshed and renewed, and even if it’s hasn’t left me with a jolt of inspiration, it has created a calm and welcoming environment, so that when inspiration visits later, it will feel so at home it might stay a while.
Inspiration is hiding all around you. You have but to open yourself to the presence of wonder, the possibility of beauty in all things.