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
What am I literally making?
According to artist, author, and Skillshare teacher Adam J. Kurtz (@adamjk), 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!”
Has this been done before?
Several of the artists we interviewed, including Craig Reilly (@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...
How will I do this in a way that hasn’t been done yet?
“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 (@aliveisthecity) 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.”
Will I actually enjoy this?
According to 3D artist Martin Vokatý (@murryous), 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.
What do I want to say?
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.”
Why does this matter to me?
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 (@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.”
Am I challenging myself?
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 (@tadaocern) asks himself, “Is there something new in it? Am I stepping out of my comfort zone? Am I taking any creative risks?”
Am I overthinking this?
“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 (@raveonstudio) 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 (@laurawood.ca) says. “Sometimes overthinking and planning can disrupt the natural progression of the work. I tend to trust my gut and just paint.”
Want to learn more about how creativity and self-discovery intersect? Check out this class on how to discover your unique artistic voice.