When You Run Out of Imagination

Do you ever feel less than inspired? Do you ever wish you were more imaginative or had better ideas? I recently came across this quote by William Faulkner that I found quite encouraging.

“A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.”

The quote is about writing, but it can be applied to other fields of art as well.

Are You a Real Artist if You “Cheat?”

Since I was a kid, I’ve always been into art — admiring others’ and creating my own. But for some reason I always held this idea that a “real” artist is one who sits down with a blank page and begins drawing or painting solely from his or her imagination. I’m not sure why I initially believed most works of art were created without research, planning or aids. Some art is, but the older I get, the more I realize that’s usually not the case.

After talking to more individuals about their art, I’ve come to realize that most artists have a plan in mind before the pencil touches the page. Most of them paint while looking at an image. In other words, artists rely on much more than imagination alone. Observation is crucial for visually-geared people. As far as experience goes, I’ve realized that once I’ve drawn something one time, I can often use that memory to recreate the object, often without looking at an image. For artists who have a lot practice, I’m guessing the same is true, but on a much larger scale.

Imagination, Experience and Observation

That realization was very freeing for me. I have embraced the idea that using a model or a picture is not “cheating” and doesn’t degrade the quality of art. And the same is true of writing. When you’re running low on imagination, when you’re searching for that perfect idea, consider your past. The longer you’ve lived, the greater the wealth of experiences you have to go on. Or park yourself somewhere interesting and try people watching, using your observations as fuel for that work-in-progress.

From now on, I’ll remember Faulkner’s quote. So if my imagination is giving me fits, I can set aside that part of my brain for the time being and instead dive into the pool of my personal experiences. Or if, because of my schedule, I don’t have the opportunity to leave the house, I can dig inside myself and lean on my imagination for material.

What is your art — writing, painting or other?

Do you agree with Faulkner’s statement?

Which of the three keys do you access most? Which is your weakest area?

8 thoughts on “When You Run Out of Imagination

  • I’ll go one up on you as far as cheating. If you’re REALLY stuck or REALLY in love with a piece of work, then take it and something else and do a mash up. If you aren’t to shady about it you can even get away with calling it an “homage.”

    I actually have a whole theory about how this is sorta the wave of future fiction in both good and bad ways. I might just be using that theory to convince myself I’m not cheating too hard though.

    • Josh, that might be a bit much for my taste. But I’m interested in your theory. Maybe one day someone will do an “homage” to one of my novels. Can’t say that would bother me too much…

  • I think those three things are essential but we can add the act of creating. Like you’ve said before when you’re in a rut keep working on anything. I would say that stick-to-it-iveness is my weakness. But by using Imagination, Experience and Observation I can stop the creative block before it happens.

  • I agree with the quote.
    When writing I use experience since I am old and have been many places and known a lot of people.
    When painting I usually look at a photograph. In art school they told us never to copy another painting. I can make changes in the photo using imagination.

    • Having a wide range of experiences would be highly beneficial to writing. I am always looking to expand the horizons of my knowledge.

      When I draw or paint, I enjoy working from photos as well. I would rather work from true life than from another artist’s representation of it.

  • Oh, I definitely agree with Faulkner. In writing, I’ve relied on experience when imagination abandoned me, and on imagination when observation just wasn’t enough.

    Sometimes, this “trinity” will help me in painting, too — though in painting, I rely on observation more than anything else. Especially if I’m painting something for the first time, I must have photo references. Google is a wonderful, wonderful thing. ; )

    • You are so right, Courtney! I spent an hour or two on there the other night before I started my oil painting. Now I’ve begun to create an electronic “Idea File” on my computer. I love it.!

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