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How to boost inspiration in your illustration practice

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

We all know the feeling of sitting at our desks feeling totally uninspired. The first thing I normally do is go for a big walk. Walking somehow lets my brain become a little bit clearer, and often I find that it's on walks that I get my best ideas. My phone's notes are a jumble of bits of writing and ideas for pictures with lots of typos from walking while typing.

This past year, walking has been even more important and I think I've circled Brockwell Park, near where I live, in excess of probably 500 times. I thought that would be boring, and sometimes I do look for new places to go, but there's also something about the familiarity that I really like. I talk more about the park in my last blog.

If a big stomp around the nearest green space, or along the roads where I look at all the houses I'd like to live in doesn't work, it's normally time to dig a little deeper. So I'll make a tea and grab one of my scrapbooks to look through.

Keeping a scrapbook

Over the years I've kept a scrapbook of things that I like. It's really no more complicated than that - I keep a whole bunch of magazine scraps, postcards, bits of packaging and photos that I like and use them to rearrange on the page.

What's the point? Well - two things. Firstly, the activity of selecting images that go together and arranging them is quite calming to do. If I'm not in drawing mode, or I've just written the 15th draft of something I get a bit antsy. So doing something different, but still creative, helps.

Secondly these are very useful to look through in moments where I'm not really feeling it. Inside are lots of images from artists I really love, books I grew up with as a child, or just patterns and colours I've picked out because I like.

A page of wrapping paper, a paper bag, a postcard, a Matisse and some pattern

But I don't have time for that

Well, maybe. But it's not as pedantic and fussy as it sounds, nor as time-consuming. A lot of the time the paper piles get bigger and I haven't made many pages. But although I don't do this often the images will keep forever and I can always look back on them.

There's also this thing called Pinterest...which I do also often use to group things together too, and to grab images I like that I don't have in physical form. It can really suck my time if I'm not careful, while I drool over mid century illustrations and book jackets.

A paper bag from Amsterdam, a postcard and part of an illutration by Alois Carigiet

Inspiration vs comparisonitis

I want to say at this point that while looking at inspiring images is useful, there are situations where it can be too overwhelming. If I'm scrolling mindlessly on Instagram for example, I'm likely to start to see lots of work in lots of different styles. I might see that one 'style' gets more likes, or I might notice something that I wish my work was a bit more like. This is the time to stop scrolling (if not before).

What's useful about curating the images in a scrapbook is there is a limited amount, and they all speak to you - your tastes, experiences, memories, associations. Instagram can be a bit like a massive lottery ball of content, making you feel a bit lost. I really like Instagram, don't get me wrong, but I've personally found it's best to limit when I look at it.

If I'm feeling uninspired I will try my best not to look at Instagram, as I know it'll just cloud my brain more. I will open the scrapbook and have a nice look at all the things I've put in there that I like. I'll often have forgotten lots of the pages, so get a nice 'Oh yeah!' moment. I'll then put the book away so that I don't slip into comparisonitis and ensure I'm using my own voice.

Ok, so what's in these scrapbooks?

Like I said, it's a real mix to be honest. I love having in-person references to artists I admire and linking images or colours around them. Some images are from magazines, lots of old copies of Vogue, interiors magazines and Dazed. Some bits of paper are just found colours that I like. You'll spot the work of David Hockney, Phoebe Wahl, Elsa Beskow, Matisse, Tove Jansson, Quentin Blake, Peter Doig and lots more in the video above.

Picturebooks also feature heavily. This is perhaps not surprising as an illustrator, but the books I enjoyed as a child, and even more so the images that went with them, are actually a big part of my inspiration. This was before I was exploring an illustration career. You can see a few of my favourites in these pages.

Picturebooks are a big inspiration

Ok, so I know everyone read The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr - but it's still one of my favourites. Mr Magnolia by Quentin Blake was also read obsessively, and I had this copy of Pippi Longstocking and can remember the pictures.

Brian Wildsmith, Maurice Sendak and Patrick Benson

I think picturebooks are particularly important as references because they go back a long time in the history of what we are interested in. I'm sure you can remember at least one book from your childhood, probably in more detail than you'd expect? Looking at them again seems to have the power to transport you back in time, allowing you to have some of the sense of wonder you had when looking at them as a child. I think it's this sense of wonder that we're all trying to find in everyday life. When we find it again, no wonder it ignites us and makes us want to create.

Finding new things in the familiar

I know these images back to front. Or I thought I did. Seeing them again and again though, next to different images and in different times in my life always brings something new. I might see a colour that would work in something I'm stuck on, or remember something that prompts a drawing.

I'm not talking about copying here, but surrounding myself with things I like. I think it's important to 'feed' your creativity. And yes that includes Netflix (but probably not my obsession with 90 Day Finace sadly). It also includes looking through pages of a scrapbook, or a Pinterest, to remind yourself of what inspires you.

My bedroom at university, featuring lots of images that are now in my scrapbooks

Images might come up for me again and again, sometimes for different reasons. A few of them date back as far as 2005, when they first decorated my bedroom wall. In a way they're like a map of what inspired me over the years.

So whatever images you like, maybe start collecting some. You'll notice any connections, and also the wide and wacky range of what you like. For example you might not think Sex Pistols album covers and illustrations by arthur Rackham have much in common, but they are both in my scrap book. Everyone has a very unique set of things that appeal to them, and it's by connecting with yours that I think you might find some nice creative surprises.

And if you have a day where even looking at things you love makes you feel uninspired, that's ok too. Give yourself a break and do something completely different. You'll find ideas come back to you soon. You probably just need a rest and to stop thinking about illustration for a bit. You are normal and nobody is a machine. That would be weird.

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