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Creative Inspiration and Motivation: What it is! (and what it ain't)

Updated on December 26, 2010

What illusive quandry evokes an artist's inspiration?

Close-up from Ben Zoltak oil painting
Close-up from Ben Zoltak oil painting

If Charlie Parker's All Stars and Miles Davis can't inspire you, then you better hang yo hat, cat

Below you will find the secret to inspiration...promise.

Over the years, as someone who enjoys painting and writing, I have been asked, "Where do you get the ideas for your work?"

Oftentimes this follows by some sort of confession from the same person that goes something like, "I don't know where you find the inspiration? What does your muse do to you? Do you have to wait for something to strike you just right?"

For me, my art has always been a rough stew of mostly work mixed with rapturous joy. Inspiration is one of those adjectives that some artists can hide behind. Much like the word abstract for an artist who doesn't paint icons, or say, when a religious person doesn't want to justify their beliefs, they just blurt out the name of their favorite prophet. That's not to say that faith in inspiration or religion is ignoble, it's just an easy catch-all. It's like asking a plumber how on earth do you put together an entire condominium's plumbing and he answers: with a wrench. Or as beloved comedian Mitch Hedburg put it, "I tried making my own 7-UP at home because the commercial said it's only made with lemons and limes...but there's more to it than that!"

The other end of the typical argument is that there is no such thing as artistic inspiration. An artist, or anyone really, never receives any real inspiration, it's all just work. You punch in when you pick up your sable brushes, and punch out when you wipe off the last of the turpentine. Or as inventor Thomas Edison once said in one of the most quoted phrases of all time, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration."

Whose going to disagree with Thomas Edison? Well, Nikola Tesla of course, but that's another matter. The point of this argument, that inspiration is practically irrelevant, has it's merits. It points out that you have to get in the trenches of your endeavors, and do whatever it takes to make them come true. What inspires the creation is less important than the creation itself. Now of course, when building a house it's important to keep at it, or the snow will cave your roof in. But if you are trying to construct something creative, a poem, a sculpture, a chocolate desert, then we expect our artists to have divined some heavenly motivation, because otherwise, everybody could create right! That would be chaos! Or would it?

Ben Zoltak's first eBook is an inspirational artlook on life!

Your Life As A Painting
Your Life As A Painting
Buy artist and writer Ben Zoltak's first eBook The Kindle format is available on regular PC's, Macs, Androids, iPads, Blackberries and others for free. Support nontraditional publishing for more robust free speech!!!!!!

Vote and read on!

Do you believe that inspiration is strictly work?

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How do you get motivated or creatively inspired?

Well here's how I do it:

  1. Take off all of your clothes, except for your bloomers of course! Unless you live in Switzerland then yes, you can take off your bloomers too.
  2. Run as fast as you can to the highest elevation in your neighborhood. Once there shout in a deep falsetto voice, "I am a thought muscle give me all your iron!" (if in Switzerland you may shout, "yodolodlodleyhe-who!" at your own risk...)
  3. Run back down the mountain, or ant hill if you live in Nebraska, then go to your oven and heat a beef pot pie.
  4. Consume beef pot pie.
  5. Coat your left elbow (not your right elbow of course!) with vaseline.
  6. Wipe off petroleum jelly from your elbow, wipe on a piece of toast, then ingest.
  7. Begin your creative endeavor, paint, write, make love, what have you.

All humor aside...

Seriously though, don't eat Vaseline toast. Creative inspiration is indeed work and something else. What that something is varies from person to person, from artist to artist. Writer Jack London put it this way, “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.

I tend to like London's inclination, but I am one who enjoys a visceral approach to creativity. If I had to choose between a day studying with Vermeer and a day studying with Pollack I would choose Pollack most times. For me inspiration comes from a combination of banging around what knowledge I have stored away in my attic aka cerebellum then harmonizing that with some physical activity i.e. taking my hatchet to the woods in back of my studio and chopping down buckthorn to use as stretchers for my oil paintings. Once you get those two generators hopping, your brain and body, the spiritual element shows up. I don't conjure it on a Ouija board, but I do conjure it by putting my lead foot on the gas pedal of my go-cart called life.

If you're still not sure what inspiration is worth, try to view Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" in your lifetime, then you might begin to see the powerful result. In his words, “To draw, you must close your eyes and sing.”

Another of Mr. Picasso's quotes has always rang true for me, especially as I culminate a large body of work: Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.

This idea, putting aside the synesthesia possibilities for a moment, shows what great artists generally keep secret, that you will find inspiration in the unexpected. Surprise is great, especially when it pours from your heart. Poet Maya Angelou put it this way, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”

That is what I have come to find to be true. I didn't used to think so. I believe most of the world works this way, hoarding away it's finer discoveries, to be dispensed, at cost, at another date in the unforeseen future. This is unfortunate because the world needs art, love and inspiration as much as ever. We all would do well to take Ms. Angelou's sage direction.

Creative inspiration is not in and of itself motivation enough for most people. They need a routine to get into the zone. Or they need an explanation, as if inspiration couldn't ever just come on it's own. I think for many people inspiration is just plain work. For others it is a mystic cloud damn near imperturbable. For lots of us the motivation to create lies in between in a flurry of paying utility bills, picking garlic mustard for gumbo, stapling canvas to wood and making love in the morning.

I think maybe Miles Davis said it best, “I'm always thinking about creating. My future starts when I wake up every morning . . . Every day I find something creative to do with my life.”

That is the best we can ask for, to do something creative with your life everyday. Get over your masterpiece and your dreams of museum greatness. There's a rhythm worth riding in the wind in the leaves. There's enough inspiration in the whorls of your fingerprints. If you need motivation start with a dance and end with your sweat!

Pablo Picasso's "Guernica"
Pablo Picasso's "Guernica"

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