How to Choose Your Next Art Project

By Carrie Lewis in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

A lot of art-related articles encourage us to finish what we start. I’ve even written some of them!

It’s a valid topic and one we need to be reminded of regularly. But before we can finish something, we have to begin. . . and sometimes choosing your next art project can be as difficult as finishing one.

So how do you decide if the next subject is really worth drawing? Here are a few things that work for me:

1. Are you getting paid for it?

I’ve been a commission artist for over 40 years. Clients choose the subject and, in many cases, how they want it created. Sometimes they even choose the medium and the reference photos. I usually have the freedom to design the artwork (like the one below) but the client has the last say in the how to the final piece looks.

Art project featuring a horse and racing carriage

I often have no emotional connection to the subject (unless I took the reference photos myself) beyond wanting to satisfy the client by creating the best work I can. But at the end of the day, if you’re getting paid to create something, that’s probably the easiest reason to choose your next project.

2. Look for an inspiring scene

I often turn to photographs of favorite places when I’m looking for my next project. This is especially true of landscapes, but also involves horses and other subjects. Many of the places I’ve lived and visited are favorite photography subjects, so it’s natural to browse those images whenever I’m stuck for a new art piece.

Painting of two horses in a field

If you, too, collect photographic images you’ve taken, don’t forget that you can combine images or change them. . . you don’t have to duplicate the photograph exactly. The reference photo for the drawing above showed the horses grazing in grass that was late-summer brown. There was also a fence-line, some bulls (one on each side of the fence looking at each other) and a few other horses.

So look for ways to improve on photographs instead of looking for the ideal image.

3.  Create a comparison piece

Sometimes, when I’m looking for a new project, I turn to an old project. Maybe there’s a piece I liked when I first did it, but now I know I can do better.

If you’re feeling discouraged about your work and/or your progress in your favorite medium, nothing is more likely to raise your spirits than revisiting a subject.

Two side-by-side drawings of the same subject, showing how the artist improved

4. Think of your favorite subjects. . .

For most of my artistic life, my favorite subjects were horses, of all types and colors. My commission business was built on horse portraits.

More recently, landscapes have also become favorite topics, and my all-time favorite landscapes are in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Lately, I’ve also become fascinated with trees.

So whenever I’m looking for new projects, I look first to the countless horse and landscape photos I’ve taken over the years or step outside. I even keep a folder labeled “Potential Projects.” Whenever I take pictures, I copy my favorite images into this folder.

NOTE: If you’re an artist and you’re not continually taking photographs, you’re depriving yourself of a major source of reference material. Make a habit of taking photos whenever you can!

An inspiration photograph of a road leading into the Flint Hills

Sometimes, I just step outside and look at the trees for the next sketch or plein air drawing.

5. Consider ordinary subjects in unusual lighting

Sometimes it’s not the subject itself that’s of interest, but the lighting. Unusual lighting can turn an ordinary subject into something unique. Street lights, moonlight, Christmas lights, and candles can all provide a little bit of zest to any subject.

Glowing street lamps on a snowy winter street

6. Set yourself a challenge

Sometimes what I’m looking for isn’t just the next drawing; it’s a challenge. Something that pushes me creatively. That might be a brand new subject, or it could be a new drawing surface, pencil or blending tool.

Landscape on sanded art paper

Sanded art paper was this kind of challenge for me, and the small drawing above was my first experimentation with colored pencils on sanded paper.

7. Choose something that’s fun

Sometimes, the best reason to make art is to have fun. Maybe I have a new medium or have learned a new trick and need to try it out. Or I have a weird idea I want to test.

Perhaps there’s just a scrap of paper that needs something colorful on it.

An art project created just for the fun of it

No, most of these pieces are not masterpieces, but deciding on the subject for your next masterpiece would be an entirely different discussion. Besides, I never know when a playful or fun piece might not turn into a masterpiece.

I’m guessing you don’t either.

8. Find a project you’ve never done before

This happens all the time, but the sad truth is that I don’t always follow through on these things. For example, the next thing I want to try is something I’ve never done before, ever: A self portrait.

Will that happen? I don’t know, but I have sorted out three or four possible reference photos and I am intrigued by the possibilities. Even if a self portrait doesn’t happen any time soon, just considering the idea is another good way to find the right next project.

However you choose your next art project, the most important thing is that you choose something. Quick sketch, small study, plein air painting, or studio masterpiece, choose a subject and get started!


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