By learning how to read and respond to an art work you can find inspiration in even the smallest detail.

You need to be open to inspiration triggers wherever you find them!


Begin with your own response to the work

  • how do you feel when you look at the work? Be aware not only of your emotional response but also your physical reaction to the work - do you smile, scowl, squint, look away, draw in your breath, sigh? 
    • Inspiration exercise - make a photograph that explores the physical response you have to the work

    Then consider the work itself

    • title - say it out loud. Is it poetic, rhythmic, harsh? Ononomatopoeic? 
      • Inspiration exercise - using one of the words from the title make a visual mind-map of where that word takes you, then make a photograph that represents that word
    • subject matter - what do you enjoy about the way the artist has explored their subject matter, what makes you uncomfortable? How would you make an image about the same subject matter, how similar or different might it be to the work you're viewing? Why?
      • Inspiration exercise - find an object in your surrounds that can be visually connected to the subject matter of the work you are inspired by. Photograph that object as if it were to be the next photograph in the series. To push yourself further you might decide to explore subject matter that makes you uncomfortable.
    • is the work representative or interpretive? Does the work refer to the "real" or is it suggestive and open to interpretation? Think of your own work, does it represent its subject matter or interpret? Are you literal or metaphoric in your own work?
      • Inspiration exercise - using an element from the work, make a photograph that is a metaphoric interpretation of that element (not representative)
    • scale - is the work large or small? Do you need to stand back or come in close? 
      • Inspiration exercise - thinking about your image being presented on a gallery wall, make an image with viewing distance in mind
    • medium - are the physical characteristics of the medium obvious in the work? Can you see thickly laid-on paint that has dripped at the edges? Are there remnants of pencil marks still visible? Can you see the edges of a negative? Or perhaps a photographer has included the lights and backdrop in the image?
      • Inspiration exercise - when an artist includes references to the medium they are asking the viewer to think about the actual medium itself. The artist is commenting on their medium, they want you to know that the work is a work - they don't want you to gaze at the work and pretend it is "real". Make a photograph that speaks about photography or photographers. It could be as simple as including your own shadow in your image. Lee Friedlander was well-known for this, you can see some of his images here: 

     Also look at the design aspects of the work

    • line - vertical, horizontal, diagonal - are the lines static, energetic, strong, thick, converging - are they curved, organic, soft - suggestive of boundaries (real or imagined)? 
      • Inspiration exercise - look at the lines (actual or suggested) in the work, how has the artist used them to direct your eye? How has the artist used line to communicate energy or balance or boundaries? Make a photograph that uses that same approach with line.
    • colour - are the colours inviting, unsettling, bright, muted, warm or cool? Think of the emotions associated with the colours the artist has used, what is being communicated by those colours? Anger? Confusion?
      • Inspiration exercise - using a colour from the work make an image that is dominated by that colour
    • texture - smooth or rough, inviting or repellant - think of the feelings associated with different textures
      • Inspiration exercise - explore the moment of touch, when the hand (or any object) meets a surface? Or you might show the moment just before touch to increase the tension in your image.
    • pattern and repetition - has the artist used pattern and repetition to suggest harmony or discord? Whilst harmony is pleasant, discord can engage a viewer on a more emotional level.
      • Inspiration exercise - using pattern and repetition in your surrounds, make an image that unsettles your viewer. Perhaps you will fill the frame with an overwhelming pattern.  
    • balance - is the image balanced or is it weighted top or bottom, left or right? Are the main elements stable or is there an instability in the work? Where are the elements positioned in the frame? 
      • Inspiration exercise - familiarise yourself with Goude and Hjortzberg's experimentation on location and direction. Objects near the edge of frame are perceived as wanting to move with a lot of force. Don't be afraid to use this in your own work. Deliberately compose an image where the elements are at the very edge of frame. Cut them off (in Japanese wood-block style). Ignore the rule of thirds.

    Look at the light, it is a visual language

    • how has the artist used light to communicate a mood? Shadows are one of the main tools you can use to read the light in an image. Shadows can tell you the quality of light, is it soft or hard? The direction of light - front/back/side? The intensity of the light? The level of contrast? 
      • Inspiration exercise - look at the shadows around you to understand the characteristics of the light in your surrounds. Make an image that uses the current light conditions to create a mood.

    Lastly, your ethos should be INSPIRATION NOT IMITATION

    • Look at the elements of the work you find inspiring then...
      • subtract
      • combine
      • transfer
      • distort
      • add
      • isolate
      • contradict

    those elements of the work to ensure you are creating your own unique images

    Additional resources

    • The Photographer's Playbook, 307 Assignments and Ideas, edited by Jason Fulford and Gregory Halpern, Aperture Foundation Publishing
    • fotografica's conceptual photography workshop
    • 30-Second Photography, The 50 most thought-provoking photographers, styles and techniques each explained in half a minute, edited by Brian Dilg, Ivy Press

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