Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Where do you get your ideas?

Back when I thought I was going to write the Great American Novel, I went to a lot of writers’ conferences where the number one question from aspiring writers was “Where do you get your ideas?” Generally the Famous Writer Presenters had been asked that question so much that they had a raft of stock answers—“From the Sears and Roebuck Idea Catalog” or “From the Idea Fairy”. Some of them would even go on to try to answer the question seriously, but I really got the sense that it was one of those questions that, if you had to ask it, you probably were in the wrong line of work. I always felt a little cheated and a lot uncreative.

Then, when I was teaching in Pasadena a couple of weeks ago, my student Patty Dean Wolford, who is looking to move into teaching, asked me, “How do you come up with ideas for projects to teach?” I found myself flummoxed at first and tempted to give her the Sears catalog line.

Patty Dean is a talented and precise artist who will one day be a fabulous teacher, so I thought she deserved a careful answer. I walked her through the way I had come up with the Silver Linings silver and resin cloud I’ll be teaching at Bead Fest Santa Fe. (  ) Together we came up with the title for her first class. But her question has stayed with me for the past weeks since I got home from Pasadena. And when something stays with you like that, I figure it means you need to work it through.

The thing is, an idea doesn’t always spring, fully formed, from your soul to the finished piece. So when you’re looking for an idea, you can take a number of routes to get the ideas flowing. The Silver Linings piece came from several seeds. I wanted to experiment with UV resin, so that meant the piece was going to have color. I’m a metal clay artist, and I wanted to try syringe as a frame for resin, so that meant I could have thin lines and flowing curves. As an artist, I’m drawn to images that speak to the places I’ve lived in, from the dogwoods of my North Carolina childhood to the incredible variety of nature in my adopted home in the Bay Area of California. It was cold and grey and I’d been down in the dumps, so the cheerful flowers and sunshine motifs didn’t appeal. I started sketching outline shapes and the one that seemed both doable and fitting to my mood was a cloudbank with raindrops dangling from the bottom.

My skill set includes traditional wire work and beading techniques, so making my own connectors was as easy as having to use purchased findings, and lots faster than having to order some. And I always have a big stash of jewelry materials, so finding the right piece of fine chain to dangle the raindrops from was a matter of digging through one of my bins.

What I’ve learned from deconstructing this project is that an idea can start from a number of impetuses and then is developed by more influences. So if you’re looking for an idea, here are some places to start. Pick one, then mix and match to develop your idea into a project you want to make.

• Is there a new product I want to experiment with? What are its properties? A year ago I didn’t know much about resin, so I signed up to give a presentation to my guild to give myself a deadline to learn about it. Then I tried to include it in lots of my work over the past year.

• Is there a new technique I want to try? What shapes or inclusions or tools, etc. can I make with that technique? When I wanted to learn to make metal clay hollow cones, I started with cones for necklace ends. The problem is that I don’t make a lot of necklaces that use cone ends. Then I realized that the cone shape was perfect for the center of a daffodil, which happens to be one of my favorite flowers, and I made one of my all-time favorite pieces.

• What do I love? What do I dislike? Maybe you think hearts and flowers are overdone, or maybe (like me) you think they are iconic. Are you drawn to cities or mountains, or (again like me) it is a matter of mood. I’m a cat person, so I’m not likely to make dog jewelry. Except if it is for my walking buddy, the stately standard poodle Regis, who really isn’t a dog at all. He’s people.

• What am I good at? What do I want to get better at? Making my own findings is easy for me, so I can incorporate them in a piece without worrying about it. A lot of my pieces were pretty two-dimensional, so I deliberately set out to create some designs that were multi-part and/or dimensional.

• Who is my target audience? I’m interested in teaching my projects, so they have to be accessible to a group of beginners, and they can’t require esoteric materials or tools. On the other hand, I want to sell to upscale galleries and sophisticated women buyers, so I’ve pretty much given up on man-made CZ’s for my pieces that are intended for sale rather than teaching. Instead, I’ve started using natural precious and semiprecious gems and stones. I am inclined towards making classic pieces that are a staple of a woman’s jewelry wardrobe, rather than the trendy pieces that are good for a season or two. That choice informs the materials I use and the designs I create.

Maybe you haven’t done enough making to know the answers to what attracts you in your own work. If that’s the case, open your jewelry box and analyze the pieces you wear all the time and those that always get passed over. Are you drawn to line and form? Geometric or organic? Do you love color or tend to stick with metals? Do you like antique designs or modern? Then go to your sketchbook and work for an hour or two, putting together the pieces you like, rearranging them and adding to them, until you come up with something that says “you.”

And that’s my next-to-last tip. At the 2009 Metal Clay World Conference, I took a class from Alan Revere on design. It made me understand the power of keeping a sketchbook and making variations on a theme until I reach one that calls out to be produced. I’d never been a fan of sketchbooks before. In fact, I was of the “can’t draw a straight line with a ruler” school of self-deprecation. But since I’ve been keeping a sketchbook and putting down ideas as they occur, or sketching thoughts that spring from something I’ve seen as I see it, I feel that my work has reached a higher level and my ideas come more easily. I even took an online drawing class from my local community college to feel more comfortable with sketching.

The last piece is to get out there and make something, anything. There are studies that show that with 10,000 hours of practice, you can become an expert in anything. Do you want to be an expert at reading blogs or at making jewelry?