Sources for Ideas in Art
Generate Your Own Ideas for Art Lessons



table of contents
materials & processes
the unique life of the artist
formal composition
purposes of art
other cultures
emulate expert thinking
art ed standards
- local, state, national

Marvin Bartel
First posted
Aug 15, 2007
Updated: Sept. 2, 2007


Since art is a complex matrix of overlapping and interwoven concepts, there are numerous ways to approach learning in art.  Contrary to many disciplines, I would not want to claim an essentially linear sequence that must be followed in learning art. Not only are there many different entry points for art lessons, there are many different refinement strategies when materializing art and when constructing knowledge about art and emotional expressive power in art.  Each way listed here is a different way of entering an art learning experience. 

By approaching art from new directions, we deepen the learner’s grasp of how to think and feel as they materialize their world artistically. The many ways to begin, to elaborate, and to refine artwork could be thought of as the many styles of learning in art. New ideas are introduced while many other aspects of each lesson remain as familiar practiced territory.

To change habits of work and ways of learning is likely to be one of surest ways to get creative thinking and inspire new learning. Student thinking gradually becomes more sophisticated.

This listing of ways to get ideas is not intended to encourage teachers to attempt an overly broad coverage. As teachers, we need to foster depth (not only sampling) from the very beginning of any discipline. A student who only achieves entry-level quality may not gain the confidence to learn and achieve additional substantive work on her/his own. Strong artists repeat the same approach over and over while making subtle, but important variations and changes. A student who learns how to achieve high standards and quality work in a limited number of skills and ideas still has the rest of her life to sample and become expert at other things. Taking class time to develop expertise beats one more bit of trivia.  

Art Materials/Processes can inspire ideas for art

    Explore materials and processes

    Experiment and Compare

    Respond to Accidents and Mistakes – perhaps foster some

    Push limits and appropriateness

    Build skills, refine, & organize

Person’s Own Life/Concerns/Passions/Fears/
Memories/Experiences/etc. can inspire ideas for art. Ideas come from what really matters to the artist.

See Conversation Game

Compositional questions & Formal questions can inspire ideas for art. How do you as an artist get and hold the attention and interest of your audience or viewer?

    How is a compositional principle determined?

    How is this done in other than visual arts?

    What are the foundations of aesthetics?

Function and Usage questions can inspire ideas for art.

    What are attributes of a good teapot design, a chair, a home, a place of worship, a court house, a playground, or a bank?

    How can the formal design elements in a painting be used to chart the relationships in a family?

The Purposes of Art can inspire ideas for art*
------- this is a partial list ----------

    Show emotions such as humor, grief, disdain, pride, love, care (about ourselves, others, possessions, places, schools, cities, countries, etc.)

    Celebrate and mark occasions and events


    Provide group, family, and/or individual identity

    Persuade, convince, argue, expose truth, build awareness, etc.

    Beautify, mystify

    Assists in meditation and contemplation

    Explain/express metaphorically, non-verbally, & non-discursively

    Record what is/was observed, documentation

    Artifacts tell about the lives of the creators and users

    Art lessons can make drawings and paintings based on imaginations and reconstructions showing the lives of the makers of found objects.

    An art lesson can begin with a found historic pot shard. Students can be asked to imagine and create a whole piece based on what this small part suggests. They could individually decide on an intended function for the piece they are designing and creating.

    Produces plans & solves problems (architects, product designers)

    Art lessons can ask students to produce original plans for bird houses that are then made from clay, wood, plastics, etc. Depending on the material, it may be better not to follow the plan when building, but think of the planning as preparation for the mind. Expect more creative ideas and improvements during the building.

    An art lesson can ask for the design and production of original soap dishes that are planned and designed according to the attributes of a particular person in the student's life (to be a gift to that person). They are also designed to consider the attributes of wet soap.

    Lesson can develop original plans for whole towns produced as models that are then presented and discussed in their art class and in their other classes. Teams of students can learn many things in art, collaboration, public speaking, civics, economics, transportation, history, understanding about their own city, and in other school subjects.

    Tell stories, express fantasies, myths, religious beliefs, literature

    Art lessons can illustrate literature, poetry, etc. I never allow students to see book illustrations prior to their own creative work that responds to stories. Students do well when I assign some preliminary practice to get started.

    Art works magic, heals, brings rain, etc. in some cultures

    Provide self-knowledge, understanding, emotional intelligence, & therapy

    Expresses our subconscious, dreams, fantasies, and explores unexpected juxtapositions/accidents/mistakes

    Brings order out of chaos

    Produce pure visual impact/expression

Nature and our constructed environments inspire many artists

Finding Strategies by Emulating Thinking Processes used by Experts

    Study the best work of another art form to find ideas to interpret in your own art form.  (photography, drawing, collage, painting, sculpture, jewelry, graphic design, pottery, etc.). 

    Study high quality arts other than visual arts (dance, songs and music, theater, poetry, story telling, etc.)

    Study the ways used to make discoveries in other disciplines (science, social science, math, etc.).  How do they structure experiments and control for mistakes?

Finding Cultural Concerns by Studying The Concerns Shown in the Work of Artists of Other Cultures

As a teacher, I study the work of another culture. I think about the concerns of the work. What did the artist care about. I think about how the students in my classes also are part of cultures. I prepare a lesson to inspire and challenge students to respond similar elements and concerns in their own culture and their own life. I am careful NOT to ask the students to look at or study the work from the other culture. I ask them to create work based on the students' culture -- not from the other culture. This gets good results if I include some preliminary idea generation activities and preliminary practice by the students.

After they have created their own culturally relevant work and discussed how it works relative to their own culture, we do study the work from the other culture and gain a better understanding and tolerance of how the artists in the other culture provided identity, ritual, symbol, and other ways to give meaning and purpose to the concerns in their culture.

Following this sequence honors both our own culture and the other culture. It avoids offending other belief systems while building self-understanding and helps us learn about cultures other than our own. It helps us become more aware of the purposes of art in our culture. We become more understanding of the cultural influences on our own actions and choices. Studying our own culture can be a good way to integrate more than one discipline in the curriculum. Several teachers may want to collaborate on this kind of learning activity.

Also see Purposes of Art above & Teaching Multicultural Art.

Finding ideas from Standards Statements

This document is not intended as a complete standards statement for an art curriculum. The purpose of this page is to bring up ideas to enrich the creativity and quality of the art learning experience. This page is meant to inspire--not to require.

Teachers should also study the Visual Arts Standards published by the state, country, or local district or school. It will list many of the points listed this document. It may also suggest a sequence for various grade levels and ages.

On the whole Standards Statements are very useful in defining a breadth of content to be learned. They are a great learning experience for those who write them. For those who have to follow them, they can feel like chore or like an outside assignment. I disagree that one has to first cover a very broad base in introductory classes in order to select an area of specialization at a later date. I believe it is more important to stress practice, experimentation, and development of expertise in an area in which the teacher is very strong--even in introductory classes. Teachers that work from their strength bring enthusiasm and higher standards. Teachers that are asked to teach outside their areas of interest and ability in order to meet an imposed standard may do more harm than good. Students that develop a higher level of expertise in fewer areas are more likely to be a resounding success in whatever they decide to learn in the future because they are accustomed to higher standards and will find ways to attain them.

Some visual arts standard statements fail to mention observation drawing skill, some fail to list creative thinking strategies as an essential art ability, and others may omit some other area of thinking and artistic ability that most of us feel are very basic. I believe most children wish they could learn to draw well. Most children would expect to be permitted to come up with their own art ideas in an art course. A good art curriculum would help them become more creative, and be better synthesizers of what they know.

There is not much evidence that any list of visual art standards needs to be taught in a linear sequence. Various aspects of the content can probably be distributed and repeated in many different ways during the course. Becoming an artist, like most worthy disciplines, is a long process that begins as a preschooler and continues for a lifetime. Whatever is learned in school should prepare the mind of the artist in each person continue to develop in response to whatever happens in life. "In the end all education is self-education."**

~~~~ END ~~~~

End Notes

*Some items on the Purposes of Art list are from Donald and Barbara Herberholz. Artworks for Elementary Teachers, 7th Ed. 1994. WCB Brown & Benchmark.

** quotation from Joseph Albers, painter, and art teacher at Yale (copied from the wall at the Tate Modern, London, March, 2006)


For teachers who want their students to learn how to think of their own ideas for their artwork.

Conversation Game
to generate creative ideas for artwork and to foster social skills

A lesson on getting ideas from the Conversation Game.

A lesson on getting ideas by attending directly to the work as it happens

A lesson that uses the art material's own qualities to find ideas

Art Lesson Planning Guidelines

The Incredible Art Department page on generating ideas for art.

Do you have a good way of thinking of new ideas for teaching art? I welcome an email note with your ideas for improvements, your questions, or other creative ideas that occurred to you or your students as you worked with teaching creative thinking.


I invite readers to send me their ways to come up with new ideas. Let me know if I may share and if you wish to be credited.

Other Art Lessons and essays by the same author

Creativity Killers
in the art room

How to teach creativity

Advocacy for Art Education in our schools

biography of author

All rights reserved.  This page Marvin Bartel, Emeritus Professor of Art, Goshen College.  Teachers many make a single copy for their personal use so long as this copyright notice is included. Scholarly quotations are permitted with proper attribution.

For permission to make copies or handouts, contact the author

Check these other Art Education Essays, Lessons,
and many other resources for teachers and parents

from Marvin Bartel, ED. D, Emeritus Prof. of Art - Marvin Bartel

Teaching Ceramics   Teaching House Design   Teaching Photography   Teaching Art

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