The Art and Habit of Inspiration

Dawn Hamby teaches 18 students in her Advanced Ceramics class. She designed the course to equip young artists with essential techniques for creating and critiquing 3-dimensional art. Using various tools and media (e.g., clay, plaster, wire, cardboard) students learn to exercise creative freedom and explore new possibilities for independent, original work.

Despite their extensive background and interest in art, Mrs. Hamby finds advanced students struggle with original thought, developing artistic identify, and self-generation of creative themes. Most students still revert to copying images and ideas they find online or making minor alterations to finished examples. Various scholars and publications address these challenges for the elementary level student, but limited resources exist for addressing the unique developmental challenges of the high school artist.  

Through this course, Mrs. Hamby hopes to foster student curiosity about important questions such as: How do artists work? What kind of skills and strategies do they employ to explore and express their ideas? How can I develop these skills and apply them to my artwork as well as other aspects of life? Most importantly, she hopes students will overcome their aversion to risk and cultivate new habits for originating and articulating ideas.

Practicing Inspiration

One aspect of learning how artists work is understanding the role of inspiration in art. In their own art projects, students may confine “inspiration” to finding and copying “cool” images on the internet rather than exploring their own artistic process and interests. Students may also presume that artists primarily find inspiration through dramatic moments of epiphany, while more often it’s the result of well-refined creative habits. Advanced artists develop a keen awareness of their own inspirational process and deliberately work through that process at the outset of a new project.

To help students move beyond such limited perceptions and cultivate more advanced habits, Mrs. Hamby planned a research lesson in second semester focused on artistic inspiration.

She began the class period with a warm-up writing activity and the introduction of three essential questions.

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She then asked students to think about the sources of inspiration for each of the recent class projects they completed. She emphasized the difference between copying other artists and “reverse-engineering.” She also provided a case study artwork example by Janet Echelman, titled “One Point Eight.” The title of this work refers to the length of time in microseconds that the earth’s day was shortened as a result of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Students studied the image as a class and took notes about five key process elements that contributed to the artist’s inspiration: subject matter, process, medium, context, concept.


Click here to view these opening segments about sources of inspiration.

Mrs. Hamby continued the lesson with a sorting activity involving cards with artwork images from their own class projects as well as images from other artists. Students worked in small groups to discuss each card and arranged the artworks into categories based on inferences about the artists’ inspirations. Some students sorted cards by subject matter or visual style instead of thinking about the artist’s sources of inspiration, so Mrs. Hamby used probing questions about the artist’s intention. Each group shared their categories of inspiration with the whole class and recorded the full list of sources in their sketchbook notes.

Click here to view the sorting activity.


Next, Mrs. Hamby asked students to explore personal sources of inspiration with a five-step brainstorming exercise resulting in a word-web of ideas for their next project:

  • Make a list of 20 things — What inspires you? What makes you want to make something? What makes you excited about coming to class? What do you wish you could do? What materials or techniques do you like to work with? What do you wish you could try? What do you love? What is a story you’d like to tell? If you could tell the whole world something, what would it be?

  • Circle Three ideas from your list above. How can you make these more specific? Write three ideas next to each one.

  • Word Web: From the three you circled, choose one inspiration that you will use for this project and place it in the center of the word web.

  • Branching out from main inspiration - List five five words that come to mind when you think of this of word.

  • Incorporating 3D design elements: How can you incorporate the elements of 3D design? Which principles will your sculpture focus on? How will your materials visually support your theme? How would you display this work?

Below is an example word-web from one student in the class.

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Finally, Ms. Hamby concluded the lesson by asking students to write a brief statement describing their next project. Examples included:

  • I want to make a sculpture of people that explores unity.

  • I want to make a mixed-media fish out of clay or foam exploring one’s mental health with beach trash as a metaphor.

  • I want to make a horse running that explores light and movement.

Click here to view the final lesson segments on personal inspiration.

Student Results

After completing the lesson, we analyzed students’ word webs and corresponding project statements based on three main criteria: creativity, heart, and courage. Below are the results of this analysis based on 10 representative samples.

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The results from the word webs reflected a wide range of diverse ideas and sources of inspiration. All but two samples showed clear evidence of proposed subject matter that was inspired by a topic of deep personal interest, and most of the final statements described projects with increased complexity, scope or scale.

Overall, the word webs revealed that students still need more assistance and practice moving beyond concrete topics of interest to elaborate on a concept or theme. But Mrs. Hamby was excited to see initial signs of students making connections between proposed subject matter and the emotion or message they hope to convey. She was also pleased to observe how the exercise helped students overcome “artist’s block,” and pushed them to unpack their own universe of ideas without copying examples from the internet. These findings were reinforced by student interview responses.

Student Interview

I: When you were grouping the cards into categories, what were some things you learned about where artists get their inspiration?

KC: I learned that you get inspiration from anywhere...Some of the categories we selected were nature, and shapes, and abstract objects, and people, like portraits of them, and also day-to-day life.

I: How has your approach to inspiration changed as a result of this lesson?

KC: I thought people thought of something randomly or something that impacted their lives. That was an eye-opener because lately I have been struggling with being inspired and what I want to make next...That was a lesson I needed right now. I’ve just been making whatever comes to me and that helped me dig deep and get inspired by different things.

I: How can we use an artist’s final product to understand the source of inspiration?

KC: First of all, what they made and what it’s made out of. Like the fishnet sculpture that Ms. Hamby showed us. I would have never thought that was made out of knotted fishnets. So the message that it’s sending and the different elements she used with the movement of it...You can see how long it they got there to make you feel a certain way about it.

I: How do artists approach the challenge of coming up with their next project?

KC: I think that like Janet and how she used the fishnet. I know that she was actually stuck and didn’t have her supplies so she had to totally come up with something new. Since I’m stuck with what I’m trying to make out of clay right now, I can maybe use different materials and be inspired to make something else like using wood or wire.

I: What have you learned about your own sources of inspiration?

KC: I feel really connected to nature...also I’ve really been into shapes lately and abstract things. And also colors and how they depict the emotion of it. Let’s say it’s all black and white or all reds or blues which make a tone of the piece.

I: Was there a moment or aspect of this lesson that helped you gain a new insight or understanding about the inspiration process?

KC: First we wrote down a whole bunch of stuff that we liked and I realized that I have a lot of choices and how we narrowed it down to one or two words. And how we went even more in depth choosing verbs and actions...Because I wouldn’t have thought about all the different things a horse could be doing. I was just thinking of making a standing horse but now I’m thinking of making it running, or eating...using light to show that it’s moving...I think that was helpful and I probably will use that in the future.


Looking ahead, Mrs. Hamby hopes to build on the success of this lesson and continue working with students to envision a sculpture for their next project. Students will think about materials, techniques, form, and the principles of design. They will create sketches of the final product and make a plan for researching any new techniques or materials.

In addition, based on the results from interviews, observations, and work samples, at least three big ideas from the lesson represent compelling avenues for continued refinement and study over the long term:

  • Providing opportunities to learn from the inspiration journey of other artists--working backward through an artist’s story to study both the experiences and decisions that shaped the final product.

  • Reinforcing new academic language and for describing the process elements that contribute to inspiration: subject matter, process, medium, context, concept.

  • Expanding effective use of tools and processes for exploring and elaborating on their own world of ideas and interests (e.g., word webs and other methods).

These approaches helped equip students with a productive framework for exploring and understanding art--what it represents, what the artist was thinking, and how they might adopt similar habits to ignite and sustain their own creative potential.