Unstuck: How to Find Inspiration Through Journaling | Jennie Kimbrough

Engage Art | Artist to Artist, Reflection & Growth | June 9, 2020

As an artist, inspiration can ebb and flow. Sometimes you are in a good groove for a long time, and sometimes, starting each piece feels like a fight. Sometimes you are so stuck you just don’t work at all. For me, whenever I am feeling stuck trying to start a new piece, or when I feel like I need to start a new body of work completely, I have a tried and true method to get myself “unstuck.”

Tried & True Method of Getting “Unstuck”

My method of conjuring inspiration is to do a brainstorming journal session. I have a specific set of questions I ask myself, then I write down the answers in my sketchbook. This method of “pre-thinking” is also what brings a lot of the depth and meaning to my artwork.

Now, as a whole, I am not a “journal” person. I have never kept a diary; I don’t even use a planner effectively. So if you think, “I’m not much of a ‘writer’, this won’t work for me,” give me a chance and keep reading. I have felt like that too, yet I find that my sketchbook has as much writing in it as it does drawing.

The questions I ask:

“What is most important?”

For a whole new body of work this question looks like this:

“What is most important in my life right now? What do I care about the most? What area of life has me interested and asking questions?”

For a new piece in an established body of work, it looks more like: 

“What is most important in the message I want to convey? What is the most important thing about the subject I want to focus on?”

Then I ask:“Why is it important?  What is important about it?”

Finding My Why

These first few questions help me focus on what I care about, and why I care about it. They help me know the why of the work I am planning to create. This is really important to me for getting “unstuck,” because knowing why helps me begin to engage with wanting to create in the first place. When I don’t have a why, I struggle to be interested in making anything at all. I feel uninspired. Bored. Stuck.

Your why can be whatever you want. It doesn’t have to be deep and philosophical, it doesn’t have to be about a specific subject matter, and it can change over time. You can also have a few different answers, and therefore have several different motivations for the work that you do. Your answer to, “What is most important to me?” may be, “It is important to be making something every day.” Which would lead you down a very different path than the answer, “climate change,” which again is different than “the way that light and shadow create form.” Knowing your why can be your most important step towards inspiration. But knowing why isn’t always enough.

Finding My What

After I figure out my why, I need to break it down further. I need to know what. So my next step is to ask a few more questions that help me figure out the what to my why.

My next questions start to hone my visual decision making towards a final piece of art.

  • What visual elements relate to my why?  
  • Are there colors, symbols, size of work, type of work, subject matter, etc. that are meaningful to the work I want to make?  
  • Are there different themes within my why that I want to address?
  • What are specific subjects that relate to my why?

Keep Asking Questions

This step moves me from knowing that I want to make something to visualizing a finished piece of art. I begin seeing the details of what I want to create. I may brainstorm potential color palettes, materials, size of work, type of piece I want to make, and on and on. Each time I make a decision, I use that information to ask more questions, which leads me to another decision. As I go, I write it all down. I keep asking myself questions like these until I have an idea for a specific piece—a piece I am excited about making. Then I can start actually sketching my ideas. 

Long Term Dividends

The beauty of this brainstorming method is that even when I am just trying to brainstorm a single piece, this process often leads to several new ideas. I am suddenly able to see a lot of possibilities when previously I felt like there weren’t any. Because I wrote it down, I also have a record of what my thoughts are, so I can revisit my ideas, see if my why still feels relevant, and build on my previous work in a meaningful way for years to come.

Author Bio


Jennie Kimbrough is an artist currently living in Boyne City, MI. She received her B.F.A. in 2004 from Missouri State University, and attended Wichita State University for graduate studies from 2005-2006. Her studio practice focuses on painting, while occasionally venturing into installation work. She works in both acrylic and encaustic with mixed medium elements. She is a member of CIVA. Her work has been featured in solo and group shows in Houston and the surrounding area, as well as Philadelphia, PA, Frederick, MD, Wichita, KS, Springfield, MO, Los Angeles, CA, Austin, TX, along with many other cities across the country.

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