The starving artist is not so hungry

Via picksnoz on Visual Hunt

How long could you live in a sterile environment devoid of color, surrounded by stark whites or drab grays? What if your only food was rice, cream of wheat, fish, oatmeal, or bananas (without the peel)? Could any of us survive long on a color-free diet or empty walls?

There are riches all around if we open our eyes.

Perhaps the term “starving artist” is a misnomer. A struggling artist may not have money for extravagance and high living, but his mind is stretched to overflowing with images and palettes of every shade of red, of lilac and chartreuse, of textures and ripples, light and shadow, of impassioned honeysuckles and tulips, or portraits that eternally capture the inimitable personalities of those long gone.

An artist may not eat off china, drink from crystal, or work by the golden light of candelabra or chandeliers, but he is never starved for light or beauty.

“Life beats down and crushes the soul
and art reminds you that you have one.”
–Stella Adler

The artist—whether painter, poet, musician, or filmmaker—sees things that others don’t. They even observe things their fellow creatives might not notice. No two people think or see exactly alike. They bring their own point of view—a new perspective.

When I taught art, I’d set up a half dozen folding chairs in the middle of the room and give each student a viewfinder (a piece of cardboard with a rectangle cut out of the middle). Students had to cease seeing the chairs as chairs, and instead look through the viewfinder to discover interesting arrangements of positive and negative space. (The chairs are positive space; the spaces between and around them are negative space.)

The resultant line drawings revealed how chairs could be stripped down to a mere jumble of lines and shapes, creating an appealing abstract design with unity, rhythm, and balance.

Via & Skyline College Art Gallery

We did a similar thing with plants . . . just positive and negative space . . .

Via ACC Art Department

My young artists learned the elements of design basics with just a bunch of chairs or leaves so they could later create their own artistic vision, even break the rules at times.

We also made designs inspired by lines, shapes, patterns, and textures in fruit, nature, and animals. (These are not my students’ work, but this gives you an idea.)

Designs based on fruit:


Tree branches lend themselves to positive/negative design studies, too, whether drawn or photographed:

Via hjl on

Here’s a picture based on the positive/negative space in trees, with a little color thrown in:


Via csfgirl on VisualHunt


Objects are not just things to be labeled. Students weren’t just looking at chairs, ribbons, eggs, vases, or gladiolas. These things have light and shadow, hue, value, volume, texture, and more.

Like nature all around us. Like some of the pictures from “Chickens at the State Fair.” Note the patterns, repetition, shades of green, textures, and so on, that draw us in as well as create unity and rhythm with variety.

Artists are inspired by the rhythm, pattern, and colors of rocks and trees, fish and fowl,  feathers and flowers—and thus create their own visions of beauty:

Via garlandcannon, torbakhopper, Helen Nock (, Claudelle Girard, and blackTanso on Visual Hunt

The artist sees beauty everywhere. And the potential for beauty.

If your everyday life seems poor, do not blame it;
admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet
to call forth its riches;
because for the creator there is no poverty
and no poor, indifferent place.
—Rainer Maria Rilke(1875 – 1926)


Kids will make anything out of cardboard boxes, from cars to robots to houses. Every object has artistic possibilities.

When our kids were young, I never threw away egg cartons, spools, paper bags, burlap, yarn—anything that could be used for a creative project. I even had an envelope of broken dyed eggshells and those tiny round pieces of hole-punched paper. Great for mosaics!

My husband Tim has a wood shop in the basement filled with screws, nails, saws, drills, wrenches, hammers, chisels, planes, paint, and piles of wood, including barn board inherited from his father. He’s constantly coming up with unique contraptions and practical solutions, even finding new uses for barn board.

My guest Kaysie Strickland is drawn to impoverished places and inspired to enrich them with her artistic touch, to create homes for the hurting.

Guest Laura Fesser finds inspiration in everything around her, both media and subject matter, from polymer clay and paint to pets and guitars. She takes advantage of artistic mistakes and uses them for future projects.

So creativity and beauty can be found in—or grow out of—the most unlikely places:

  • abandoned objects
  • cardboard boxes
  • dusty rooms
  • rusty parts
  • old barn board
  • a pile of chairs
  • forgotten letters
  • neglected tasks
  • ordinary routine
  • everyday nature
  • or frustrating mistakes (more on mistakes later)

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. We say this about rummage sales. But the same could be said for artists who are constantly looking, probing, thinking, finding new points of view, recombining, renovating, redeeming, redefining, recreating. . .

Remember . . . creativity is a combination of our memories, methods, and materials. We mix our memories in new ways. We create new out of the old.

Where have you found beauty in the ordinary? Or in something that others discarded? Where have you found an idea in a pile of rubble?

I’d love to hear from you! Please leave your comments below.

Ever musing,


P.S. Next week, join me on a tour of “Mayberry.” In two weeks, meet Marie Scott, an artist whose palette mixes business with pleasure as she paints glimmers of hope for a broken world.

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8 thoughts on “The starving artist is not so hungry

  1. I love this post! What a unique and lovely perspective!
    “We mix our memories in new ways.”
    Pinterest is a blessing for many busy people. Following steps isn’t bad, and we don’t always need to recreate the wheel.
    But this encourages people to use their
    voice and their vision (and their stuff) to create something new and fresh.

    1. Also, following steps (or following the “rules”) is like paying your dues (learning the basics) so that you can veer off the path later in new directions. Whether it’s in writing, music, or art.

  2. When I read theses lines: “Could any of us survive long on a color-free diet?… Where have you found beauty in the ordinary?” I thought of some YouTube videos that went around. Of men who were colorblind.

    In each video, the men were fully grown, strong, muscular. The kind you expect to be unaffected by emotions.
    But then each man was given a pair of special glasses. For the colorblind. They looked like ordinary shades. Often the person giving the glasses presented them as a gift, and the men were confused. They put them on.
    And in each and every case, the men cried.

    Then the video would show an example of what the men saw without the glasses. Think sepia. Everything in the world just a hue of red and green mixed together–like a golden brown. But with the glasses, everything came to life. One guy almost jumped out of his skin at a red fire hydrant.

    And that was when I realized the beauty in my ordinary. I can see all those colors that you talked about. Every day. But I didn’t really celebrate that until I saw some men who couldn’t. There are other videos: the first time someone can hear, the first time they can see. Again, every single time, the tears come–both to the them and to their loved ones who could now be seen and heard.

    How much beauty do I take for granted?

    1. No doubt we do take so much beauty for granted. Just thinking of these men seeing color for the first time makes me cry! I can’t even imagine what that would be like.

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