What Do You Do When You Ain’t Got Nothing?

Have you ever had to make a speech?  What about an interview?  You know you have one shot to make an impression.  You want to be prepared and confident.  A lot may be expected of you.  What do you do when you ain’t got nothing?

I think of the old silent movies.  A scene shows a merchant demanding payment from the scamp drifter.  The drifter pulls his empty pant pockets inside out and shrugs.  The merchant protests, arms waving and fingers pointing.  Then, “ah-HAH!”  an idea comes to the drifter.  Some sort of solution is manifested and somehow all is well again.

Sometimes the harvest from the field of ideas is abundant.  Other times, it is like the empty pockets of the drifter.  The moral of our drifter’s story is often about faith and perseverance.  The drifter’s attitude is one that offers the sunny side of the street, and that you may be down but you’re never out.  Something will turn up so long as you hold out for it.

Still Nothing

That is fine but being at a loss for what to say or do is a feeling of predicament.  How does one generate ideas when nothing seems to come?  The ticking clock only seems to make things worse.  The longer the wait for an idea the less likely it seems anything will spark. 

There have been times when I was supposed to make a presentation and speak at length in front of a room full of people, waiting to hear what I would say.  People would ask me, “what are you going to talk about?”  I sometimes say, “I have no idea”.   Of course that is not entirely true. The question comes to me about paintings also.  How do I know what to paint? This question came up frequently when I was in art school.  Here are some things I remember and some things I have learned along the way.

A graphic pen and ink doodle of a human head in profile on a yellow background. The head has a with hole in it.  What Do You Do When You Ain’t Got Nothing?
No Idea – Curtis Green

Just start

A perfect trap is to sit and stare at a blank sheet of paper or canvas.  Certainly, that brilliant flash will come.  When it does, a flurry of creative action will wildly occur.  This often leads to many “false starts”.   An idea burst is expelled with fervent action but then it falls off.  These canvases usually become the ones that do not get finished.  We find ourselves painting in our heads and not on the canvas.  When ideas “just aren’t there”, sometimes just toning the canvas while admitting to yourself, “I have no idea what I’m about to do” is a great way to “get it going”.

Make marks

Sometimes, our own fear and judgement gets in the way.  Maybe money is tight, and you do not want to “waste” a canvas.  Maybe this is a for a show, or a commission and you imposed pressure on yourself.  You think, this has got to be good.  

We often get in our own way and critique ourselves before we even start.  The best way to get beyond that is to just make some marks and scribble.  Light movements, circular patterns, little scumbles will get something started.  You will see some patterns or relationships with the marks your making and then ideas start to arrange themselves.  Then you are suddenly off to the races. 

A graphic pen and ink doodle of a human head in profile on a blue background. The head has a with hole in it.  What Do You Do When You Ain’t Got Nothing?
No Idea – Curtis Green

Do something similar.   Play some scales.  Stretch a canvas. 

 Sometimes, when my brush is in my hand, I will have to put it down.  I feel like I am truly forcing my desire to paint something without the benefit of any real enthusiasm.  Doing something else productive is helpful.  I will stretch some canvases, arrange that messy corner of studio, write something, or play some music.   Sometimes, I will come across an old canvas and think, “Hey, I could revisit this!” And off I go.

Do not wait for inspiration

This was another hot topic of discussion while in school.  It is built from self-critique.  But instead of doubting yourself, you are sure that you are capable of an idea of genius!   You probably are.  However, waiting until that “right moment” means you will talk yourself out of getting started on anything until the right inspiration occurs.  You may not want to “waste time” on doing the smaller ideas.  So, nothing gets done until the time is right to do the one big idea well.  Most “genius” ideas came about through tinkering.  Small things turn into flashes of inspiration.  So, you cannot wait for it.

A graphic pen and ink doodle of a human head in profile on a red background. The head has a with hole in it.  What Do You Do When You Ain’t Got Nothing?
No Idea – Curtis Green

Do not get drunk

Getting wasted to “find an epiphany” is just bogus.  Relying on drugs or alcohol to “give you insight” is great if you want to be a genius in your own mind.  Mostly it falls off and much of what you came up with was probably “cool at the time”.  Also, relying on getting high to work creates a danger of becoming addicted.  Please, do not do that.  Healthy, clear minds are better for creating truly brilliant, honest work. 

Do it upside down

Changing your perspective is a great way to generate ideas. Turn the whole idea on its head.  Literally.  If “nothing is working” or if you have a grain of an idea.  Shift it around, re-arrange it and think of it from bottom to top instead of top to bottom.

Do it backwards

Have you ever thoughtfully searched for the right words for exactly how you want to say something?  While you were doing that, did the person who was with you get frustrated and exclaim, “Oh, just say it already!”

If you can think of the outcome of your idea, you might begin at that point.  You can work backwards from there.  You can “reverse engineer” your idea.  I guess that is an impressive way of saying it.

A graphic pen and ink doodle of a human head in profile on a green background. The head has a with hole in it.
No Idea – Curtis Green

Make lists or a map

Sometimes we have a lot of ideas running at once, and instead of being at the dry well of ideas, there is a fountain.  We may feel like we are bumping into ourselves, we do not know where to begin.  So, we do nothing. 

This is where making lists can be helpful.  Not just tasks for the days or weeks to come.  I may have a broad idea that is large and is difficult to put into one statement.  Sometimes, by parsing out the idea into smaller statements, the idea can become a list of ideas that turn into a series of pieces.  Mapping out the trajectory of the idea helps place portions of the thoughts into groups that become knitted together cohesively as parts into the whole.  Usually a beginning point is revealed, and a path is created for wrapping it together that helps communicate your thoughts into whatever form it becomes.

Organize the studio

Sometimes your ideas just need a break.  Maybe a vacation is in order!  Like a friend, you cannot be in each other’s company all the time.  A little house cleaning, mind clearing, and re-organizing can refresh things.  This is good if you have just finished a flurry of activity. It might be good to simply take a bit of a break and get things set up for the next run.

A graphic pen and ink doodle of a human head in profile on a purple background. The head has a with hole in it.  What Do You Do When You Ain’t Got Nothing?

Sit quietly and listen, you just might hear something

Is there such a thing as “actively doing nothing”?  Having ideas come to you is to be in balance with actively seeking and quietly waiting. Ohm.

Don’t be stupid, Be ridiculous! 

Be unafraid to be a little bit ridiculous.  Routine means doing something the same way, every time.  Stepping outside of the routine is a decisive action.  That action may have been prompted by an absurd idea to do something differently.  Sometimes, this is relegated to simple attention grabbing for the sake of just being noticed.  Other times, it may be called innovation.   So, get in there, goof-ball!

Get Gift Inspired

Tote Bag - The Gazebo of the Lower Meadow

Since we’re on the topic of ideas and inspiration, the holidays are approaching. Get ahead with these gift ideas from my prints and gifts page.

You can also visit my online prints and gifts page at Pixels.com

4 Replies to “What Do You Do When You Ain’t Got Nothing?”

  1. As always, very thought provoking . Look forward to your next writing. I learn a great deal and receive much to think about. Thank you.

  2. hi Curtis I visited your Fine Art Prints. I would like to select and purchase Highland Scene. Is it still available?

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