We’ve almost all done it. We’ve gone to an art gallery to look for inspiration for our photographic work and ended up just snapping some pictures of paintings we like on our phones for later reference.
While that is one way to approach the task of finding inspiration for photography in art galleries, there are other ways that you might find more success.
In this article, I’m going to explore some different ways that you can use an art gallery to find inspiration for your photography. And they’ll all result in a more original result than if you just photograph the actual work of art itself.
Visiting a gallery
When you visit an art gallery, make sure you allow yourself enough time. Ideally, set aside a whole morning or afternoon for a larger gallery.
When going to a new gallery that I’ve never been to before, I love to take a trip around the whole thing. Then I go back and visit rooms or artworks that I loved to see them in more detail. At very large galleries or museums, you might want to look on the floor plan ahead of time and identify a smaller section to see on that visit.
After you’ve viewed works of art for an hour or so, take time to visit the cafe and relax a bit. This will give you time to think about what you’ve enjoyed so far. Use this time to make some notes if you want to.
Of course, it’s not possible for everyone to visit a gallery, or to do so regularly. Instead, perhaps ‘visit’ the online archive of a museum or gallery on their website. Some museums and galleries offer themed collections that you can browse. Others have lists of the artwork in each room so that you can ‘tour’ it virtually!
Take a sketchbook
So many photographers don’t use a sketchbook, but I think they’re vital to inspiration-gathering. You don’t have to be good at drawing to use a sketchbook. My sketching abilities extend to a fraction more than stick figures. But it isn’t your drawing ability that counts; your sketchbook will just be a place to record ideas for your own reference.
As you make your way around the different rooms of the art gallery, stop in front of any work that catches your eye. Ask yourself why that piece of art caught your attention. Perhaps it was the:
Record what you see
Take out your sketchbook and record those thoughts. Draw a sketch of the pose or the composition. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate or detailed sketch. Just a thumbnail to serve as an aide-memoire in the future when you’re planning shoots.
If it was the concept or the colors that caught your eye then make a note of them. Write down the things that you particularly liked about it. Perhaps pink roses against a blue background seemed particular striking for you. Or maybe a bright blue gown gave you ideas for something in the future.
It might not even be important to you to record the name of the artwork or the artist. If it’s just a pose you like, then who cares who originally painted the picture?
This approach is nothing new in the art world. The eighteenth-century British painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, allegedly had a book where he would sketch down poses that other painters had used. When you commissioned him to paint your portrait, you could pick your pose from the book!
When you come to create new photographs, go back and look at your sketchbook. Pull together your ideas from these notes, and you’ll soon find yourself with some interesting inspiration for your photography that doesn’t rely heavily on a single source.
Taking inspiration from single works of art
If there’s a particular artwork that you love then start to analyze that piece and see what it really is that you love about it. You might surprise yourself.
I always start with a blank page in my notebook, where I sketch out the pose or composition of the work of art. Then I identify different elements. Perhaps the colors that seem particularly strong, the mood of the image, or the concept. There might be a key prop or costume piece that I like, and I’ll note that down too.
Try doing the same and then use that information, rather than the original artwork, to shape the photoshoot you have planned. You’ll almost certainly find that your ideas take on a life of their own that is quite different from the original piece of inspiration.
Taking inspiration from a whole exhibition
It can be an interesting creative exercise to take inspiration from a whole exhibition rather than a single artwork. And it often results in the creation of some very different photographs that don’t resemble the exhibition at all!
See the exhibition and, again, take out your notebook or sketchbook. Write down the themes of the exhibition that you can identify. Look around and see if you can find any compositions, styles, or techniques that reoccur in the work of the artist and make sketches or notes about those.
Don’t be afraid to put your notes to one side for a while. I often wait for weeks or even months before creating an image inspired by the art I have seen.
Sometimes it can be good to wait a while – you’ll be using the concepts and ideas as a starting point for your own work rather than just copying what you have seen. A break can help you to interpret the themes of the exhibition in your own way.
Venture outside your comfort zone
Be bold and try something new! Experiment with taking inspiration from different genres of art. Use the process of creating new photographs to motivate you to visit the kinds of galleries and exhibitions that you might not have visited before.
But most of all, try and interpret the artworks and exhibitions that you see into something original. Focus on bringing a part of yourself to the work that you create, no matter where your inspiration comes from, and you’ll be well on the path to originality.
And while you’re there, don’t forget to take some photographs of the gallery itself and the people around you! There’s no reason why you can’t be finding inspiration for future image-making while also practicing your street photography.