Facing a Blank Canvas

It’s a common problem. You sit down to write, draw, design or start your creative project… and then nothing. Where is the creativity hiding? Why aren’t the ideas flowing? Sometimes just starting and seeing where things go can work, but sometimes we need a structured process to get things moving. The process doesn’t need to be complicated. I sometimes use one similar to the following:

  1. Choose a subject or theme
  2. Research the subject
  3. Mind map
  4. Create some draft layout
  5. Refine

Choose a Subject or theme

Usually when we sit down (or stand up) to work we already have a subject or theme in mind. If not, choose one. If you’re writing a novel, will it be sci-fi, horror, romance? If you’re taking a photograph, will it be of a person, an object or an environment?

Research the subject

Before generating ideas it can be a good idea to fill your mental pool with knowledge around the subject. If you’re creating something that’s horror themed, watch some good horror films while you take relevant notes. Read some books. Save a bunch of reference images in a folder. Learn some of the history.

Mind Map

This is one of my favourite parts of the process. If you’re not sure what a mind map is, I’d recommend you do a little research online. Essentially you begin with one word or phrase “Sci-Fi” for example and write it in the centre of a sheet of paper or your digital canvas. You then draw a few branches sprouting away from this word. On each of these sprouting branches, write a word that’s associated with the root phrase. In this example “science” would be a good word. “Fiction”, “space”, “aliens” and “future” would also make great branch words. You then sprout off smaller branches from these secondary words with words and phrases associated with this like “experiment” and “test tube” if you branching off from “science”.

The important thing is to get everything out of your head and down on this mind map, even if you don’t think the words or phrases are good enough. No judgement at this stage. As they say “it’s better out than in”. Through word association, ideas and connections will start to appear and you can keep going until you’ve exhausted your mental capacity.

Create Some Drafts

You’ve chosen a subject, done some research and put some ideas down in the form of a mind map. Now it’s time to create some draft layouts. This can be applied to any creative discipline from writing to design to creating a business plan. Use broad strokes to begin with. It’s best not to trap yourself with too much detail just yet. You want to get a feel for the whole picture (or piece of writing) before narrowing in on the details.

It’s important at this stage to explore numerous options. Have fun, experiement, turn things upside down. What if who you imagined to be the good guy in your story was actually the bad guy? What if instead of capturing a wide landscape photo, you zoomed right in to a specific part? Move things around and see what could be possible.


Once you’ve explored some drafts, it’s time to choose one and go into more depth with it. This is when you can really focus in on the details and polish the work up. Every now and again step back and look at the piece as a whole to see if it still holds up or if you need to adjust or if in fact one of your previous drafts might work better in practice.

This is a brief overview of a process that can be used when facing a blank canvas. Try it if you get yourself in a pickle and adapt it to fit your workflow or discipline.

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