Answering “What Inspires You?”

Laying in bed last night, I found myself contemplating the question I’m most often asked, “What inspires you?” Some nights, I wish I was like Paul — asleep within 10 minutes of his head hitting the pillow. However, I tend to lie awake and ponder various topics. The topics can vary from the day’s events to a book I’m reading, a movie, recent conversations, or even important life questions like finding a way to continue eating ice cream despite becoming lactose intolerant. 

Back to the question at hand, “What inspires you?” I dread this question. It’s not the question as much as the implied weight of the expected reply. “Oh, I don’t know…nothing…everything?!” is usually the first thing that pops into my head. Followed by a momentary panic of “Oh Shit, they’re serious. They want to know what inspires me; are they expecting something profound?” I’m a jeans and T-shirt kind of person, and what you see is what you get. I’m not profound. Isn’t the art supposed to speak for itself? These are some of the thoughts that pop into my head. (Yeah, I’m a bit socially awkward). Luckily, this panic soon passes. 

I believe the question is really just a way to break the ice and start a conversation. At least this has come to be the way I prefer to think of it when asked, “What inspires you?” Instead, I replace it with “What is it that inspires you to choose to paint what you do?” It’s much less panic-inducing. 

What inspires me to choose to paint what I do?

I’m so glad you asked.

Light, emotion, and color are the three primary influences on my choice of subject matter and approach to painting. They also guide many other decisions, such as what to emphasize, what to omit, how to crop, the format to use, and whether to use high- or low-key techniques.

nancy Murty

6x6 inch, oil painting of a branch of red crabapples with gold leaves
Autumn Harmony | 6×6 in | oil | SOLD

The Play of Light

Light plays a significant role in my choice of subject matter and approach to painting. The play of light and shadows across an object or landscape can often stop me in my tracks with an “Oh, look at how the light is hitting _____, and it’s just gorgeous.” To which my husband (if he’s with me) usually replies with a “Yeah, that’s nice.” He’s such a good sport. He really is.

Light can often set a painting’s mood, and the light and shadow pattern adds an abstract quality to the composition. The light and shadow patterns cast on the crabapples and leaves, specifically on the leaf with the two smaller crabapples in front, inspired and excited me for this painting. 

6x8 inch painting of a White-throated Sparrow on Forsythia
© Nancy Murty | Passing Through | 6×8 in | oil on linen | sold

The Pull of Emotion

Emotion also plays a vital role in my art. The inspiration behind Passing Through was the anticipation of watching for the White-Throated Sparrows in the yard once the Forsythia blooms and then the joy of spotting the first one. It’s hard to separate art from emotion, both for the viewer and the artist. I don’t know, can they even exist apart?

5x7 oil painting of a red apple on branch with green leaves by nancy murty
Apple.1 | 5×7 in | oil | SOLD

The Seduction of Color

Last but not least, color. Who can resist the seductive lure of color? It may be a color harmony that attracted my attention, and other times, it will be something much more subtle. The beautiful bright red of the apple surrounded by the various green leaves with all their subtle changes in hue and temperature…color gets my paintbrush flying every time. 

Where do you find inspiration?

So, there you have it—light, emotion, and color—the three things that inspire me to paint. What inspires you? Please leave a comment below, and I’d love to know where you draw your inspiration.


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  1. I love this, Nancy! I found myself chuckling out loud. And also thinking "What inspires you" is a stupid question. I’m sure I’ve asked it before, but it is pretty ridiculous when I think about it. A better question is "What was it about that <bird, plant, landscape> that made you want to paint it?"

    1. Nancy Murty says:

      Thank you so much!

  2. First how to continue eating ice cream when lactose intolerant- Eat Me Ice Cream!! I have tried it and it is great! Try the deep dark chocolate and the lavendar (all made with coconut milk).
    Now inspiration: for me it is similar to yours but primarily it is faces that get my juices going. I have to unabashedly admit that looking at my three grandchildren’s faces stirs me the most! I don’t think I could ever get tired of painting them except my daughter keeps politely reminding me that there is only so much room on the walls!

    1. Nancy Murty says:

      LOL. Thanks for the tip for an ice cream alternative. That’s awesome, and their little faces change so much as they grow – it’ll be endless inspiration!

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