Go where you find inspiration: Part 1: Intriguing characters found in portrait paintings

Go where you find inspiration, and go there often


I’m in Adelaide this week, and while I’ll save my excessive raving about how beautiful it is for later, I have to tell you about where I went yesterday.

I went to the South Australian Museum and the Art Gallery.

Sounds a little boring, maybe, if you hate animals or history or art. But I have to tell you, I found myself absolutely, 100% inspired there – the most inspired, in fact, that I’ve felt in months.

This first post will be about the South Australian Art Gallery and the beautiful portraits I admired there; my second post will illuminate the incredible animals that I discovered at the Museum.

Ever just see someone on the street and their face just tells you a story that you want to write instantly? They’re such a clear picture of a character that you can imagine. Maybe they look like a character you’ve already begun writing, or maybe they’re one that you’ve never considered before. You can almost hear their voice in dialogue before they speak.

That’s what the art gallery was like for me. I wandered the halls snapping shots of nearly every portrait – faces old and young, faces wise and bewildered, faces engaged and closed-off.

Because of the age of the paintings, and the gorgeous fashions on display, I couldn’t help myself – suddenly I wanted to write a history novel again! Someone asked me just last week to look over their historical romance novel (fun!), so it’s been on my mind. I also wished I could have taken my dress-maker friend through the halls of the gallery, just to gaze at the fabrics and dream of ways to make modern dresses based on these opulent draperies.

Here are some of the faces that inspired me…

‘Elizabeth Solomon’ by Richard Noble, 1862:

(This painting was commissioned by Mr Solomon to show off his new-found wealth [note the velvet and lace fabrics, and the leather sofa] and hide his former convict past.)

'Elizabeth Solomon' by Richard Noble

‘Elizabeth Solomon’ by Richard Noble

‘Eliza Langhorne’ by Thomas Bock, 1849:    (She looks just like one of my friends!)

'Eliza Langhorne' by Thomas Bock

‘Eliza Langhorne’ by Thomas Bock

‘The Pinch of Poverty’ by T B Kennington, 1889:

Close-up excerpt from 'The Pinch of Poverty' by TB Kennington

Close-up excerpt from ‘The Pinch of Poverty’ by TB Kennington

‘Georgina, Emily and Augusta Rose’ by Martha Berkeley, 1848 – a close-up excerpt of the whimsical Augusta Rose:

Close-up excerpt of Augusta Rose in 'Georgina, Emily and Augusta Rose' by Martha Berkeley

Close-up excerpt of Augusta Rose in ‘Georgina, Emily and Augusta Rose’ by Martha Berkeley

‘Portrait of Ida’ by Max Meldrum, 1910:   (Awwwww…)

'Portrait of Ida' by Max Meldrum

‘Portrait of Ida’ by Max Meldrum

‘Old Joe’ by George W Lambert, 1898:  (Doesn’t he just look like the jolliest old bushman?)

'Old Joe' by George W Lambert

‘Old Joe’ by George W Lambert

‘Marilla’ by Adelaide Perry, 1932:    (She is so intriguing to me. What is she thinking?)

'Marilla' by Adelaide Perry

‘Marilla’ by Adelaide Perry

‘Forgiven’ by Geo Harcourt, 1899:    (I could write a whole essay about the power of this scene, this gesture, him lifting her to her feet when she is weak with grief and repentance over whatever she’s done, and his kindness in forgiving her.)

'Forgiven' by Geo Harcourt

‘Forgiven’ by Geo Harcourt

So I enjoyed looking at old paintings. So what?

I was thinking about how during my 6 years at uni, I used to go to the Queensland Art Gallery every year and do the same thing, wander the portrait halls. These were the years I was the most creative as a writer, and the years I felt most passionate about creating “real” characters. (High school was actually my most productive time, but most of my characters sounded the same, and it was merely their occupations or physical descriptions that would tell them apart. An amateur trap.)

But I haven’t done it in a while, since graduating in 2012, probably. Why? Adult bus fares are dang expensive, for one thing. But that’s just an excuse. I’ve decided I enjoyed the experience of visiting this art gallery, so I’m going to go back and visit my first love again.

It’s important to go wherever you find inspiration, and go there often.

We can keep our eyes open wherever we go, but sometimes it’s a helpful trick, especially if you’re feeling blocked, to revisit your first loves, your first scenes of inspiration.

Maybe you don’t have any places that inspire you more than others? Go to any place that you like at all! In uni, our class study found that we writers or artists who created in places where we felt happy were more likely to create more detailed and realistic settings in our work, than people who wrote or created in spaces that made them uncomfortable. If you feel uncomfortable in your environment, then, you may find it difficult to describe a comfortable or inspiring setting, unless you regularly remove yourself as I’m suggesting.

Maybe the places that inspire you don’t exist in your city? When I was writing sci-fi, I used to go on Google images and just search “spaceships”. I downloaded literally thousands of images of different types of fictional battleships, real shuttles, schematics for space stations real and made-up. Then I would go to Z Block at QUT, my uni’s tallest building, and ride the elevator up to level 9 and then back down to the basement. It sounds weird, but the “mechanicalness” of it all really appealed to that part of me that wanted to feel, just for a second, like I was in a mechanical, futuristic world, so that I could write from the point of view of someone who was there.


Where do you find inspiration? Is it somewhere local or a place you visited only once?


Here’s a great TED talk by Tracy Chevalier about “the stories behind paintings” – loved it!


This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

One thought on “Go where you find inspiration: Part 1: Intriguing characters found in portrait paintings

  1. Pingback: Cultivate your curiosity | TJ Withers-Ryan

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