One of the major stumbling blocks for any creative endeavor is finding an idea. A blank page or canvas can be very intimidating. Professional artists, from writers to sculptors to painters are asked in interviews where their ideas come from. Often, the answer is not all that satisfying because they say that ideas just show up. Sometimes artists will say they got an idea from a dream, like Stephanie Myers, the author of the Twilight series, but most of the time they say the ideas just popped in their heads. Sometimes I fantasize about an "idea store" where I can visit, pick out exactly what I want, and begin my project. Unfortunately this store doesn't exist, and even if it did, the ideas would all too soon be massed produced and uncool. Remember all those paper dunce hats and crowns attached to everything a few years back?
There is no magic formula for finding a unique idea. Your idea generator, your "store" is the wonderful processor attached to the top of you, your brain (and I think your soul). However, just like a computer, you have to remember to press the start button and then type to capture the data. One of the best ways to do this is to keep a sketch book with you. Invest in two sketch books. One small for walking around and a larger sketch book to flesh out ideas & take with you when you are sketching from life.
Keep the tiny pocket size sketch book in your purse or back pocket and take notes throughout the day. Anything thing that catches your eye should be written down. Spot a cool color combination on a reader board outside a cafe? Write it down. Cool logo on a bar napkin? Tape in your book. Interesting couple arguing over what's for dinner while shopping at Whole Foods? Make a quick sketch so you can flesh out the scene later in a painting or write down what about the couple that caught your eye.
The larger sketch book is for stretching your ideas further and for experimentation. I like a 7x10 spiral bound mixed media sketch book but the market has several different choices so take a look and see which type meets your needs. Consider what media you think you will be working in most frequently and purchase accordingly. I like the mixed media sketch book because I switch back and forth between wet and dry mediums when I work.
The larger sketch books are great when heading to a coffee shop, waiting to get on an airplane, and even when you are watching TV or listening to the radio. I often sketch during NPR's, "This American Life" series. Keep the larger sketchbook in your laptop bag or briefcase, along with a couple of pencils, and you can take your artist life with you to work. Work places are full of ideas and it just might inspire you to draw during your lunch break instead of eating a sandwich at your desk.
Some of these ideas will never develop beyond just an observation you jotted down. Others will inspire a whole series of paintings. The best part will be, once you start looking around your life and noticing ideas that flicker across your thoughts, the more ideas will show-up for you. It also becomes a great place to re-charge when you are stuck on a painting already in progress or when you can't get started. More importantly, it is full of your own observations and ideas. It is uniquely you.
One final note, the sketch book is not the place for masterpieces, it's the place for ideas. Don't let your inner critic evaluate your pages, instead give them a lollypop and a picture book and stick them in the corner while you are working. The sketchbook is for growing your artist-self and having fun.