For a visual artist, a blank canvas can be a problematic thing, just like a blank page for a creative writer. What to do? Where to begin? That’s where imagination typically plays its part. Imagination is a powerful ability; without it, humans would never have come so far. As Carl Sagan once wrote, “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere.”
Indeed, without imagination, Salvador Dalí couldn’t have painted “The Persistence of Memory,” and Antony Gormley couldn’t have sculpted “The Angel of the North.” As the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.” This idea is echoed in a beautiful quote often attributed to the Italian sculptor and painter Michelangelo: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
The following quotes show how important imagination has been in the creative process of famous artists through the ages, from Leonardo da Vinci to Georgia O’Keeffe. For some, imagination transcended art, becoming a fundamental part of human existence.
It is not enough to know your craft — you have to have feeling. Science is all very well, but for us imagination is worth far more.
— Edouard Manet
Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.
— Francisco Goya
A person without imagination is like a teabag without hot water.
— Alan Fletcher, acclaimed British graphic designer
I like an empty wall because I can imagine what I like on it.
— Georgia O’Keeffe
The idea or the faculty of imagination serves as both rudder and bridle to the senses, inasmuch as the thing imagined moves the sense.
— Leonardo da Vinci
The imagination is not a state: it is the human existence itself.
― William Blake
I do not paint by copying nature… Everything I do springs from my wild imagination.
— Paul Gauguin
Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination, do not become the slave of your model.
— Vincent van Gogh
No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination.
— Edward Hopper
I look out the window sometimes to seek the color of the shadows and the different greens in the trees, but when I get ready to paint I just close my eyes and imagine a scene.
— Grandma Moses, folk artist
I have always said that you do not see a thing until you look away from it. In other words, an object or a fact in nature has not become itself until it has been projected in the realm of the imagination.
— Marsden Hartley, modernist painter
Art lives through the imaginations of the people who are seeing it. Without that contact, there is no art.
— Keith Haring
To put down an ideogram of a table so that people will recognize it as a table is not the work of a painter, but to sense it for a moment as a magic carpet with a leg hanging down at each corner is the beginning of a painter’s imagination.
— Frank Auerbach, German-British painter