How Sources of Inspiration Has Changed in the Digital Age


Elli Milan poses with a ribbon and envelope in her mouth for a creative photoshoot 

A huge gift of being mature in our years is gaining perspective. I've been painting since 1988, and since 1996, I've been selling my art professionally full-time. John and I got our first computer in 1995 for $3,500. We purchased it with the money we received from our wedding. It was a Compaq Presario with a whopping 8 GB of memory! My cell phone now has 1 TB of storage right now. In 1995, the average person had never even heard of the word terabyte.

My first experience with the internet was on that Compaq computer. It was simply pages and pages of written information with very few images, and video wasn't even possible. Within three years, our first computer became useless and obsolete, unable to keep up with advancements. I knew that the internet would revolutionize the art world, but it was hard to fully grasp how back then.

We created our first website in 1996, during my first year in business for myself. Animations were really popular, and we hired a web designer to create an art website for us. He made little cartoon palettes and easels that lit up and flashed, though most people's computers couldn't see them moving. Our website had few pictures on it because we had to carefully conserve bandwidth. Our website was called

Challenges of the Pre-Digital Age

Digital cameras didn't become mainstream until the late 1990s and truly revolutionized how artists use source material to create. While I was in art school, I went through extreme difficulty to get source photos to paint from. I couldn't afford to shoot random pictures, hoping something would inspire me. Since everything was on film and required $6 to buy the film and another $15 to $20 to develop it for only 24 pictures, I had to be very selective and know exactly what I was doing before I took the pictures.

In order to paint wild animals, exotic birds, or subjects I couldn't photograph myself, I had to visit the local library, use the Dewey Decimal System, and check out nature books. Then, I'd have to go to Kinkos and spend $3 per color print or sketch from the library books.

I went to second-hand bookstores to buy lots of reference material in the form of magazines or books. Combining images was difficult, requiring numerous sketches and a lot of imagination to see the final painting from a pile of images. I imagined the wing of one bird combined with the body of another and placing it within a landscape from another photo while dealing with the challenges of scale and varying light sources.

Photographing My Own Source Material

To take my own photos, I purchased a manual Minolta film camera, where I had to adjust the shutter speed and aperture to fit the lighting. The subject had to remain as still as a statue while I carefully pressed the camera button on my cheap tripod. I held my breath, hoping the photo would turn out, but I wouldn't know for at least two weeks until the film was developed. This process forced me to be really committed to my subject matter.

I set up all sorts of strange narratives with my college friends and, of course, John, trying to express myself like Rembrandt or Caravaggio, depicting scenes that were supposed to be a slice of a larger story. I tried to create ideas that would provoke questions and a desire to unravel the mystery of what was happening. Because I had to think of the idea first and then attempt to somehow capture it in a photo without real photography skills, I wound up with very contrived type subjects. Everything I painted looked like it was trying too hard to mean something.

The day I picked up my developed photo was always exciting. John would drive, and I'd sit in the passenger seat, ripping open the envelope and sifting through the photos. I always looked for great moody lighting, hoping the angle was right and all the objects showed well. Out of the pack of 24 or 36 prints, I could only use 3-5 photos.

We had found the least expensive place to develop photos, and the man behind the counter knew us well. We were the weird artists who disrupted the monotony of his usual stream of kids, birthday parties, and vacations to Disney World with our strange photos of chickens, pizza boxes, and candles.

Curating a Photoshoot

One unforgettable night involved a photo shoot inside the 24-hour convenience store where I worked. My friends and I arrived at 3am so we could close down the store without being noticed by any of the higher-ups.

I had a complex idea of painting a series of the holy days inside the store. I created a nativity scene with Mary about to give birth, along with Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. It was some art school, young person's thoughts on consumerism of religion.

That night, I shot four rolls of film and invested over $100 in film and development costs for the shoot because it would be too difficult to recreate. I had to be fully committed to this idea to go this far. It wasn't the same as perusing Pinterest for a nice photo and painting.

The New Age of Artistic Inspiration

Because Pinterest, YouTube, digital cameras, and iPhones didn't exist, I wasn't acclimated to such a visual world. I wasn't inundated with a thousand different aesthetics and endless images that communicated something commercial or artistic. The only visual ads we saw were in magazines or TV commercials. I didn't spend hours and hours on social media or apps completely saturated in aesthetics.

The way the world has turned isn't such a bad thing, either. I would not want to go back to my old creative ways. My entire visual appetite has grown, and my aesthetic has matured from the continual stream of visual content naturally curated according to my preferences on my handheld device.

A Collective Collaboration of Beauty

We are all consumed inside a collective beauty tornado that blasts across the creative landscape, grabbing everyone it touches. For the unintentional and creatively passive, it's a melting pot of aesthetics dictated by this tornado, swirling wildly from the winds of AI, Pinterest, and Instagram. But for the creatively astute, awake, and ready, we ride the creative funnel to new heights, redefining art and the creative process and pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the articulation of Beauty.

Returning to my manual film Minolta or sorting through books at the local library is akin to choosing to live without fire or bronze. The limitations don't make us more creative. Instead, they make us slow, dull, bound up, and creatively stuck inside our own minds.

Now, creativity has broken through to become a giant worldwide collaboration. Everyone is inspired by everyone else, firing off new ideas at an exponential rate. Nothing can stop what is coming. No one can stop this Art Movement that has birthed the greatest creator economy the world has ever known!

Share your thoughts in the comments below!


  • Christina Tarkoff

    I am a graphic designer by trade. Artist by birth. I rode the digital revolution from machines prior to the the Lisa til today with my bright shiny iMac 27 inch sporting the continually updating versions of Photoshop. I also have a subscription to Canva as I find it easy and quick to create flyers, invites, etc for our local art center. Along with the continuing versions of iOS. So, in conclusion I absolutely love each new step in technology that aids my creative endeavors with oil, watercolor and acrylic paint. Coincidentally I recently purchased a set of oil pastels. Not much success with them yet, but I will take a look at your new class in hopes I can use the medium with some success.
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Yea, I agree. Im not incredibly techie, but I like to follow what’s happening and it only adds to my creative flow.

  • Moira Cunningham

    Hi Ellie,
    Always an inspiration , I want what you are having for breakfast. I am in the mastery program … loving it . I too had to make a web site in the last two years on my journey having had a few failed attempts with web developers, I decided I needed to learn , gently slowly and a few gin and tonics for my set backs , I got there in the end, it’s a double sided sword.. do we really need all of that hype or is it the modern world , like Hen parties ( don’t even get me started ) 😂😂
    As a tech dinosaur, I have gotten better , but find some days it can suck the life out of you reading emails, posting, pining , bing bings, and when the screen opens it gets longer and longer ?
    I have moved to new web app, looks amazing , but feel like I’m at the bottom of the class again .

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