As you're working to improve your painting technique, one huge roadblock can be subject-matter. What should you paint? While you're actually painting, you're making progress... but sometimes it's hard to get going. One piece of advice that I give to artists all the time is to create a space opera. Is space not your thing? Then design your own fantasy epic. The point is that a structured personal project will give you an endless list of things to paint - leading to more time painting, and less time asking 'what should I paint today'? Even if you don't aspire to become a concept artist, this is a practical way to streamline the idea generation process. Also, it's a ton of fun!
Design A World
The painting at the top of this post is one of my most recent sci-fi landscapes, but I could think of it as the start of a larger project. I could pick individual aspects of this street scene to design on their own in greater detail. It's full of characters, signage, architecture - on and on. Any of these elements could be examined further - creating at least a month of painting. If you think of yourself as a world designer, there's no end to the depth you can explore. What does the government iconography look like? What type of cars do they drive? What is the energy grid like? The idea is to envision a world that makes you excited to discover more. When done correctly, you'll find yourself daydreaming about this imaginary place - filling it slowly with rich details. Then when it's time to paint, you'll have an overflowing list of subjects to choose from.
How to Start
I've got two favorite methods: a single painting, or a written overview. If you have a single painting that transports you to another place, start there! It doesn't need to be a sprawling cityscape - it can be as simple as a portrait or creature design. As long as it makes you ask 'what else?', it's a good starting point. More frequently, though, I like to start with writing. Even if you don't like creative writing, it's still the most efficient way to organize your thoughts and brainstorm. Spend a week imagining your epic or space opera, taking notes as you brainstorm. Make sure to write down natural features like weather and landscape details as well as man-made features like architecture and technology. Once your ideas begin to take shape, it's easier to fill in the specifics. After a week or so, you'll have plenty of material to begin sketching and painting.
If you keep your eyes open online, it's hard to miss personal projects like these. Recently I've been watching the Penny Arcade reality TV show Strip Search, which features the illustrator Lexxy Douglass. Her new project 'Cloud Factory' is a great example of this sort of project (right, below). Sure, there are characters and landscapes - but how often do you think of illustrating plant varieties? Potions and herbs on a shelf? These everyday objects really bring an imaginary world to life. Other great examples are the books published by Design Studio press such as The Skillful Huntsman or Alien Race. If you have any more examples, please tell us in the comments!