How Artists Use Painting References To Stay Original

by | Aug 16, 2007 | Blog | 7 comments

To start a painting I sometimes spend time looking at images for a jumpstart. These images could be photographs I took on trips, pictures from art books, drawings and sketches, postcards, or magazine advertisements – just about anything that makes my eyes happy. If I find an image that is particularly exciting I will pin it up near my easel to keep it as a reference while I work. There is a danger, however, in working too closely from a reference image. If I stick too closely to it, the work will look tight and lack spirit. One of my favorite artists, Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) said “Imitation is not inspiration, and inspiration only can give birth to a work of art.” Here is a trick I like to use so that I can refer to other images, but still keep my painting fresh and original. I try to pick out at least three images for reference, not only one. I will then use each for a different inspirational aspect. For instance, one image may have a color palette that inspires me, while another image has a composition that looks enticing. The third image might have certain forms or shapes that I like. By using and combining all three at the same time, my imagination feels free to add, edit and transform the images in front of me, and my painting ends up a complete surprise, as well as extremely different from any of the original references. In creating my newest painting, Think of Something Fun, I used several of my landscape photographs and some sketches I had created on hiking trips in New Mexico, especially several of Georgia O’Keeffe’s favorite spots in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

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Hand painting pink wall with sponge.

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  1. drAnn's ART

    Nice article, Nancy. I never really thought about it until reading your post, but I always take tons of photos before starting a painting and narrow them down to 3 to 5 which I keep before me while sketching or painting in oil or watercolor.

    When teaching art, the biggest hurdle we have to overcome is the student perception that there are things you cannot or should not do. Artists (and that is all of us!) should feel free to use whatever tools feel comfortable and yield good results.

  2. Jan Verhulst

    THis is a splendid idea and I shall give that a try

  3. peggie falkner

    hey nancy……..what a great, helpful blog you have…and WHAT NICE ARTWORK! i LOVE your style….very unique! all of your layering effects are truly terrific.

    i just got through having a lengthy conversation with mike at golden paints, and WHAT a help he was. i am experimenting with glazing, washes, etc, with acrylics while working on an overdue project for a client…and now i don’t feel quite so lost. i am the type of person that says “I can do that!” then go find out how to do it, but i have been a total moron with this stuff, and i am behind on my client’s project. i can’t tell you how much i appreciate your blog and the helpful hints you are putting on here………….for a little ol’ newcomer like me, it is really helping to turn on the light! i will be checking back in with your blog on a regular basis…..THANK YOU for sharing this wonderful information. i will get your book, too!

  4. Hattigrace

    Wow! I am so happy to find you! Just got your book. Have not painted since high school. Wish I had gotten art degree. Maybe time to start now?

    Thank you for giving of yourself out here in Blogworld!

  5. Dion Kurczek

    Your painting, book, and blog are very inspirational, I frequently check for the next post 🙂

  6. Shelly

    Forgot to mention that “Think of Something Fun” is absolutely gorgeous!!!

  7. Shelly

    Nancy, this blog comment is very helpful. Having “permission” to use references within boundries is very freeing. I like the way you explain being inspired by different aspects from several references. I hope to put this to use this weeks. Thanks…


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About Nancy

Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner’s blog about art, painting and creativity. Her career spans over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe in the US. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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