Working too closely from a photograph though, may not bring desired results, especially if the photograph you are using is not your own. Direct copying from another artist is not only illegal, it can stifle your creativity and dull down your own work. I offer here an amazing technique, combining several photographs in a whole new way, resulting in something original.
— 19th century American painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder
Step 1 – Find Your Reference Images
Find at least three images to use as references. You will be using specific aspects from each image, and combining them altogether into a single original painting. Reference images can be from photographs, drawings, paintings or any other 2D image. These can be images you made, or made by other artists. Below are three images I selected while browsing magazines and calendars.
Step 2 – Select A Favorite Aspect From Each Image
After finding your reference images, designate one that you will use for composition, another that has a color palette you like, and a third that has some detail you enjoy. Have at least these three ideas to work from. Additional images can be used, as long as you take time to select an aspect about it that you like. In other words, by using only a specific aspect, element or detail from each photo will allow you to avoid copying directly from just one image. This encourages you to create more from your own imagination.
For my example here, I am using the three images pictured above, and have designated Image 1 for composition, Image 2 for color, and Image 3 for the gate detail in the foreground.
Step 3 – Transform the Original Composition
It is important to distill, crop or distort the image you choose for your composition. If you skip this step it will be too easy to go into copy mode, which can curb your creative side.
Step 4 – Add An Underpainting To Your Painting Surface
On your painting surface, paint an underpainting (a thin loose rough idea) using the new composition you created in Step 3. For your underpainting colors, use your second reference image you designated for color palette. In this example, I pre-mixed several of the main colors to match those found in my reference Image 2. Once the colors were mixed, I added a ton of water in each paint color mixture to make them washy. (Please note – I am using acrylic paint. If you are using oil paint, dilute the paint colors with solvent instead.) These diluted washes were then used to create the underpainting pictured below. Underpaintings are a great way to initiate a painting. It allows for a loose way to add the overall color scheme and composition onto the canvas very quickly. As you can see from the image below, I also added another step. I added the gate detail from my third reference image while creating the underpainting. Now I have combined aspects from all three of my reference images.
Step 5 – Finish the Painting
Below is the finished painting. The washy underpainting was too thin to call it finished. Once it was dry I added another layer of paint, without adding water into the paint color. Without water, the paint colors were richer and more opaque, and enabled me to refine the edges. I also added more detail. Compare this finished version with the three original photo references, to see how much it changed.
Another More Abstract Option
This process was so much fun I decided to try it out on another new canvas to create something more abstract and with a looser feel.
As before, compare this final painting to the original three references, to see how it has veered dramatically from the references, and transformed into something original.
It has been said that nothing is original, since all artists will use, recycle or reinterpret from what they see around them, even if not consciously. We can’t help it, we are a product of our time and environment. The key is to strive to find your own vision, and subsequently make art that only you can make. Hopefully you will like this idea as much as I do, or perhaps will find your own ways to use reference imagery for original results.
Complete Painting Instruction
Complete Painting Instruction
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