Create Original Paintings from Photographs

by | Jun 27, 2016 | Blog | 22 comments

Using Photos as references for unique paintings

Artists are always looking for new ideas and inspiration. Browsing through the internet in search of images, glancing through art books or a visit to galleries and museums are common ways to get our imagination in gear.

Working too closely from a photograph, though, has its issues, 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. In the following technique, you will combine some aspects of each image, but in a whole new way. The result will be something original, as well as a total surprise!

Late 19th century American painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder wrote
“Imitation is not inspiration, and inspiration only can give birth to a work of art.”

To keep your paintings fresh and original and still use photographs for reference, here is a fun idea I enjoy.

Step 1 – Select images

First, pick out at least three photographs to use as references for a particular painting, instead of just one. You can use drawings, paintings or any other 2D image.  


Step 2 – Choose your favorite element

After finding three reference images, choose one aspect from each image that you want to use for your own work. For instance, one image may have a color palette you like, another image can contribute an interesting composition, while a third contains a detail that catches your eye. Here are the three images I selected while browsing calendars and magazines. These are made by other artists – not me – so instead of copying them directly, I will transform, distill or select one aspect or element from each of them. Then when combined, it will create a brand new image from my own imagination.

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

I decided to use Image 1 for its composition, Image 2 for color, and Image 3 for the gate in the foreground.

Below see how I changed the composition in Image 1 to make it even more different. I changed it from a square format to horizontal, and shifted the horizon line downwards by cropping off some of the bottom.


Step 3 – Prepare underpainting

Next I mixed colors to match those found in Image 2. I added lots of water in each color to make a washy mixture and used the washes to paint a loose underpainting. Underpaintings are a great way to start painting – putting an overall color scheme and composition onto the canvas. This underpainting is constructed using the following: my interpretation of the composition from Image 1, the colors from Image 2, and the gate from Image 3.


Step 4 – Layer paint & refine

Here below, I added another layer of paint, over the underpainting, using opaque paints to refine the edges and allow for richer color applications. You can add more detail as you prefer. Here is my finished version. Compare this finished version with the three original photo references, to see how different it is.


Optional – Repeat in a different way

This process was so much fun I decided to try it out on another new canvas to create something more abstract and looser.

This second painting above used the same process, and the same three references as before, but resulting in a more abstract image. The only difference was in Step 4, where I added opaque paint, but with less detail, and allowing softer edges and looser brush handling.

Comparing these final paintings to the original three references, to see how they have 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.

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  1. Gail Shaw

    Today I was thinking how my imagination had stalled over the past month or so due to some unforseen events. With a new series of classes coming up (I teach watercolour painting in my studio in tropical far North Queensland, Australia) I was wracking my brain trying to think of a new approach that would excite, firstly me, and then my students. Then, like manna from heaven, this wonderful article appeared. Thank you so much Nancy. I can’t wait to try out this idea and pass it on. Now I need to check out your books!!!

    • Nancy Reyner

      Oh I’m so glad I could help! Yes, the books have tons of ideas. In fact, my first book Acrylic Revolution, could very well be used as an entire course book for painting with acrylic.

  2. Margaret VanDyke

    Hi Nancy, this was interesting and I enjoyed reading about your approach, but it’s just not my cup of tea. I love your earlier work with metallics and a very non-objective style. Will you be doing workshops along those lines? Will your workshops be only in Santa Fe for the foreseeable future? I’ve been hoping you would be at Cheap Joe’s or Kanuga or Springmaid. Let me know??

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Margaret, I still teach all types of workshops, and especially now with private and small groups upon request at my studio in Santa Fe, NM. I will be offering workshops in other states, as I get requests from venues. Thanks for your comments!

  3. Linda VanWyk

    Thanks for this idea and it has come at the perfect time as I am thinking about my next series of paintings. I am definitely going to try it. I also have all of your books and am now looking forward to the next one in 2017. Cheers!

    • Nancy Reyner

      Thanks Linda!

  4. Kris Mosley

    Excellent, practical and inspirational post! Thank you Nancy, you once again gave me a fun studio idea. I believe a teacher’s success can be measured by how they inspire their students. You are a master. And certainly your art speaks for itself. I look forward to taking a workshop.

    • Nancy Reyner


  5. Esther Tubbs

    Thanks, Nancy! I was in your workshop years ago in NC and am still usiong what you gave. I also use three photos the way you do but have not moved into the abstract in that way. This is great and is a “keeper!” Cheers! Esther

    • Nancy Reyner

      Thanks Esther! Glad you can use the info.

    • Tom Butler

      This was especially helpful as it explodes the restraints I have been feeling. Thank you for the suggestions. The colors make me hungry to do my own.

    • Nancy Reyner

      I find it’s always nice to have some alternate ideas up our sleeves – to get us out of our “usual” and do something different for a change. Even if its only for one deviant painting, then back to our own style. It will create a shift in thinking and hopefully add to the richness of our work.

  6. Robert Hall

    Brilliant idea, I often use old sayings as a theme, but I’ve never thought of mixing the ideas. I’ve got all your art books, are you bringing anymore out?

    • Nancy Reyner

      Yes and thanks for asking! I have a new book coming out March 2017. It is packed with ideas and ways to enhance your work.

  7. Sheila Caim

    Wonderful idea, but I would prefer to use my own photography for the 3 images.

    • Nancy Reyner

      But of course! I agree.

  8. dee hutchison

    the best peep into you artist mind….Id be pleased to receive your blogs in the future via my e mail if that is possible… I’ve always admired your abstract

    • Nancy Reyner

      I would be glad to send you future blog articles by email. Just sign up for my mailing list on my website. Here is a link:
      I usually send out some type of email notice a short time after I post the blog.

  9. Mary Manning

    As usual, Nancy, your advice and steps are both practical and inspirational. More and more an inspiration from nature turns into a work of art, original and not a photo harsh copy.

    Thank you!

    • Nancy Reyner

      HI Mary! Glad you like the info! Nice to hear from you.

  10. Flynn Gentry-Taylor

    Another great tip from you Nancy. I struggle with images in my head too much like something I have seen…so now I know exactly how to turn them into my own. Thank you so very much!!

  11. Jo-Anne Gazo-McKim

    I love the way you used the best parts to create something colourful and creative and more than the sum of the three. I think I will try this with 3 photos and see what I can come up with. Thanks


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About Nancy

Nancy Reyner is a professional fine-art painter with over 30 years experience using a variety of mediums including oil, acrylic, watercolor and mixed media. She has appeared on television for HGTV’s “That’s Clever,” and authored several best-selling painting books with F&W Media. She currently lives in Santa Fe, NM. Read more.
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