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.
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.
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.