How to Create Original Paintings from Photographs

by | Jun 27, 2016 | Blog | 31 comments

How do artists stay inspired? Browsing images on the internet, flipping through art books, visiting galleries and museums are some popular ways to get new ideas.

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.

“Imitation is not inspiration, and inspiration only can give birth to a work of art.”
— 19th century American painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder
Try this fun idea to keep your paintings personal and original while using photographs for references.
 
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.

Image 1

unknown source

Image 2

Marcel Gromaire, Houses near a Lake, oil on canvas, 21″ x 26″, 1951

Image 3

unknown source

Image 1

unknown source

Image 2

Marcel Gromaire, Houses near a Lake, oil on canvas, 21″ x 26″, 1951

Image 3

unknown source
 
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.
Compare the original photo above to see how I changed it on the right using Photoshop. The new version changes it from a square format to horizontal, and cropped from the bottom.
Compare the original photo above to see how I changed it below using Photoshop. The new version changes it from a square format to horizontal, and cropped from the bottom.
 
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.
Above is the finished second painting. I used the same process as before, repeating steps 1 through 4, using the same three image references, but resulting in a more abstract image. To accomplish this, in Step 5 while using the opaque paint, I added less detail overall, more use of softer edges and looser brush handling.

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.

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31 Comments

  1. margaret sackton

    I love this idea Nancy. I haven’t tried it out yet. I noticed that an element in my current project is a bit like a painting by a friend hanging in my living room. I think it’s used differently, but I’ll send it to him and see how he feels about it. I was so surprised when I noticed!

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Margaret,

      That is interesting! I have noticed that whatever is close by to a painting I am working on, will somehow get into the painting. I once had a colorful piece of fabric on a nearby table. After finishing the painting I then noticed how the color palettes were similar and I even had some of the forms from the fabric in my painting. I am now careful to keep anything distracting too close to my work in process. Thanks for your comment!

      Nancy

  2. Stephanie

    Thank you so much for this Nancy. I always look forward to your online offerings of wisdom, beauty and experience.

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      You are very welcome Stephanie!

  3. Donna Levy

    Thank you Nancy for this
    blog re using phots as inspiration.
    I often use photos as a jump off point- but your blog was very
    instructive and detailed and I will try to implement your ideas in my work.
    Thanks again.
    Donna Levy

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      I’m glad to hear this article will be helpful for your work. Thanks for posting!

  4. Jaynanne Ridder

    Looking forward to your webinar on September 22. I have been following you for a long time. You are very talented. I am an acrylic artist in Lake Barrington, Illinois.

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Nice to meet you Jaynanne! Thanks for your kind words and posting your comment. See you at the webinar!

    • Nancy Reyner

      And also wanted to say how much I like your painting you attached! Mysterious and beautiful.

  5. 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!!!

    Reply
    • 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.

  6. 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??

    Reply
    • 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!

  7. 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!

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Thanks Linda!

  8. 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.

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Gee….thanks!

  9. 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

    Reply
    • 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.

  10. 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?

    Reply
    • 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.

  11. Sheila Caim

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

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      But of course! I agree.

  12. 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

    Reply
    • 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:
      https://nancyreyner.com/join/
      I usually send out some type of email notice a short time after I post the blog.

  13. 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!

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

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

  14. 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!!

    Reply
  15. 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

    Reply

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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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