Nancy’s Painting Blog

How to Keep Your Paintings Original

As artists we 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 the imagination going.

Working too closely from a photograph, though, has its issues, especially if the photograph you are using is not your own art or photo. Direct copying from another artist is not only illegal, it can stifle your creativity and dull down your own work. Albert Pinkham Ryder said “Imitation is not inspiration, and inspiration only can give birth to a work of art.”

To keep your painting fresh and original while still using photographs, here is one idea that works for me. Pick out at least three photographs to use as references for a particular painting, instead of just one. By combining some aspects of each into a whole new image, you may come up with not only something original, but a total surprise.

Suggested Tips for this Process: 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 3 images I found that I liked while browsing calendars and magazines.

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

These three images are made by other artists, not me, so instead of copying them directly, I need to transform, distill or select from them, to create a brand new image of 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. I first changed the composition in Image 1 from its square format to horizontal, and moved the horizon line downwards by cropping the bottom.


Next I mixed colors to match those found in Image 2. I painted a loose underpainting using washy (diluted with water) paint to get the general color scheme and composition onto the canvas.


The underpainting includes my interpretation of the composition from Image 1, the colors from Image 2, and the gate from Image 3. Here it is refined further for a more realistic landscape.


This was so fun I decided to try the same process on a new canvas to create something more abstract or non-objective.


This painting uses the same aspects from the references as before, but results in an abstract. Compare these final paintings to the original three references. 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 may like this idea as much as I do, or perhaps can find your own method to use reference imagery in original ways.

I will be teaching a workshop in Santa Fe on September 30, 2016, exploring this and other methods to recycle and reinterpret imagery for painting. Click here for more information on that workshop, or click here to schedule your own private or custom painting session with me at my Santa Fe studio.

Nancy Reyner, painter, author and instructor offers assistance to artists in a variety of ways. Click here for more info.

22 thoughts on “How to Keep Your Paintings Original

  1. 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

  2. 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!!

  3. 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!

  4. 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

  5. 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?

    1. 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.

  6. 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

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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??

    1. 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!

  10. 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!!!

    1. 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.

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