Rebuilding Art – Using Reference Images for Self-Expression

Using a reference image as a model for the painting. By Peony and Parakeet.

This blog post is about composing new art by using reference images. At the moment, I have a couple of paintings in progress that are based on reference images, and I also show other examples as well.

Why Don’t Artists Always Tell About Using Reference Images?

While painting my first oil painting at The National Museum of Finland, the visitors of the museum were able to visit the studio and watch us paint. Many people asked why we paint copies of the old paintings. The teacher Emmi Mustonen replied that it’s a good way to learn the old painting techniques and develop the understanding of formal elements. But I got the feeling that some of the people didn’t get it. Their facial expressions were imprinted on my mind, and it made me ponder why using reference images raises conflicting feelings.

Even if most artists who create realistic art or include realistic elements in their art, use reference images, many are not very open about it. I think that one reason is that many artists believe that people know that already and another reason that the process is not interesting. My experience is that there are surprisingly many people who assume that artists don’t take photos or use other than live models. And to me, the process of composing a new image from old ones is fascinating. I always stop to see an article where an artist shows how the reference images were used. I am especially interested if it’s about choosing the photos and combining several reference images into one piece.

Strawberry Madonna – Combining Several Reference Images to Tell a Story

A reference image of Strawberry Madonna and painting in progress. By Peony and Parakeet.

I am currently painting an acrylic painting on canvas that I call “Strawberry Madonna.” It’s my first using old masters’ painting techniques with acrylics instead of oil paints. The idea for the painting started differently than usually. I invented the title first and then started to think how Strawberry Madonna would look. I wanted to find a young woman who would have lips like she had just eaten a strawberry. By googling Renaissance paintings, I found Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio‘s painting. After that, I moved to building a story around the original idea.

Strawberry Madonnas are young girls who enjoy life without worries, have long summer holidays, eat strawberries, learn to crochet and read books like Emily of the New Moon or Anne of Green Gables. I have been one of them, and I feel quite nostalgic about it. I wanted the painting to include surrealistic elements. It has a big strawberry that is placed so that it could be a sleeve of the madonna’s dress. I am also going to change the flowers in the hair wreath to strawberry flowers and play with green and red paint. It will happen when I move on from underpainting to adding colors. In the background, there’s a photo that I took last summer. I am going to make it a little less detailed.

I used Photoshop to compose the reference image and made the sketch on canvas with charcoal. I drew a grid to make the sketching quicker.

Girl with a Ferret – Changing the Meaning with a Simple Trick

A reference image and a painting in progress. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

I have also started a new oil painting under the guidance of Emmi Mustonen. I got to pick the reference image freely. I wanted to pick an old Renessaince painting, but I couldn’t find any that would have a couple of my favorite features when painting with old masters’ techniques. I love to paint fur and fabric, and I wanted to find a face that would include openness. I fell in love with Boccaccio Boccaccino‘s portrait of a gypsy girl, but it didn’t have any fur. So I remembered Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” and created a new image by combining the two in Photoshop. I have several stories about this one.

The first one is about today’s society and how the pets have become more human in our eyes. I want to show the similarities in the wild gypsy girl and the tame ferret. Another story is about young girls and their love for taking care of animals. They might not know the wildlife, but they help to rescue animals and are ready to work hard when taking care of them. They are against fur clothing and not afraid to show it. The third story goes back to the 16th century. I imagine that the gypsy girl was hired to dress up and hold the ermine because the lady didn’t have the patience to pose for the artist. In the end, she never showed. The artist became frustrated and painted the girl instead. I can imagine the magical moment when the girl realized that she would be in the final painting instead of a lady.

I would like to talk with Boccaccio Boccaccino about my version. I also wonder, how he was able to paint the portrait of the gypsy girl when the artists mostly painted for churches and aristocrats back then.

At Monet’s Garden – Including All the Good Stuff to the Same Image

Last spring, I published a mini-course called Strokes of Energy as a part of the Imagine Monthly Spring series. I asked my students to name their favorite artists, and Claude Monet was among most popular ones. But when I thought about Claude Monet, I didn’t want just to serve those who love the garden or those who adore his way to paint the sky, or those who want to express the windy scenes. I wanted to have all the good stuff in one image and then some more.

A digital collage combining 3 paintings from Claude Monet. By Peony and Parakeet.

So I created a reference image in Photoshop combining three of Claude Monet’s paintings: “Woman with a Parasol” and a couple of paintings from the water lily series. Then I invented a technique where you can paint some of the elements as collage pieces so that you can adjust the overall composition before making the final decisions. This way it is possible to add more details one by one and improve the image during the actual creative process.

A Monet-inspired art journal page by Peony and Parakeet. See her mini-course Strokes of Energy.

So this painting is about a woman who is experiencing strong wind. She doesn’t mind wind catching her parasol. She enjoys the fresh air and the beautiful scene around her.

Ulla’s Take

One of the students, Ulla M. Holm, made a Photoshop sketch from another set of Monet’s paintings and then painted the image with short impressionistic strokes. I love how the result also reminds me of her home country, Sweden!

A Monet-inspired art journal spread by Ulla M. Holm, a student of Peony and Parakeet.

Using Reference Images More Intuitively – From a Story to an Experience

I admit having mixed feelings about following the reference images carefully. With my art, I want to express freedom, and I don’t think that following reference images too closely helps with that. On the other hand, I don’t want to restrict myself doing abstracts only or creating similar paintings one after another. Many artists create the same again and again and become better and better with that. To me, art is about exploring and the hook there is to widen my perspective continuously.

So even if you would prefer abstract art, it doesn’t mean you can’t have reference images. Instead of connecting with the actual story, you can connect with an emotional experience.

Emile Vernon's painting and Paivi Eerola's abstract interpretation. By Peony and Parakeet.

I picked colors and ideas from Emile Vernon’s painting and imagined what it would be like wearing that soft dress. The dress felt like a dream, so I wrote: “Muisto unelmasta” –  “a memory of a dream” in the image.

Using reference images: a photo and an abstract interpretation. By Peony and Parakeet. To learn how to do this, sign up for Inspirational Drawing 2.0!

Here’s another example from my class Inspirational Drawing 2.0: a photo from The National Library of Finland and my interpretation, “The Power of Knowledge.”

Do yo want to experiment with this approach using your personal reference images? >> Sign up for Inspirational Drawing 2.0!

For the Fans of Monet – Strokes of Energy

My Monet-inspired mini-course Strokes of Energy is now available as an individual self-study course. >> Buy Strokes of Energy!

Strokes of Energy, a Monet-inspred mini-course by Peony and Parakeet.

Geraldine’s Take

I want to end this blog post with a skilled artist Geraldine Norris from Australia who created her version of Monet in my class. She had just seen an art exhibition showing Monet’s work, and I think it shows how deeply she connected with the experience.

A Monet-inspired painting by Geraldine Norris, Australia, a student of Peony and Parakeet.

But wait, there is more beautiful Monet-inspired art from my students, see the presentation page of Strokes of Energy!

Until next time!

Pointillism – A Quick Way, Step by Step!

ATCs that are like pointillistic paintings but made using colored pencils and felt-tipped pens. See the step-by-step instructions! By Peony and Parakeet.

I am honored to be one of the guest artists in Documented Life Project this month. I was given a theme (pointillism) and a project type (artist trading card, ATC). As long as I followed those, I could do anything with any supplies. These kind of challenges are fun because you get such enough restrictions to get started but can still create freely. However, I have one fixation with artistic trading cards. I like them to be portraits, either humans or animals.(See ATCs in this post, for example!) So I chose a very traditional subject, women from the past.

Pointillism Can Be Tedious!

Like most of us, I have always admired Georges Seurat‘s paintings. In the 1980s, a Finnish illustrator made images that were composed of small points. It might have been an artist called Osmo Omenamäki. As a teenager, inspired by him and Seurat, I decided to be a pointillist artist too. I picked my felt-tipped pens and started to draw dots. Oh my! I was barely able to finish a postcard size drawing. I couldn’t believe how many small dots are needed to fill even a small blank area! I was almost traumatized by that experience!

So now, over 30 years later, I didn’t even think about creating the project with felt-tipped pens only. ATCs are small, but not that small! However, with felt-tipped pens, it is easy to make intentional tiny dots in a variety of colors. But I also needed something else to make the coloring faster. Colored pencils leave the spots visible, and they are easy to control. So I chose them to fill the blanks between the dots.

Practicing – Spots with Many Colors

Before the actual project, I practiced my ideas. I made the dots using a variety of colors and then added more colors with colored pencils.

Pointillism in an artist trading card. See the step by step instructions. By Peony and Parakeet.

Because the colors in dots weren’t as important as coloring with colored pencils, I got an idea of using brown shades only. It would be like an underpainting, a technique that old masters often used in portraits. They painted shadows with umber and then applied the rest of the colors so that the shadows showed through. So I will show you how you can do a similar kind of “under-dotting” and then apply the actual colors with colored pencils!

1) Under-Dotting with Felt-Tipped Pens

You will need four shades of felt-tipped pens for this step. I use Faber-Castell PITT Artist Pens in colors “Light Flesh”, “Green Gold”, “Raw Umber” and “Caput Mortuum”.  I didn’t use any model like a photo but just created intuitively, making the features more accurate color by color.

Pointillism, step by step. Step 1 by Peony and Parakeet.

With the palest of color, sketch an oval using small dots. The liberating thing here is that when you start with a pale color and make little dots, you can make many “mistakes” and correct them as you go. One spot in a wrong place can be easily changed! Fill the oval with dots so that you leave blank space where you plan mouth, eyes, and nose to be. When they seem to be in place, add some dots for details. Don’t worry if your woman looks pretty ugly. This is just the first layer!

Change to darker shades and add shadows to the face. Then sketch the hair and clothes using little dots only.

Pointillism, step by step. Step 1, under-dotting. By Peony and Parakeet.

Every shade adds a little bit more to the image.

2) Basic Coloring with Black and Colored Pencils

Now add black spots to the darkest of details. Old portraits often had a dark background, so I added black spots there too.

Pointillism, step by step. Step 2 by Peony and Parakeet.

Using colored pencils, color the card so that white shows only where you want to have it in the end. I used Caran d’Ache Pablo pencils in blue, red and yellow. Remember that you can mix colors by layering. You can get many beautiful tones from the primary colors.

3) More Liveliness with Colored Pencils

Finally, add shadows so that the details look 3-dimensional. If you only have primary colors like I had, you can get a dark background by adding blue, red and yellow layers there. If your portrait looks too dark, use an eraser to lighten and soften the colors.

Pointillism, step by step. Step 3 by Peony and Parakeet.

In the end, check the facial features of your woman. Add small lines where you want to turn the attention. Don’t draw the lines near the nose but on the lips and the eyes.

Pointillism, step by step. Step 3 and facial features. By Peony and Parakeet.

Celebrating Blurriness

Here are my finished cards again. I think they look delightfully blurry!

Pointillism-themed artist trading cards. See the step-by-step instructions. By Peony and Parakeet.

The more I want to reduce stiffness in my art, the more I feel the need to embrace blurriness. With blurriness, I also feel more self-acceptance, more ease with errors, more open to possibilities.

Reducing stiffness is one of the main themes in my newest class too. The class is called Inspirational Drawing 2.0 and it’s about drawing from imagination and inspiration. Watch the introductory video below!

Inspirational Drawing 2.0: Liberate your line and sign up now!

Have Some Vincent van Gogh in Your Life!

Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet has an art journaling class about painting like Vincent van Gogh.

When I opened Imagine Monthly Fall 2016 art journaling class for registration, my question to the first participants was: “What is your favorite artist?” The ultimate winner was Vincent van Gogh. So I went to the local library and picked up two huge books showcasing all his paintings. I wanted to create a class that inspires not only playing in his style, but which also makes people relate to him. I wanted to enable people to put their world next to his and see it in full color like he did.

Life in Full Color

Whether you are an actual engineer or not, I think that you too have an inner engineer. She likes the home to be organized and clean. She takes responsibilities seriously. She worries over the practical stuff.

I have some ironing to do again!

But then, truly, you also have an inner artist. She doesn’t care what time it is or whether she’s hungry or not. She doesn’t have a clue if somebody needs her to be somewhere else. Her world has no linear time. She has no other duties than to explore. She sees colors and textures when the engineer sees dirty laundry and a shopping list. No, she would not stay alive without the inner engineer. But the inner engineer could never live the life in full color without the inner artist.

Vincent van Gogh

Thinking about Van Gogh, an art journal page spread by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

Me and Vincent van Gogh, merged into one person.

Here’s what every inner engineer knows about Vincent van Gogh: He was a poor artist from the 19th century, painting with thick medium. He had mental issues and he sold only one painting.

But the inner artist feels that he was her soul-mate. He saw yellow sky and blue ground when other people saw the perfect weather to sow the seed. He saw glorious sunset when other people saw withering flowers. For people of that time, his portraits and sketches looked clumsy even if he had caught the essence. Namely, in his world, the essential thing to do was not to engineer but to express. Instead of aiming for objectivity, he was the master of subjectivity.

Van Gogh Moments

Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet has an art journaling class about painting like Vincent van Gogh.

I believe that most people create art because they need “Van Gogh Moments”. In those moments, you can pick any color for any object, not only green for the grass like the inner engineer would suggest. In those moments, you can not only play with colors but also experience the interaction between the hues and shades. Just like van Gogh did! If you look at any detail in his paintings, you will see the interaction of colors.

Selfie Fantasy is an art journaling class about painting like Vincent van Gogh.

So while the inner engineer waits for the important phone call, the inner artist hears her colors speaking. While the inner engineer worries if she will ever meet someone again, the inner artist paints him or her right there beside her.

Selfie Fantasy

Selfie Fantasy is an art journaling class about painting like Vincent van Gogh.

When I browsed through the two big books of van Gogh’s paintings, I realized that a big part of his production were portraits. They were either self-portraits or portraits of other people. So in Selfie Fantasy, you will not only learn easy ways for creating a colorful and swirly scene in Vincent van Gogh’s style. You will also get step-by-step instructions for adding some familiar faces onto your art journals. In the class video, I use those methods to paint my mother and me. My mother is there on the spread, glowing on her wedding day, much earlier than when I was born. This time she is in the foreground because in real life she was always the one in the background, supporting my creativity. She truly was my inner engineer till the day she passed away about 25 years ago.

Give some “Van Gogh Moments” for your inner artist!
Sign up for Imagine Monthly Fall 2016
and get an immediate access to Selfie Fantasy – Sign up now!

Monet’s World of Energy

Strokes of Energy, an art journaling mini-course inspired by Claude Monet, taught by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

The famous impressionistic painter Claude Monet inspired me to creates this art journaling mini-course. Strokes of Energy has just been released as a part of Imagine Monthly.

Calmness vs. Energy

When I examined Monet’s painting style, I spent a lot of time with calming blues and greens.

Ultramarine blue is wonderful for Monet style color mixes

But the more I painted, the more I brought energy into the painting.  Even if you feel calm when watching Monet’s paintings, his painting style is much more than just lightly caressing the canvas. Directional strokes and plenty of colors are essential in Monet’s impressionistic style. The most fun part of using the active energy is creating all the juicy details with short strokes of paint.

Create your own Claude Monet painting!

Monet’s Fresh Air to Your Art Journal

A big part of art journaling is about making sketches, experiments and building the collection of pages. But every art journal needs also pages that you want to watch again and again. They are like a breath of fresh air among all not so finished pages.

Paivi and her Monet

4 Published Mini-Courses, 2 More to Come

Alphonse Mucha, William Morris, Friedensreich Hundertwasser and Claude Monet have been my inspiration for this spring. When you sign up for Imagine Monthly, you will get all these 4 mini-courses right after the purchase and 2 more in the coming months.

Imagine Monthly - Art journaling mini-courses inspired by world-class art

Also, you will get to be a part of great community! Every week, when I look at the unique versions my students have made from the exercises, I am in awe. I feel extremely lucky to be part of the group and wish all those masters could still be alive and participate the conversation!

>> Imagine Monthly – Sign up here! 

How to Trust Yourself when Creating Art

I Feel the Power, a collage painting by Peony and Parakeet. Read about making this and how to get rid of self-doubt when creating art
When I begin creating art I often have petty thoughts like: “I want to draw a flower” or “I want to create something pink”. Even if I create regularly many times a week, I am still bothered by the fear of failure. I know I have to handle that at as soon as it comes, preferably before the first brush stroke. Why? Wouldn’t it be fun to sometimes draw that single flower or create that pink square? I believe that if we give ourselves that kind of clear commands and simple tasks, we don’t really trust our creativity. The big question is always: do you trust yourself when creating art?

The Unpredictable Nature of Art

If you trust yourself, you can step into the world of unpredictability. Not knowing exactly what to aim for is a major factor when creating art. We can set restrictions and principles but we have to leave space for unpredictability. It means that we are more creative if we do not have the clear picture of the end result.

Setting Restrictions with Supplies

Art supplies. Read about using fiber paste and how to trust yourself when creating art.
These are the art supplies that I gathered when I began making the collage of this post. Watercolors, acrylic paints and fiber paste. I also picked a thick watercolor paper and cut it to a square. I chose the supplies but left behind the thoughts about what I was going to make.

Find what You Want to Express

My method is to browse art books just before creating art. I do it only for few minutes and I try to pick art that really lifts my spirit, raises the bar, sparks my imagination. Usually it is something from the history of world art. This time I browsed a picture book from impressionism.
Read about how to use art books to trust yourself when creating art.
So, do I advise you to get a book of impressionism? No. I advise you to name what spheres you want to reach when making art and pick images which resonate with that. They do not have to be the same style than what you want to accomplish. The more important is the feeling that they evoke in you. When I browsed the book of impressionism, I thought how art is above all the mundane things. How those artists who lived at the end of the 19th century have managed to describe the beauty in the way that is still understood. How the brush strokes, full of paint, were successfully set to represent weightless light. All that would be exciting to see in my piece too.

Watercolor strokes. Read about how to trust yourself when creating art.
When the first watercolors hit the paper, I still had some self-doubt: I could not ever do anything like the great impressionists. I heard the sarcastic voice in my head: “Reborn Monet, yeah right!” But that sarcasm is the moment when I know I am almost there: I am almost leaving the rational side of me behind. Then I just need to wow to trust myself, stop seeing any desired images in my mind and start working fiercely.

Layering (With Some Moments of Self-Doubt)

Watercolor background by Peony and Parakeet. Read about making this and how to trust yourself when creating art.

I often start with watercolors because they cover the paper quickly. Even if I have the idea of creating some surface structure, I wanted to use watercolors first to get into the mood of uncontrolled splashes.

Acrylic paints. Read about how to trust yourself when creating art.
While waiting for the watercolors dry, I mixed some acrylic paint. Pastel shades like many impressionists used to choose. Using pallette knife. Read about how to trust yourself when creating art.
To get some interesting texture with the paint, I used a palette knife instead of a brush.
Making of a collage painting by Peony and Parakeet. Read about how to trust yourself when creating art.
After playing a little with the palette knife and thick paint, I became clueless of how to continue. It’s important to recognize these moments. If you are not aware of these, your rational side takes the control and decides to do things you really cannot justify. Like: “Let’s use the rest of the paint to cover the surface evenly”. Or: “Let’s get some other colors and splash the paint here and there”. When you feel that you do not know what to do, don’t do the obvious. I might browse some pages of the book again to get back into the mood. Or change the media, the solution that I made this time. I doodled something not so important with the colored pencils just to realize I wanted to continue with watercolors and a thin brush.Making of a collage painting by Peony and Parakeet. Read about how to trust yourself when creating art.

When I got bored with colored pencils and watercolors, I opened the jar of fiber paste. Even if I often prefer to stay with the basic art supplies, fiber paste is something I like. It not only creates an interesting texture like watercolor paper, but it also works like a watercolor paper. You can paint over it with watercolors and create beautiful details to your work! Making of a collage painting by Peony and Parakeet. Adding fiber paste. Read about how to trust yourself when creating art.

Trying to achieve distinct variation in the surface texture, I used the palette knife again.

Making of a collage painting by Peony and Parakeet. Read about how to trust yourself when creating art.

Then my mind was empty again, so I browsed few pages from the book again and then continued with colored pencils.

Making of a collage painting by Peony and Parakeet. Read about how to trust yourself when creating art.

When I reached the next point of frustration, I decided to change to the watercolors and work with high speed. Working fast helps to get creativity flow.

Making of a collage painting by Peony and Parakeet. Read about how to trust yourself when creating art.

Once the paper was covered all over, I started adding details. A white correction pen is great as it usually works on any surface.

Making of a collage painting by Peony and Parakeet. Read about how to trust yourself when creating art.

Hand decorated papers are great for details. I picked some of my prettiest papers and began to cut them. The paper shown in the picture isn’t that great as an artwork, but it’s versatile for collages as it has a lot of variation.


Finishing a collage painting by Peony and Parakeet. Read about how to trust yourself when creating art.

I felt that it was time to begin finishing the work. It is always useful to stop and think. I often put the artwork somewhere where I can look at it, like on the nearest book shelf. Then I step away and try to figure it out where to lead the viewer’s eye. Here’s another step where you should not question your trust: It will be great! You just need to connect some dots and find the lost pieces of the puzzle. Like I did when I realized that there is someone in the picture. I added the faces and made the rest of the character more visible. Then some tiny adjustments to the composition and after that, the work was finished.

A detail of a collage painting by Peony and Parakeet. Read about how to trust yourself when creating art.

I think that this piece is aesthetically very much my style, but the impressionistic approach to the surface structure makes the work interesting.

A detail of a collage painting by Peony and Parakeet. Read about how to trust yourself when creating art.

Never underestimate the power of layering: this is my favorite detail, the white area showing the blank watercolor paper. It was created in the first phase, and it still exists in the end. If I had done the obvious and filled the paper with each media layer by layer, this little detail would not exist. So, cherish each stroke and trust your creativity! Focus on the feeling, not to the result! You are allowed to feel like a world class artist even if you know you are not. Fly to the world of imagination!

This might also interest you: – Stretch Your Artistic Style

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Get Inspired by Fine Arts

Inspired by fine arts. Painting by Emile Vernon. Collage by Peony and Parakeet

The world of fine arts is bursting with ideas that you can use in art journaling or any crafts. On the left, there is Emile Vernon’s painting Elegant Lady with a Bouquet of Roses. On the right, you can see my interpretation.

Painting by Emile Vernon, Collage by Peony and Parakeet

The secret is not to copy but find the concept of the painting and transfer it to your personal style. I began with the dominant factor of the painting which was the beautiful dress. Then I added the various details of the painting in my style. Almost weightless objects and angular lines combined with soft shapes create the atmosphere for both of the work. Because I love surface patterns I wanted to study the painting as a pattern too. I must admit I love the result. It represents the kind of nostalgia that I find very appealing.

Memory of a Dream, a collage by Peony and Parakeet

Another painting to go. I chose Claude Monet’s Impression Sunrise.

Monet's Impression Sunrise, Collage by Peony and Parakeet

Here I kept the theme of the painting but used torn paper pieces to represent the thick brush strokes. The sun was the most interesting detail, so I made many of them. A horizontal composition combined with vertical lines was also repeated. I copied many of the concepts but not the exact painting.

Monet's Impression Sunrise, Collage by Peony and Parakeet

How do you do it?

1) Take your favorite painting and analyze it to pieces. What is the composition, the colors and their relations, the eye-catching details?
2) Reconstruct the pieces and add some of the things that are typical to your personal style.

After this exercise, you’ll never complain about the lack of ideas! The whole world of fine art is waiting for you.

Get Inspired and Express Your Inspiration!
More inspiration from fine arts – Buy Art Journal Class Bundle
Learn the process of using images as inspiration sources: Sign up for Inspirational Drawing 2.0!