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!

What Any Artist Can Learn from Old Masters

Draming Salome, an oil painting by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. A copy of a detail from Loretto da Brescia's old painting "Portrait of a Lady as Salome".

If you have followed me on Instagram or Facebook, you’ve already seen that I have had a special project in November. I have been painting a replica of an old painting and learning techniques that artists used already hundreds of years ago. These are called old master painting techniques. Famous old masters like Leonardo da Vinci and Johannes Vermeer used them when creating their masterpieces. My painting is a copy of detail from Moretto da Brescia‘s painting “Portrait of a Lady as Salome.” I call mine “Dreaming Salome” because I gave her a more dreamy look and different meaning. The portrait was painted in the course organized by The National Museum of Finland. The teacher of the course was Emmi Mustonen.

5 Tips You Can Learn from Old Masters

After painting my first oil painting, and the first one that uses these techniques, I feel that there is still a lot to learn. So I will be painting another one with these techniques during the spring. However, I have already found out a lot of things that can be used with any supplies, and I wanted to write a blog post about what you can take from my experience. These tips can be applied to any themes, even to abstract art. At the end of this post, there’s also a short video (watch it on YouTube) that shows more images from the process.

1) Don’t Get Discouraged in The Beginning!

A sketch and the finished painting using old masters techniques. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

My process of making the painting started with a charcoal sketch. While sketching, I felt I was just making a big mess. I pressed too hard, and the drawing wasn’t detailed enough. The image shows the sketch once it was cleaned with an eraser – just before the first layer of paint. If you compare it with the finished painting, there’s a huge difference between the two. The expression of the lady looked sad in the drawing, but she has a half-smile in the finished version. I understood that the facial features and characteristics are so subtle that it takes a long time to get them right.

When sketching, I hadn’t the persistence to finish her hair and shawl but still, I was able to make them quite detailed during the painting process. If I had made the original sketch without attending the course, I would have called it a failure and lost my hope of achieving something that would look like an old painting.

I often talk about raw ideas (see this blog post) and that applies to realistic art too. The first lines are just the beginning for understanding what the final work will be. When I was sketching, I only had a rough idea about how my lady should differ from the original version. But once I continued the painting process, my vision got clearer. So, stay curious about the insights that you will get during creating, and don’t get discouraged in the beginning!

2) Before Diving Deeper, Limit Your Supplies!

A detail of an underpainting when painting with old masters techniques. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

In my painting, the first layers were made with just two colors: burnt umber and zinc white. These first layers form a so-called underpainting that shows where the shadows and lighted areas are. It enforces the painter to look for contrasts, and on the other hand, it enables working with details without making color choices. The philosophy of underpainting can be applied to any media and style when it’s seen as a phase where you limit your supplies and add more content to the piece. When you go through every area in your work and make sure that it connects well with the next one, you will control the big picture through details. I find this much more enjoyable than trying to see everything at one glance all the time.

3) Slow Down to Maintain a Gentle Focus!

I was surprised by the positive feelings I went through while painting with old masters techniques. I thought that there would be a lot of demanding voices in my head, but the process surprised me. Even if I was stretched out from my comfort zone, I realized that there could be “a gentle focus,” where you put all your energy into work so that it improves your self-image too. I believe that this kind of new self-acceptance was based on two things.

First, I knew that it would take a long time to finish the painting. Six sessions in the classroom weren’t enough. I also had to do homework. Each of the layers had to dry before adding a new one, and drying took several daysThis slow pace felt old fashioned but good too. It made me think how much gentler we would be in general if weren’t so busy all the time. I also noticed how I became less worried about mistakes. When the progress is slow, mistakes start small, and it’s easier to correct them.

Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet learning from the old masters.

The second thing that helped me was that we were using a finger to remove the brush strokes. When I gently caressed the canvas with paint, it affected my whole thinking. It felt like the beauty created and seen by Moretto da Brescia caressed my brain.

4) Don’t Try to Make Your Middle Look Like the End

Before attending the course, I made one decision: I would do my best to follow the teacher’s advice. Because I was not familiar with the techniques, I didn’t know beforehand how the painting should look after each layer. When I teach art, I often see people worry over details that will look gorgeous once they just move on to the next steps. It’s human to compare your middle to the desired end. But if you can set your criteria according to each phase, it will lead to the better quality.

Phase photos of an oil painting using old master painting techniques. By Päivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

So, when laying the colors one by one, I tried to quench my worries about how yellow the dress looked or how red the fur was. When using old masters techniques, colors are not mixed on a palette. The pigments from the tubes are laid in thin layers as they are. So if you want green, you will start with yellow, let it dry for few days and then move on with blue. The transparent layers with soft edges result in a mixed color and a realistic look.

When painting these thin layers of color, I couldn’t help thinking that the skin was too uneven. But my teacher advised me to continue creating color differences to get the painting ready for “a white wash.” A thin layer of zinc white made the skin more even, and all the previous layers made sense. Try this approach of seeing layers and elements as building blocks to new ones!

5) Sharpen The Soft, Not Vice Versa!

I was often reminded to make every area and detail softer. Even most of the tiny spots were softened with a finger to make them more translucent and blurry without sharp edges. As a result of that, the painting looked blurry and untidy. But when finishing, sparingly added sharp lines and dots did the trick. It felt magical how suddenly the whole painting looked accurate. I learned that it’s very easy to sharpen the softness. Adding few strokes finished the fur. Adding a tiny sharp dot finished the eye. The nose didn’t need sharpening at all because I wanted to bring the eye to the mouth where I added a small white spot.

A detail of a painting made using old masters painting techniques. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

When you add softness, you will also make your work look more dimensional. Leonardo da Vinci has said:
“The beginnings and ends of shadow lie between the light and darkness and may be infinitely diminished and infinitely increased. Shadow is the means by which bodies display their form. The forms of bodies could not be understood in detail but for shadow.”

After painting my “Dreaming Salome,” I have become fascinated by watching the edges of items and how soft they are. I know that today’s world is sharp. We aim for sharp photos, clean graphic look and turn on the fluorescent lighting. The things we use are industrially made and as perfect as they have been designed on a computer. But try visiting Leonardo’s softer world! Light a candle and observe the lights and shadows. Let everything soft inspire you when you are creating art and reflect that softness towards yourself too!

Bonus: Make it Meaningful – Watch the Video!

My “Dreaming Salome” is now framed and she has a special place in our library room. I was so happy to be able to finish her before Christmas.

Dreaming Salome, an oil painting using old master painting techniques, finished and framed. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

This painting is my first exercise when learning from old masters, but it also has other symbolic meaning. I have made a short video showing the images from the class and how she was painted layer by layer. In the same time, I also explain what Dreaming Salome symbolizes to me.

Learn a New Approach – Sign up for inspirational Drawing 2.0!

If you have followed my blog before, you know that painting a replica of an old painting is not what I usually do. But if we limit ourselves to learning only one style, one approach, one tool, it prevent’s our artistic growth and the full use of our imagination.

Learn drawing from your inspiration and imagination!
>>Sign up for Inspirational Drawing 2.0!
The class has begun in January 1st but you will receive the first set of materials right after signing up.