When first learning to paint, I wanted my paintings to look exactly like the references I used. I desperately hoped to acquire skills and technique so I could recreate the work of other artists. I searched for watercolor instructors to take classes so I could learn how to copy! After all, isn’t that how we learn? We copy and practice, taking advantage of another artist’s suggestions about color, style, and composition. Over time, I became an excellent copier, and I became more confident in my painting skills. However…

MOVING BEYOND COPYING.

Copying started to bore me. Ugh! My paintings were technically well done, but there was not much of me or my personality in them. For instance, my painting of a luna moth on tree bark was accurate, but now it seems a bit flat and static to me. At some point I realized that there had to be more! 

Luna Moth On Bark Watercolor Painting.

Things definitely got more interesting to me when I began to alter and interpret references. In a painting of Boston Marathon runners, for instance, I removed some runners and transformed one into one of my sons, who ran cross-country. I painted my first granddaughter as the young girl on a carousel. Another granddaughter I painted with a pile of gingersnaps that she had absconded with. This was a much more satisfying way to paint!

Wren and Gingersnaps Watercolor Painting.

I really began to want to move beyond copying. I soon yearned to learn how to design my own work and tell my own stories in my art. At the same time I continued to study watercolor technique and composition, knowing that I still had more to learn.

PERSONALIZE.

I don’t think anyone can tell you how to create art work in your own style. No one can tell you what issues are important to you. You have to do that for yourself. We are each unique individuals who see the world based on our own experiences and interests. Your style, like your handwriting, cannot help but come out. But style is more likely to emerge when we stop copying every last detail of an image and begin to interpret references.

Listen to yourself (notice your feelings) to better understand how to create work that has meaning for you. Worry less about whether your art is ‘good enough’ or what others will think of your work.

HOW?

Sometimes you don’t know where to start to create ‘original’ art. I remember not knowing how to design a painting or even what I wanted to paint. I felt at a loss and uncertain. I had to get to know myself better and become more confident even while I was learning more about art. I needed to reconnect with my own intuition and become more aware of my own preferences and feelings. And trust myself. That kind of growth is not likely to happen all at once – it certainly didn’t for me. I often felt that I knew better what I didn’t like than what I did like. Gradually, though, I noticed being drawn to some topics, some compositions more than others. I found myself wanting to eliminate certain parts of a reference or to combine two reference photos to build a scene more interesting to me. I was even excited to take some of my own photos to use for reference. With time, I began to acknowledge my own independence and value my own opinion. It remains an ongoing process; it isn’t always easy. I continue to wean myself from over-dependence on others’ photo references. 

LOOK INWARD.

To begin to reduce a dependence on copying and using other artist’s ideas, start to look inward. Look for your own inspiration. What  interests you? What excites you? What gives you joy? What kind of painting do you enjoy seeing or creating? 

Your heart knows the way. Run in that direction. (Rumi)

Experiment and try new things. Notice where you lose track of time and fall into the enjoyment of painting. Are you fascinated by landscapes and paintings of the outdoors? Do you prefer flowers, or a still life? Could you spend all day exploring colors? Does it thrill you to see paint flow? Or would you rather paint lots of details close up?

There is no formula. What do you want to create? What would you paint if no one was looking? What makes you happy? What do you always return to in your art? That is your inspiration.

What do I like? I find I really enjoy painting landscapes, the outdoors, or scenes relating to the disappearing traditions of New England. I seem to be searching for the forgotten, the lost, the answer that’s always right around the corner – I always seem to be searching. I’m drawn again and again to images of dirt roads, doorways, windows, streams and rivers moving on, distant hills, fog and mist. 

Flowing Forward Watercolor Painting.
Tristan’s Fall Road Watercolor Painting.

DON’T FORCE.

You cannot force insight or creativity or intuition, but you can be open to them. Find a place of calm inside yourself, not of fear, self-doubt, or anxiety, to better notice your thoughts and intuitions. In other words, a fearless open mind will invite creativity in. 

Personally, I find it hard to ‘let go’ of striving, to create a place of acceptance and calm in my mind. My tendency is to keep pushing, to produce results, which doesn’t always end very well. I have to keep telling myself that things happen in their own time, on their own schedule, sometimes when you least expect it. After all, some of my best painting experiences happened unexpectedly when my hand and my brush took off and left my ego behind; then the painting somehow flowed and took on a life of its own. 

Pitcher and Pears Watercolor Painting.

You could describe this letting go and being open as Annie Dillard did in Pilgrim At Tinker’s Creek. She describes one way of seeking not “as actual pursuit” but as putting “myself in the way of“ what is being sought. She adds “Something might come; something might go.” Roger Ebert said it another way. “ The muse visits during the act of creation, not before. Don’t wait for her. Start alone.” In other words, keep on painting but don’t try to force anything.

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working. (Pablo Picasso)

HOW COULD I DO IT?

A helpful resource to build for yourself is a FILE of inspiring images. You can cut out pictures from magazines (of colors you like, shapes that might work in your art, interesting people, beautiful vistas). Photos taken on a walk could be added to your inspiration file. Gather online images from Pinterest, Facebook groups (such as ‘Landscape References Photos For Artists’ or ‘Free Reference Photos For Artists’ ), or websites of copyright free images (pexels.com , unsplash.com , https://publicdomainarchive.com/index.html , watercolor world (https://www.watercolourworld.org/), Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/), British Library Copyright Free Images (https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/albums)) . Check museum websites for copyright free images ( for example, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/the-collection ).

You can file or organize images by topic to make later retrieval easier.

I look for inspiring images from my photos taken on walks, by scrolling various online copyright free sites, in books, and compiled images from  several of my photographer friends. I search for shapes, colors, themes to adapt for my art.

You could visit museums near you to look for inspiration. Start sketching, whether everyday objects, shapes, or the view out your window, to create images to inspire your art work. Go for walks (and snap your own photos) in the woods or parks, around your town or city. Notice and take note of what interests you.

IN PRACTICE.

Be open to new ideas. When you choose to adapt a reference, use your intuition and imagination to create something original. A reference can be a mere starting point for your painting. This approach often works for me because I think of each painting as a kind of puzzle to be solved. I enjoy the ‘detective’ work of figuring out how I might approach and create a painting. 

Try to notice your own reactions as your work progresses. Does it feel right when you eliminate parts or simplify details? Do the changes make your statement stronger? Could you combine several photos into one painting? Rearrange objects to emphasize your center of interest? Make sure to include both soft and hard edges, maybe lost edges, to encourage the viewer’s imagination? What if you change the mood, season, or time of day? Try to include some visual energy in the painting. Varying the quality of light can create contrast or a glow so that you are not recreating a flat, dull scene. Change the viewpoint by zooming in for a closeup or pulling out to create a distant vista. Altering your color choices can also give a very different feel to the work. Or you can totally shake things up by taking only colors or shapes from your reference to create abstract paintings. You can even paint completely from your imagination, without any reference.

FINALLY.

Experiment. Ask yourself, is this painting working for me? Take credit for taking action even if it doesn’t work. Then keep going! Finding your own inspiration can be exhilarating!

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