Four Tips For Remaking Famous Old Paintings In Your Own Style


As long-time readers of this blog probably know, I had an interesting request to remake Van Gogh’s “Bedroom In Arles” in my own style last autumn. Although it had been a while since I’d done this with an old painting, it was a lot of fun. First of all, here’s Van Gogh’s original painting:

"Bedroom In Arles" By Vincent Van Gogh (Via Wikipedia/Google Art Project)

“Bedroom In Arles” By Vincent Van Gogh (Via Wikipedia/Google Art Project)

And here’s the remake, in my own style, that I originally posted here last November. Although I’d originally planned to stay faithful to the original, I felt that the room looked a bit “empty” and, as soon as I started adding stuff, the picture went in more of a gothic horror/ 1980s cyberpunk kind of direction:

"Another Bedroom In Arles (After Van Gogh)" By C. A. Brown

“Another Bedroom In Arles (After Van Gogh)” By C. A. Brown

So, for today, I thought that I’d give you a few tips about how to remake famous old paintings in your own style:

1) Legalities and Formalities: I’m not a copyright lawyer but, whilst making non-commercial fan art based on other media like TV shows, videogames etc.. is generally tolerated by the original creators (if theoretically against the rules), making a copy/remake of a modern painting is something a bit different.

Given that you’re working in the same medium (or a similar one), there are more likely to be copyright complaints if you remake a copyrighted modern painting or drawing. So, either seek permission or – more sensibly – only remake paintings whose copyright has expired. But, if you’re making a parody of a modern painting, then some copyright laws contain an exemption for this sort of thing.

So, do your research. Copyright law varies from area to area. In most European countries (including the UK), the general rule is that copyright on an artistic work expires seventy years after the artist who made it has died. Yes, this is ridiculously long, but it’s something you should be aware of.

However, copyright rules between the US and Europe vary slightly. For example, all of Henri Matisse’s paintings are still copyrighted in Europe (since he died in 1954), but quite a few of them aren’t in the US (since, in America, all works published before 1923 are automatically out of copyright). On the other hand, the time limit for copyright in the US is ninety-five years post mortem! And even longer for some types of works.

So, make sure that the paintings you are remaking are old enough to be out of copyright (both in your country and, if you’re posting it online, in the country where the website is based too).

For example, Van Gogh lived until 1890. 1890 + 70 = 1960. So, his paintings have been out of copyright in Europe since 1960/1961 (they are also out-of-copyright in the US too by virtue of both the “1923” rule, and the current American “95 years” rule). The longest copyright limit I’ve heard of is 120 years (for corporate works in the US), and it would even be exempt under that rule too (even though it doesn’t apply to Van Gogh).

Likewise, it is both traditional and polite to add “After [the original artist]” to your remake. Not only does it show that you’re paying tribute to a great artist, but it also means that – if your remake is good enough – no-one can accuse you of plagiarism and/or art forgery, since you aren’t trying to pass a copy off as an original.

2) Make lots of original art first: If you are going to remake an old painting in your own style, then you actually need to know what your own style looks like. You can learn this by making lots of original art first. In other words, the only way that you are going to learn what sets your style apart from everyone else’s is to practice.

Whilst you’re practicing, you should obviously take inspiration (but, make sure to do it properly!)from anything that inspires you. This will all help to shape your art style. Likewise, if you see another art style that you really like, then try to work out what general techniques the artist used and then add these to the techniques that you already know. Then practice them a lot.

When you have a fairly solid understanding of your own art style (eg: how you use colours, what types of lighting you like, how you draw people, the general themes of your art etc..), then you are almost ready to remake an old painting. But, you need to learn another skill first.

3) Copying by sight: Yes, it might not be as ultra-precise as tracing, but copying things the old fashioned way is so much better for so many reasons.

Yes, it can take a bit of practice to get right. Yes, you’ll have to learn how to “see” paintings that look 3D as being the 2D images that they actually are. But, despite the extra effort, it’s an essential skill to learn if you want to remake things in your own style.

Why? Well, first of all, it makes your copy look just a little bit different. The slight imprecision of copying by sight gives your painting more individuality than a simple mechanical tracing will ever do. This also gives you a lot more opportunities for the individual quirks of your personal art style to emerge too, when compared to a strictly similar tracing.

But, most importantly, it allows you to change things much more easily! Since you’re creating your sight copy in a similar way to how you would sketch an original painting, you can easily alter things whilst you’re copying. Although you can still obviously alter tracings too, the fact that you’re drawing a sight copy without guidelines means that your changes can be a lot more seamless.

4) Use your imagination: A good art remake is like a good cover version of a song. It keeps enough of the original to be recognisable, but it also tries to improve the original in a unique way. In other words, it’s someone’s interpretation of something else, rather than just someone copying something else verbatim.

So, don’t be afraid to change things. Don’t be afraid to add elements from your favourite genres of art. Don’t be afraid to use different colours. As long as you think that it improves the original painting in some way, then make the changes!

For example, in the Van Gogh remake that I showed you earlier, I noticed that the room in the painting looked a bit “empty”. So, I began to add more stuff. Since I’m also a fan of the cyberpunk genre (and have had a lot of practice making 1980s-90s style cyberpunk art), I thought that I could make the painting look more interesting if I included elements from this genre in the painting.

At the moment, my favourite colour palette is a red, yellow, blue, green, purple and black one. So, these were the only watercolour pencils that I used when adding colour to the painting. Likewise, there are a few digital editing techniques that I really like to use, so these got added to the painting after I scanned it.

Likewise, my absolute favourite lighting style is ambient lighting in gloomy locations- so, I set the painting at night and added several orange, blue and green light sources to the painting (the green one is slightly in front of the area shown in the painting).

Yes, whether you think that all of this is an “improvement” is up to you. But, it’s my own personal interpretation of how I would “improve” the original painting. And, well, isn’t personal interpretation the whole point of remaking old paintings in your own style?


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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