Three Tips For Adding Your Own “Spin” To A Study Of An Old Painting

First of all, a couple of days after I finished the first draft of this article, I suddenly realised that I’d written a much more comprehensive article about this subject last year. Oops! Anyway, this stuff is probably worth repeating. So, onwards with the article….

As regular readers know, I’m preparing a series of studies of old out-of-copyright paintings for some of next month’s daily art posts (mostly to give my imagination a bit of a rest after an uninspired phase). Anyway, one of the things that I often tend to do when making studies of old paintings is to put my own “spin” on the public domain painting that I’m copying.

For example, here’s Gustave Courbet’s”Le Désespéré” (1843).

“Le Désespéré” By Gustave Courbet (1843) [Via Wikipedia]

Now, here’s a preview of my study of it. If you compare it to the original, then you’ll see that the two paintings look somewhat different to each other:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 6th May.

But, if you’ve never made a study of an out-of-copyright painting before, then you might not know how to do this. So, I thought that I’d give you a few basic pointers. I’ve almost certainly mentioned some of this stuff before, but it is worth repeating.

1) Make lots of original art first: This might sound a little bit counterintuitive, but the easiest way to put your own “spin” on a study of a public domain painting is to make lots of original art first. The main reason for this is that it will help you to develop (and more importantly to understand) your own unique art style.

If you’re making lots of original art (that takes inspiration from other things, but doesn’t copy them), then you’re going to learn what types of compositions/layouts you enjoy using, you’ll learn which colour combinations really excite you, you’re going to find your favourite types of art materials to use, you’re going to develop your own “rules” for making art etc…

I could go on for a while, but making lots of original art (and taking inspiration from lots of things you consider to be “cool”) will really help you to understand your own artistic sensibilities.

Once you have an understanding of these, then one way to add your own spin to a study of an out-of-copyright painting is just approach your study of a public domain painting in the same way that you would approach making an “original” painting. Or, you can use elements of your own style and elements of the original artist’s style.

For example, my art style is usually fairly cartoonish – so, when I made the picture I showed you earlier in the article, I made a decision to simplify Courbet’s more “realistic” painting slightly but to less of an extent than I normally would (eg: I used more complex lighting, since I could use the original painting as a guide for this), so that the “realistic” elements of the picture still come across to the audience.

2) Keep the changes subtle: If you’re putting your own spin on a study of an out-of-copyright painting, then your final painting still needs to be recognisable as a copy of the original painting. So, keep any changes that you make to the actual content of the picture fairly subtle. Likewise, be sure that you know what you’re doing (again, a skill learnt from making original art).

For example, if you know a bit about complementary colours, then you can make subtle tweaks to the colour scheme of the painting in order to change the atmosphere or visual tone that it conveys. Likewise, if you know a bit about painting realistic lighting, then you can alter the lighting a bit in order to change the mood of the picture slightly.

If your image analysis skills are fairly good, then you could – say- change a portrait painting to a landscape and then add in some extra background details by extrapolating from whatever happens to be in the background of the painting you’re copying.

Plus, if a painting has a very recognisable part, then one trick can be to keep this part of your study as accurate to the original as possible and then change the background to something slightly different (which you think will accompany the important part of the picture well).

In short, make your changes slightly more subtle and sneaky. This will really help to give your study a “recognisable, but different” look.

3) Daydream: Finally, be sure to daydream! Look at the out-of-copyright painting that you are going to copy and try to imagine the “story” behind it. Try to think of it as a frame from a film, and then ask yourself what happens before and what happened before and what happens afterwards. Try to think of what kind of background music would go well with the events depicted in the picture etc…

But, what is the point of doing this? Simply put, it will help you to come to your own unique interpretation of the picture in question. Since your daydreams will be shaped by all of the other things that have inspired you in the past, it will also help you to subtly add other inspirations to your study too.

For example, when I made the Courbet study that I showed you at the beginning of this article, I’d originally envisaged the stark imagery of Courbet’s original painting as being like something from a gothic horror film, or possibly a heavy metal music video.

But, then I noticed that the red highlight of Courbet’s signature in the bottom corner had a blood-like quality to it that also reminded me a little bit of Tim Burton’s film adaptation of “Sweeney Todd“. Here’s Courbet’s original painting again:

“Le Désespéré” By Gustave Courbet (1843) [Via Wikipedia]

I’d originally planned to really ramp up the gothic horror elements of my study of this picture by using starker lighting and a more creepy-looking blue/red colour scheme.

However, thanks to my thoughts about “Sweeney Todd”, I also started to think about a film from the early 2000s called “From Hell“. Both films, of course, star Johnny Depp. Courbet looks a little bit like Depp in the painting – but, his tousled hair, beard and baggy shirt also reminded me a bit of Orlando Bloom’s character in the first “Pirates Of The Caribbean” film.

So, whilst editing the painting on my computer, I decided to go for ominous green shadows and a blue background to give my study a slightly more “nautical” kind of look:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 6th May.

So, yes, be sure to daydream!


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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