What is it?
Continuing our mini-series on different reference methods artists use, today we’ll be looking at painting from the imagination. Nearly everyone who has ever had an interest in art had at some point created an artwork from imagination or memory; most all of us have at least doodled from imagination! When there’s an image that an artist wants to capture, but they either cannot or do not wish to use reference photos or a live subject, an artist can rely on their own memory and imagination to provide all the inspiration they need. As it’s difficult to accurately remember all of the details and shadows of a scene just from memory, some artists will use reference photos or a live subject to help enhance the realism of a scene they are creating from their mind, but the overall combination and placement of subjects still spring from the artist’s imagination. Other times, the realistic rendering of the image is not so important to the artist as the subject and content, and in this case, they can paint from pure imagination alone!
Examples from art history:
There is little doubt that painting from one’s imagination or memory is an art form that goes back as far as art itself (after all, it would be a bit difficult to get the buffalo to come pose inside the cave for those ancient cave paintings!). Additionally, when ancient cultures created artworks depicting scenes from their mythology and lore, particularly those involving strange creatures or deities, they had no option but to create from imagination, and as we can see looking at ancient art, the imagination is as diverse and prolific as humanity itself:
In addition, outdoor subjects were very difficult to paint from anything but one’s memory and imagination, as before the innovation of paint in tubes, it was difficult to paint en plein air at all! Many artists sketched outdoors, observing and copying details so that their final paintings would be more realistic, but in the end the works were created indoors and the artist had to rely on their mind to fill in the blanks. This was a large part of why nearly all landscapes preceding the 19th century were painted as what is termed an “idealized landscape.” But even when it became more accessible to paint en plein air, some artists chose to continue to use their imagination to help create a composition, for a variety of reasons. Take Van Gogh’s famous “Starry Night” for example–that scene does not actually exist anywhere in the region of France where he painted it; rather, Van Gogh was inspired by the surrounding landscape as well as by his thoughts of home, so he created an imaginary village and churches that reminded him of his Dutch homeland.
As the twentieth century dawned and artists began to explore expressionistic painting more in-depth, many different styles of painting from one’s imagination evolved. One of the most well-known of these styles is Surrealism, a movement from the 1920’s in which artists explored themes of dreams and the subconscious through irrational pairings of images. All of these movements encouraging artists to use their imaginations and emotions as reference for their art have continued to have a major effect on art today, both in the world of fine art as well as urban art, which relies heavily on the artist’s imagination.
Examples from Principle Gallery:
At Principle Gallery, we show the artwork of a wide variety of artists, each with their own preference for what they use as reference. We do have two artists in particular, though, who delight in painting from their imagination. Francis Livingston, an artist often known for his city scenes painted in brilliant color, also enjoys the playing with odd and unexpected juxtapositions of subjects as you can see from his combination cityscape/animal artworks. Plus, if you happen to remember our post last summer on National Ice Cream Day, you can see some more examples of Francis’s ice cream paintings, which he also creates from memory alone. The results of his imagination-infused work are whimsical, beautiful, and intriguing.
Another Principle Gallery artist who paints from imagination, GC Myers is a painter based in upstate New York who creates colorful, stylized landscapes from his imagination alone, resulting in lovely, emotionally charged scenes. Keep an eye out, because our annual solo exhibition for GC Myers is coming up next month, so we’ll be getting in a lot of great new pieces!
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