Using SA to produce Sets of Variations on Traditional Artworks

Behind the scenes I've been working for quite some time on a series of related SA projects. The basic idea is to take some well-known traditional photograph or painting, such as Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, and use SA to produce a series of interesting visual variations on it.  I think of a set of such variations as being a close visual analog to the very common musical sets of variations on a theme--such as Beethoven's Diabelli variations, or Brahms' Haydn variations.  Or in pop music, 'cover' versions or adaptations of standard performances are ubiquitous. 

 But in the still-image visual arts, adaptations or variations are much less common.  Eg in the 12,000 or so photos in the SA collection ( I haven't yet found even a single variation on a traditional artwork (or if there are some, they must be very sparse).   

 Well, this at least I can change, so as a start, I'll upload some Demoiselles variations, in 5 sets of 3 each, to show how this approach might be artistically interesting.  All 15 will then be included in a Demoiselles album.  With this and succeeding albums, I'll start with a low-res copy of the original image, as a reminder and for comparison purposes.  Also, since this is a new venture, any comments would be much appreciated!

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There a real danger inherent to working naively from ready-made images, be they "Walmart photos" or the works of the masters.

The danger is to simply add (usually yucky) icing on a cake baked by others.

I explored that in this article: "James Ensor, Willem de Kooning, and Visual Karaoke"

It seems important to me to contribute something to the field, not just act as a parasite, so that if one is doing derivative work (nothing wrong with that, think of Picasso’s “Good artists borrow from others, great artists steal!”), one's work has to at the very least try to “add” to the “conversation”.

A good and worthy way to do that is to dive into what made the piece one is working “on” or “from” and connect with ("make visible”) its intention, or better yet, its underlying form as “digested” by “me”.

Bill de Kooning (whom I knew personally) had a nice way of putting it (I will paraphrase): “Stay with the same piece (paper, canvas, digital file) for a very long time, get the image to the point of looking like its original (basically [re]drawing it as best one can, not just copy/paste or “open"), then continue to work until you lose it, and then continue until it comes back on its own."

“Each one of us is a brand new point of view on the world” said Merleau-Ponty, and “the world” includes Art. What is needed is for the artist to connect with his/her point of view and make it visible (much easier said than done).

There’s an exhibition here in Montréal that focuses on the huge influence African Art had on Modern Art in general, and on Picasso’s work in particular.

Seems designed just for you!


Thanks, Jean, but I have a much broader view of the possibilities for artistic variations than the view which you describe so emphatically.  Eg in music, no-one would take seriously for a moment a musical version of your thought that a variation must be, if not outright 'parasitic', at least 'derivative', ie as no more than an effort to uncover the underlying form etc of the original work. 

 To be sure, you have plenty of company--eg why else, out of the 12,000 or so SA pictures, aren't there any that attempt to do what I'm attempting?  Don't you find that remarkable?

 So ask yourself: why is it that no-one in their right mind would call 'derivative' any jazz musician who riffs on a standard show tune, or Beethoven 'derivative' for writing variations on a theme of Diabelli?  But in the visual arts, this is the immediate, knee-jerk reaction to ANY attempt to produce visual variations.  So you're not alone, but are you in good company?

 Perhaps at least we can agree that the proof of the pudding should be in the eating.  So if you find any of my variations at least minimally artistically interesting, we can agree to disagree over our theories.

 Also, thanks for your interesting links, very enjoyable!

John, so many people pick a source image or video and simply play ”on top” without ever connecting to the underlying form of the original work, let alone add anything of value to it.

Hence my calling that “visual karaoke”.

As for music, I have the privilege of working with remarkable musicians, performers and/or composers, and it so happens that my latest pieces are all done with music that is “derivative” of classical pieces.

There’s Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez as arranged and performed by Jim Hall and his....

Just before that, there was the start of a number of movies done with/for/to Igor Tkachenko's and Jakov Jakoulov’s series of “classical improvisations” (performed and recorded in concert).

First there was “The Art of Improvisation, Stravinsky”, and I just published the second one, “The Art of Improvisation, Bach”.

There are many more similar pieces, an old favourite of mine being an improvisation on Scriabin's Prelude Opus 11 Nº 4, music performed in a live images - music concert I did with my old friend Jean-Philippe Collard-Neven (we’ve done several similar concerts both in Canada and Belgium).

So I am deeply involved in derivative work, but I would never take an original art work from another artist, famous or not, and simply "muck on top” of its underling structure.

That is visual karaoke.

I would expect to, at least, uncover that underlying structure, make it (more) visible and, possibly, add/take away something to/from it.

That's called making it one’s own.

For me to eat the pudding, it has to be (made) appetizing and reach beyond mere reheated “grub".

The problem is not with “derivative work” at all, it is with naïve derivative work, in any Art form.

Your summing up: "The problem is not with “derivative work” at all, it is with naïve derivative work, in any Art form." 

 I completely agree, so perhaps we can be allies after all.   What I object to is the ridiculously extreme prejudice in the visual arts against ANY attempts to produce improvisations or variations on visual artworks--as if they must automatically be totally worthless, just because they are factually derivative.  Again, the fact that there were NO derivative visual works, even in the accommodating SA archives of 12,000 or so photos, proves how pervasive this unthinking prejudice is, don't you think?

 Obviously, if this were a Studio Musician rather than a Studio Artist site, the archives would be full of derivative musical improvisations and variations that everyone would accept as being fully legitimate.  Why are we, in contrast, so hidebound and backward in the visual arts?

I’ve done quite a bit of derivative visual work, but those pieces are not necessarily identified as such.

However, if one understand the nature of visual perception, especially as it operates when doing visual art (its "constitutive” aspect), it is all derivative from the works done before, including those one does not necessarily appreciate, whether one knows this or not.

Here’s one such piece, a sketch done “from” a painting by Mark Rothko, and synced to kora music, hence my calling it “RothKora” (this was done during my early days of using Studio Artist, must have been 17 or 18 years ago).

But seriously, don’t you see that most work done with SA is derivative?

And of the naive kind to boot?

SA mostly works with source images/videos, and most people use that in order to avoid the hardship of what my old friend Mercedes Matter called “learning to draw” (“that painfully slow education of the senses” so well stated in this article).

Nothing wrong with that as long as one is aware of doing visual karaoke (or macrame, knitting or crossword puzzles), but I have a serious problem with people pretending that their relying naively on somebody else’s hard work creates Art.

It does not, unless one works it to the pint of losing it and having it come back on its own, which is what would make it one’s own, one's Art.

Re this: " But seriously, don’t you see that most work done with SA is derivative?"

 Yes, by design it derives from a source image, but there's no honoring or explicit recognition of that source image unless more than one improvisation or variation of it is produced as a result. I want to see more sets of variations, not just one-off visual squibs from some anonymous source.. 

 Eg, your own videos that accompany your musicians' works are complex series of visual improvisations on those immediately identified musical themes--excellent!  All I'm asking for is a purely visual equivalent of that--variations on a single visual image, produced either as a movie or as a set of single still variations. 

 So here's a challenge for you--take a single favorite painting, eg one by Giacometti, and produce a series of moving (in both senses) visual variations on it, possibly including other works of his that best illuminate the meaning of that initial work, and without relying on any extra-visual musical synchronization.  I can't imagine anyone better qualified to attempt this than you!


I already spend 15 to 17 hours a day on my projects, 7 days a week.

I am so “swamped” (happily so) with work, I am most certainly not looking for ideas, however good they might be.

But thanks for the suggestion.

I did do a series of “Cyber Giacometti” images many many years ago (I think those were done in Painter, before I switched to SA, they must date back to 1999 or 2000), can't remember if I ever posted them here:

Jean, thanks for these early images, and good fortune with your other projects!

My album of Demoiselles Variations--the original Picasso plus 14 variations--is now complete at

 As this is a new project, comments are extra welcome, and please consider starting some similar projects of your own!

A correction: Please note that albums will no longer include an original image, so as to ensure that only user photos are uploaded.  Instead I’ll include the image in notifications about an upcoming or finished album.


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