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From Canvas to Chorus: 10 Great Songs Inspired by Paintings

Updated: 2 days ago

I’ve been thinking a lot about how one piece of art can inspire another in every imaginable pairing: books inspire films, music inspires poetry, stories inspire sculptures, paintings inspire songs, and so on. 


This last connection between paintings and music is especially intriguing to me, with so many musicians cross-training in visual arts, and vice versa. Lately I’ve been experimenting with writing songs using the paintings of others as my prompts. As the old adage goes, a picture paints a thousand words, and a painting can provide a vivid snapshot that stirs emotions and sparks the imagination. The music that grows out of it can move in any number of directions. 

To find some good company on this multimedia excursion, I discovered 10 fantastic songs that were inspired by paintings:

1. “16 Shades of Blue” by Tori Amos. Inspired by The Black Marble Clock by Cezanne

Tori turns 50, and she isn't psyched that the clock is ticking.

a black clock, a tea cup, a lemon, and possibly a shell

2. “An Architect’s Dream” by Kate Bush. Inspired by The Architect’s Dream by Thomas Cole

Kate weaves a gorgeously poetic scene of an artist at work, in spite of her use of extremely 80's keyboard sounds.

a curtain that opens up to a grand building with columns

3. “Fourteen Black Paintings” by Peter Gabriel. Inspired by the collection in the Rothko Chapel 

Peter mesmerizes with textured music and only 5 lines of hard-to-decipher but easy-to-feel lyrics:

From the pain come the dream

From the dream come the vision

From the vision come the people

From the people come the power

From this power come the change

a geometric room with black painting on every wall and benches

4. “Sunny Came Home” by Shawn Colvin and John Leventhal. Inspired by Setting the World on Fire by Julie Speed

Shawn sings about hitting the wall in a way that is both fearless and relatable - a perfect match.

a women with 3 eyes holding a match

5. “The Calling” by The Killers. Inspired by The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio

The religious spoken intro by Woody Harrelson is a bizarre way to begin, but The Killers hit the mark with a rock attitude and a compelling message: lean into the light!

one man getting singled out in the crowd as the light pours in

6. “Zebras and Airplanes” by Alicia Keys. Inspired by Passage by Chloe Early.

Step into a layered slow-jam dream about a great escape. Irresistible!

a woman resting her head on the edge of the pool with zebras and airplanes

7. “What the Water Gave Me” by Florence + the Machine. Inspired by What the Water Gave Me by Frida Kahlo.

More about the ocean than the bathtub, but Florence channels Frida's flair for finding strength within pain and surrendering to overwhelm.

a bathtub filled with small scenes and two feet sticking out of the water

8. “Vincent” by Don McLean. Inspired by The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh.

A loving, mournful ode to a beloved artist, though some might say that Don romanticizes mental illness a bit.

a night scene with a steeple a village a moon and stars

9. “Hopper” by Paul Weller (of the Jam). Inspired by Nighthawks by Edward Hopper.

Ah, look at all the lonely people, with a laid-back New Orleans groove.

3 people at a diner at night

10. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles. Inspired by a painting made by John Lennon’s son Julian when he was 3 years old.

Childlike, effortlessly complex, and very very trippy - though John denied the LSD association.

stars in the sky floating around

The styles and stories here vary widely, but all of these songs are full of striking images that take me on a colorful ride! 

Artist Challenge:

If you're a writer of any kind, try finding inspiration in a piece of visual art. Starting with an image might take you out of your language-heavy brain and send you on a more visceral and intuitive path.

And if you're a visual artist, try creating while listening to a variety of music, and see how the different styles and artists on your playlist shape how you work.

Above all, keep creating and stay curious. Inspiration is all around us!


For Your Consideration...

marie playing the guitar outside

Songwriting Experiments

Over the next few months, I'll be leading a few experimental songwriting workshops in "found places" around Portland and in other cities. Message me if you'd like to be in-the-know about these. Space will be limited.

a screenshot of Amy's website about creative writing for kids

Creative Writing for Kids


Year of Art group member and friend Amy Grover is a writer, visual artist, and creative writing teacher who offers interactive, low-stress story-crafting workshops on Zoom, for kids in grades 3-7. Check out her website to catch a glimpse of wild imaginations of her students!

a creativity journal with a candle

Winter Coaching

3-Pack Available for one more week


Spring is coming, which is mostly great news. On the flip side, my winter coaching package will not be available once winter ends on March 21st. You can order a 3-pack now and use it anytime over the next year.

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