Friday, January 8, 2010

Artist that Cheat

 A couple of my art friends and I had a discussion today that brought up some issues about artist that don't realize they are cheating.
And by cheating I really mean they are missing some of the best things about becoming an artist. I know there is a very broad definition of art and being an artist.  And I don't have any intention of getting into  that here.  
Lately it has come up quite often about artist that enter competitions and sell their work that they have copied from others published photographs.  And the second issue has been the use of a projector to copy the photos onto the canvas or paper.   It has come to my attention that this is done by a lot of artist in the interest of time and getting the prospective correct, etc.
I am sure that many of you are writing your comments to defend the use of both photos and projectors.  I agree that there is certainly a time and place in preparing your art for the use of both of these tools.  I have done both.  I use photos as reference for both portrait and landscape. I have used a projector for enlarging and placement. They are both great tools.  I am not saying the use of them is cheating. (but to what extent they are used as a crutch instead of a tool.)

I recently went to see a watercolor show at a museum.  It was one of the area's most active watercolor society. Of all the work, there was only two or three that seemed to be painted from the heart and soul of the artist.  All the others had been "drawn" precisely with even the small little circles of highlights and shadows.  Shapes that always give away the fact that the drawing was projected.  And then carefully staying within the lines with the proper color.  Crisp and clean.  Now this is my opinion (it's my blog and I can do that), but it just seemed to miss the connection of artist and subject.  And therefore it missed a connection with me the viewer.
Drawing from life gives the artist a connection with the subject that can not be duplicated in working from a photograph. I had rather see a drawing that is a little off, but with great feeling and expression. It allows me to experience more of the artist as well as the subject.  
When using a photograph that was taken by someone else, you may think you are relating to the emotion or expression, but you are really only relating to the photographer's conception of the subject.
Get your own conception and it will tell so much more.  Don't copy because it was beautiful or touching and you wanted to paint it. Let it stand as the art it is and create your own.  You will be greatly rewarded when you do.   Draw often from life, take a sketch book with you instead of a camera. Use the camera to take images of all those wonderful paintings that will come from observing the world in living color around you.

Here are a couple of articles about the subject of plagiarism in art. I just hope I can encourage young artist to not "cheat" themselves.

Note:  If you are going to copy, at least give credit to the original artist or photographer by signing "after name" and then your signature.

From Campus Life and Leadership  Berkeley University

Plagiarism means using another’s work without giving credit. You must put others’
words in quotation marks and cite your source(s). Citation must also be given when
using others’ ideas, even when those ideas are paraphrased into your own words.
“Work” includes original ideas, strategies, research,”1 art, graphics, computer programs,
music and other creative expression. The work may consist of writing, charts, pictures,
graphs, diagrams, data, websites, or other communication or recording media, and may
include sentences, phrases, innovative terminology,”2 formatting or other representations.
The term “source” includes published works (books, magazines, newspapers, websites,
plays, movies, photos, paintings, and textbooks) and unpublished sources (class lectures
or notes, handouts, speeches, other students’ papers, or material from a research service).
 From Campus Life and Leadership  Berkeley University
to read the full article: click on link below

From the Painters Keys (link below article)
Am I plagiarizing?
November 9th, 2004

Dear Artist,

Yesterday Isabel Belfort, email , wrote: "I'm trying to make paintings that use the works of dead artists. The paintings do not look like the originals. For instance I change the position of the person and alter the dress and change the face--but I follow the same line. Would this still be considered plagiarism? I sell them inexpensively—mostly to friends. My dream is to become a well-known artist. I took some classes but have been mostly my own teacher. Can you advise me?"

Thanks Isabel. What you're doing is called "appropriation." It's one of the least offensive of the copying arts. Outright plagiarism and counterfeiting can get you into the slammer--but you should be free for a while yet--providing you don't wander into exactly copying some dude, dead or alive. Legally, your painting needs to be 10% different from that which you are imitating. That's hard to quantify but you should keep it in mind.

You might also ask yourself why you need to lean on dead masters. With all the great reference that we can get ourselves, all the stuff yet to be made, and all the pride you can take in a personal vision--there's plenty left to play with. Your urge to replicate may come from a natural reverence for the works of perceived "stars." You might give some thought to being your own star.

While some might consider it an "homage," appropriation of style or subject can have the effect of banalizing and trivializing existing work. Over-appropriation and market-glutting cycles regularly attack wildlife, native American, faux-primitive, and other art genres. The path that leads to a unique vision is uphill and rocky, but it's the stellar route to the dream of becoming "well-known."

There are exceptions. A few years ago I was on a jury when a piece was chosen and then a juror pointed out that it was a knockoff of a demo in American Artist magazine. After a discussion the choice was upheld--the majority of jurors agreed that "we all use each other's stuff anyway." The excellent copy came in for a $25,000 prize and I was disgusted. I'm not sure of the best advice I've ever given, but this comes close: "Do something that others will have the desire to plagiarize--but will find it difficult to do when they try."

Best regards,


PS: "Imitation is the sincerest of flattery." (Charles Caleb Colton) "If I plagiarize, it's because I like someone's idea better than mine and I want credit for it." (Anna Chin-Williams)

Esoterica: Louis Vuitton's Murakami bag costs in the art-stratospheric range of $1500--generating about 300 million in sales last year. The Chinese knockoffs, practically identical, cost about $35 and sell to a crowd that still needs to look good but never pays the big prices. Louis Vuitton will spend over ten million dollars this year retaining lawyers and scouts to fight "brand devaluation by overexposure." Two questions: "Is a bag art?" and "Who's running the better racket--Louis or the Chinese?"

Artists' Responses to Am I plagiarizing? by Robert Genn
Be sure to check our archives for related material.


  1. My only comment here is yes, if you are going to use anothers photo and you have the photographers blessing to do so, your work from their photo is not eligible to be entered into any national or international judged show as your original art. IF it was your own photograph that you then used to inspire your painting that is acceptable.
    I don't think the rules of any major show has changed on this and if it has we all need to know about it.
    I know from experience that you can get a strong connection and evolke a personal feeling from taking your own photographs. They help to serve as reminders of that time and place and you can put yourself back there as you are working from one of these photographs and come out with a painting that also protrays that strong impression.
    Great post Judy and thanks for the information.

  2. I really enjoyed this blog "Artist that Cheat". Very good comments about the real intention of art. And I esp. love the quote by Anna Chin-Williams.
    Expression vs copy. I think copying can be a tool in learning, but should stay there in the learning curve. And in using my own photos, I still often use them only as a guide to what I remember about the scene.
    I hadn't thought much about using someone else's photos for a work and then entering the work in contests. Madalyn makes a good point. In that case, the art happens with the photographer and the rest is copying. Capturing a scene and letting the viewer see our interpretations, and hoping to connect in that way, is the reason we share our work.

  3. This is good advice, Judy! I have juried a number of exhibits, and have been juried into exhibits. where I know a number of the representational entries were "recreations". My advice to students is similar to yours as far as use of photo references. Being a slave to the photo, even if it's your own, won't give you the blessing of the inspired moment you seek to recreate. But using the photo to recall that moment works well. And using it to perhaps bring into definition those elements your memory couldn't store successfully. Kudos to you for speaking out on this issue.

  4. I've been debating whether or not to throw in my two cents here or not. I have certain feelings about this which lie on both sides of the argument, so am I for or against "cheating"? Let's decide.

    I've seen in an art product catalogue where the company has promoted the use of a projector to paint directly. To me, this is just wrong. It's not painting. Just coloring. Even if the photo is your own, there is little to no creativity in this.

    I once took on an artist when I was on Boundless Gallery because she was repainting the works of Jerry Yarnell. She claimed she had "permission to sell them for a nominal fee" but I still feel she was wrong because no where in her description did she claim that she was coping someone else's works. She was misleading her buyers in a lie of omission by not clearly stating she was taking someone else's works. Not to mention that these replicas were so well done that it definitely showed her talent -- I told her to prove her skill by making up her own compositions and selling her own works. Truthfully, I think she was afraid to take the step to discover her own originality -- she was more comfortable in "learning mode." I've created several paintings based on Jerry Yarnell's works, but I've never sold a single one of them -- they are my "student" work and that's it. I would never claim that they were my own. To me, it's a matter of ethics.

    For example, I have used a picture from a magazine as inspiration for a painting. I consider this to be something akin to the movie of the week drama where the story is "based on actual events." There's a lot of leeway in that statement. Sometimes actual events don't fall out as dramatically as a storyteller would have, so events have to be rearranged, emphasized, and enhanced. These movie of the week dramas may in truth be no where close to the actual events, but were still inspired by them. My painting, which is Wild Garden Path, looks nothing similar to the picture that inspired it. Am I wrong for using someone else's picture? Am I wrong for trying to sell it? When I check my own ethics, I don't feel I'm wrong or cheating anyone. I saw the picture, made a sketch of it on the canvas as well as what I wanted to change about the composition, then I painted it according to my own voice. The picture and the painting look nothing alike. I obviously have no issues saying that I started the painting "based on an actual photograph." My conscious is clean.

    Let's go a little deeper, shall we? I also write graphic novels. I use a lot of reference pictures taken by other people to fill in objects, like swords, tables, chairs, backgrounds, etc. I've even used real people as models. If I were to try to take all the reference shots myself, I'd spend a lot of money and time on travel and searching for just the right thing. I'd never get to create my art. In the comic industry, it's expected that one have a large reference file of photos (all done by other people). I'm certainly not the first and I won't be the last. Is this a cheat? There's no way Superman could've been drawn without reference pictures of skyscrapers, cars, and airplanes.

    In the end, I think that it's how you've used your "cheats" to create your own artwork. If you've used it to compose your own original work and filled it with your own creativity, that is what matters. If you can't say that it's creatively your own, then you are ethically in the wrong.

  5. Also, in regards to the Robert Glenn article, he neglects to mention is that images eventually fall into the public domain just like books do. If an artwork is old enough, it can be in the public domain and it's not against copyright to reproduce the image. But it goes back to the same argument I had with the lady on Boundless Gallery: student work needs to be student work and not sold. The lady in Glenn's article wanted to give it away to her friends. Go for it. Use the experience, learn from it, then give it away to friends who know and understand that it's not your own original work -- full disclosure (I've done this). But then come back to the easel with the lessons you've learned and make your own shining works of art.

    Someday, your work will fall into the public domain and don't you want it treated with the same respect? That's how I chose to view it.


    want to know what you think of this artist's work.

  7. In the article that Maureen has linked to in the above post is this quote from the interview with Joseph Raffael. This is a perfect example how an artist can be inspired and as he says it pay homage to great art.
    And as in the article by Robert Gen in my post when he mentions the difference between appropriation and plagiarizing.
    He is not slavishly copying.

    And the work is very nice, Maureen. I like it a lot. Thanks for introducing me to it.
    From the interview:
    Your watercolours always seem to include in the background other pictures or other paintings (such as In “Appreciation” or “Studio Bouquet”, for instance). Is it a way of paying homage to painting or do you include these images because they hold special significance for you ?

    These most recent few years the flowers from the garden have been brought inside to the studio where they are put into vases and become part of the 'Gestalt' of our daily interior life. Again, the idea of parts making up the whole. In the studio I have photos, other paintings, bits and pieces of visual matter which are in a continual flux. They are on the wall, they are leaning up against objects, they are on surfaces. The bouquets become part of the mix. I do feel that these works are paying respect, an homage to Life, and in particular the life I have had and am having. In “Coming Together” there is, for example Pierre Bonnard standing in front of one of his ptgs in le Cannet, not all that far, perhaps ten miles or so, from where we have been living all these years. Bonnard a favorite of mine since Yale School of Art days. (He understood mightiy the picture plane). A few yrs ago Lannis and I saw his giant retrospective in Paris. One of the three or four times I ever cried in front of a ptg was on that day in front of one of his ptgs.The photo I had printed up from a newspaper article and had it in my studio.
    In “Coming Together” there's also a scene seen from our Paris hotel room where we've been staying for a couple decades, and which most likely we won't be going to again---in a way, the end of an era. I wanted, as I say, to pay homage.

  8. Plagiarism brings on bad karma and may lead to reincarnation as a bad piece of art or, worse, a bad politician.
    (Jacques Vesery)

    Steal from everyone and copy no one.
    (Charles Movalli)

    If you plagiarize others' techniques, you steel their emotions and tell your spectators a lie with your work. Works as such equal zero.
    (Wu Guan-Zhong)

    For more quotes by famous artist