Steal, don't Copy

Over the last three years since I started Ferris Wheel Arts, I have had so many students bring in a photo of another artist's painting wanting me to teach them how to recreate that painting.  And, for even longer than that, I've constantly been exposed to other artists, students and otherwise, who copy other people's photographs for their paintings without any thought or attribution for the photographer.  Most don't give a second thought to using a photo from Pinterest, Google or a magazine and copying it outright to create a painting.  As you read this, you may very well be thinking "Okay, so what is the big deal?  So many people do this, it must be okay, right?"  NO!!!!  IT IS NOT OKAY, and here are my reasons why...

You may have heard or seen a quote similar to "Bad artists copy; Great artists steal".  There are many variations of this quote, and from different sources, and I believe many artists misinterpret this quote, and/or use it to validate their own plagiarism.  While it is true that many artists copy paintings from the masters as a way to learn this classical style of painting, that is VERY DIFFERENT from copying a painting or photo from one of your contemporaries and claiming it as your own.  Not only is it unethical, it is illegal, and I know of many situations where artists have hired lawyers to get others to cease and desist copying their works.

With all of us carrying phones these days, giving us constant access to a camera, in most situations it is really just lazy, in my opinion, to use someone else's photograph as a reference photo for a painting.  Of course, there are situations when you want to paint something, and you can't take the photograph yourself.  In that case, you still have lots of options available to you:

  • ask friends or family for photos
  • search for copyright free photos online
  • find the photographer for the image and ask their permission
  • use several reference photos, taking pieces and parts from each
Another reason for using your own photograph as a reference for a painting is that your experience taking the photo will actually enhance your painting, and it will give your painting a story that is uniquely yours.

As far as copying another artist's painting, I'm almost at a loss for words.  To me, it is just so obvious why this is wrong, and yet I find myself constantly explaining this to my students.  So, let's start with how someone might come across another artist's painting: maybe it was seen in a gallery, or on a website, on Pinterest, or at a show.  All of these indicate that the artist has spent a great deal of time and money perfecting their craft and marketing it to the public.  So, when you think about all that time and money they spent, does it really seem ethical to just take a huge shortcut and copy their work without any of your own time and money spent?  My opinion is a heartfelt, loud screaming "NO!!!!!"

Of course, when you see a painting, and you LOVE it, and you really want to paint like that, it is so tempting, I know.  So, what CAN you do?  Well, finding sources of inspiration is a whole different ballgame.  I encourage my students to find at least 3-5 paintings from different artists that they admire.  From those, together we can try and determine what aspects of those paintings are so appealing, and then we can try to put something together that is all new and different and unique to them.

Another option is to seek out books or courses from artists whose style you admire.  If they are teaching you how to paint like them, then obviously they don't mind you doing so, at least in the beginning.  Even in this case, though, I still think you should give attribution to the original artist, either in the title, or on the back, and/or in any related writing or posts, i.e. "in the style of" or "ala."

In the specific case of my classes, I ask that students NOT come to class expecting to be taught to paint like some other specific artist, including me, as I don't have one specific style.  (I teach every style except for photo-realism.)  I require my students to work from their own photos, or from photos for which they have been given permission to use.  (In other words, they can't just get a photo from Pinterest, Google or a magazine.)  At times, I will provide reference photos for my students, or we may work on something non-representational where a reference photo isn't needed, or we may work from life.  I do not allow students to bring or plan to work from any photos of existing paintings.  

When an artist works from someone else's painting, not only are they violating copyright law, they are also robbing themselves of the opportunity to truly learn to paint.  This is because that artist has already figured everything out for them: the design, the colors, what is most important, etc.  Nothing new is being created.  Instead, the "copier" is being just like a photocopier machine, and a machine can't have creative thoughts, right?

For more info on this topic, and some varying interpretations, please see the following articles: