Yesterday, Paul Austin of West Drayton, England, wrote, “I’ve recently been given a commission to paint an exact replica of Magritte’s The Son of Man. The original canvas, now in private hands, measures 89cm x 116cm. I’ve been given a reproduction 20.9cm x 29.5cm to work from. There’s a discrepancy between the two. I can’t clearly see my way to reproducing the picture to give an image in the same size and form in which Magritte painted it. Is there any way of copying an exact image of this work?”
Thanks, Paul. For those not familiar with this 1964 painting, it’s of a bowler-hatted man with an apple obscuring his face. Rene Magritte (1898-1964) was a Belgian surrealist who often worked with this sort of idea. “Everything we see hides another thing,” he said.
Critics and others can only speculate that we are looking at a faceless businessman, a depiction of the fall of man through “original sin,” or a self-portrait teasing us in hide-and-seek. Only Magritte knew the answer, and as his explanations were less than clear, maybe even he didn’t know. “There’s a conflict,” he said, “between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.” As movies, books, music and other art have referenced the painting, the enigmatic image has become a well-trodden icon. Even Norman Rockwell took a crack at it.
Paul, if I was asked to do this commission, I’d turn it down. But I’m not you, so I’m going to tell you how I would do it if I was lashed to the easel. I’d digitally photograph the original or the best reproduction I could find. I’d project the photo image by digital projector to the desired size of canvas and trace it with a soft pencil. I’d examine the painting or print closely and try to figure out Magritte’s palette. Then I’d try to figure out in what order things were painted. Perhaps, for example, the face of the man was painted before the apple. Then, knowing that an exact copy is impossible, I’d jump right onto it.
All the time I’d be mumbling “why bother.” Like most of us, I’m happiest when I’m doing my own thing. This is Magritte’s thing. It should remain his thing.
PS: “It is human nature that we want to see what is hidden by what we see.” (Rene Magritte)
Esoterica: A hundred years ago you might have used a pantograph, a scissor-like mechanical device used to copy things bigger or smaller. A squared-off grid system, much in use by 19th Century students of the Classics, would have been another choice. The legitimate value of this sort of copying is to try to learn a master’s technique. Magritte’s technique and surfaces were less than masterful and might lead a person to a few bad habits. His pictorial ideas, however, are loaded with curiosity, and good for interminable discussions.
by Barbara E Erdman, Wisconsin, USA
I was disturbed by the fact that you didn’t point out to the copier of Magritte how illegal his copying would be. Copyright law allows copying only by the copyright owner of an artwork. The owner of that Magritte painting (could be either the estate of Magritte or the owner of the painting) could sue that guy’s pants off. Now that the issue has gone public he’s especially vulnerable.
I’ve been teaching art and various media over many years and am amazed at how uninformed and misinformed most artists are about the issues around copyright.
People are confused about the issues around fair use that allows art students to copy the works of others for their own personal educational purposes. However, those copies can, then, not be used in any other way except in a student portfolio for evaluation purposes. Fair use also allows parody which can be a complex concept.
Some/many/most artists, incorrectly, believe that it’s okay to copy ten percent, or to copy a work if the artist has been dead for 70 years, or to change the medium (oil to drawing) or to modify an image by simplifying, or changing the color, or size. (That’s a derivative work and illegal except to the copyright owner.)
All these things are illegal under copyright law.
I know that copyright law is broken all the time and people get away with it. I’m not the copyright police and I don’t care about the ethics or morals of copying others’ artwork. But people should know what they are doing. I inform my students about copyright law and all the ways it’s misinterpreted and then I say, however, “They have to catch you and they have to care enough to take you to court.”
I was surprised that you, so experienced and professional and the mentor of many thousands, did not let the Magritte copier know that what he was planning on doing was illegal.
People find copyright issues confusing, boring, annoying. However, I think a professional should understand the issues relating to her/his field.
(RG note) Thanks, Barbara. Yes, I foolishly left the words “copyright infringement” out of my letter with the thought that subscribers would soon point it out. Needless to say my inbox lit up like Chinese New Year. There were literally hundreds of personal letters by 9am on Tuesday morning. Lesson learned. Thank you also to all the others who wrote with a similar message. You might make note that The Painter’s Keys has been at the forefront of closing down and interfering with Chinese and other cloners. You might take a look at my letter International theft and its follow-up where 800 living painters formed up in a mass protest and at least temporarily took down one prominent online outfit. The Chinese practitioners of Shenzhen and other art-factory cities think “Copyright” is the “right to copy.”
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Studio air freshener
by Polly Tonsetic, Easton, Maryland, USA
I need an inexpensive air purifier for my studio. I’m an oil painter. Do you have recommendations?
(RG note) Thanks, Polly. I have several “Heaven Fresh” Ionic Air Purifiers in my studio which I turn on from time to time. They seem to clear the air and, believe it or not, sharpen the old cortex. They were not on when I wrote the “Copying an enigma” letter.
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Projecting for painting
by Scott Adams, Greenbrae, California, USA
I have heard of artists who take a digital photo and then project it on a canvas and then paint on the canvas. In painting the human figure — I usually paint abstracts — I spend a lot of time on proportions and interpreting what I see and therefore I feel my painting is indeed an original. Lately I have seen beautiful landscape paintings that look so accurate that I can’t help to wonder if the same method was used. Is this type of art “original” and considered fine art and how common is this method used? (RG note) Projecting is commonplace. The system can be a valuable tool and a terrible master. I see no point in projecting and painting images that mimic photos, but there are many who disagree.
by Vanessa Davisson, Arizona, USA
I have enjoyed the twice-weekly letters for some time now and find it to be very helpful on many levels. Until today. I am sorry, but your response to Mr. Austin, re: “Copying an Enigma” sounds a bit elitist. Not every artist is in a position to do their own “thing” and turn down commissions. Some artists (like me) must paint someone else’s “thing” in order to please a client and see a paycheck. I believe Mr. Austin was asking a technical question, which Robert answered, but I believe he was not asking to be judged on the type of commissions he chooses to accept. We are hard enough on ourselves as it is, and need no additional critics.
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Tried it but failed
by Paige Moore
Last weekend I delivered a 15 x 3 canvas that was the best reproduction I could offer of the attached painting of Don Quixote. My guess is that the original was done in ink, small format, probably with a hundred attempts before the perfect combination of spirit and happy accidents resulted in the final. At least that would have been the story, were it mine. Seeing as it wasn’t mine, I had to adapt it to fill a completely different dimension and using acrylic, doing my darndest to get the essence right. On top of that, for the first time in my life, I worked with a professional canvas stretcher, who made his own decisions in where to crop the frame, changing the painting even more.
The commissioner was downright insulting pointing out every tiny section I failed to copy perfectly, including the shade of yellow for the background, the nose of Don Quixote, his waist, his helmet which he described as “horns.” I left upset, unpaid, but faced with how to resolve this professionally, meanwhile keeping my dignity.
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‘Soft tissue pantographs’
by Charles Peck, Punta Gorda, Florida, USA
This latest article is pertinent because so much of modern painting is nothing more than copying photography or many modern painters are just “soft tissue pantographs.” Personally, I feel copying photos is strictly a commercial exercise and then only when granted copyright approval by the photographer. I think copying one’s own photography is a tad more ethical but not much improvement aesthetically. Experienced painters are usually able to reference photos without it looking like a photo but even the best will be missing something that can only be faked (usually very poorly even by the skilled) when not in front of the actual item. That is the hard to define feel of place that permeates one when involved in real life. This shows up in the painting no matter how subtle.
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Did it once
by Dyan Law, Pipersville, PA, USA
When I was beginning to sell my artwork, a valued client had traveled to Europe where he took a photo of a painting he admired. He asked me to copy it from his blurry snap shot blown up to a poorer quality 8″ x 10.” Eager to please my client, I used the classic squared-off grid system to enlarge the scene and proceeded to paint. It was truthfully a wonderful learning experience for me in those early days as a painter and I was satisfied with the final reproduction. My client was thrilled with the result and although I realized I had undercharged him for my time and materials, I chalked-it-up as a lesson “to grow from” as well. My client was so happy with the reproduction that he proceeded to purchase three of my pricier original paintings on the spot! I did a search on the Internet, but never found the original painting anywhere in Europe. Perhaps that’s a good thing! I haven’t copied (from a masterpiece or otherwise) since that experience, but understand why we do value copy-painting of fine artwork in museums. I’ve been painting professionally for many years now and would not recommend copying for a client, despite my positive experience. This I base on the knowledge that all-kinds of types of art re-pros are being painted in mass quantities in other countries for small compensation. I personally wouldn’t want to encourage work produced in this manner. However, I do understand that many of those “workers” may be happy for receiving such much-needed compensation.
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Disgusted student walks out
by Rose Moon, Sedona, Arizona, USA
Someone once asked me to make a copy of a well known artist’s painting. It was one they saw in a gallery and they did not want to pay the price they were asking, so they thought they could get me to do a copy for much less. They presented me with a photo of the work. I was speechless for about one minute and then I gave them a piece of my mind. Many years later they apologized. For practice once I copied two of Vermeer’s paintings, but I took out Vermeer’s figures and added my own along with a few items that would only exist in present time. I learned a lot about light and realism. One of them The Letter went to a national show and was published in a book. I didn’t expect to get into the show and I had no idea when I did the work it would go out into the world like that. I was later severely chastised by a student who had signed up for my workshop from having seen my work in the book. She thought it was my original composition and she was appalled, made a scene in the classroom and walked out even though it said in the book I had used the Vermeer painting as reference.
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Better to ‘be influenced by’
by Brian Care, Toronto, Canada / San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
What great advice to the Magritte commission painter. We all know the legitimate reason for copying “masters” and good for you to point it out again but even more useful is your warning about picking up possible bad habits and techniques by copying. I constantly warn my own students about the danger of copying from photos and relying on them for an entire painting. Certainly they can be helpful for reference and creating a pleasing composition but nothing beats looking at the real thing if representational work is your objective. Perhaps a better approach than trying to figure out how an artist did what he did and what he used would be to study an artist’s work from the standpoint of the elements of design and get a sense of what were the most common characteristics of his work. Then apply some of them (in the style of) to your own next piece. Instead of copying, it becomes more of a “being influenced by” and instead of shutting down the creative process to a mechanical rendering of what someone has already done, it allows the painter to study, consider, really see and then apply whatever he chooses to his own original work. This changes something from what is really close-ended to a great extent into something very open-ended, with much potential for creativity and personal satisfaction as an artist.
oil painting 18 x 29 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Pat Stamp of Callander, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Copying the style is something a student might do. Copying the painting is not professional or ethical.”
And also Lea Wight of Manasquan, New Jersey, USA, who wrote, “I was working with a customer who had copied one of Monet’s waterlilies and brought it in to select a frame. There, next to her signature was the copyright symbol — a circle with a ‘c’ in the center. When I asked her about it she said that it meant ‘Copied by.’ ”
And also Joan Donaldson Brader of Washington, USA, who wrote, “To copy means one is not creating and I see copying as robbing the creator.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Copying an enigma…