Recently, Steve Koch of Gresham, Oregon wrote, “A friend experienced a situation where a painting of his was sold and then another client came forward and asked to have an identical one. I’m concerned about the artist’s reputation and any problems the first client might have with the deal. What’s your take on this?”
Thanks, Steve. I’m going to give you my boundaries in this, but first of all I have to tell you that my boundaries are culturally biased.
Here in China they may have a one-child policy, but they’ll make 3000 identical “originals” if they think it’ll ring the register. As most of us know, making paintings identical to one another is difficult. I doubt if there are many Western painters who would have the discipline to properly repaint a second work stroke-by-stroke.
In Western cultures we start with attitudes about our individuality, integrity, personal pride and morality. In poorer countries such as China, where 90% of the population still struggle just to live, other attitudes prevail.
As a self-indulgent Western individualist, my preference is to make smallish “sketches” that are nevertheless finished pieces and sold through galleries. If I happen to like one of these sketches, I may make a larger and then a larger version. In my studio, a good sketch may last for perhaps five reincarnations.
Requests for repeats are infrequent. If someone insists on a copy, I tell them that no two paintings can be exactly alike and I suggest that I do one “of the same subject, in the similar spirit, and in a different size.”
The secret to this system is to not refer to the replicated work as you go along. Many (Western) painters agree with me that the act of trying to copy, particularly one’s own work, jinxes creativity and stultifies the piece. In my experience the “blind copy” can bring new life and energy to the subject. Curiously, the painting is often fresher and better resolved. Even though the very idea of a copy offends some artists, it can actually be a creative ploy and a challenging opportunity.
When delivering a blind copy to a client or a dealer, I’ve never had a complaint that I know of. If anybody ever did complain, I’d take the painting back, give a refund, and recommend they go to China.
PS: “There is no harm in repeating a good thing.” (Plato)
Esoterica: “It just doesn’t seem right,” says Steve Koch, “to make a copy just for money.” We’ve been through this conundrum before. Remember a few years ago when photo-litho and giclee reproductions were proliferating like crazed rabbits? How did that phenomenon turn out? Let’s go back to money: With a few exceptions, the wholesale manufacture of reproductions seldom enhanced the value of the original work. Further, millions of “investors” were left with an unsalable pile of paper. Repros have had a negative effect on the art market that will not soon be forgiven. Except for some hotels and economy-minded interior decorators, the private collector and the prestigious museum need rarity.
Similar, not copied
by Mike Fenton, Parsippany, NJ, USA
I recently had a similar experience. Someone bought a painting I had in a show and then visited a website where some of my older work was still on display. He contacted me to buy them but I told them they were no longer available. He asked for me to duplicate them. We talked a bit and he agreed that he wanted “original” work and not a copy of what someone else had, so I painted similar pictures and all was well. I never make giclees or prints of my work. I only sell originals. My second versions were better than the originals, in my opinion, and the collector is very happy. Many artists paint the same scene or portrait many times and each is different, so I see no reason not to do the same on request.
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The same, but not identical
by Brenda Lowery, Bellingham, WA, USA
I also had a request for a reproduction of a full-size painting which had been previously sold. I told the client I’d do the painting of the same subject, the same size, in similar colors, but with slight modifications of the scene. It was fun to do the scene again and the client was thrilled with the painting even though not identical to the first.
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Coburn’s countless images of team horses
by Bill Kerr, Courtenay, BC, Canada
Frederick Simpson Coburn RCA painted countless images of a team of horses pulling a sleigh loaded with logs. The same team in each painting! The white horse was invariably in front of and largely outlined by a brown horse. The driver was usually walking beside the sleigh in off-road circumstances. The horses were nearly identical; the woods around them differed. A second common theme was a running white horse with mane swept in the wind pulling a simple red cutter. He was so popular that an art critic at an early Group of Seven show wondered in print why the members of the Group did not paint more like Coburn. These were immensely popular in their day and there are many paintings out there. Every Heffel auction features a few Coburn’s and they command prices well up in the tens of thousands.
Coburn did a lot of illustration work and commissions. There is a painting in the book about Coburn where a hunter has a rifle that seems to turn into a fog at the front end. The story is that this painting was commissioned by the Ross Rifle company but not completed before the company failed due to the jamming rifle problem that plagued Canadian Forces during WW 1. The book also points out that Coburn did a wide range of work but the winter sled theme seems to have been his bread and butter. He did well and had a fine house in Upper Melbourne, Quebec where he entertained.
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When income trumps originality
by Steve Whitney, Bothell, WA, USA
I had to laugh in Henning Mankel’s popular Kurt Wallender mysteries. Wallender’s father paints the same landscape over and over. The landscapes differ only in that some of them include a grouse while the others do not. These paintings are sold to distributors for the hotel and hospital trade. For the elder Wallender, income clearly trumps originality, but then so it does for many, many artists who earn a living with their brush.
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Grandmother’s unique works
by Suzanne McCaslin, Modesto, CA, USA
My grandmother painted many paintings of the Pacific Grove train depot (since torn down) and the Glass Bottom Boat pier, since washed away by storms. Her repeated paintings were done due to many changes in the geography / paint through the ages. Her skills were never considered, given her M in Art from California plus continuing education in art in San Francisco Art Institute (now the Mark Hopkins Hotel) and designing stages and costumes in Hollywood’s early days, then making her mark on public education prior to returning to her roots in Fresno, CA — then retiring to the family retirement community of Pacific Grove…
Nevertheless, the community of Pacific Grove annually celebrates my grandmother, Louise McCaslin, for chronicling their history in oil and watercolor. Most of the images in her paintings are long lost to the wrecking balls, but these paintings live on.
All of this has given me much more appreciation for her numerous paintings of Lover’s Point, the Glass Bottom Boat Pier, the Pacific Grove Train Depot, the Pacific Grove Lighthouse, etc. Each of these art works is unique.
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Revisiting a past concept
by David Glover, West Hollywood, CA, USA
I have had requests from legitimate art collectors who want essentially the same painting that I have sold years ago. I would never try to imitate the original painting stroke-for-stroke but I do keep all of my original reference studies and material and I have on occasion created another version of my painting. Of course, they are similar but likely not the same size and just visually familiar. Because of the differences inherent in making another painting of the same composition in another year with different energy, the next painting stands on its own merit. For artists, creating new compositions is always a challenge and it’s actually enjoyable to revisit a past concept and see what new elements and twists can come out of the same idea.
Certainly the collector appreciates that you can deliver a painting of a subject they truly love. Every second version has been a fulfilling experience for the collector and a bit of fun for the artist.
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Third attempt the best
by Susie Cipolla, Whistler, BC, Canada
Last year I had a client request an “identical” copy of a small bear painting that I was selling through my Gallery. It turns out that he had taken a picture of it and then came back a couple of days later to find that it had been sold. The chance of that happening is slim to none but happened anyway. He wanted the same size and with a shiny lacquered finish that I had had great difficulty applying effectively on the first painting. The Gallery took a deposit so I was on. I told them that it would have to be a different size so I went with one slightly larger. Anyway, I made the painting (it was slightly better than the first one) but I screwed up the finish and had to throw it out. My third attempt at the same image, without the fancy topcoat was by far the best painting of the three. Maybe I have to paint an image three times to get a good outcome.
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Realistic, non-objective painting
by Joe McAleer, Bonita Springs, FL, USA
I wrote an interesting blog about exactly the same thing. I copied a same abstract painting much larger. The two processes were so amazingly different. It was the first time I tried to reproduce one of my original abstracts. Here is the blog post. I had just finished painting a small abstract (12 x 12 inches) that I called Breakthrough. It was a very important piece to me because it was a total departure from my recent work of the last 5 years. The process of painting the original (important word here) piece was intuitive, deep within the unconscious, fraught with doubt, fear, sometimes self-loathing. Half of the time I spent sitting in a chair 10 feet away, just looking at the work, trying to figure out where to go next.
After finishing the painting, my only regret was that I wished I had painted it larger. So I did exactly that. I painted the smaller piece larger and this time I used a 36 x 36 inch canvas. I used the grid method of enlargement to copy a line drawing of the smaller piece to the larger canvas. I then set about to reproduce the images, colors, tonal values, etc. The painting took me about a quarter of the time to do, and when it was done it was virtually a replica of the smaller piece. The process of painting the larger piece was so different, it startled me. There was none of the previous process at all; no uncertainty at all. Hence, “Realistic Non-Objective Painting.”
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Insurance policy: siblings or twins
by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada
In 2012 I was commissioned to paint a 4×6 foot canvas celebrating the “50 Years of Our Flag.” The Canadian Maple Leaf Flag was first raised on February 15th, 1965 and it was a huge achievement of fellow Brockvillian, John Ross Matheson among others. In fact I am working on this canvas with John who lives nearby my studio.
For me, a 4×6 foot canvas is a big deal! At least 3,456 square inches plus the wrap around. I wanted this art to be the very best of my career and I needed insurance. So why not paint two and promote the “best” as the official painting of the 50 Years of Our Flag Project? All winter and spring was spent painting obsessively on these two canvases. My wife thinks I have OCD (Obsessive Compulsive/Creative Disorder). For once she is wrong.
My “darlings” were painted together inspired from the same plein air parents but they are not identical! I toyed with the weather and cloud formations but from a distance only a meteorologist would see the differences or care. I also adjusted the transitions from one subject to the next as I wrapped the Canadian Maple Leaf Flag with Canadian styled art. Just yesterday I noticed that the brush was starting to “dab” repeatedly. Being the person behind that brush, I decided that it was time to “step away from the easels.” If I worked any more trying to make my offspring “perfect,” I would likely hurt them. Sometimes you can save a painting with a single sweep or kill it with a thousand strokes. It is time to release them into the bigger world away from my studio.
My insurance policy that produced twins when only one was desired leads me to the dilemma as to what to do with them? I won’t hide the fact that the official “best” painting has a sibling. They are destined to be separated at birth but the new adoptive parents have the right to know. Plato said that “there is no harm in repeating a good thing,” but I feel it is wrong to hide the existence of any siblings.
There is a lot more to this story — much of it has been revealed on my blog.
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original painting by Georges Dumitresco, Switzerland
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