Copy, right?


Dear Artist,

Like a lot of artists who have been around for a while, there are people out there doing fairly commendable copies of my work. Some copy “in the manner of” — the general themes and ideas. Others copy part of the style or as much as they can get of the style. Some take images from the Internet or other publications and copy verbatim. Some almost “get it” and apart from turgid brushwork, the only real difference is the signature.


original painting
by Bernard Cathelin

Over the past few years there has been a growth industry in copying the work of the recently deceased French painter Bernard Cathelin. Perhaps somebody painted like that even before him. His images and their variations, much in popular demand for current home decor, have become commonplace under many signatures. This has occurred because his is pretty basic stuff and easy to clone — simple flat patterns, minimal drawing, no light and shade. The work gives few problems to unskilled painters with an eye for cash flow.

Right now at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, PA, there’s a forty-year retrospective of the work of Richard Pettibone. He’s the guy who makes meticulous, postcard-size copies of some of the late and recent art icons — Warhol, Stella, Lichtenstein, Duchamp, Mondrian, etc. The critics of course love it because they think the work challenges the popular notions of originality, size, and banality. Think of it: Warhol’s soup cans, which were copied from soup cans, are copied by Pettibone. Critics also like his fun-poking mix and match — Dali-ized Warhol Marilyns, etc. Again, Pettibone has always been careful to copy the stuff he can copy. For the copyist, Pop is a piece of cake. To my knowledge, he hasn’t made a decent copy of, let’s say, a John Singer Sargent watercolour, because he can’t. In this sense, the copyist Pettibone is being forthright and honest.

The prevalence of cloners may account for why a lot of brilliant and deft artists are guarded and devious about their ways and means. Sargent, a private, secretive guy, was known to labour over work in order to keep it fresh, and to finish with a flourish to make it look easy. This “speedy” look has defied his would-be copyists for years. “Mine is the horny hand of toil,” said Sargent. Secretly, I’ve always felt that Sargent’s attitude was something worth cloning.


“Campbell soup”
by Richard Pettibone

Best regards,


PS: “This show… is a solid one that establishes Mr. Pettibone’s role in the land rush of cloning, borrowing and recycling known as postmodernism. In the process, he has made art that he can call his own. Its emotional wisdom for the artistically inclined is bracingly clear: love art, love yourself, do what you have to do and what only you can do. Utter honesty is the only path to originality.” (Roberta Smith)

Esoterica: In your daily toil, be on the edge of pride with your unique touch and your devious methods. Take joy in the maneuvers that might be just a bit tricky to copy. Your “look” is your look, you own it, and you should know that when it’s appropriated, it has been taken because it’s valuable. You have the goods to change and modify at your pleasure — and to have sport with your cloners. “Those who follow are always behind.” (A. Y. Jackson)


Too lazy to dream?
by Dianna D. Williams, Tarpon Springs, FL, USA

Are people too lazy to dream their own artistic expression, no talent, no passion, no pride? Are the buyers of art willing to settle for the work of “The Cloners?” To the knowledgeable and honest collector certainly, they are aware, aren’t they? How does this affect you… to have your work copied?

(RG note) Thanks, Dianna. Artists can of course be lazy, and so can collectors be not so knowledgeable. It often depends on which dealer gets to them first. I’ve found that it helps to have higher prices than my cloners, but this in itself makes some of them clone harder.


Nothing copies like success
by Joe Jahn, Denmark


original painting
by Joe Jahn

I’ve seen copies of my work, but they are so inept only I can see that they were using one of my paintings for cloning. Often an artist is tempted to copy an artist that is having success. This is okay for practice and knowledge, but it is never the way to the heart of their own creativity. Once all the technical devices are well learned, it deadens the soul to use those skills to clone the work of others. The work of others is always theirs no matter who pursues the same dream. Be honest in one’s own work, even if this leads to poverty. It is never fun at the end of our lives to say we have lived the dreams of others.


Code placed in painting
by Sandra Stoodley, BC, Canada

Less ethical persons will comfort themselves by saying copying someone’s work is a form of flattery. It’s not — it’s pure theft. I have seen artist “friends” add tactile dimensions to their work and reproduce ideas I have had in paintings. They have tried to cover themselves by telling me down the road they did use an idea and that they were considerate enough to send their art elsewhere. It is a small comfort to know they have a trace of conscience. It’s too bad they haven’t considered that the quest is to become known and visible. Eventually… the truth will come out. Someone else might not be as generous in their tolerance for mimicry. Short of getting forensic art experts in to match paint chips and DNA from my fingers, I ask myself what else one needs to do to protect oneself from this ugly practice. I place a code in my paintings that is not visible that will distinguish the original art.


Ask first and give credit
by oliver, Austin, TX, USA


photo manipulation
Diving Dreams series
by oliver

The copying artist should get permission or pay the original artist a fee. I hate it when I find someone copying my pictures (or using them as inspiration for their paintings). Not at this point that they want to copy me because I’m very well established, but I think more that they aren’t getting out and taking their own pictures to work from. The law says that this is almost always a violation of copyright as it is a derivative work. I tell them go take your own pictures, paint plein air (okay, tough on underwater stuff) or ask me first. When asked I usually agree or charge like $1 but always ask for credit in the provenance “after an image by oliver.”


Two types of artist
by Debby Kline, Escondido, CA, USA

Many contemporary artists who use easy or simple images could paint the hell out of a canvas using representational imagery. They have chosen not to paint or draw that way because it has been done to death and they see no purpose in painting in that manner any longer. They look for new and fresh methods of expression that don’t have a traditional or classic bent to it. Growth is essential to every artist, and just painting in a manner that was perfected two centuries ago, unless it can be used as appropriation and then changed in some effective manner to express a new idea, is simply stale and outdated. There are two types of artists. One makes art for the masses, creating nothing objectionable or innovative, just wonderfully painted work that people enjoy in the same manner that they enjoy the vistas of Yosemite. The other is an artist who challenges the parameters of the first. It’s essential to decide which artist one wishes to be. The second rarely has economic stability in their lifetime but they continue to challenge themselves. The first often do quite well financially but are rarely written up in the journals. The Thomas Kinkaids of the world will convince the masses that they need their art similar to how Popiel markets his vegetable chopper.


Hype confused with worth
by Nancy Christy-Moore, Glendale, AZ, USA


“Three Muses”
acrylic/mixed watermedia
by Nancy Christy-Moore

It seems somehow fitting that today’s art critics find this copyist to have validity in the fine art world. I think they’ve confused hype with worth. Some of us cringe when these so-called fine art mavens get center stage and foist such confusion upon the public. I was raised with the principle of originality and believe in it. Bringing something unique into the world has and always will remain my guiding light. I can’t bring myself to salute another’s work as “original” when it’s a rip off. Why should these creatures of hype be spotlighted when so many deserving creators of truly original art exist in the world?


Cloning will never be true art
by Odette Nicholson, Saskatoon, SK, Canada


gouache on paper, 30 x 30 inches
by Odette Nicholson

The comment, “Where to do you get your ideas from?” has always rubbed me the wrong way. But now I see that my honest originality and the fluid way in which I choose to work cannot be duplicated unless someone manages to climb inside my brain and sort through all the crossed wires. I’m not in the least interested whether or not my work is styled or looks like anyone else’s, or even that it doesn’t. Other than being a student and learning techniques, I do not see that copying or cloning is valid because to me it sort of misses the whole point of art making.



Art’s a rear view mirror
by Coulter Watt


photo by Victoria DiNardo

As Marshall McLuhan said, “We go forward looking in the rear view mirror.” Who among us hasn’t learned a great deal from others — good and bad. A visit to the Institute of Contemporary Art’s web site reveals a page on Richard Pettibone’s retrospective with a few examples. One example is Pettibone’s reproduction of a Duchamp & Warhol together. Duchamp’s urinal, source unknown, and Warhol’s 4 yellow flowers are a direct cloning of Maxfield Parrish. Were they original? Are Roy Lichentsein’s comic book paintings very “original” either? He blew images up rather than shrinking them down. Did Picasso originate Cubism? Not for one second. He’s a copyist, too. And, anyone painting flowers is copying the Dutch master’s idea from the 1600s. And the list goes on. What they all have in common is that they brought something new and powerful to the idea.

This begs to question the issue of original conceptual thinking. Few ever come up with a wholly original idea which brings to mind that old saying, “The difference between a professional and an amateur is: A professional borrows from a master and an amateur borrows from an apprentice.”


Pettibone’s reproduction of a Duchamp & Warhol together

This raises the issue of using a computer to produce or manipulate images, which I do. Where’s the artistic skill in that? It’s in the idea, the conceptual process of producing something anew. Edward Steichen put this issue to bed regarding photography. He happens to have been one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, where Duchamp, Warhol, Lichenstein, and Stella et al. hang. Art grows out of imagination, not skill.

What’s paramount is, can one make a viewer have an experience, emotional or intellectual? It’s whatever gets you down that road that matters, since we all come to the experience with different rear view mirrors.


Take a deep breath and relax
by June Szueber, Perris, CA, USA


“Dew on the Roses”
acrylic painting
by June Szueber

People who are afraid of being copied are worrying about nothing. Where do we get our creative ideas? From something we have seen or experienced — a picture, color, line, poem, or piece of music. There is no such thing as an original idea. I have created a painting that is ‘all mine’ only to see something like it later somewhere else. Did I copy someone or did someone copy me? Who cares? Everyone’s work, no matter how close the copy looks, is individually their own. Copying exact strokes, colors, etc., is virtually impossible. After we have created art for years, we no longer care if someone copies us. As a teacher I use other people’s and my own art or interpretations to fuel the imaginations and knowledge of my students. I have never gotten an exact copy. Relax. Do your own thing and let others do theirs.


Simultaneous invention
by Barbara Merrill, Boise, ID, USA


original photo
by Barbara Merrill

There is such a thing as parallel evolution in the art world — a spontaneous new way of generating art which is invented by two or more people in disparate locations. Each thinks he has made a major breakthrough, as each individual has in fact, but the two methods are so similar that it looks as though they were copies of each other. I recall a time when my friend was combining watercolors and fiber art in a unique way that she had developed on her own. Months later, I picked up a magazine and saw work that looked exactly like hers from an artist in another country. Neither had seen the other’s work, or any similar work that would inspire them to start thinking of combining elements in that unique way.


Tough painters to copy
by Gabriella Morrison, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada

In an article in Art in America (subscription required), Richard Pettibone at Leo Castelli, reference is made to the fact that Pettibone also appropriated Eakins’ and Ingres’ images. These are tough painters to copy, especially on a very small scale. The price of ‘fame’ seems to be ubiquity and being copied. And let’s face it, copying has been a time-honored means of learning how to do anything. If some people copy your work, it is impossible that they will be able to simulate your colour sensitivity or the way you cut in shapes with your brushes. Even more so your painterly energy will be missing from these copies. Just like each apple on the tree outside my kitchen window looks similar but varied, so are artists similar and varied in the manner in which they work. One can try to make work like another painter, but wishing won’t make it so.


Chinese copying industry
by Anthe Valais, Flourtown, PA, USA

We are witnessing the demise of the real art market as we become flooded with copies bought without forethought to the destruction or the blood, sweat and tears that has gone into the original piece by the originating artist.

(RG note) Thanks, Anthe. And thanks to all who noticed the article in the New York Times on the current Chinese copying industry.


Should I go for it?
by Donna Ion, Oak Bay, BC, Canada

I have been selling my paintings from my home during studio tours and also in local coffee shops. I have recently had my work accepted in juried shows. My paintings are currently selling around the $500 mark. I have approached a reputable local art gallery and have been asked to bring in some of my pieces. My fear is that if I am accepted by the gallery, I will be pricing myself out of my present market, and will never be able to go back to my current prices if I am unsuccessful at the gallery. Am I being silly, or should I just go for it?

(RG note) Thanks, Donna. Unless you enjoy the socializing and the business of representing yourself, I suggest you go the gallery route. For artists whose work is up to reasonable standards, nothing beats the freedom, recognition and increased self-esteem that comes with gallery representation.





Glacial carvings

acrylic on paper
by Trevor Sale, Athabasca, AB, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.

That includes Annie MacIntosh from Malibu, CA, USA who sent these quotes to our Resource of Art Quotations:

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

“Once you set out to copy another painter you can never be more than number two.” (Sergei Bongart)

“Every stroke in the work of John Singer Sargent’s work has a purpose and a reason for being on the canvas. Sargent had massive talent and training and great understanding of form and values… it is impossible to copy him.” (Annie MacIntosh)

And also Ben Novak, ON, Canada who wrote, “Copying of famous works may be okay as a part of art study and development, but copying for profit is not artistry. An artist needs to feel the work, see it taking shape, and discover the magic.”

And also Jody Ray Murphy from Windthorst, TX, USA, who wrote, “If I only reach one person, that’s one more that will hopefully paint from the heart and soul and have the satisfaction of producing their own work.”

And also Shari Vogt, Florissant, MO, USA who wrote, “We add our own signature to our work and no one can sign my name just like I can.”




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