Copying an enigma

Dear Artist, 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?”

“The Son of Man”
by Rene Magritte

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.

Grid lines: Vincent Van Gogh sometimes used this system.

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.

The Pantograph — an instrument of pre-digital times

Best regards, Robert 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.   Paul Austin





Martin Luther King



            Copyright infringement 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.” There is 1 comment for Copyright infringement by Barbara E Erdman
From: Lucille Blainey — Jul 13, 2012
  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. There is 1 comment for Studio air freshener by Polly Tonsetic
From: James — Jul 16, 2012

I have read somewhere that there may be some concern using the ionic units in the on position all the time…there are some devices which absorb fumes, particulate, and some odours…do some research online for this one…find out what it is you want to freshen and then use one for that purpose…otherwise open a window and use a fan…as it may be the best.

  Projecting for painting by Scott Adams, Greenbrae, California, USA  

oil painting
by Scott Adams

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.   Elitist response by Vanessa Davisson, Arizona, USA  

original painting
by Vanessa Davisson

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. There are 4 comments for Elitist response by Vanessa Davisson
From: Sh — Jul 13, 2012

I am sorry, but I have to agree with Robert. I will not copy, for sale, anyone’s work, famous or not. It is about integrity, it isn’t about making a living. It is one thing to sit in a museum and copy, but if your plans are to sell it, as your own, for me, it just isn’t right. I really don’t want others taking my originals, copying them and selling them as their own.

From: Cory — Jul 13, 2012

Vanessa, money should not be made by illegal practices. It’s not just the elite that is subject to law and ethics. I am rather poor and take an exception at the speculation that I am assumed to act unethically or break the law.

From: Manuel L.I. NY — Jul 16, 2012

re Sh:

you are assuming Mr Austin is passing it off as his own. this is impossible as he was commissioned to do the piece. the buyer knows he is getting neither an original Austin nor a Magritte. i would have to defer to Ms Erdman regarding the legality.
From: Mikki — Jul 17, 2012

Sorry, but that still doesn’t make it right to copy a work for a commission. Copyright infringement is still copyright infringement.

  Tried it but failed by Paige Moore  

“Don Quixote”
acrylic painting
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. There are 6 comments for Tried it but failed by Paige Moore
From: Nan Fiegl — Jul 13, 2012

If the “commissioner” knew so gosh darn much about painting, why didn’t he/she do the painting him/herself?

From: Terry Rempel-Mroz — Jul 13, 2012

If you were unpaid, you should have taken the ‘unsuccessful’ painting with you. Sounds like the ‘commissioner’ purposefully duped you into providing a free painting.

From: Tikiwheats — Jul 13, 2012

Paige, no pay – no painting!!!!! Keep it for your own wall – that “commissioner” has no manners.

From: Michael McDevitt — Jul 13, 2012

Paige did not indicate that the painting was accepted by the client. Asking for a non-refundable deposit scares many ‘clients’ away, but yields a commitment from both parties. This was my practice as a commercial illustrator and is a common practice for successful portrait artists–many who contribute insights to this blog.

From: Anonymous — Jul 13, 2012
From: Mikki — Jul 17, 2012

Amen to that!

  ‘Soft tissue pantographs’ by Charles Peck, Punta Gorda, Florida, USA  

“In Command”
pastel painting
by Charles Peck

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. There are 2 comments for ‘Soft tissue pantographs’ by Charles Peck
From: Mike — Jul 12, 2012

I disagree on your point that experienced artists cannot impart a feel of place while working from their own photos. The opposite is true. It is the inexperienced that fall down in this regard while they slavishly copy photographic reference. One has to bare in mind that if the artist took the photo, then they have experienced the feel of place which can then be added to the photo reference that they took. There are many plein air painters that neither convey feel of place or even just place!

From: Sarah — Jul 13, 2012

I agree with Mike. I see countless ‘pet portrait’ artists for instance who slavishly copy and still fail to deliver a painting with any life in it, simply due to lack of experience, poor knowledge or anatomy or real empathy with the subject. However as an animal portraitist myself, I make no excuses for relying heavily on photographs as reference. It’s practically impossible to work from life to deliver commissioned work in this field, as the majority of clients want detailed and accurate portrayals of a subject they know intimately. I am of the firm belief however that when using my own references photos and actually having met the animal in person, felt its breath and stroked it, in a weird way that ‘life-force’ is then transferred down the brush onto the canvas, resulting in a much truer piece of art. I can’t explain this, but it happens time and again.

  Did it once by Dyan Law, Pipersville, PA, USA  

oil painting
by Dyan Law

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. There is 1 comment for Did it once by Dyan Law
From: Michael McDevitt — Jul 13, 2012

Compensation is such a distraction–like buying food/clothing, paying a mortgage/rent, utilities, etc.

  Disgusted student walks out by Rose Moon, Sedona, Arizona, USA  

“The Letter”
original painting
used Vermeer painting as reference

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. There are 3 comments for Disgusted student walks out by Rose Moon
From: Tikiwheats — Jul 13, 2012

What goes around, comes around….get it?

From: Michael McDevitt — Jul 13, 2012

Copying and even parodies of the masters has been in vogue for centuries. Attributing work to appropriate sources (after so-and-so) when done as a copy is a valid way to show both regard for the law and personal honor. Forgery? That is something different.

From: Brenda Howell — Jul 13, 2012

Many, many years ago, and for my own education I copied a Thomas Moran for what the experience could teach me and enjoyed it very much. I don’t paint in his style but I do still paint the subject, Grand Canyon. I also still enjoy the painting I made. There is no way to reproduce the brushwork and other delicacies of the original, but it reminds me of gazing at the original in the Kansas city museum.

  Better to ‘be influenced by’ by Brian Care, Toronto, Canada / San Miguel de Allende, Mexico  

“La Espalda de Alina”
watercolour painting
by Brian Care

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.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Copying an enigma

From: Keith Hiscock — Jul 09, 2012

Paul, I’d turn it down too because it is unnerving to think that they don ‘t appreciate what you do but expect someone to fulfill their own agenda. If they want that painting of their choice then by all means let them stand in line at the next auction and pay for the value of it as it’s bidding for. To placate them by doing a copy is an injustice to Magritte. Think about it, you do a painting, ask about a thousand for it but your good friend of a neighbor unbeknownst to you goes to your customer and says they’d do it for a quater of the cost. If you like that sort of cutthroat attitude then you might as well forego any thought accomplishing anything artistically and it would be best to just go and sell shoes.

From: Mary Anne Tateishi — Jul 09, 2012

This issue reminds me of how Robert took on the Chinese website which was copying his work, as well as that of many other artists. Although Magritte is dead, and it’s unlikely that anyone will mistake Austin’s painting for the real deal, the idea remains the same: copying is wrong. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to explore what attracts the client to the painting, and then create a work in a similar vein, possibly featuring the client himself. But why create a reputation as an artist who can copy work well? That will only lead to more work in copying.

From: Faith — Jul 10, 2012

First, copying is not an original sin. Many, many artists have learnt their craft by copying. What IS wrong is proclaiming that you have created a work yourself and broadcasting or selling it as such.

Most of us can’t afford an original, even if it were available to buy. But many admire and even love great works of art and want a share in them. That explains why artworks are copied. And today, given that making a living as an artist is becoming increasingly hazardous, selling an artwork of one’s own might be a work of art in itself for some! So let’s be practical! If an artist is going to attempt a copy of Magritte’s (or of any) work, his first reference must be to its size. I discovered that the painting is in a private collection, so the original is not accessible unless you know the collector (I don’t), or it is lent to a museum somewhere for an exhibition. The most important factor is, however, the proportions of the work you want to copy. You cannot accurately reproduce a work if your “model” has the wrong proportions. The photo you were given must be distorted or manipulated since Magritte’s original is obviously not 2 by 3. Type the title of the painting into google and look at the many images. They are not all the same shape! Do not take a copy of the work from a poster shop because they take the most liberties with the proportions of artworks. Ask your client how big his copy is to be (the original is 45.67 × 35 inches) and make sure you are working with the correct proportions. Maybe the client would be happy just to have part of the original copied. If he wants a painting that is wider than it is long, you will have to do that anyway. Divide your photo of the original into grids. There’s a lovely old-fashioned programme you can find at, which will do this for you and then print the grind over a copy, even in the original size on several sheets of paper. You need not then paint in oils of course, but if you use a colour photo the programme will help you to choose your paint colours as well! Drawing by using grids is the traditional way of copying and arguably the most accurate unless you possess a projector. You should then have a scale drawing of the work or even one in the original size. You will certainly have had to procure a support in the correct size, but that is probably the least of your problems. One short comment on the copying of works by Chinese and other art factories. In those cases the works have been acquired by stealth, i.e. illegally. Normally permission is not asked of the (living) artist, who can, however, try to stop the practice by contacting whoever is doing the reproductions. So if anyone spots a painting reproduced this way, maybe they should contact the artist and inform him or her!
From: Anonymous — Jul 10, 2012

You can find advertisement in high end architecture magazines offering copies of any painting. People are either too cheap or lack the funds to buy the real thing, and want visitors to think they are “real.” It’s a whole industry, and not all come from China.

On the other hand, maybe whoever commissioned this admires the work and wants it as a homage to Magritte. Or, this painting means something particularly special to him. Their reason for wanting the painting should govern your decision. Lots of artists have painted copies, “In the manner of ….. ” in an effort to learn technique. Not a terribly bad thing to do as long as it is noted as such. I did a copy of an abstract for a friend. The painting was offered in a commercial catalog so there were dozens if not hundreds of that image. Her goal was only to have something on her wall. I didn’t charge her for it because it took me all of fifty minutes to do. She said, “You didn’t sign it.” Exactly.
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Jul 10, 2012

There is a reason for the National Gallery’s not allowing copyists to copy a painting in its original size. It does not want to foster a forger’s crime. As a child I slavishly copied Watteau and other French artists to teach myself to draw. It worked but I am left with a permanent desire for beautiful satin slippers with elaborate bows.

From: charles peck — Jul 10, 2012

I find this latest article 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 it may seem to some. Thanks for all you do keeping our “painting community” invigorated Robert.

From: Marvin Humphrey — Jul 10, 2012

It could be fun to do a “Mad magazine” sort of “spoof”: i.e. painting a banana, pineapple, or onion in front of the bowler-hatted figure. Maybe somebody will do that in China.

From: Suzette Fram — Jul 10, 2012

The question to ask yourself is ‘why’ does this person want an exact copy of this painting. Is it so he can try to pass it off as the original, perhaps try to sell it as the original? Perhaps a painting that emulates this one but is somewhat different, would be a better way to go? In any event, make sure you sign the back of the painting with your own name, and something like ‘after Magritte’, so it does not become a forgery.

From: Robert Oblon — Jul 10, 2012

My response to this artist is the same as yours with the idea/question about what ultimately will be done with this copy, read forgery! I was in the art foundry business decades in Los Angeles and was approached several time during the twenty years to replicate , Picasso, Gaudi and others. Each time I asked why and what was the person planning to do with the work once it was cast into bronze. I never did any the that work knowing that it was probable going to be sold as an original!?

From: Eddith Buis — Jul 10, 2012

I find the idea of copying Magritte a travesty! As an art history and art teacher for many years, I was careful to tell my students that outside a practice drawing, NO ONE should copy another’s work!

From: Eugenia Algaze Garcia — Jul 10, 2012

Wouldn’t Magritte’s piece of art still be under copyright protection for copies and derivative works? Life plus 70 years has not yet arrived if Magritte passed in 1964.

From: Linda Donaldson — Jul 10, 2012

I copied a few paintings when I started out — mainly to learn technique, but also because I really liked a painting and wanted to have the copy in my personal collection. One of the most important things here, I think, is to make sure that the painting is clearly marked as a copy (on the back of the canvas or board if the collector doesn’t want it marked on the front). Even if one is doing a copy for a single collector, one can’t know what will happen to the copied painting in the future. The collector can die or sell the painting or give it away. Even though a painting can never be exactly copied and an expert will not be deceived, it should be marked as a copy as a matter of fairness (and perhaps law, in some cases).

From: Bill Doying — Jul 10, 2012

Interesting that in “Son of Man” the sea horizon and the wall are not level between the two sides of the foreground figure. More “enigma,” or just sloppy? (Potentially, if one got the reputation of being enigmatic one could pass off all sorts of screw-ups as creatively intentional!)

From: Rosemary Connelly — Jul 10, 2012

Isn’t this considered plagiarism? I understand artists have always copied the Masters for training, but when is copying another’s work NOT considered plagiarism?

From: Paul RW Anthony — Jul 10, 2012

Perhaps part of the problem here is perception. One can clearly be offended by an attempt to make an exact copy of any one else’s painting – forgery.

But, if it is a different size and you sign it yourself as well as give credit to the original artist in a way that can’t be removed from the ‘copy’, then one could realize that it is an homage to the original artist. Someone once said that copying is a sincere form of flattery…..or some such. But, homage derives from ‘honor’ so………..
From: Linda Anderson Stewart — Jul 10, 2012

Don’t do it! So not cool. They can buy a repro any where. Better choice . Save your integrity.

From: Alex Nodopaka — Jul 10, 2012

That is TWO good pieces of advice you gave your questioning artist. Let’s see, the original Magritte is worth let’s say one mil… I’d replicate it for a fee of oh, let’s say one quarter that. But as you say, why bother, a photo-graphics 3-D impasto copy for a couple of thousand dollars is all it’s worth.

I have such a rendition of Gauguin’s Wahines done in Switzerland in 1954. My father who bought the one and only reproduction he ever deemed honorable to hang on our walls. I mean this hand painted scene was done brush-stroke-for-brush-stroke, worth its weight in gold then and today. And for legal reasons it’s only two centimeters shorter at either ends. As to Magritte and the art world claiming this or that about the meaning of The Son of Man, I say pfueee, it’s simply a William Tell syndrome Magritte had compounded by being childless… lol
From: Jill Brooks — Jul 10, 2012

Some artists incorporate the work of others in their paintings as an homage to that artist. Vivian Thierfeilder comes to mind, as she does stunning watercolours which frequently contain references to other works of art, especially portraiture, as in the hauntingly beautiful portraits by Modigliani. Susan Abbott is another. For me, this is beyond copying, and makes perfect sense, as it reflects the images that exist in the subliminal space of the artist, perpetually hovering just out of literal sight.

From: Anita Davis — Jul 10, 2012

I bought an old pantograph from the collectibles section of a thrift store and have used it ever since to give me a starting point for paintings that I do. It may be a crutch for the exacting task of drawing perfectly, but I like it. I use it. It is my friend.

From: Barbara Banthien — Jul 10, 2012

A brilliant response–your best, I think.

From: Lorraine McGrath Khachatourians — Jul 10, 2012

At the very least it would have to be titled ‘Study of Magritte’s Son of Man’ or some such.

From: Elihu — Jul 10, 2012

I see nothing wrong with copying the work of a well-known artist, if there is a good reason and proper attribution is given. Years ago, when I was living in Sarasota, FL and very new at art, the movie “Portrait of Jennie” was coming to town. As a promotion, the theater had a contest for the best copy of Robert Brackman’s painting of Jennifer Jones made for the movie. There was only one other entry besides mine, and I won hands down. My copy was excellent, but smaller than the original, and was signed by me, “after Brackman.” It is now with a relative in Canada. The prize was movie passes.

From: Bluehorsedancer — Jul 11, 2012

Someone reported to me that he saw the promo postcard I sent around for my first show being copied on someone’s home easel. I was flattered that it was so admired, puzzled they didn’t come to the show and purchase the original, and/but annoyed that they made this awful attempt. In retrospect it wasn’t such a great painting, so who cares? However, the ethical art community uses copying in the classroom “for educational purposes only.” Attempts for any other purpose are forgeries. “Appropriations,” which are always in some way altered, can add humor and/or meaning to a larger work, as some others have stated. Thanks, Robert.

From: Kim Rodeffer Funk — Jul 11, 2012

I enjoy reading your posts and often have discussions with another artist friend about them. I have to say, this is one for the books and you handled it far better than I would have done. Congratulations! It takes a lot of courage to ask someone to copy another artists work and to ask them to copy it “exactly” takes even more courage. For the person to agree to do this copy utterly amazes me! I understand times are hard, the artist is no longer alive and commissions are challenging in the best of circumstances, but this has a moral factor to it that rivals Monsanto! Is it even legal? Please, my fellow artists, consider carefully the repercussions before you say “Yes” to such requests. Paul, you are very lucky to receive such a kind response from Robert.

From: James Dyal — Jul 11, 2012

I am ignorant of copyright law, but what I’d be tempted to do is first a black and white copy, then re-arrange, then adopt a totally different color scheme. The question to me is, what is a legitimate response to the artistic insight of someone else?

From: Anon — Jul 11, 2012

At a plain air event a woman who was watching me paint asked for my name and then said – oh, I know your work, in a class that I attend the instructor gave us prints of your paintings to copy as exercises. First I hoped that she mixed me up with someone else, but when she said who the instructor was, it was indeed a painter who had asked me questions about my painting process. I was quite upset that he didn’t ask my permission to use my art in his classes. Then I forgot all about it until I was reminded of it by reading these comments. I guess there isn’t really any harm done to me, it’s just annoying to know that someone is taking advantage of my work. Alas, there will always be those kind of characters, I’ll probably forget all about it again by tomorrow…

From: Adele Galgut — Jul 11, 2012

Although we’ve never personally met, I so look forward to your regular visits to my home/computer. Your observations and writings are a delicious “fruit-salad” treat of humour, insight, irony, gentle crits, education and inspiration. Keep them coming, as they are gifts to all of us that look forward to them. Thank you for your artistic enhancement and often, tongue-in-cheek comments.

From: John Burk — Jul 11, 2012

Robert, you are a good and wise friend with as much talent and good humor with words as you have with a paintbrush.

From: Rick Gillis — Jul 11, 2012

I too would turn it down. Once something is done it is done.

From: Roslyn Dyson — Jul 11, 2012

I wouldn’t do it either. I know that copying the masters used to be part of art school courses, but painting a copy for someone else, who presumably is going to pay for the result – is this legitimate? Cumbria, UK

From: Elle Fagan — Jul 11, 2012

Now that most of the aunties and uncles who enriched and empowered my girlhood in arts have passed away, I am still not lonely – there is the other Uncle Bob in Robert Genn – you must be related somehow…you always say the right thing – just like they did. Like this one on ENIGMA – I have the knack for spydom… When I do one of my “working on it” studies – part of my mind is working hard on the enigmas – what will show and what will not show. where will the eye be drawn and how. Somehow if we belabor such subtleties, it really makes a mess, and the grace in which we find our way thru it is the thing. And half the fun.

From: Pepper Hume — Jul 11, 2012
From: Mitch — Jul 11, 2012

My question is how does the client want him to sign the “work” – who’s name does he want to see on it?

From: Carol — Jul 11, 2012

Having been trained in the late 70’s when copying anything was somewhat taboo, I have come full circle in 30 years. I recently began transposing master works to research a piece I am developing. I use the grid and find it an excellent way to rediscover the construction of the image and the artists’ process.

I don’t think tracing a projection will have the same rewards as genuine discovery and is therefore unlikely to yield exciting results. I do agree that it is important to get the largest digital file possible, but to print it out same size as the original.
From: sarah clegg — Jul 13, 2012

Some years ago I was asked by a client to copy a late 19th cent equestrian portrait painting she had (unsigned, so we didn’t know who the original artist was) in order to settle a family argument over who was to take possession of it following the death of the aged aunt who owned it as this was not made clear in her will! I duly obliged, although I made slight alterations to the format in my version which I thought was an improvement on the composition of the original. Client was delighted but the irony was that there was then an argument over who got mine and who got the original – they both preferred the newer version!

From: Mystery Guest — Jul 13, 2012

I have neither the years, nor the canvass to complete my own visions.

Why would I want to expend myself on the failed attempt to redo someone else’s craftwork ?
From: Patricia Solem — Jul 13, 2012

Whether an artist should “copy” anyone else’s paintings or photographs, or one’s own photographs, is a thorny question. I have done a number of commissions using the client’s photographs for reference. There is usually nothing else to work with but those photos. “The hand of the artist” always shows through to keep the work from looking exactly like the reference photo. Is this not art? I know how to draw but to save time and labor, I use my own photos as reference material, especially when it comes to shots of birds and other things in motion or images shot while traveling. Reference photos are invaluable if you are trying to catch light and shadow outdoors. I consider reference photos part of the creative process. The process goes like this: I am struck by an image; I want to paint it; I compose a shot with my digital camera and photograph it; I sometimes manipulate the photo; I enlarge the image with a grid; and finally I paint the image on a canvas or paper. I believe the hand of the artist always shows through. Is that not art? Vermeer would have used a digital camera if he had had one. Occasionally I copy a painting I like in order to understand the technique but those paintings remain in a drawer and are never exhibited or sold. I never sign them and always write on the back “copy of ____ by _____.”

From: Jan Ross — Jul 13, 2012

As one who has had her painting ‘copied’, then transferred to t-shirts sold at a major event, I can attest to the fact that it’s NOT flattering! However, the public, whether aware or ignorant know the typical artist will not sue due to the time/expense involved. I know an artist who’s work is all copied and she either sells the work or has it displayed in public places such as restaurants. She’s even won awards entering copied work in juried shows. I find this practice unethical and deplorable. Recently, I mentioned to the artist she needs to make a note the work is, “In the manner or a reproduction of” when signing it. One has to wonder how many buyers have been duped by copies?

     Featured Workshop: John Skelcher at The Retreat, Italy 071312_workshop John Skelcher workshops Held in Tuscany, Italy   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.     woa

Decker’s Tug

oil painting, 18 x 29 inches by Christine Hanlon, San Francisco, CA, USA

  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.”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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