Yesterday, Roger Asselin of St. Petersburg, Florida wrote, “I always see ‘Original art only’ as a prerequisite to entering art shows. A definition is seldom forthcoming. Is this like one of those rooms you are not supposed to enter until the preacher comes to visit, or do you make your own rules and endure the consequences if you’re wrong?”
Thanks, Roger. It’s been my thought that some juried shows need an appointed ombudsman to draw a line between copying and research. This person needs to be knowledgeable, professional, impartial and accountable. Working with or without fellow jurors, his or her decision needs to be final. Some ombudsmen will be tougher than others. In throwing things out, there will be errors of both commission and omission. Entering artists need to understand it’s just a juried show. They need to know that juried shows generally reflect conventional wisdom and that long-term careers seldom hinge on them.
That being said, the history of copying has had its ups and downs. When it comes to loose definitions, ‘original art’ takes the cigar. Trouble is, copying other people’s work and other people’s subject matter is a traditional means of gaining proficiency. In the 15th Century, the granddaddy of all art teachers, Cennino Cennini, asked students to “Take pains and pleasure in constantly copying the best works you can find.” Nowadays many instructors tell students to drag it out of the inner man at all costs, even if there’s not much of an inner man to drag it out of.
In 1890 Paul Gauguin noted, “Out in the sun, painters are lined up. The first is copying nature, the second is copying the first, the third is copying the second.” Nowadays painters actually take printed reference, even shaded laptops with popular images, out into the sun. The lines between copying and research lie in the shade. “Paintings are but research,” said Pablo Picasso. For both little and big name artists, research can turn into plagiarism. Andy Warhol made a big success of proliferating prints from someone else’s copyright photos of Marilyn. And Picasso had something to say about that too: “Success is dangerous,” he said. “One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.”
PS: “Every conceivable aspect of painting has its roots in copying. Painters are by nature copyists.” (Leonard Niles)
Esoterica: Good luck to Mary Jones should she enter a copy of a well known photo from the National Geographic. Come to think of it, people break the speed limit every day, and only a few are noticed, let alone caught and fined. These days we aspire to justice, idealism and the rights of individuals to private ownership. We just don’t enforce them very well. Maybe we can’t, because the nature of art demands freedom. These days we honour freedom and abhor control. “Art,” said Marshall McLuhan, “is what you can get away with.”
Copying for knowledge
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany
Copying is a sore subject. Since we are not alone in this world, we cannot avoid seeing other people’s work. Copying is a way of exploring the mind of the original painter (who probably left his work largely to instinct). Painting in the style of Matisse does not make you a Matisse, but it might teach you what Matisse was trying to achieve. The invisible hand of the master gently corrects one’s own hand. The most startling and unforgettable thing about the most coveted and loved artists is that they have been inventive, innovative, and “before their time.” They have trodden new paths. Copying is artisanship, not artistry! Ignoring what has gone before leads to ignorance!
Products of Bob Ross
by Michael Chesley Johnson, AZ, USA / NB, Canada
Once, when judging an art show, I noted that several paintings depicted exactly the same scene – same composition, same colors, same style, same everything. I decided that they were copies. Rather than disqualify them, I simply didn’t give them any awards. I later found out that one of the organizers of the show, going against show guidelines, was a Bob Ross instructor, and that these were student pieces done under his tutelage and from the same photo reference. He had encouraged them, like any instructor proud of his student’s work, to submit them.
Giving credit where due
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
The old adage “Give credit where credit is due” is best. I also feel if an artist wishes to copy the work of anything other than free domain images, then they must ask for permission prior to putting such work in front of the public. If I copy a section of book for my own study notes for a Biology class, that is fine, but woe to me if I try to incorporate those exact words into a paper for a college, or even a high school class. In the same token, artists should never attempt to hide their methods for producing their work. Too many artists are using technology and then lying about it. The problem is not the use of the technology, it is the dishonesty about how it is being used. That type of thing creates skepticism within the public and makes it harder for artists who actually are not using technology.
by Susan Garriques, Key West, FL, USA
I always thought that “original art only” meant no prints or giclees, or even, you must be showing your very own original art and not art by other people. I remember witnessing an argument between artists at the Key West Fine Art Festival a couple of years ago. Apparently one of the booths was filled with art that came from “overseas,” and was not art done by the artist in the booth. And I’ve heard lots of people complaining that artists are selling giclees and calling them “originals.” I never considered that someone might actually copy another artist’s work and then submit it to a juried show.
Copying before the age of photography
by Susanne Kelley Clark, Dallas, TX, USA
It is difficult to imagine not having all of the images from photography and print available to us as artists. I sometimes ask my young students to imagine a time when there were no telephones, television or i-pods. Often I get a bewildered response. Attempting to go back in time to the days when the only images artists could see to learn from were in fact other paintings or maybe engravings or etchings, is difficult for us to imagine. The learning from these images was vastly different than the copy of photographs (no matter if the photos were made by the copyist). We have to imagine what the photo leaves out when painting from them and many beginning artists cannot do that yet. Working from paintings helps us to “see” the artist’s process and the way a painting is built. We see the simplification of design to create a stronger composition. We see how composition and message are inseparable. We learn about the value structure, color and manipulation of those elements to create balance, rhythms and movement through the composition. The photograph, however beautiful and art on its own, is a different one-eyed and flat presentation of subject. It leaves out and distorts the color, air and light we might find in the real world, not to mention our response to reality.
Emulating vs. imitating
Because we humans are not developing in our moral/ethical/restraint technology at the same rate as our other technologies, perhaps rules and regulations about what we do is necessary. Self interest is a strong human component which can help artists develop, humans develop. Taken too far it over-reaches and turns into thievery, grandiosity and an ungenerous spirit. It seems to me that the issue is the difference between a student practicing handwriting and composing astute, elegant, communicative essays. Emulating the latter is no reason to receive credit for the former. Evaluation must be made and credit not given or given — tough stuff to do, particularly today with limited understanding of copyright (how many artists file?). Also, with many folks wanting to claim persona and identity of being an artist — representation is deep in our success as a species — human attachment to this energizing of an idea, an identity, can be very strong. We have dynamic strengths and dynamic weaknesses: we want things and we get disappointed. There are a lot of us: humans and artists. Nothing is completely settled in this world, everything changes. Getting into a show can become too important, not getting into a show can become too important. Best to approach art like a Buddhist who does the dishes to be doing the dishes, not expecting/ energizing/ attaching to an outcome.
Still, I don’t want to see people gaining from someone else’s efforts (artwork/photo/essay) without written agreement. Rules need to be made, humans need to evaluate and feelings will be hurt. Money can drive these things, desires can get super-charged and human minds are the only thing on the planet that push so much energy into the propping up of identity.
by Robin Miltner, Sautee, GA, USA
I am rather concerned by the “clearly obscure” way that you treated the concept of copying art. On one hand you mention the time-honored Masters traditions of having students copy work to learn… and yet it seems that you find that copying any and all material, be that photos, others’ art work, whatever, to be okay in today’s learning and exhibiting circle. I find this kind of loose, if not downright endorsement of plagiarism, to be dangerous and a big part of the decline in artist morality. We have been inundated with more reference material than one could possibly handle in a lifetime. If the old Masters had such a wealth of printed reference materials, I am sure they would still have had their students work with them to learn brush strokes, and paint handling… not content nor image duplication. Their methods of teaching by mere fact of the times required a model with which to teach. That was the original, as there were no duplications to work from.
Difficult to be original
by Karen Cohen, Alphaaretta, GA, USA
It would be extremely difficult for anyone to be entirely original and/or unique. We all try new techniques in our effort to grow and add to our respective skill sets and to find that special something that truly sets us apart from all the other painters (a signature style). In doing so, with the enormous amount of visual stimuli we receive, that which we intentionally seek out and that which is inadvertent or subconscious, it would be difficult indeed to pinpoint every one that influenced us. And even if we hadn’t seen it done before, who can say that among all the painters the world over, two or more could not have (even spontaneously) arrived at the same or a similar idea?
Students: copy the Masters
by Michelle Philip, Boulder, CO, USA
I was very interested in this letter because I require all my advanced students to copy master paintings and drawings. I can explain edge quality, lost and found line, color harmony, etc., until I am blue in the face and have the student grasp these concepts very slowly in their own work, or I can assign a master copy and show them line for line how their attempt differs from the master’s in terms of those qualities. It is then a quick step for the student to change their approach and gain the technique needed to create the required effect. When I critique students’ work, I am careful to avoid damaging their confidence, because God knows we need all the courage available to us to survive in this business. I have found I can be much more direct when critiquing a copy, however, because it is not the student’s original creation, and all that needs to be focused on is the issue of similarity. In addition, when the copy is complete it seems to be a real high when the student looks at it at and realizes that they “own” a little piece of that Master.
Digital art getting shafted
by Jack Atkinson, Jersey City, NJ, USA
The “original art only” usually refers to No Giclee Prints — meaning no reproductions of your paintings — but goes further and also means no digital output art of any kind. Since I am a sincere proponent of original digital output art, that means I am eliminated from all of these competitions as an artist. My artwork starts with preliminary sketches done from life but the painting is all done in the computer and the unique digital output is my final artwork. But many in the art world are very weird about accepting this new medium as even being classified as art, much less original even in Chelsea’s shi-shi galleries in New York City. I have been working in digital output on canvas as a fine artist for 15 years now. I enjoy making my original (unique 1/1) digital art. Although I dislike the word Giclee, (French for spitting or spraying ink) it is a confusing distraction from the real medium, digital output art. I look at the naysayer as being akin to the “Academy de Beaux Arts” in Paris 1890s, of rejecting the Impressionist, because their approach and technique was different.
Enjoy the past comments below for Original art only…
Can You Keep A Secret?
oil painting, 22 x 28 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 Sharri LaPierre of Vancouver, WA, USA who wrote, “Original Art Only can refer to no giclee prints, too. Most art competitions do not consider them “original art,” but reproductions of paintings, which in most cases is true.”
And also Katherine Bolman of Honolulu, HI, USA who wrote, “Life can be so heavy and misty. We paint because we paint. What matters if someone has painted, written it, or thought it before? If I have said something someone else has said and someone else needs it, what be the problem?”
And also Charles Harris of Columbus, OH, USA who wrote, “I belong to the Ohio Plein Air group and they go as far to say that you can’t use anything that you have done for a class. The easy way that we do it is to say that it must be done outside and no camera or computer may be used. This takes a lot of problems out of the copy problem.”
And also Katherine Tyrrell of the UK who wrote, “In the world of coloured pencil art societies, there has been much debate of late about the nature of original art in relation to their juried exhibitions and recent changes in the rules. By way of response I wrote this post on my blog about their notions of what original art is all about. It seemed to resonate with an awful lot of people.”
And also Rene Wojcik of Midland, TX, USA who wrote, “If a person ignores copyright infringement laws and enjoys suffering from a law suit, then go for it. Art is not what you can get away with but what you create.”
And also Laudine Borges of Ventura, CA, USA who wrote, “I was in a juried show and was there when the judges came in. They were both young people who had no art background but worked for the local historical society. I gained a perspective on judges and jurying and on accepted and rejected works, which makes it easier to put work out there for judgment. Years ago I avoided juried shows. Later I met an artist who had a piece rejected in a show only to have it win a prize in the next show she entered.”
And also Barbara Nehman who wrote, “A very interesting discussion about the “fine lines” in life. Doing it too much or too little and striving for the “golden mean” is challenging, risky and compelling.”