The personal touch

Dear Artist, At shows, I often notice other painters with their noses pretty close to my work — trying to figure out what I’m up to. Fact is, quite a few artists can make paintings that look like mine, but they don’t seem to be able to make them made like mine. A few years ago a slippery customer sent one of my paintings to China to get it copied. By sheer luck I had a look at the result. I’m happy to report that even the best of the Celestial Kingdom couldn’t quite get it right. The painting looked like mine, but the painter had trouble figuring out the order I laid-in its various layers and parts. The name Otto Wacker might not mean much to you. He was a young art dealer in Berlin in the 1920s who managed to find a lot of “undiscovered” Van Goghs and sell them here and there. He eventually went to jail for the fakes, but not before many art critics, experts and museum directors had made a fools of themselves authenticating and unauthenticating the lineup of the work in the courtroom. Fact is, Van Gogh’s paintings were fairly easy to counterfeit. The style is unique and can be simulated. The technique is pretty straightforward — characteristic and frenzied strokes directly and singularly applied, often with colour right out of the tube. In other words, Van Goghs were faked because they could be. It’s estimated that at one time as many as 600 fake Van Goghs were floating around Europe. In the case of Otto Wacker, his painter-friend was never found, but most suspicion goes to his brother Leonhard. I know this may sound perverse, but I think artists should consider giving their work such a personal touch that future fakers will really have to scratch their heads before they might knock one off. As I mentioned, order is valuable — primer, underpainting, glazing, scumbling, re-glazing, final impasto, etc. Also, changing the order on a whim is more fun than a wheelbarrow full of Deutsche Marks. In my case, it surprises me that the fakers aren’t able to pick up the various tones of my original primers. Tools are also important in this deception — brushes stiff and soft, round and square, ragged, bedraggled, rough; as well as spatulas, knives, scrapers and other markers. A painter might know the nuances delivered by these various tools, but putting it all together is a bit of a Rubik’s cube. In life and art, perhaps a good idea is to give people something to figure out. Best regards, Robert PS: “The job of the artist is to always deepen the mystery.” (Francis Bacon) Esoterica: If you’re at all interested in the fun and games of Otto Wacker, I thoroughly recommend Solar Dance by Modris Eksteins. It’s a tribute to Van Gogh, an insight into life in Berlin between the wars, a parade of the great art accumulators from both sides of the puddle, a cameo of a failed painter by the name of A. Hitler, and exploratory operations on art dealers both honest and crooked.   Curators fooled by forger by Mark D. Gottsegen, Greensboro, NC, USA  

“The Unfortunate Mr. P”
encaustic painting
by Mark D. Gottsegen

Better known than dear Otto is Han van Meegeren who faked Vermeer badly but who fooled curators and art historians for years because, mainly, they wanted to believe that these were real Vermeers. He was quite unrepentant to the end. One of the scientists who examined some Vermeers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh PA, in 1967, is Robert L. Feller who I worked with in the 1970’s & 1980’s at ASTM, and the Inter-Society Color Council. We are still in touch, and he still goes to the lab about once a month. Paul Whitmore, one of his students, now runs the research lab — he’s another brilliant conservation scientist.     Not bothered about being copied by Brian Care, Toronto, Canada / San Miguel de Allende, Mexico  

watercolour painting
by Brian Care

Funny, but it would never have occurred to me that someone in a million years would even think about attempting to copy one of my paintings. I guess I am too self-involved in just trying to produce one of which I can be proud. If worrying about being copied is somewhere on the developmental scale of becoming an accomplished artist, then I certainly haven’t reached that point yet. It is probably one of those many things in life I really don’t need to bother myself about. I’ll just go back to my easel now and apply the paint whichever way feels right at the moment. Every one of my paintings is an experiment, an exploration, with no time or talent included for trying to deceive a forger. I can’t imagine complicating the process even more. There are 3 comments for Not bothered about being copied by Brian Care
From: Anna — Feb 25, 2013

I like your attitude, and I like your beautiful painting as well!

From: andre satie — Feb 26, 2013

I agree with Anna. Beautiful work, and flexible, open attitude. You give your work room to grow!

From: Janet Summers Greece — Feb 26, 2013

I have had some of my works copied. I figure if it was worth copying it must be good, but the copy lacked my personal colors and attention to details. Once I did a painting of a friend while sleeping naked in her lovers arms, she stole the work from me but I told her that she could keep it and if I wanted to I could do it again, possibly even better, because she could never steal what is in my mind and thats sort of how I feel about my work being copied. The work is alive and permanently on exhibit in my mind which is worth more than any sale could bring. We need to re-examine what exactly the true value of our art is, for me it is in the creating, meeting the challenge that I have set for myself, no one can copy that.

  Attributing copies of others’ work by Helen Sica, Northport, MI, USA  

“Cherry blossom time”
original painting
by Helen Sica

Your letter was very interesting. It brings to mind what to do with studies of the masters, when presenting them for sale or not for sale in a gallery show. Of course, mine are never an exact copy and could never qualify for that. But, since I take classes that teach the Masters, I do put them in shows and acknowledge that they are studies and include the name of the master painter. Always I have painted them in my own way and made changes here and there. What information should be put on the card next to the painting? (RG note) Thanks, Helen. Whether the painting you are copying is by a master or the work of a friend down the street, you need to make that clear. My advice is to put attribution right on the front beside your signature, and on the back for good measure. Cards get lost.   No one can copy ‘soul’ by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France  

original painting
by Jeffrey Hessing

People have also tried to copy my work or my way of working. Some have managed to get the “look” of it but not the “feel” of it. Having worked and exhibited in China, this is a concern for many, but I am not worried — the single element which makes a work of art great is soul, life energy, “chi.” Whether abstract or figurative, a great painter transfers his life energy to the inert materials where it remains and projects out to the viewer for centuries. Techniques can always be copied. Soul cannot. When we work towards the true depths of person expression we have nothing to fear. Each soul is uniquely individual and impossible to copy. PS: I am not even able to copy myself. I couldn’t reproduce the same painting twice even if I repeat the same “motif.” Each work is a unique moment in time and can never be recaptured. There are 2 comments for No one can copy ‘soul’ by Jeffrey Hessing
From: Anonymous — Feb 25, 2013

Well said, sir! And your painting is so beautiful! Merci!

From: Andre Satie — Feb 26, 2013


  Watercolour and collage uncopyable by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA  

by Terrie Christian

In watercolor, especially with a wet-into-wet technique, no two paintings could ever be exactly the same. The paint itself sediments, blooms or mixes in different ways each time that then tell us where to go next in the painting! It is my first and still my highest art love. In collage, I paint all my own papers with acrylic or I tear up old watercolors for use in new ways. I choose not to use any other artist’s images in my collages. “Skeptical” has hair from a wetted wrinkled brown bag then infused with red acrylic, various papers I painted and her shirt is a failed acrylic painting. Her earrings are blue acrylic with glitter painted on brown craft paper and the background is black gesso. Creativity with the paints and materials abound in this wonderful media! I love all the variations the paints make almost on their own! Each tear is individual. Who could ever copy that?   The trouble with copying by Elizabeth Concannon, St. Louis, MO, USA  

“Tales well told”
mixed media
by Elizabeth Concannon

What is particularly interesting about copying a painting is that (if you try it) even the artist has trouble copying his/her own work (if not using notes or other helpful records). And it is always interesting as a teacher to have each member of the class attempt copies of your own work too. Some students and even other teachers come close — but there is always a touch that is a giveaway — maybe the emotion or dedication to a purpose is only done once in that way by that artist. That part is personal. It is of course possible to learn from copying. But there should be more to the lesson than that. When sales, money, reputation, lies and truth are attached to the copying, then there is real trouble.   Chinese copying industry by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA  

“Indiana Farm”
oil painting
by Diane Overmyer

About ten years ago I was at the National Sculpture Society’s Annual Gathering and attended a lecture about Chinese copyists. Internationally known sculptors were having a terrible time due to inferior imitations of their work being produced in China and sold at lower prices than the artist’s work sells for in the US. The lecture included images of work by Jane DeDecker, Kent Ulberg, Rosetta and other artists whose studios we had visited and whose work we had seen up close and personal. The knock off versions of their work were shown on the screen beside the authentic sculptures. We all could tell a difference between the “real thing” and the knockoffs, but could the general public? I also have read about the factories where paintings are knocked off and produced like any other factory made product. Another ironic and tragic side to story is that as a result of all of this nonsense, perfectly legitimate, extremely talented Asian artists are sometimes viewed with skepticism because patrons are afraid that their works may not be “the real thing.” (RG note) Thanks, Diane. Some time ago I wrote a twice-weekly letter protesting the use of mine and hundreds of other (mostly Canadian) painter’s work on a Chinese website. Through sheer persistence we managed to get the work taken down, but much of it has popped up again on other sites. The Chinese idea of copyright is “right to copy.” There is 1 comment for Chinese copying industry by Diane Overmyer
From: Kathy Howard — Feb 27, 2013

I have experienced something interesting in many Asian countries I have visited, which may account for the prolific coping of art. While visiting Vietnam, in the capital city of Saigon, I wished to visit a museum or art gallery…….there aren’t any. You could find some stuff at the flea market. In the Asian culture, showing of emotion or not following the straight and narrow are mostly frowned upon. There were many beautiful works I ran upon while shopping, only to find they were copied in every shop I went into. China has many renowned artists, but in general being an artist is an anomaly and as stated above their works are sometimes viewed with skepticism.

  Forget the posthumous stuff by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands  

“Storm at sea”
oil painting
by Robin Shillcock

Artists have enough on their plates as it is to have to worry about what fakers might or might not do later on. Most artists stand a fat chance of not being falsified, simply because they never make the big numbers like e.g. van Gogh or Monet. I’ll do my best to make my paintings “time endurable” — meaning one has to adhere to a certain order concerning oil painting technique, which is not necessary for those painting with plastic paint (acrylics) — and I’ll also try to get a few works into art museums and certain art collections, but that is as far as I’ll take it. So, to be short, I say to hell with what happens when I’m carried feet first through the front door! Vincent van Gogh became a big name primarily because of what his brother Theo’s wife did to keep his work from slipping into obscurity; she was visionary in understanding that after Impressionism’s fade-out as an avant-garde movement, the upcoming expressionistic movements offered van Gogh’s sticky style a perfect fit. She got his work into some good collections, one that of Mrs. Kröller-Muller, which went on to become the famed Kröller-Muller Museum in Otterloo, beautifully situated in one of Holland’s national parks, and owning perhaps the largest collection of van Gogh in the world. There’s little reason to believe that contemporary painters who reach the highest prices in their lifetime will keep on doing so after they kick the bucket. One reason may be that many artists, especially those that have found great popularity with the public, reach a point in life (somewhere around 70, 75?) where they are content to reproduce their own “hits.” Very sad. It’s almost always like this: great popularity during your lifetime quickly loses its fizz once you close the curtains, turn out the light and say goodnight. Smart handling of an artist’s legacy might make a difference, but would require grooming of one’s children while most prefer to kick them out the door a.s.a.p. Popular artists have this megalomaniac dream that their work needs its own museum, and some artists manage to found their own museum (e.g. Robert Bateman on Vancouver Is.), but it is no guarantee you will not quietly slip into obscurity after all, or that your work will be sought out by counterfeiters. There are 3 comments for Forget the posthumous stuff by Robin Shillcock
From: Jackie Knott — Feb 25, 2013

Valid points, well said … and a fine seascape.

From: Verna Korkie — Feb 26, 2013

Robin, I love what you said about grooming one’s children. In fact, that is exactly what I am doing, and even more so with my grandchildren. As one without much knowledge of my genetic heritage (I’m adopted), I view myself as the first drop of rain. Establishing continuity of “family” through my art has become a mission, a purpose – – as well as being rewarding to the extreme. My 8 year old granddaughter (at the time) said to me, “No offense Grandma V, but can I have the Pear when you die?” I assured her she could have it long before then. Many thanks for your thoughtful input, Robin.

From: McDevitt — Feb 26, 2013

Great painting. At the small scale here, your figure is a second read; is it so in the full size?

  In praise of the doodle by John Pryce, Uxbridge, ON, Canada  

by John Pryce

When you are doodling, you are not trying to emulate anyone else but subconsciously developing a vocabulary of shapes and hand movements that are simply and wonderfully your own. I believe these subconscious doodles are a window into our soul. We all have a personal handwriting style and some experts believe that it says a lot about our personality. Doodling seems to be one way to develop a personal style or vocabulary of shapes and movements that will surface in your drawing and painting. Working on the basic skills such as drawing, color theory and composition without being influenced by the style of others, will eventually evolve into a recognizable style of your own. We also have our own library of life experiences that have shaped our lives and personalities. It will show in your work. There is 1 comment for In praise of the doodle by John Pryce
From: Robin d’Arcy Shillcock — Feb 26, 2013

Righto John. Doodling is a great way of bringing out what was absorbed in the mind when e.g. drawing a certain subject. I find I do a lot of half-conscious doodling when I’m stuck in the development of a painting, or before embarking on a new painting and unsure from which angle to tackle it. It’s a good way of clearing the mind. In that respect it is a window into the labyrinth called memory, if perhaps not the soul. I used to keep my doodles, but have become sloppy with them because if I hang on to everything that comes out of my hands, all the paperwork could serve to fill in Lake Erie.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The personal touch

From: Jackie Knott — Feb 22, 2013

Imitation is the highest form of flattery? Copies just might be the best means of judging whether we’ve “made it.” I may use more or less the same procedures but still experiment a great deal with technique; the reason being I’ve never been totally happy with the final result … still evolving. I’m in the midst of playing with another in what I’m working on right now – I have no set formula to copy. I have noticed in searching the artists that take your workshops and frequent this forum, there are quite a few who adapt to the Genn “look.” Need to be careful with that … it’s like wearing someone else’s shoes. They don’t fit. I saw a documentary on British forger Shaun Greenhalgh and was bowled over how talented this man was. His father and mother were in on a hoax that spanned decades. I was bewildered why the son didn’t make his own reputation with his exceptional skill, and the father promote him exercising his own marketing ability. This brilliantly capable artist never found his potential … such a shame. He’s out of prison and supposedly selling but I can’t find a website. I may use a unique and hidden mark on my paintings but that’s as “signature” as I care to bother with.

From: Julia — Feb 22, 2013

I detest copiers, fakers, borrowers in art, that is a theft not a flattery!! My pieces – imperfect, not as good as so and so, selling for less than this and that…..all have something extraordinary in them – those are MINE! Original! My mind and hands created them, my money paid for the research, materials, schools, workshops… and MY DNA is in each painted piece, hidden well. So go ahead, copy it – make my day!

From: Jatinder G. — Feb 22, 2013

Everyone is imitating someone. There is NOTHING new under the sun. Further developing an adopted style is what EVERYONE is doing, more or less successful. “Genn look” didn’t come from thin air, it evolved as well, and it is an honor to carry it on. If you think that your art is truly unique without any resemblance or reference to anyone else’s work, publish it here and let’s discuss it. In reality, even the best artists only achieve a degree of uniqueness that distinguishes them from others. That uniqueness is a tip of the iceberg with a giant base adopted from others. It always amazes me how some people would like us to forget this as soon as they think they made it. BTW, modern art was an attempt to dispose of this concept, but it just proved how the search for novelty itself became an imitation of a concept without meaning.

From: Rick Woods — Feb 22, 2013

There is a band of 13 of us doing a group show here in Reno, “Knockoffs” is this theme, and I’m throwing Winslow Homer, Frederick Remington and Charles Scheeler into the mix at this point. All in fun, no fraud intended, and maybe I should add something “Gennish”. Hm. Winslow Homer’s watercolors are deceptively simple, and so much serendipity flows into the process that doing a convincing copy is fiendishly difficult. I think my attempt convinces from a galloping horse, but those one-stroke wet-in-wet passes are impossible to re-create.

From: Duane Ellifritt — Feb 22, 2013
From: Lynda Davison — Feb 22, 2013

I hate to burst your bubble here…but those who would copy yours or anyone’s works are probably NOT the least bit interested in the “creative techniques”. They are after the “look” only…as that is what sells it for them. Artworks that are known to be good sellers are what they want to copy…obviously because they want to get in on the market too. Unfortunately most buyers of these are not real “art collectors”…they are folks looking for a good deal on a pleasing image. This is evident by the success of those art shops (where ever they are) that have multiple artists employed just to do these “copies” day after day. There will always be Otto Wackers and such entities and they don’t care a hill of beans about how your art was “made”.

From: Kellianne Land — Feb 22, 2013
From: Margaret Twomey — Feb 22, 2013
From: Helene Cliche — Feb 22, 2013

Being personal needs a lot of introspection and reflection. We only can be our self, trying to go into the others step is always disturbing, and gives a bad feeling. Being our true self is what painting is all about, showing your soul, or a part of it.

From: Deb Jedynak — Feb 22, 2013

I really appreciate your wise advice. You help me become a better artist each time I read your letter. I’m working on a Prismacolor sketch of my choir director and dear friend Ed. I think he will really like it when I see him next month in Chicago. I’ve got to go back home and sing during holy week so I’ll be bringing the picture with me.

From: Deigo Bustamante — Feb 24, 2013

Childlike and semi primitive paintings are easier to copy than ones requiring great skill like a Sargent or a Rembrandt. In Vincent’s case there are very few paintings that have sophisticated colouring or design. Yes, easy mark. People buy the myth and the story, not the art.

From: Dianne Guerin — Feb 24, 2013

A painting is much like our fingerprints or snow flake patterns, no two are alike. Years ago, when I took art lessons, I was always amazed at how when two or more painted the same photograph, how very different one’s interpretation was than another. Like night and day!

From: Nancy Cantelon — Feb 24, 2013

I use mixed media, which includes watercolour and acrylic paints, as well as Derwent coloured pencils for loose lines. The often squiggly and wild lines are my personal touch. After painting a layered background with forms, shadows and light, I let my spirit rip, ‘in the zone,’ and the painting becomes what it will.

From: Jon Figueras — Feb 24, 2013
From: Bill Hibberd — Feb 24, 2013

I am listening to a discussion on the resurgence of Leninism among young people globally. It occurs to me that we creative people are super capitalists, perhaps more effective than even the most aggressive corporations. Consider this example; a successful artist gathers together $200 worth of materials, then with imagination and labour transforms those disparate elements into something new and unique. This “Art” could be valued at up to $25,000 or even more. Even a market value of $2200 has a 1000% profit margin. This is for one piece that may represent a few days labour or less. Remarkable. My sons both work in the digital animation world. Consider that my son cultivates an idea in his mind, scribbles on a notepad for a time, then creates some digital code which he passes on to a small team of other creatives. Ultimately, after a few months this germ of an idea blossoms into a small video game that is played by millions of children daily and that generates millions of dollars monthly. Perhaps the future of our economy is best handled by artists, super capitalists. Just a thought.

From: Ed Purviance — Feb 24, 2013

Deepening the mystery is not just an anti-faker’s ploy, it’s the basis of good art.

From: Densie Bezanson — Feb 25, 2013

I noticed you put a response of mine into the featured comments n the last letter. Thank you. I had an email today from the Californian client that I did the good deed for and had traded her a painting she had purchased at another gallery. Today I had a wonderful surprise in my In-Box. She is buying 3 more paintings from me. It was truly a surprise and she’s very happy with me. I’m so glad I exchanged her painting for her.

From: Clayton Lachance — Feb 25, 2013

Putting in a personal touch has always been good advice, even, in today’s melee, a “bad” personal touch is most valuable.

From: Susan Holland — Feb 25, 2013

Putting your signature, or fingerprint, or special mark on the ground of a painting is a way to imprint it in a way that no one else can. Once painted over, the imprint is there just where you decided to put it. Frankly, I think it’s hard NOT to put fingerprints on one’s paintings…but that’s just me putting “everything” into my work.

From: Darla — Feb 26, 2013

I’ve never seen a painting of mine copied, but years ago I was shocked to find someone selling copies of a distinctive ring I’d sculpted, flaws and all. Actually, they didn’t copy it as in sculpting something similar, they had acquired a mold of it from the person I had hired to do the casting. In painting, this would be equivalent to someone selling giclees from a direct photographic image of your work. Has this happened to anyone?

From: Rebecca Skelton — Feb 26, 2013
From: Mike Barr — Feb 26, 2013

I’ve had work copied off eBay. The Chinese copy the listing details including a photo of the painting then try and sell it themselves…if they do sell..then they paint a copy of the original!! It happened to me and only found out when someone asked if mine or the painting in China was the original! I got eBay to shut the site down.

From: Ann Trainor Domingue — Feb 27, 2013
From: Rick Rotante — Feb 28, 2013

There is a danger with trying to be so unique and tricky with how you paint that the painting will suffer from too much thought on how to make it “secret” or “special” with clever marks hidden or embedded. Your work will be copied anyway and badly, but still you run the risk of losing revenue from those making bad copies. I believe you still have to be diligent on how you produce your work but be careful you don’t get swallowed up in the process and loss sight of the final outcome which is good work. If, by some chance your work is relentlessly copied, you should be in a position to get a good attorney to fight for you, ultimately you need to just concentrate on making good art and damn the rest.

From: Marj Early, Eureka, CA — Feb 28, 2013

Thank you for your letter about artists’ opportunities to make world peace. I have been thinking about that for a long time but I don’t know where to start.

     Featured Workshop: Donald Jurney
022613_robert-genn Donald Jurney workshops Next workshops are held in England and France   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.

After The Storm

acrylic gouache on panel, 12 x 16 inches Marilynn Brandenburger, 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 Angela Lynch of Toronto, ON, Canada, who wrote, “You might want to read the book The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick. It’s a true story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the greatest art hoax of the 20th Century. I just couldn’t put it down!” And also Yves Bouchard of Paris, France, who wrote, “The point is not that people can’t get your work right, it’s that customers, conservateurs and curators are regularly confused.”