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.
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
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
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.
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Attributing copies of others’ work
by Helen Sica, Northport, MI, USA
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
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.
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Watercolour and collage uncopyable
by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA
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
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
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.”
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Forget the posthumous stuff
by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands
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.
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In praise of the doodle
by John Pryce, Uxbridge, ON, Canada
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.
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Enjoy the past comments below for The personal touch…
Featured Workshop: Donald Jurney
After The Storm
acrylic gouache on panel, 12 x 16 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 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.”