Anna Lomax

Every other day I hear about how an artist gets their work ripped off by another artist. It could either be a popular artist who has her work plagiarized by another, lesser-known artist (which we’re going to discuss about here), or they’re being ripped off by big organizations.

Now, I’m no fan of plagiarism – particularly when big organizations take advantage of artists and do not give them their dues. I believe that there’s a bit of miscommunication in there somewhere, and ultimately the chain of command is long enough that the blame falls on an individual, rather than the entire corporation itself, but then I’m digressing. Copying is wrong, especially when profit is being made off of another person’s hard work.

But over here, I want to talk to you – the ones who copy others. We’ve all done it sometime or other before – copying another person’s style or technique; all in the name of learning. I know you don’t want to profit from another artist’s work (unless you do, in which case you might not exactly be the person who would be interested in what I have to say), but it was all done without a mean bone in your body right? It’s not meant to bring attention to yourself (even if it did, it would be the wrong kind of attention, I can guarantee you that much). So here’s a little advice for you – stay away from putting these sort of learning exercises online. Don’t put it up on your blog, or Instagram it, or put it on Flickr. Let it reside in your sketchbook, where it will only see the light of day when you will it. And that the only pair of eyes that it will ever see is yours.

Besides that though, if you’re merely copying the style and technique of an artist, you’re not learning much at all. You might learn something new that you can include in your repertoire of skills, but it’s not all there is to it. You see, there’s an even bigger take-away from all of this. A more important angle that you’re missing. One that you might not have even thought of before.

Stories, ideas, concepts, process.

Now those are the things you need to watch out for. They’re the most important elements that you can learn from an artist – the way they see, and the way they process their stories make for even bigger lessons than you’ve ever imagined. Because the biggest challenge when it comes to drawing isn’t so much about the technique – a big chunk of it has to do with the content. A pretty picture may arouse a few seconds of interest, but if you go beyond and find that it’s merely a hollow shell, you won’t remember it at all. Once you’ve set your sights on art and illustration that makes you think, or one that informs you about an idea, or a piece that delights and surprise you – it changes the game completely.

Taking with you the process and ideas of another artists will only strengthen your vision, when you make it your own. Look at it through your own eyes – filter it, digest it, and recreate things that hold your vision true. Don’t just take in things visually. Learn to listen instead – and you’ll find yourself learning about the true meaning of art. And you’ll never be second best if you do.

[Want more stories about plagiarism?: Check out issue #7 of the Good to Know series!]

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I’d love to hear from you – what lessons have you learnt by looking at other people’s work? And if you feel the need to confess, then by all means it’s time to let that burden go – tomorrow’s a new day!

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[Image by Anna Lomax]
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35 comments

  1. Sasha says:

    I think style and technique are different things.

    Style is how something looks.

    Technique is how something is made.

    I love to look at how people make things. I learn so much from this and then take what I’ve learned and use my own style to make my own images.

    • Nino says:

      I totally agree with it being more the process that one needs to learn from. Being a music teacher my students often think if they can just copy me exactly I will be impressed or it will make them good at what they do. This however makes me really worried. What gives me an absolute thrill however is when a student starts to grasp the thought process behind what they are learning or doing. By learning this they will be able to become a musician in their own right and not just a copy of someone else.

  2. Sasha says:

    In case that’s confusing let me clarify. I do linocuts…I love to look at how other printmakers carve, to see their blocks, to see how they go about doing their business. To me this is technique.

    But similarly I love to watch how a painter splashes, swipes, swooshes the brush to make marks. To me this is technique. I might see a way of working that hadn’t occurred to me before and then take that and apply my own style/vision/content, etc…

    • Suzanne says:

      I long to ‘splash, swipe and swoosh’. There is nowhere near enough swooshing going on in my life right now. Loved reading that here. Thank you :-)

  3. lynn says:

    I feel I need to say a few things…
    In days gone by…artists would study with the masters using their techniques and skills for years..there didn’t seem to be a problem then.

    How many people are there on the planet? how many creative artists ect..sooner or later someone will come up with the same idea as you.

    I have seen it happen so much ( I worked at university) a student would develop something from a conceptual idea, based on a creative brief given by the tutor…work her socks off for 3 months and find more or less the same item popped up on etsy two weeks earlier.
    To be honest nothing is original since God and as long as you have the integrity to not rip off others products, and you develop your own style..relax..lifes far too short..honest xxxxxx

  4. JoAnn says:

    I learned in a college art appreciation class that the Impressionists worked together and supported each other’s differences and similarities. Since learning of their sharing of ideas I have never felt guilty about growing my own creativity by following another’s style because it never is exactly the same and may influence me to go into another direction.

  5. Amber Renee says:

    I love this. I agree that many miss the actual skill they should be learning from. Content does not come genuinely when it’s not your own. As an undergrad painter one of our assignments was to copy a master. We also had to research them. I chose someone I already had researched my entire life, Warhola, because the mere painting was not as important to me as his life, dreams, purpose, process, content and communication. Also this painting is not published online in my portfolio because it was simply a study. That’s as it should be, a study of an artist you admire to understand their process and how it could inspire your own. So many are so proud of everything they do, copies or not, they’re failing to see the bigger picture of creating art. It feels very shallow and obvious to see those works. Excellent article.

  6. Marite says:

    Such a wonderful and thoughtful article.

    I like to see how other make their artwork, their technique. I would never copy anyone’s artwork just for the sake of style, because I don’t want my style to be influenced in any way.

    For, me the best way of learning from others are livestreams, speedpainting/time-lapse videos, podcasts and tutorials, asking the questions directly to artist. Also doing value and color studies from older master paintings, learning composition helps a lot. :)

  7. p says:

    hmm…isn’t this a rather complicated and subjective topic ? ^^

    Artist A came with an original work in 2012,then a year later Artist B came with a similar style work.Does it mean Artist B work is a copy of artist B just because of the similarity and delay of time? If the delay of time means the winner of rat race,is it fair for us to say artist B is the Copy cat?

    Miffy &Hello Kitty
    Dennis the menace

    Similar style/idea in many ways but not exactly the same.

  8. Copyright discussions proliferate like daisies on a warm spring day. In my opinion, if a person is becoming paranoid that their work is being ‘taken’ then they should never, ever post anything on the web. If your work is on the web in any way it is subject to being ‘hijacked’

    I think, barring the practice of ‘perfect’ masters forgeries, that it is unlikely that someone will hit ‘ your style all that well. It is a person’s spirit that goes into their art. Others may play with the concept and, if that rocks their boat, okay.

    The web is a wonderful place for inspiration and learning. It’s also got an underbelly that, although we wish we did not have to acknowledge it , is there. Post what you want, just be sure that you will be okay if someone takes your inspiration and runs with it – and then posts it as their own !!

  9. Patricia says:

    I have to disagree with a lot of what you wrote here because part of the artist’s process *is* experimenting with a variety of styles and techniques. Throughout my university course work (2 different universities), a great deal of emphasis was given to copying the masters as a learning tool – for a variety of reasons, technique as well as vision.

    To dismiss a work of art because one labels it as nothing more than a “pretty picture” is as much a form of snobbery as it is a poor critique of the work because only the artist knows the true intent of the piece. The fact is that there really is no true definition of art and there never should be. We create because we can.

    • “To dismiss a work of art because one labels it as nothing more than a “pretty picture” is as much a form of snobbery as it is a poor critique of the work because only the artist knows the true intent of the piece. The fact is that there really is no true definition of art and there never should be. We create because we can.”

      thank you, Patricia. I could not have said that better.

    • amy says:

      Patricia, I agree that a lot of experimenting needs to be done – stylistically, technically as well as conceptually to further oneself’s work. Copying for learning (with no intention for profit) is what I’m going for here, and I’m challenging others to go deeper, not dismissing them wholly.

      I do agree that while there isn’t a true definition of art (especially these days), but there are threads of commonality between what makes an image great and another not so great. And this is my personal challenge: to view, understand and identify patterns about them to share with others. To create is anyone’s prerogative and is highly subjective (as you’ve so rightly said), so what opinion I express here is merely what I’ve come to see and experience. I’m still trying to make sense of it all myself, but to close, here is one of my favorite quotes from Degas: “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

  10. Ben says:

    I think it was Picasso who said. ‘good artist copy, great artist steal’ I think there is a distinct difference to plagiarising and copying/stealing.

    I don’t think you should be able to copyright a way of working. Rob Ryan for instance makes paper cuts. now everyone who makes paper cuts gets compared to him, but maybe he originally copied the idea from Lotte Reiniger, who knows. Another example is Hattie Stewart. We’ve all drawn over magazines over the years, because she has capitalised on it, does that mean its hers? (this isnt a dig at either hattie or rob, I like their work)

    I’ve recently started reconstructing classic paintings. I basically redraw them then illustrate. The main reason for this was to work on my own style while using well composed paintings as reference. I’m not hiding where they come from.

    what do people think of reinterpreting a painting? I don’t mean one of those stupid mona lisa ones, but a genuine attempt for one artist to take another artists painting and make it their own.

    • amy says:

      Good point Ben – I don’t think there is a copyright to the way things work. And if you ask me, some artist are a little sensitive these days, to the point that it makes a lot of people aware of it and end up walking on eggshells trying to make sure they don’t copy others.

      That being said, copying for the sake of learning is alright – but plagiarising something 95% and calling it their own is not. Not because it’s an affront to the original artist, but it’s more like an opportunity lost to really glean something deeper from the process.

  11. Dana says:

    I think it is useful to copy or imitate the “masters” of whatever craft you are learning — playing guitar, painting, writing poetry — we do it in sports, academics, fashion, etc. There is something worth while about copying a great artwork because it makes you really look at it, study it, figure out how it was done, practice new techniques. Copying is an important part of learning; it’s a springboard for independent practice. I like it when someone imitates a recognizable artwork and reinterprets it. I do this from time to time as a tribute to artists that have inspired me.

  12. Lia Craven says:

    I’ve learned a lot by sketching sketches by Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. It helped me understand how many different ways that line can act and help to shape the illusion of three dimensions. It hasn’t changed how I draw but it is another tool in my box as an artist. I’ve learned that no matter how badly you may want your line to look like another artist’s, your line is like a fingerprint and won’t be changed. This is good and makes your art unlike any other artists no matter if you copy them.

    • amy says:

      Exactly Liz – I hope more people will embrace their own fingerprint instead of just concentrating on perfecting other people’s technique or fingerprint!

  13. choux says:

    This is really interesting. I recently started watercolour painting and I was told I should paint other paintings to nail down my technique. I haven’t done that exactly. Instead, I paint photos and while it was fun to being with, I’m bored with it now because I become too fixated on making the work look “real”. So, thank you for this, Amy. I think my next step will be to focus on building stories, ideas and concepts and continue experimenting :)

  14. amy says:

    I have to jump in here and say that copying for learning is one of the most effective ways of learning, I do agree! But not many people go beyond learning the visual aspects of other artists’ work and this is where I feel that there are so much more opportunities to learn and take from – hence the subject of the article.

    And copying isn’t necessarily bad – it’s just how we frame our thoughts and processes when we do.

  15. Jesse Lu says:

    When I look at the work of artists I admire, I try and think real hard about what I love about their work, beyond the visual. It’s easy to figure out what you like visually, just by practicing and making choices over and over again and acknowledging what you like in your own work. But, that other stuff… that conceptual stuff that can be so tricky to figure out on your own… that stuff that seems so easy to just ‘borrow’ from other artists… that’s what I try and think about. I ask myself what it is about the artist’s entire body of work that I love, what is it about their concept that I love… For instance, I love Amy Cutler’s work, I think she’d brilliant, but I don’t want to draw pictures of ladies just like she does. So I asked myself what the most important thing about her work is to me, what intrigues me the most. Her storytelling, I love how she creates these little imaginary scenarios for her characters. So I asked myself, what kind of stories could I tell or how could I tell them… what kind of stories would I want to tell.

    By taking that little bit from Cutler, I can only progress my own work, and there is no way I could ever copy her, because what I’ve taken from her work is just an essence, a way of thinking, an approach… not a style, not a technique. And it is way more valuable as such.

  16. Dwie says:

    Observing some artist or their works in the way to understanding how it’s made is a great way to feed our skills. but mostly I experienced when I was students. We tend to forget the truth objective of this method. and trapped just to see it as technically way to learn and develop some art technique. It’s important to always remembering this kind of process is actually addressed inward, it’s a ways to poke us in how far we have understand our self, and the big deal from this method it’s how far we can enhance our cultural and life experience into an artistic ways.
    in the end I think the art technique /style it’s just output from what we have through in our life so far.
    Good article Amy, I really enjoy to read it! thank you..

  17. Nan says:

    While I agree the concept is, and should be the foci of a creative piece, I also believe there is nothing wrong with copying (or borrowing) an art technique/style for development/research purposes as long as you acknowledge the person of whom you drew inspiration from. This separates inspiration or learning from ‘plagiarism’.

    I am an illustration researcher and tutor at a university.
    While this may be a little strewn from topic, in research, advisers will tell their students a thesis can never be completely original.
    The researcher draws from existing theories, methodologies and case studies to shape their pieces. This does not necessarily mean copying, but rather using them as catalysts. If a student claims their work is original, they are simply not researching or working hard enough.

    I think this this idea can be applied when a creative makes, paints or draws. Final year design students work on a ‘return brief’ before making their graduate works. In the brief they look into several case studies of existing works from other creatives for inspiration in technique, style etc to refine their own ideas.

    While technique or style can be ‘borrowed’, a concept or idea is best not copied in its interpretation. If concept or style is similar we try to encourage students to interpret and execute in their own ways.

    • amy says:

      I love this quote Nan – ” If a student claims their work is original, they are simply not researching or working hard enough.” So true!

  18. Laura says:

    In school, I copied a tshirt design for a printmaking project. I would never put the work online and will never sell it, even though it’s good. But I do believe the exercise was incredibly valuable for me. I had never taken any illustration-based art courses. I could barely doodle flowers in my notebooks. I was scared of drawing. And copying that piece, with its intricacies and its figurative nature, allowed me to step away from the “i can’t do that” space in a comfortable way. I wasn’t likely to fail because I was copying someone else. And then when I succeeded, I suddenly had confidence that I could actually draw something.

    So while I think copying is overall a very negative action, there is something really useful about it in our learning stages. And definitely pulling minuscule pieces of others’ work for our own use is inevitable and can be really good for our work. I don’t see anything wrong with identifying a story or concept and then representing it in a new way on our own. So I’m glad to see you saying the same.

  19. Charlene Joye says:

    Confession:

    Over twenty years ago, while in college, I took my first painting class; of course, I was required to paint a picture.

    I set to looking for ideas in my copy of “The Best of Life,” 1973. I found a black and white photo described by “Life” as “one of best-loved brother and sister portraits in LIFE’S history…taken by their father.., W. Eugene Smith.”

    At the time, I was a religion major, and I had just read a passage out of the New Testament about a disciple asking Jesus, “how to get to heaven?” Jesus replied, “As Innocent as Children;” this became the name of my acrylic painting.

    I painted a 37″x39″ silhouette of the children walking out of the forest into the light. This painting remains my most favorite of all my work, and hangs in my living room.

    When people come into my home and see this painting, they always have to stop and take a closer look. The silhouette has many unintentional characters, ie: a dragon flying across the sky, a father looking down at the children, a snake striking out at them, to name a few.

    I have had offers to buy this painting, but I won’t sell it. I have however, taken a picture, and made prints as gifts to my friends.

  20. Another Confession

    I have been painting for slightly less than three years and had never tried my hand at painting before. I am mostly self taught and have been learning to paint by doing reproductions of the masters. I do Claude Monet’s, Degas, Cezanne etc.

    A little over one year ago my wife and I were in a small Art Gallery in Northern Ontario Canada. My wife saw a painting there and stated that she loved it. It had a price tag of $2,400.00 on it.

    I looked carefully at it and said to her that I thought I could make a copy of it for her. She laughed in doubt but we did shamefully take a photo of the painting with a cell phone.I did later paint a copy of the painting and it is hanging in my house. I was quite surprised at how well it came out and my wife loves it!

    Months later I went back to the same Art Gallery and tried to find out who the original Artist was but to no avail. While I was describing the painting, the clerk stated that it was like the style of an instructor they have and that it could be from one of his students.

    She showed me a painting instruction book for sale from this instructor and in it there were a few paintings very similar to the painting in question. With step by step instructions on how to reproduce them. I did purchase the book.

    Now I do feel my painting was/is plagiarism. There is no doubt in my mind it is a copy of the one seen for sale in the gallery. But is the original one a copy of the instructors and mine a copy of a copy? When an artist puts out an instruction book on how to paint do they lose any rights to their style?

    I am now trying to understand the copyright laws and only get confused by them. Back then I was not concerned about copyright laws I was simply learning how to paint. But now my originals and reproductions are beginning to sell.

    Towards the painting in question I have decided that I will not show it. It will never be seen outside of my house. But I don’t believe that absolves me of my crime.

    • Kelly Callahan says:

      Brian,

      What you painted is not plagiarism. Here is the definition of plagiarism: Plagiarism is the “wrongful appropriation” and “purloining and publication” of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions,” and the representation of them as one’s own original work.

      No way have you represented it to be the artist’s product (forgery) or as your original work. Copyright infringement involves copying another’s work for profit.

      If the artist is in fact a teacher who encourages students to follow his instructions for creating the painting, then you especially have nothing to feel guilty of.

      There simply are no rights to style. If there were, 1% of artist’s would be very rich and the rest of us in jail.

  21. Roxanne Tamberen says:

    Good article. There is so much “knocking off” happening in China, I wish there was a similar ethic being taught there!

  22. Willow says:

    No. If you need to copy other artists for ideas and stories then don’t be an artist. If you don’t have your own ideas and your own stories to tell, why be an artist at all? People who copy are lazy, looking for shortcuts and unwilling to do the hard work that making art and honing your craft is. Do your OWN thing or leave it altogether.

    And no, just because something is on the Internet it does not make it ok to copy it. These days, you need to be on the Internet to promote your art. Also, being on the Internet is the best way to make sure that if you get copied, people will now that the person copied you.

    Sure, occasionally people come up with similar ideas or have similar styles. But if you look at the entire portfolio of the artists you will be able to tell whether it’s just coincidence or copied.

  23. Brian says:

    I have to disagree! Copying the work of another artist (preferably a professional) is a fantasic learning tool. I’m not saying one should copy another’s art and say it is their own work, but as a practicing method, it’s very useful.

    When I attended art school, many of our assignments invoved discovering the works of artists that we liked, and we would make copies of their work. My instructor, who has work in the Guggenheim, was a strong advocate of copying professional artists. Also, Don Bluth, a professional animator has a whole series of videos where he encourages copying, because that’s how he learned and that’s the best way to learn very stylized art.

    But plagarising is bad.

    • amy says:

      I agree too Brian!

      I’m not saying to not learn by copying. That’s totally fine and it’s a great way to learn – to begin with. To dive deeper, and to engage with the artist and find out about their inspirations and treat them as a mentor; and that’s where one can understand the whys, instead of just focusing on the how. And then through our interpretation of these masters can we better understand the reasons why they’ve influenced us so. The dialogue needs to continue beyond just the surface – that’s what I was trying to say.

  24. William says:

    I have been both a (subconscious) copycat and the victim of a copycat in my time! When I was younger I got into art by drawing the characters I loved from video games and cartoons, and so my style inevitably became influenced by the artists who designed these characters.

    A few years ago I met a like minded chap on an online art community. At first he was very complimentary about my work, even drew a few of my characters as ‘gifts’. His work was getting a lot of attention, and his images of my characters were getting particularly favoured. Though somewhere on the page I was credited, I quickly started to feel uncomfortable with this.

    Then this person started to produce their own characters in the style of mine. Privately, I was flustered, but my own style was still very reminiscent of the cartoons and games I had loved as a child, and so I couldn’t really complain. Deciding to stay one step ahead, I started to work on my creative process like never before. I experimented, turned techniques upside down and really tried to find my own unique style. Then this person got back in touch, and I realised almost every time I had changed my style or explored something new, they had copied me. They said they were learning from me – but I am only an amateur myself and it felt rather more like having an art-stalker. A styleker?

    I used to be really mad about it, but now I’ve just sort of sucked it up. Our styles evolve and change – and as many previous posts have said, nothing is truly original any more.

    I try and use every piece of work as a stepping stone towards the next thing, rather than sitting on a style and trying to identify myself by it.

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