Sunday, March 17, 2013

How to copy

Recently I opened up my Facebook page and found an interiors shop I like featuring a brand new artist. The painting looked very familiar, and I thought, “That’s Artist X!”
But when I read the post, it wasn’t Artist X, it was a brand new artist. So brand new, she didn’t even have a web page yet, but she did have a Pinterest page, and guess what? Artist X is an artist she admires! Admires so much apparently, that she doesn’t mind completely ripping her off and then selling the work.

The issue of copying and copyright is one that affects musicians, writers and artists. With the internet, it’s much easier to find ideas. Musicians are the most protected, you can't even quote song lyrics without permission but riffs are harder to prove. While exact plagiarism is easy to trace, writers have more difficulty protecting their ideas, thus the more than 50 copiers of 50 Shades of Grey. Most artists can’t be bothered pursuing expensive or time-consuming legal action, and the copiers get away with it.  In addition, people seem to believe that because they live far away from the original artist it’s not really theft. But the internet also makes it easier to get caught.

In recent conversations with a leather artisan and a jewellery maker, both found people making replicas of their work. In gentle communications with either the store or copier, both were told that the work “wasn’t exactly the same.” The artisans had a sad resignation when they told me their stories. I think they felt abused, but didn’t want to drain their creative energies going after the offenders. But the sadness remained as they told their stories. Many artists have also told me that etsy is a ground zero for copiers' inspirations.

Certainly, copying is a good way to learn. Copying was one of the original methods of teaching drawing, which you can still see in museums to this day. If I see an artwork I like, I analyze right away why the composition is pleasing to me or why the size/palette/medium works. I have even done works “in the manner” of artists like Basquiat or Wayne Thiebaud. Some were for school assignments and others were experiments.

Any artist is visually inspired. I have seen motifs on damask fabrics or on antique tiles, and then used them in my work. I have seen colour combinations I liked, and created a palette around them. When am I crossing the line into copying?
Since I’m standing here on a soapbox, I should confess one case, from my own practice, where I might be accused of copying. I have long admired the work of Richard Diebenkorn. I like his use of subtle image under thin paint, his switching between representation and abstraction, his colours, and his composition. In fact, I liked his compositional form so much, that I did a one-page art school assignment on it. Then a year later, I did this painting:

lines revealed

Ocean Park 54 by Richard Diebenkorn

Ocean Park 116 by Richard Diebenkorn

I wasn’t consciously thinking about Diebenkorn when I did the top painting layer, and but certainly there’s no question that there is a resemblance in terms of the final composition and palette. I didn’t copy a single painting, more like I took everything I liked about him, stuffed it in a blender and spewed out this painting. Then, I added my own technique of ripping away the surface and created the exposed wood, randomness, energy, and layering that can be found in most of my art. Originally, I had intended to paint more layers on top, but the composition was so pleasing that I stopped right there. I resined the work, and then featured it in an open studio. It wasn’t until someone mentioned that it reminded them of Diebenkorn, that I realized the resemblance.

So is the final painting mine or a homage? I guess that is debatable, but the fact I even have to ask the question, means that it’s too close. Since then, I have learnt to ask myself if there are visible influences in my work, and if there are I obliterate them. As artists we are visually stimulated and have great visual memories, and we have to make sure that we are not unconsciously copying another’s style or content. If we are consciously copying, a pox on us.

When I first found the copier, I was incensed. I had made the connection that others might not, given that the copier is in Australia and the original artist is not hugely famous. I wanted to email everyone involved, the store, the artist, the copier and the art website which originally featured the artist. In fact, I wrote a whole post, exposing her and other artists I've recently found who copy. But when I talked with my good friend, who also happens to be a life coach, she asked what exactly I was trying to accomplish. Did I want to humiliate and shame artists?
I realized that what I really wanted was prevention: for all artists not to copy each other’s imagination. First I needed to look at myself and see if I could pass scrutiny, and if not then I don’t get to throw the first stone. We can definitely get inspired by work we see and learn from it. Goodness, artists teach workshops so we can learn their technique. We can copy at first, but then we have to stay in the studio and push the work until it becomes our own.

In this case, I noticed that the copier’s work was not as good as the original, she had copied the motifs and techniques, but was missing the random and aged qualities that made the originals sparkle. Still I feel sorry for whoever buys the painting. They own a hollow artwork which lacks its own creative spirit.


  1. A very thoughtful analysis of a difficult topic, I'm sure, for any creative person: where to draw the line between inspiration and appropriation.

    1. There are so many questions around appropriation, from using photos as painting sources, to collage resources or digital manipulation. Maybe we can only judge from the final product, and whether it has evolved sufficiently from the original source to be original again.

  2. Great article, with lots for me to think about. I really believe intention has a lot to do with it; is the copier intending to create a fraud or was the intention to come up with something new?
    There will probably never be a firm line drawn in the sand, although the courts have had to draw those lines. George Harrison lost a plagarism case many years ago for his song 'My Sweet Lord', because three chords were identical to the 1963 Chiffons' song 'He's So Fine'. The judge said that although it had been entirely subconscious, it was still too similar, and Harrison lost his case. 'My Sweet Lord' is still a great song (George was always my favourite Beatle :) and to my mind a better song than 'He's So Fine'. George Harrison had absorbed the song, along with the hundreds of others he'd listened to, and when he went to write his own songs put an entirely new stamp on it, those three chords notwithstanding. For starters, who else could write a catchy pop song about Lord Krishna and have the world humming along with him?
    As a writer, the only time I worry about copying is when I'm putting researched work into my fiction. I make notes, but I always worry that when I add them to my story I might subconsciously write it the way I read it. I don't worry about it with my fiction otherwise because I am so longwinded there's no room for anyone else's style to make an appearance!

    1. Definitely we are subconsciously influenced by everything we take in, our reading, our viewing, our listening. But perhaps intention is becoming easier to discern. Since we expose ourselves in so many ways online, it becomes actually possible to trace our thinking through the various social media we use. Anyone can tell where we've been, what books we've read, what photos we've seen, what artists we love...something a little scary to consider.