Good artists borrow; great artists steal.

Cezanne Figure and Photo Source
Cezanne Figure and Photo Source

Albert Einstein once said “Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources” but in this new age of information and technology this is becoming increasingly difficult and that’s probably a good thing.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but if your work and ideas are being used by others for gain that that’s obviously very negative.

Copyscape is a service that allows you to check text and see if someone has duplicated it on the internet and published it elsewhere. If you search for on Copyscape it flags up the Streisand Effect quote I used for an earlier article that has been used elsewhere. Otherwise I’m happy to say that everything in this blog is original and no one else has copied it. I believe that Google uses a similar method to see if people are copying other websites or simply creating duplicate websites/articles to create more backlinks.

In a similar way Reverse Image searches allow you to use an image to see if something similar can be found on the internet. Tineye is the one I use the most and can be very handy for photos and drawings. Actually when I’ve found people using my creations I have been more flattered than outraged but it’s still good to get in touch and make sure you get the credit.

The problem is that when blocks are put in place to stop people from doing things there is almost always a way to get around the block. Somebody came up with the idea that if you want to copy an article and not get it flagged up then all you have to do is copy it to a different language automatically and then copy it back again. In this elaborate technological version of Chinese whispers the end result will be quite a different article and will usually be fairly unintelligible. If our aim as content creators is to enrich the web with original content then this should be anathema to us.

Pablo Picasso went a step further than Albert Einstein and a saying that’s often attributed to him is “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.”

Many artists use photographs as a basis for their work and if you’re taking the original photograph you’re controlling the lighting and composition and this can be a handy tool in the creative process. This image shows the famous Norman Rockwell Painting and the photo on which he based this painting. He staged the photo and put his own spin on the painting so I don’t think this devalues his work in any way.

Norman Rockwell Cop Kid Diner Painting and it's original Photo Source
Norman Rockwell Cop Kid Diner Painting and it’s original Photo Source

I was being taught some of the techniques of Sight-Size drawing a few years ago by Anastasia Pollard and asked her about this. She’s a very talented artist who’s had paintings displayed multiple times at the BP portrait awards and even though she can draw very skillfully from life often completes paintings from photographs due to time constraints and the difficulty in getting a subject to sit for the period of time needed to complete a painting.

In September 1888 Van Gogh – answering to a letter of his sister Wil who had told him of a recent photograph of their mother – asked for a print. About a week later he received it, but – “troubled by the black” – sat down to paint a copy based on this likeness:Van Gogh’s initial introduction to art was through his mother, an amateur artist. This is photo that he was sent by his sister and his interpretation of it.

Van Goghs Mother and Photo Source
Van Gogh’s Mother and Photo Source

Okay but what if you’re using somebody else’s photo as the basis for your own painting. Is that justifiable ? You might be surprised to find out that some of the most famous painters from the 20th Century based their paintings on photos. Here are some famous examples.

Two Women by the photogarpher Henry Lemasson
Two Women by the photographer Henry Lemasson

Does this look familiar ?

Gauguin Mother and Daughter Painting 1890
Gauguin Mother and Daughter Painting 1890
Cezanne Figure and Photo Source
Cezanne Figure and Photo Source

I’m not sure if Cezanne was involved in the original photograph.

Here’s a video of Kirby Ferguson’s TED talk. He argues that all culture is based on the indirect or direct (majority of time) repurposing of existing cultural artifacts. Really fascinating and well worth watching. More of his short films on a similar theme can be found here.

If we are influenced by the world around us and this ignites our creativity then with easy access to a wider variety of sources on the internet does this mean that we will become more creative or will we just copy more work ?

Looking further into this it appears that many artists aren’t just influenced by others but directly plagiarise but that’s something for another article.

1 Comment

  1. I am a sculptor (mainly) and do many animal portraits. I post my work on facebook a lot and show the sculpting process beginning to end.
    What irks me are painters who are like human photocopiers who are very skillful at making their paintings look photgraphic. They never post the photograph that they are working from, and if I ask to see it, they “block or unfriend me” or ignore my requests altogether.
    I can paint from memory or my imagination and sculpt that way too. If I’m doing a portrait of a horse for example, I can look at multiple photographs the owner took while the animal was still living. If the horse was standing I can sculpt it in any pose I wan’t – like rearing or running. If a dog is old, I can paint or sculpt it as it was at a young age without a photo to even go by.
    To me this is the essense of being a REAL artist instead of a human xerox machine.
    Some of these “copier” artists get large comissions for their art work – and their ability to copy what they see is extraordinary, I could also take a photograph and project it onto a canvas, sketch it on (they do show their paintings half done with the other half perfectly drawn out on the paper or canvas. They enlarge it to any size they want and these “artists” get all kinds of accolades for their picture perfect work. If they are doing their own photography for their paintings then I don’t have an issue, but stealing photography and copying it is infringement and should be severely punished! If an artist gets sniffy when you ask about their sources – beware!

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