Monday, August 15, 2016

Beyond the ‘Copyright Infringement’ Question

Winter Whites, oil, 16x20
I knew firsthand when I stood in this spot how intense
the sun glare was, which is what I wanted to capture and
convey in this painting.

After my last blog post about artist copyright infringement (“Staying Out of the Art WorldDoghouse”), I received a lot of questions. Although I didn’t want to try to pose as an authority on the topic, I sort of expected that I’d drum up a lot of questions and discussions.

In the feedback I received, everyone seemed to be in agreement that copying from others’ photos or artwork and putting the copied work in public view without permission from the originating artist/photographer is not a good thing. Most of the questions had to do with artists who often worked from others’ photos with permission, and possibly changed something within the image. The short answer, again, is if you’re entering your painting from that borrowed photo into a competitive show, simply read every word of the rules of the competition--and follow them. Regarding other situations using “permission-granted” photos, such as noncompetitive exhibits or selling that work, in most cases it’s fine legally.

But …

My advice to artists who wish to stretch their skills and develop a professional reputation is that you’ll eventually want your work to be just that … YOUR WORK. Completely and entirely.

In my workshops, I teach a lot about composition, and manipulating your reference photos. For landscape artists who work from photos, the creative process really starts when you’re standing there in the landscape ready to shoot your photos. You begin to visualize the painting possibilities at that moment. (You also react to the landscape on some emotional level … more on that below.) However, after you shoot the photo, remember, YOU'RE the artist ... not your camera. 

Even when taking great care to compose the landscape images in my camera’s viewfinder, I rarely paint from a photo exactly as it comes off my camera. I upload the photos onto my computer, into Photoshop Elements, and I manipulate the heck out of them. I spend a lot of time doing this. I shift the horizon up. I shift it down. I crop it a little. And then a lot. I try both a vertical and horizontal version. Maybe even a square. Occasionally a long vertical or horizontal.

Then after that process, I create a thumbnail sketch, further shifting elements this way and that, tweaking sizes and relative proportions of elements larger or smaller to achieve a nice variety of large and small abstract shapes.

Now possibly those artists who are borrowing photos may also be doing some of this. But I find that most artists who work from photos other than their own are not usually in the habit of pursuing their own completely original compositions. (Leaving out one tree isn’t really creating your own composition.)

Another important aspect of all of this is something I’ve discussed in a recent blog post, which has to do with capturing that elusive sense of place in your landscape. This is difficult to do if you haven’t experienced the landscape firsthand by standing right there yourself when the photo is taken. You won’t know what the light and shadow really looked like and how it will most certainly differ from the visual information the photo will give you. Then there are also those other more subtle nuances that artists like to capture in their paintings … the feel of the wind, intense heat or bitter cold, moisture in the air, blinding sun glare, etc. … all very difficult to convey in a genuine way if you weren’t actually there. This all contributes to the visual message (see “It’s Not About Painting Things”) you’ll want to infuse into your painting, which in turn will affect the composition you develop to best showcase that message. (And of course, painting the landscape on location [see “Location Location Location”] is the most ideal way to capture and record all this, but that’s another discussion, and we’re talking about working from photos here.)

I rarely paint from a photo I took more than a year ago if it’s from a location I don’t visit often. It’s too long ago for me to remember those nuances and emotional reactions. I also find that my better paintings tend to come from my more mediocre photos. I’m not a great photographer, but when I’ve managed to shoot a spectacular photo (by luck), I often fall into the trap of just copying what I see from the photo rather than incorporating more of an emotional reaction and visual message, based on my experience at that location.

The two reference photos above were used for my initial study
(below) and the larger painting (Winter Whites) at the top of
this post. I painted the study and then the larger piece soon after
I stood at this spot so I could remember more accurately the
lighting and shadows, intense glare reflecting off the snow, color
temperature, and other nuances that a photo will never capture.

Hidden Stream, oil, 8x10 (study for Winter Whites.)
After observing the effect I captured in this study,
I wanted to push the shadows slightly lighter to intensify
the glare effect that I remembered from this location.

When you can infuse this first-hand personal reaction to the landscape, and become comfortable with manipulating your own images to best feature this personal reaction, then you can call your work YOUR WORK. And this is the type of work that can and should be awarded in competitive shows, and, dare I say, be rewarded financially in sales to the originating hard-working artist who strives for what I’ve described here.

So with this whole grey area of working from borrowed photos with permission, it’s really about your own goals, how far you want to stretch yourself as an artist, and the reputation you wish to develop. If you’re a beginner who’s still learning the basics and aren’t yet ready to put your work out there, working from good photos, even if they’re someone else’s, isn’t a bad way to start. Just keep this and my last blog post in mind when you’re ready to step out there and let the world take notice.

Upcoming Workshops:

Dahlonega, GA - 3-day PASTEL/OIL workshop - FULL WITH WAIT LIST
Sept., 22, 23 & 24, 2016 (Thurs/Fri/Sat)
The Art Loft
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Santa Barbara, CA - 3-day PASTEL/OIL workshop (studio & plein air) - FULL WITH WAIT LIST*
Oct. 11, 12 & 13, 2016 (Tues/Wed/Thurs)
Studio & Plein Air
Santa Barbara, CA
Contact Kris Buck: 805-964-1464, 
*Possibility of a 2nd workshop added if there are enough people on the wait list.

Stevensville, MD - 3-day PASTEL/OIL workshop
November 2, 3 & 4, 2016 (Wed/Thurs/Fri) - REVISED DATES
Chesapeake Fine Art Studio 
609 Thompson Creek Rd.
Stevensville, MD 21666
(about 40 minutes from downtown Baltimore)

For full workshop schedule, visit

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