Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Staying Out of the Art World Dog House.

A couple of years ago, I wrote up the following information for my local students back in Atlanta, and it has been suggested by several of them to also share it on my blog. This is all in response to the many questions I receive from students on the subject of painting from instructor photos and copying other artists' work. It's taken me awhile to finally decide to post this, because I don't want to become known as the "copyright infringement police" for artists. But since I do receive so many questions and come across so much confusion about all this, I wanted to have my answer posted in a spot where I can direct students or anyone else who poses questions to me on this topic.

Afternoon Glow, pastel, 8x10
A typical landscape demo that I've used in classes/workshops, 
and made the photo available to students.

The following summary is really meant to keep you out of trouble with other artists, instructors and art organizations. These aren't my own personal rules or preferences, but the expectations in the art community as I've come to understand them. I see a lot of misuse simply due to lack of knowing the generally accepted ethics. And after all, I happily see new artists joining workshops all the time who are understandably not in the loop about all this.

Social media has brought about many changes on this topic and caused artists to adapt accordingly. Of course technology and social media will no doubt continue to evolve and cause more changes, but this is my current understanding.

Use of Other Artists' Photos

Most instructors share the use of their reference photos with students because the instructor often has a good supply of photos that will make good subject matter for the type of landscape painting he or she teaches. This also makes it more convenient for students who have limited time to gather their own photos or aren't as experienced taking their own photos. 

However, any photo image that an instructor shares is owned by that instructor...the image is his or her property. The actual copyright laws are supposed to be in favor of the artist who takes the photo, but truthfully, that's such a grey area if one were to claim anything in a court of law. And for most artists, it probably wouldn't even be financially worth pursuing in the event that an image (photo or artwork) was used/copied.

But you might want to be in the know regarding the ethical expectation in the art community. When an instructor provides photos for students as reference for paintings done in class, it's expected that the paintings done from those photos are for learning purposes only. The following is also expected:

- The work painted from those photos should not be entered in public exhibitions. (One possible exception could be student art shows at an art center at which the painting was done under the direction of an instructor at that center). When entering any art show, always read every word of the prospectus. Most juried art shows will clearly state that work painted from photo reference must be from your own photos and not completed in a class/workshop situation or under the direction of any instructor. Regardless of how hard you may work on a painting, if it doesn't meet the requirements of a show, it can and should be disqualified. I know of many instances in which this has happened. It's unsettling for both the disqualified artist and the instructor. And if your particular situation is in a grey area, it's normally best to simply avoid it.

- The work painted from those photos should not be posted anywhere online (social media, blogs, website, online galleries, etc.). Some students have posted online their work done from an instructor's photo and clearly state as such, including the instructor's name. It's a nice thought to give the instructor a nod online and mention some good feedback on the workshop with a social media or blog post like that. Of course we instructors appreciate nice feedback! But the way the internet and social media work, unfortunately sometimes images get separated from the attributed information, so this can sometimes backfire for both the student and instructor.

- Selling work done from another artist's/instructor's photo is also another grey area. If you get their permission, sure, technically that's fine. But I think the general preference of the art community as a whole is for an instructor to not be put in that situation in which they would feel bad saying "no" so they say reluctantly "yes." My recommendation is to keep those paintings from instructor photos in your studio for learning reference, or maybe to give as a gift to a close friend or family member.

- If you study from more than one instructor, as most artists do, and you would like to continue working from one instructor's photo in a different instructor's class, be sure to tell that instructor that it's another instructor's photo

I've focused here on use of landscape photos for landscape paintings. I haven't addressed working from still life set ups or models for figurative work in classroom/workshop settings under the direction of an instructor. However, both of those situations would have similar guidelines to what's mentioned above. I'm not going to address working from historical photos or other genres that may in some cases make use of copyright-free photos for portions of artwork, since that gets into a whole different area that may have a different set of standards on which I can't claim sufficient knowledge.

Use of Other Artists' Artwork

And of course, all of these guidelines would apply even more so if you were to copy another artist's completed artwork. As a learning exercise, it's not a bad idea to copy another artist's work. Artists have copied the great masters throughout the years as a great way to learn. But when it comes to copying living artists' work, as mentioned above regarding today’s online world, it's best to keep those practice exercises within the walls of your own studio. 

Why this is important for YOU

In general, keep in mind that most professional artists don't want to see copies of their work (or their photos from which they have likely already painted) showing up anywhere online or in the public view. But more importantly for you, when you do put a painting out there that copies or bears clear resemblance to a painting from another artist--especially an artist who may be more recognized for that painting--it reflects poorly on you more so than the originating artist.

I'm pretty sure that any infringement I've ever seen pertaining to my work or photos was never done with any negative intent. This lengthy explanation is only meant to be helpful in order to keep you out of the art world dog house. I expect that other artists and instructors may have a slightly different slant on this--some more lenient; some more strict--but to my knowledge these are the generally considered ethics in the art world these days.

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  1. Hi Barbara... this was perfectly stated! Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Marsha! Lots of thought put into it, so I'm glad to hear that it made sense. :-)

  2. Well said, Barbara, and just as you explained it in class.

    1. Thanks, Nancy! Hope you're still getting in lots of easel time!

  3. Beautifully said!! Ive tried explaining to my students in the past but they seem to think its nonsense!
    I did see a painting on line sometime ago, by a lady who I thought had clearly copied another well known artists work by changing the Vase colour and hoped that would suffice!! Not sure if it would as I thought it was the other artists work. So for me, I think I would steal clear of that too!!???

    1. Thanks, Joy! Glad to hear that you also try to keep your students informed on all this.