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Good copying vs bad copying?

Towards Lindesfarne_edited-1

Is there such a thing for an artist?

This post was prompted by one I spotted on Facebook this morning in an artists’ group to which I belong. The post posed the question of what one does when you find your work is being copied by someone – in this case someone you know.

This happened to me for the first time at the end of last year. Someone who had been coming to my printmaking workshops for a while on and off, posted some prints on Facebook that she had just submitted to a local gallery. They were not direct copies, but the palette, techniques used, subject matter and style, right down to the way they were framed were such that the prints could have been mistaken for my work. I was pretty shocked. I had seen it happen to other artists. Now I knew how it felt.

So when is it good to copy?

Back in the day, this was how the world’s most famous artists learned their craft – by copying the works of the old masters who had gone before them. My grandmother’s sister went to The Slade School of Art in London in the late 1920’s, early 1930’s. Various members of the family have paintings or drawings she did that are copies of famous works of art as a means of learning the techniques and skills required to find her own artist’s voice.

We all copy. We’ve all being doing it since we were babies. That is how we learned to talk, to walk, to feed and dress ourselves, to read and write. It is part and parcel of the learning process.

So, have I copied other artists? Absolutely, yes I most definitely have! I have copied to learn. There is a difference. The artist who had the biggest influence on my collagraph printmaking was Peter Wray for my abstract landscapes. My floral monotypes were originally heavily influenced by textile artist, Mandy Pattullo. In both cases I attended workshops taught by them in which the subject matter played a part in the direction my own work took.

The difference is …

I took the lessons I learnt at those workshops back to my studio; I practiced with them; I experimented with them; I played with them; I explored the element of serendipity that occurred during the process; I found my own language using the techniques they taught me.

Of the prints I created in those early days I knew which ones didn’t sit right with me. They didn’t sit right because they were poor imitations of someone else’s work. I’ve seen it happen with other artists’ work too. There is an ‘artist’ living locally, who copies, very badly, the work of another well known artist who sells for many thousands of pounds internationally, also living here in the North East of England. This ‘artist’ is simply no competition for the person whose work she is copying. And if you are capable of copying so that your work is as good as, or better than the artist from whose work it is derived, then you are FULLY capable of creating your own original works. You do not need to copy anyone else.

In my case, my primary purpose was to become more practiced, more skilled, to go on a voyage of discovery. Along the way, the lessons I’d learnt opened up new possibilities, generated new ideas and new excitement. I copied to learn … in order to find my own artistic voice. That is the difference.

I also used Peter Wray’s working methods in creating collagraphs in my own teaching. I have passed on what I learnt from him to countless others but I have always given credit where credit is due. Likewise, the knowledge I have acquired over the years comes primarily from Rebecca Vincent and Mandy Pattullo. I have taken what I learnt and adapted their working methods to create and suit my own style.

So … copying to learn is fine. 

What is not cool is when you publish derivative work as your own original idea, not anywhere, not on social media, not in print, and not in a gallery; especially, but not exclusively where your primary intention is to sell that derivative work. And you will know deep down in your heart of hearts whether that work is yours and yours alone. You have to ask yourself could this print, that painting, that design that you modelled after so and so, whose work you admire, get you in deep legal doodoos? Imitation is not flattery, it is theft. Yes, theft!

To complete the story of what happened to me, I sent the person concerned a gentle private message. I never received a reply but she did have the good grace to remove the pictures from her Facebook page – which in itself says all that needs to be said. Whether she also removed the prints from the gallery I will never know. I hope so. I did not want to get really heavy handed about it. I hope that the person simply made a mistake from which she has learnt and has gone on to develop her own voice in print. She has the talent and is fully capable.

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