Is it okay to use another artist's work as reference for your own? Some people swear it is not, in fact many feel this way, and yet many art professors will instruct their students to look at how other people have painted an unfamiliar subject and learn from them.
Often people seem to believe that "reference" is a dirty word akin to "copying" and that could not be further from the truth. I think it's a rather immature belief, actually, that these two words are at all similar.
If someone copies your artwork, you have every right to be mad. If they copy your idea, the way you portrayed it, and everything right down to the colors you used, be mad. That's plagiarism, and it is illegal! In that case someone has definitely committed a crime against you and you have every right to feel violated and angry about it.
But what if someone just thinks that you are really good at painting Victorian dresses, and they need to paint one but have no idea where to start? Sometimes seeing things you've never painted before broken down into brush strokes can help you figure out where to start on your own. That person isn't trying to violate your rights or do anything wrong, they're just trying to learn from someone they consider to have mastered a particular subject. Be flattered, in that case.
Recently I have been working on a very tough piece and have found myself looking at pastoral scenes painted by all sorts of artists to get a better grasp on what I'm trying to accomplish. Most of those artists are dead (Thomas Cole) but some are still alive (Jasmine Becket-Griffith) and I don't think in either case that they would mind that I studied their paintings. Isn't that ultimately why we hope to leave work behind when we are gone, so that the next generation of artists continues to have something to study from?
What do you think?