Thursday, March 21, 2013

Art As Reference

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?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Great post by the way! sorry for rambling and not making sense

    2. damn tablet accidently deleted it aaah

  2. I think it's not hard to tell the difference between studying and seeing if you can learn from someone and copying. What I've found difficult, though, is living in a world where even if you come up with an idea of your own if someone else happened to think similarly at some point, you can be accused of copying that idea. (I make long necked, slim limbed dolls...I thought it unique, now find dozens of people do similarly.) Good topic

  3. No clue why my profile lists me as Unknown. Sorry. Shelah Dow

  4. You've hit on a really good point and it seems that a lot of artists struggle with the difference. I do paintings of wildlife on feathers and have been belittled by others because I use photos as reference material. So it seems that while copying the work of another artist is a huge topic, there is also misconceptions about using any kind of reference material!