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Just What May An Artist Use as Inspiration?

Praha (Prague) – ink brush and watercolor by Judy Schroeder – This is a good example of “suffering” for art. I waited for the table and chair at the gelato shop to be open so I could get this view. Naturally I HAD to buy a gelato! Fair is fair.
Oftentimes when I stop for a lunch break at the gallery, I grab a book off the shelf and treat myself to reading about other artists and their work. Today I was reading Composition for the Painter by Frank Webb – a very good book by the way. I bought the book when I met him at an art association several years ago when he was the guest demonstrator. He had several paintings for purchase and I noticed that they all seemed to be various versions of a very few subjects. He spoke about his designs used for the demos and while he didn’t call them patterns that is my memory.
I surmised that this sought after artist is a very smart man; by using a few familiar subjects he could be free to easily comment while demonstrating for groups. Recently I have begun to think that Webb just might have another reason for his use of limited subject matter.
When painters have perfected their craft and are fully engaged in their work with hand, eye and heart, they have spent years and many, many hours finding their own personal shorthand to express their unique view of the world. Since I host workshops, I see the generosity of several painters who share this hard won knowledge with their students. Some even break down the painting process into “bite-sized” chunks, showing the group their step-by-step way of constructing a painting.
Therein lies the rub. Students, who naturally want the fast track to artistic competence, sometimes take that generosity for granted. They think that since they “painted” the workshop exercise, it is theirs. Let’s just break that down – the subject matter, composition, color scheme, emphasis – all are from the imagination of their teacher. If the work is signed at all, it should say something like – Jane Doe, after Teacher Smith. And it should not go any farther than their own walls, certainly not be entered in shows or in any other way presented as original work. Artist Tom Fong has a wonderful way to say this, “Don’t steal your teachers thunder!”
Tom could well have added, “Don’t infringe on your teacher’s copyright.” Beware, this is legal territory. If a student submits work as their own, and it is obviously taken from a workshop or copied from another source so much so that it is clearly the inspiration of another painter, the student can be held liable, however innocent their intent. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. This also pertains to the use of photographs without the express permission of the photographer. Yes, it is another medium but that doesn’t matter. The intellectual property has been used.
This subject has been coming up more and more often recently. Work on the web is so easily gathered without thought of asking permission. Posting images is so easy that hasty, thoughtless actions can come back and bite you if the work is shown without permission and attribution.
A good friend has even had her paintings copied verbatim, albeit not so skillfully, and presented to her as a “gift.” It is not a compliment to be copied, period. The student means well but please know that teachers are thrilled by work that is original and shows work and thought and progress. The way to competence as a painter is the way of all disciplines, by way of study and application of time and energy.
So now you see why I suspect that Frank Webb limits his demonstration subjects. It makes it very unlikely that others will copy his work since his demo pieces are few and well known. He’s really doing a service to both the novice painter and the hard working art associations. Work presented for judging should be original, unique and the property of the artist submitting the work alone.
Be confident of your own artistic vision. You may not be there yet, but rest assured, you will be. And when you get to that place? You will have new and more complex goals and that’s why you will become better than you ever thought possible!
Thanks for the listen, Judy
PS There are many informative sites on the web that explain the copyright laws clearly. It’s interesting reading!



  1. larry
    February 13, 2014

    Great post, Judy, and for the most part I agree with you. But I think you begin to cross a gray line with this statement: A good friend has even had her paintings copied verbatim, albeit not so skillfully, and presented to her as a “gift.” It is not a compliment to be copied, period"

    I can't imagine giving a copy to the original artist as a gift but the idea of copying other people's art is a long-standing tradition and clearly it's complementary. This approach is regularly recommended by most textbooks. It is the very basis for most of the workshops, where people pay bunches of money to learn another artist's approach.

    So, while I agree that claiming such works as 'your own' is bad ju-ju and in violation of copyright law, I think most artists would consider it a compliment, and for some it's a primary source of income.

    For what it's worth, I've copied DaVinci, Michaelangelo, LIz Steel, Cathy Johnson and many others. My favorite 'target' is my sketching buddy, Yvan Breton, and I do show him some of those copies. He is flattered. At the same time, you will never see any of them for, as you say, they do not 'belong' to me.

  2. Judy Schroeder
    February 13, 2014

    I didn't mean to imply that copying is bad per se…but copying and then offering that work in shows is where the problem rears it's head. I also truly believe that students have to cut that umbilical cord and get to their own voice. I had a student several years ago who was a whiz at copying work in watercolor books. She felt at sea when she came to class since I had her work from life. Suddenly she had to make all those decisions such as what to choose to include, what composition, and so on. Her loss of confidence was noticeable. We sat down and talked about why she felt the way she did and to her enormous credit she decided to work only from life and her own resource material so she could learn the nuts and bolts of creating a painting. I visited with her a year later and as I suspected, she was off and running.


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