Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Can you use other artists' work as reference?

Painting by Louis Béroud depicting copyists in the Louvre
Joe asks: What is your take on illustrators using other painters' work as reference? What ethics stand behind a practice such as this?

A few thoughts:
Copying to learn 
Studying the work of other painters as a learning exercise is a time-honored practice. Copying is one of the best ways to absorb the influence of someone you admire. You can do anything from a quick thumbnail sketch to a full size replica copy done in the same medium. If you're doing a master copy, that's fine, but I think it's best not to post your copy online, because unless it's clearly identified as a copy, it might annoy or confuse people who are looking for the real thing. If you must post it, mark it very clearly as a copy or put it side by side with the original.

Satire or pastiche 
If you're copying another artist's style in order to do a pastiche or a satire, there's no ethical problem with that. Imitating another style is entirely appropriate, as when Rockwell aped Jackson Pollock's style for his painting in the background of the Art Critic, or when MAD magazine copied the look of the James Montgomery Flagg "I Want You" poster, or when a modern illustrator evokes the lurid style of a 1950s pulp paperback cover. If there's any doubt, or if you're being interviewed, always give credit to your inspiration, especially if you're inspired by one particular artist.

Reference for guidance or inspiration 
If you want to look at other artists for inspiration for how to approach a composition or how to handle a passage, I think it's best to do so in your free time at the end of the day or during a break, but not when you're in the heat of your own painting. You can do some thumbnail copies of your favorite artists when you're in sketch stage. But when you've got your painting going, it's time to close the art books. You don't want to be tempted to lift a passage from another artist's work into your own painting, or if you're working digitally to cut and paste elements from some other artist's painting. That has ethical problems, for sure.

Have multiple heroes
At any given time, always cultivate two or three artists that you admire and look at them side by side. Work your way around the buffet table. Also, I recommend looking at the work of artists who are deceased. You don't want to be seen as derivative of a living artist, nor do you want your work to be trailing a commonplace contemporary fashion. Try to understand not just the outward technique or brushwork, but also the thought process that your hero used. If you adopt similar philosophies and work habits, your work will develop naturally along its own track. And when you go back to nature with those inspirations in mind, try to apply them to your own interests and sensibilities, and eventually you'll make them your own.

Using real life for reference
If you're just doing your own original professional painting, it's best to reference real life / first hand observation as much as possible. If all you look at is other peoples' art, you might limit your own independent solutions. You'll never equal the artist you admire by drinking from their cup, because they have been getting their water from a deeper well.

George Clausen said: "The majority of people tune their eyes by pictures and not by nature, and only admire in nature that which is made manifest to them by their artistic prophet."

Cycles of inspiration
Painting, movies, and other art forms seem go through cycles. New movements seem to emerge from some combination of innovation from direct observation from nature together with reinterpretation or imitation of past styles or remote traditions. The Renaissance was fueled in part by the discovery of original Greek and Roman statues; Many Impressionists were fired up by Japanese prints; and many artists of the contemporary atelier movement are greatly inspired by academic studies by 19th century masters.

As they enter their later phases, art movements often take on a mannerist quality. Earlier ideas are mined over and over, often with a sense of ironic detachment and self-consciousness. This is a sign that the movement is on the decline. Superhero movies may have entered that stage, as westerns and noir films did in their turn. When an art movement becomes decadent or tired, it needs either a shot of direct, first-hand observation from life or a dose of fresh artistic influences.

There's no ethical issue here in any of this as long as you don't violate another's copyright.


Rich said...

"Can you use other artists' work as reference?"

I think this is a "rhetorical question".

Of course you can.
Or, in other words:

"Yes we can!"

Patricia Wafer said...

Many good points made in JG's answer to an excellent question. Often when looking at landscape painters' art in magazines I think I can see when some of them have been heavily influenced by older and very successful still living painters and I feel a bit of a let down. It seems like they take tricks out of the older artist's repertoire. None of us can do completely original work but using someone else's solutions and techniques over and over seems limiting to me. I like your idea of being more influenced by painters who worked many years ago but most especially being inspired by real life around us first whether it's landscape or still life or figure. Thanks for a thoughtful and thorough and helpful answer.

Eugene Arenhaus said...

Pretty much an exhaustive take on the subject. Thank you.

Virginia Fhinn said...

Has anyone reading gone to a museum or gallery to paint a copy? Is that something they are ok with or is that passè? There's a Sargent painting not too far away from me in New Brunswick, and I was thinking of going to do a study of it...

James Gurney said...

Fhinn, yes, copying is still a common practice. Check with your museum to see what their policies are for copying. Those that allow it have specific rules that you have to follow, especially if you're copying in oil.