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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sue Smith and Things That Need To Be Said

I guess this is a common issue among artists...old masters were encouraged to 'copy' other old masters. We are encouraged to see if we can 'copy' a Sargent, or a Reid. All in the name of learning. However, when does this cross the line?

I have known of a couple instances where one artist so completely copied another's style that the original artist quit doing her own! And the fake looks good, until you put the 2 artist's work side by side, and the fake pales by comparison. Perhaps copying is all the fake can do, practicing until he/she feels it is 'theirs'. With enough time, even the local public won't know which came first. Please, do yourself a favor. Find your own voice, technique, and compositional style. If you do choose to 'emulate' another artist, always give credit with the title...and even mark it on the back of the canvas/painting as 'after Sargent'...and assuming you do it well enough, future owners of the painting will know that you are paying homage to another great.

Forget the grey areas of 'I changed it enough to make it my own', 'I took the photo myself (but copied another's composition/lighting idea)', 'I put a different fabric on the sofa', 'Mine is watercolor, the original by the real artist was oil', blah, blah, snore. There are no excuses for studying another artist and trying to be just like them. Give credit where credit is due and realize that it is much easier to develop your own style than to copy another artist's style.

Sue Smith, Ancient Artist blog, reports on this quite succinctly in her latest blog entry 'Quick - What art career questions should you never ask?'

Sue Favinger Smith is a professional artist who began her art career at the age of 50. She writes Ancient Artist: Developing an Art Career After 50, a blog dedicated to empowering artists seeking to reinvent themselves at mid-life. You can subscribe by visiting

Quick -- what art career question should you never ask?

Answer: "How did you do that?"

I'm not talking about the simple curiosity question, "Gee, that's beautiful, how did you do it?" I'm talking about the standing at the art opening, walking up to the artist and saying something like "I'm an artist, too, so how did you do that ?"

In the corporate world, asking a competitor how they made their secret sauce would be considered corporate espionage. So why is it any different for artists?

I was asked this question recently, and my answer was, "I've spent several years experimenting and pushing the envelope on what I could do with the materials I'm using. Even if you copied me, it wouldn't turn out the same for you. You need to experiment and find your own way."

The funny thing is, this person is a highly respected artist in her own right, working in a different medium, of course, but she's "thinking about a change."

Being artists, we operate in an extremely competitive environment, and there's a fine line between being "influenced" by a particular artistic style, and "appropriating" what someone else is doing.

If you are influenced, you have responded to a larger trend and applied it to your own exploration, using your own visual style.

If you are appropriating, you're not only taking someone else's creative output, but you're stifling your own. And one day, you may realize that you've "stifled" your creative abilities into oblivion.

So what's the real question behind "How did you do that?"

It goes directly to the heart of the issue of developing a signature style. We're told that in order to succeed we must have a signature style, a consistent body of work that is immediately identifiable as "ours." In Ancient Wisdom: Emerging Artist, the Business Plan for Mature Artists that I am currently working on, I will go into this subject in more depth. But until then, here are some suggestions:

A Signature Style can be developed through your choice of subject matter, a specific technique, color choices, or anything that occurs repeatedly - either through a subconscious approach or a deliberate design - that is uniquely yours.

Paint every day and your stylistic mannerisms will quickly emerge.

Choose a medium (oil, acrylic, watercolor, photography) and stick with it.

Choose a format, or a limited number of formats (square, a 2.5 to 3.5 ratio, on custom sized panel) that you use consistently. If you are a potter, choose several types of vessels. A photographer might choose B&W, or focus on Large Format work.

Push yourself to innovate, to take risks in doing what you've never seen done before. Use materials in "totally inappropriate ways" - which is what I once told an interviewer when she asked about how I created some of my work - or focus on doing one specific thing very, very well.

You will know when you're on to your Signature Style. Everything will flow. You won't be forcing yourself to emulate someone else's style when you don't feel the same inspiration they felt. Your work won't feel stilted or stuck, but liberating and pure joy.

And the best part?

Knowing that you have a Signature Style is a huge confidence builder. It is what you should strive for, struggle why would you ever deny yourself that by copying others?


Dianne Mize said...

Good discussion, Vicki. Needs to be said over and over again.

vickiandrandyrossart said...

it is so easy with digital cameras, these days, to shoot your own source photos. thanks for enjoying the reminder!

Theresa Rankin said... holds barred...and you are right!!

Erika Nelson said...

Say it like it is sister Red, say it like it is ;) The thing successful people have in common is they do what they do on a daily basis - practice practice practice!

vickiandrandyrossart said...

gotta get to that practice! paint tomorrow with Tim, so will get a good dose of 'just do it'.


Durinda Cheek said...

I think the problem of others copying what is on the web will just get worse. It used to be when I judged a show, I could tell what was copied from National Geographic, etc. Now, you just don't know unless you happen to recognize the work. The other problem is artists submitting paintings from a workshop that they received help with.

It is up to us- if we are on committees to organize shows, write the prospectus, etc- to state clearly that works copied will be taken out and just hope that the artists are honest enough to admit it.
Keep up the good discussions, Vick!

vickiandrandyrossart said...

Thanks, D'rinda! I'm gonna get off that soapbox for awhile, local 'painters' are throwin' tomatoes! Surprising how many don't agree with all these thoughts. Teachers encouraging their students to enter local shows, then competing with them for top prizes...takes the cake!