Copying vs Inspiration in Art (How NOT to Cross the Line!)


Is it wrong to copy other artists work?  Are there special circumstances in which it may be acceptable, and if so, when? I know that this is a common question so let’s take a look at that now.  After all when we hear a word like “copy” we may think “plagiarism” and wonder what’s acceptable and what could land us in hot water.

And of course, I want to get into the why’s of copying, and how to use it to your advantage, in the right way. It’s not a simple issue, either, so I will go over as much as I can. As you know, I am not a legal professional and what you’ll find in this post will not constitute that kind of advice. This is just the nitty gritty I have been given, info that I have found on my own, and what professional artists have said in my presence.

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is it ok to copy other artists

First off – Copying Creates Inspiration

A lot of artists copy other artist work. In fact it’s highly commonplace. It is where we glean our inspiration when we study other masters’ work . it is all part of the learning process, I mean how many times have you seen recognizable works like Van Gogh’s Starry Night or DaVinci’s Mona Lisa replicated?

Good artists copy, great artists steal – Pablo Picasso

I’m unsure of what Picasso’s definition of stealing was as he lived a century ago. A piece of modern work from the early 20th century comes to mind as I write this, that juxtaposed the Mona Lisa and some other embellishments. I’m trying to think of the artists’s name – I think it was Rene Magritte, but don’t quote me for sure on that one.  It’s important to point out that artists look to other artists of the past for inspiration.

is it wrong to copy artists

After all art imitates life. And a lot of artists imitate other artists.

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing. -Salvador Dali

There are a few major guidelines to follow as far as copying goes.

DOs and DONTS of copying artists’ work:

  • DO take inspiration from other artists work and use it as a foundation
  • If you do actually replicate a famous work, be sure to attribute it in the manner of “After X (name of artist)”
  • DONT attempt to copy a piece of famous art and attempt to pass it off as your own
  • DO make changes to your own work, change elements of it so it looks like your idea is your own

How to Sign a Painting You’ve Copied?

If you have done a painting after another artist, thee next step is to provide attribution. It should follow this approach:

…Your Name, After (Artist’s Name)…

Example – if you’ve done a copy of Monet’s iconic waterlilies scene, I don’t know the title but you could look it up, you’d title your work like this: “Jane Doe, After Claude Monet”

I’ll give you a few examples of work I have done that was inspired by other arts and explain what I did differently. Below is a piece of work I call “Intergalactic Cocktail Party”. It was inspired by a work by a multimedia artist Charlie White. On the link you can see his original and that it is clearly a photograph with props, models, etc.

Mine is a painting of course and my figures are different. I’m not exactly sure but the alien was not actually an alien but a character called “Joshua” – that White created and calls a “homunculus”. My version is dressed up for the occasion. So the long and the short of this is that I changed my version up enough to make it my own although it was inspired by this exact piece.

copying other artists work good or bad

I remember titling this “Intergalactic Soiree” and then being in a quandary about how to credit the inspiration behind it….”Inspired by” or “After”?  Which is better? After all, I made some changes to make it unique. think I finally titled it “Jennifer M., Intergalactic Soiree….After Charlie White”

You can see my signature in the left corner, but I’m pretty sure I wrote the above on the back. Also, it hangs in my hallway…I’m not trying to sell it or anything. This is something I did strictly for personal enrichment.

And this one here, a mixed media work, was inspired by another multimedia artist named Sandy Skoglund.I always was fascinated by her photographs of mass produced objects presented en masse and alongside people and unusual settings. This work of mine was inspired by Skoglund’s piece “Hangers”.

Instead of coat hangers, I’m using games and CDS or movies,, those are actually sequins representing them that I glued on.  Another example of how if you can take an idea of something that you like and use it as a jump-off point.

example of my work inspired b

Using Humor in Art

I have seen this tactic before, one angle that is good to use (and fun!) is humor. You could do a parody of a piece of work…I’ve seen people come up with all kinds of funny takes on Edvard Munch’s famous iconic “The Scream” or Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”. I saw a good example the other day on Instructables dot com in which people superimposed photos of their heads onto “The Scream” in a photocollage for grins.

That’s one way you could incorporate your own style….can you think of others?

The Difference in Copying and Plagiarism

My definition in so many words, based on what I’ve read “copying and redistributing a piece of intellectual property (painting, writing, etc.)  and passing it off as one’s own, without attribution, citations, etc.”

In other words if you painted a replica of a famous work and signed it without attribution and/or attempted to profit from it that would constitute plagiarism. One exception….is things in the pubic domain, which refers to pieces of work in which the copyright has expired or never was established to begin with.  I was learning about “public domain” clip art a few years ago when I was attempting to create products for my Etsy store.

In a five year span of time, I only got asked to remove ONE item – because I quoted Bob Ross on it – I think it was a coffee mug in which I used the “happy accidents” quote he was famous for. I had no idea that was copyrighted. So if you are in doubt be sure to do your homework first and check for copyrights first and/or if you need to obtain written permission to use things like quotes, images, etc.

More About Copyrights…

Here’s something I’m not totally clear on (I told you this was not a simple issue!) For those of you painting in the photorealist style, let’s say hypothetically, you paint something that includes outer packaging which has a copyrighted brand…Like some brand of dessert or snack cakes because, well they look so scrumptious and you decided to paint ’em. Do you proceed or just change the name a little bit to avoid infringement?

I ask because I was attempting this once with a bottle of designer cologne at the time, still unsure at this point. Here is another good example: below: this pair of shoes, and the designers’ name on the inside, is real, I wondered if I should have fictionalized the name a little???

Of course I could be overthinking this. If you can, let me know something in the comments.

Final Thoughts…

So there you have it…Not an easy subject to tackle but someone’s got to do it.  The TL:DR version? Copy for practice, copy for inspiration, Just don’t try to make a buck off of something that is not originally your own. I hope this helps! Have you ever had concerns about copyrights or copying as it relates to the art world? If so comment below I’d love hearing your thoughts on it.

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