Given the amount of detail in my colored pencil pieces and the amount of time it takes to produce them, it’s surprising how often I’m asked “Do you work from photos or from life?” I smile and say “If I worked from life, that flower/butterfly/leaf would’ve been dead for weeks by the time I finished” or “If I worked from life, I’d have to pitch a tent and camp for weeks at that scene to finish it.”
Some art fans look down on the idea of working from photos, they consider working from sketches and life more “pure”. If I sense this might be the case, I volunteer that I only work from my own photo references and my finished work is never an exact copy, there are always elements I add, omit or change to emphasize what I want the viewer to focus on. It’s important to realize that a photo is only a tool that captures a moment in time. By using my own photos, my pieces are 100% my concept of the subject, composition, lighting, etc. as well as 100% my execution–completely original. This explanation generally eliminates any question about the validity of my work.
At the other end of the spectrum, some people see nothing wrong with using photos taken by others–either with permission, or from a “free” website, or from magazines or other copyrighted sources. Some people assert that the mere act of drawing/painting from someone else’s photo–regardless of copyright or permission–“makes it your own”. A few people even assert for dramatic effect that the only way an artwork could be 100% original is if the artist also built the buildings and planted the trees that appear in it, so why bother trying to define or make “original”.
I have a hunch that the sheer number of people who work from others’ photos is what makes the art fans suspicious enough to ask about it.
The international art organizations I belong to (the Colored Pencil Society of America, the Pencil Art Society, and the United Kingdom Colored Pencil Society) all have similar philosophies on this topic, which I believe in so I will try to summarize here.
Working from someone else’s photo is fine under any of four circumstances, with conditions:
1. For learning purposes
Classical art instruction programs often have students copy from the masters to study their techniques, and famous artists like Brueghel sometimes copied from earlier artists like Bosch when working out their own ideas. They are, however, always identified as copies or studies.
2. For your own personal enjoyment
See my “Starsky & Hutch and Art” post. If you love Beyoncé and simply must paint from a fabulous photo you found of her in a magazine, go for it! Frame it, hang it on your wall at home, show your family and friends! Just don’t try to pass it off publicly as original artwork, because it’s not. Your painting, yes; your image, no.
3. For a commission (photo provided by the client)
If someone wants you to, say, draw a picture of their child from a photo they took on vacation, or his grandparents in an old family photo, it’s the client’s photo to do with as he pleases, and he’s explicitly giving you permission to use it to make an artwork for them. If, however, the client wants you to draw a picture of Beyoncé he found in a magazine, that would be a copyright violation; you’re stealing the original photographer’s right to earn money from his own photograph. When I was very young I did this because I didn’t know any better; I wouldn’t do it now,
4. When combining with other references into a composite
Suppose you want to portray a zebra but don’t live near any. You found some photos of zebras online. You combine the head from one with the body from another and the lighting from another. The resulting composite shouldn’t be identifiable as any one of those references.
And that’s it. These rules may seem restrictive, but if you’re only making artwork for yourself, as many people are, the first two circumstances may cover everything you’ll ever do, without your even needing to think about it. Have fun!
If you start to make artwork available for purchase or to enter competitive shows, you should use your own references or #4 above. Nowadays most such shows specify in their rules something like “artwork must be 100% concept and execution by the artist”. They are not looking for artwork–something you painted. They are looking for art–your vision that makes a connection with the viewer and evokes a response.. They want to see your choice of subject matter, composition, lighting, style, etc. It’s like the difference between a cook and a chef: a cook can make great food from others’ recipes, while a chef can invent totally new recipes.
So how does one come up with these original references? You probably have a smart phone with you all the time. Look around you wherever you go and use your smartphone camera to capture your own moments for reference. Or take along an art journal and sketch notes wherever you go.
To paraphrase Bernard Poulin from his speech at the 2015 CPSA awards banquet, there is plenty of artwork being made, but what we really need is art!
Update 9/7/2015: Here is an excellent flowchart by Ginger Davis Allman, www.TheBlueBottleTree.com, that makes it easy to figure out your work’s status.