Painting from photos…cheating? (2)

June 29, 2007

Why am I still feeling grumpy about this question? It’s not my business to make a judgement about what others think they need to do as artists. It’s not my business even to make a judgement about who is and who is not an artist – right? Everybody can call himself an “artist” who wants to do so without any violation of laws – the profession “artist” – or maybe obsession – is not protected under any law by definition – unfortunately – so what the heck…?

Still there is some bitter taste on my tongue that in many cases the audience does not (cannot?) make a difference between the results of hard working artists, who try to achieve something (what?) by work, commitment and perseverance, taking the long way of learning and studying, practising and those which are”achieved” by cheating and hype through devious marketing strategies. Life is not fair – isn’t it?

Copying from photos is cheating – or not? I am really not quite sure. Sometimes I feel it is – sometimes not. I have seen biased opinions about it.

Today it is so easy to copy a photo with the help of a computer. You scan the image, blow it up to the size you need it, print it and trace it on to the medium and then paint it – just like you would have done in your youth with all those tracing-painting books of your childhood where you just needed to fill out the colours. That easy (actually it is not quite as easy as I discovered lately – it takes quite a while and some additional skill such as the right colour mixing. It also depends how far you go with your copy – if you are going to paint a photo-realistic copy of your photo it is going to be not only quite complicated but also very labour intensive – add. comment as of Feb-04-08) So why taking time and effort to learn about drawing or any other medium when you can work around it? Why learn to write and read when you can listen to a CD? Why to learn foreign languages when you can have computer translation programs?

But this would not be art making – wouldn’t it? This has nothing to do with original art work nor being unique. To trace a face from a photo, draw or paint it would not be original art work – right?

Hm – no-one would in fact realize that you traced a photo when you delivered a magnificent drawing to some customer while using all the modern techniques of tracing. No-one in fact would be able to decide whether you really have learned to draw a face or whether you have just copied it. The audience out there won’t realize. So what’s the problem then? Would this be cheating? Is it important at all whether you are capable of drawing a face? (This is a question I often hear among “artists”) Wouldn’t it be sufficient to know how to achieve the result you want to have – no matter which techniques you used?

Art history shows that through all the centuries artists have used all sorts of technical aids. Think of the camera obscura, whose simple technique helped the artists to trace objects in the right perspective. Nobody would have ever thought about cheating using this simple technique.

Isn’t art making also about experimenting, inventing new techniques, using traditional techniques in new contexts, creating images in a new “dress”, about modifying traditions and techniques? You could say “hello – we live in the 21st century! We live in the era of the digital image! So what’s this fuss about cheating?”

But art making is also about being curious, it’s about learning how something works, it’s about discovery of unknown materials and how to find an answer to a question, it’s about expanding the visual world and finally about being a human who is capable of something that divides us from the animals: doing something artificial that is meant for decoration by intent not by instinct (because this would apply to several birds also which use decorations as part of their mating ritual – just as an example).

In the beginning of the 20th century the medium “collage” became a greater part of modern art, reinforced by Picasso and Georges Bracques, which in fact was an assemblage of different materials and art forms – thus also using old photos (not their own) and other stuff to form a new work of art. Unfortunately this has become a kind of overestimated trendy art form which in my opinion has declined into some handicraft items which are sold as cheap gifts by the thousands. Also this does not request specific capabilities such as carving or drawing skills – it requires a feeling for composition and other basic skills though, in order to result in a piece of art. So where is the commonly valid definition who is to be called a true artist and who not?

Maybe one could see it that way: if you try to “sell” an art work as an original drawing from life and you tracked it from a photo – then this would be cheating. If you copy a face from a magazine and “sell” it as an original fine art painting – this would be cheating and additionally violating copyrights.

So what could we – and should we – do about all the fakes out there? Is there a way to say ” hey – you bastard – you collected all the praise for something that was not really accomplished by your skills – you cheated!” or should we rather say “hey – congratulations – for being so clever to have found a way how to work around all those requirements and achieving a result in almost economical way!”? What would we lose or gain in either way?

It would be interesting to get to know whether the audience is really interested in the how-tos of an art work. I think it isn’t. The brouhaha some artists achieve on the basis of tricks and pretensions is annoying but not extinctable. And it is not even new! It is always unfair when people gain attention and make money with cheating – but this is how the world is – not only in the art world. Statistics speak of about 1 third of the CV’s that are presented at companies being fakes. 30 % of lies! And when I read about some artist’s resumés and what they say they have achieved – my BS detector goes crazy – whereas it is so easy to check this out. You only need to do some small inquiries on the Internet – and here it goes – the lie. Why – for heaven’s sake – do people not use this resource and their common sense? I wished people would check things out more thoroughly and see what is there to see.

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11 Responses to “Painting from photos…cheating? (2)”

  1. shannon Says:

    I hear ya! This dilemma (tracing = art?) seems ever-present, but changing. Earlier, the art world questioned whether photography is art, and recently the debate has turned to film vs. digital, and expanded to questioning if digital manipulations are art. I agree with your thoughts that art is in the artist, and that the audience is hardly educated enough to care about the process (do I like it or not?). It’s always frustrating to see people flock to/pay for cheap cheats that someone has the gall to call art — I’m certain that artists have always struggled with this (starving artists, anyone?). Sadly, common sense isn’t so common. Be true to thine self and thine art! You (if no one else) will feel better for it.

  2. Nikki Says:

    Petra, it’s a shame about the rejections..you are really on to something with these recent Gem pieces. The right gallery and those who will appreciate it enough to show, sell or buy it have not seen it yet, that’s all. Keep up the good work!
    None of us are so quick to buy something we don’t need, want, love or appreciate though, so if so-called “cheaters” are convincing enough to sell, well then they’ll get plenty of experience while creating their “Cheat-Art”, thereby eventually becoming good enough to not have to cheat! So it’s all good, you see?
    Seriously though, when clients are ready to make a large important purchase like Art, it resonates somehow personally and many don’t care about HOW it was created, just that it was!
    Artists value the whole process, and the skills that we’ve honed since way back, the diligence, everything it takes to create it, whereas for many buyers it’s the result that matters most. Our passion peaks during the work, whereas for clients/customers/galleries the passion begins when they see it. Many aren’t even aware that there is a difference.
    For the sake of future Artists, dialogues like this are perfect to help educate. Artists and Art are a dime a dozen these days, printing is very inexpensive; it’s free will to copy or not; we have a lot to compete with.. it makes some of us dig deeper and try harder and makes some of us cheaters…not just an Artist’s issue though. No matter what the vocation, it’s about doing our own particular “best”, fortitude, timing, and trust (the same intuition that creates the Art in the first place). Hard work pays off, no doubt about it..(WHEN is another matter!)
    We’re rich already though, Petra – we own expensive Art and the magic to make more! (but we want the cash instead, huh!!) It’s such a crazy, expensive occupation. Cheers!

  3. vyala Says:

    Nikki – thank you so much for your comments. You are making really good points – this discussion helps to understand the whole process and that it is your own individual decision how you are creating your art. In the end for the viewer only the result counts, the finished product – for the artist it is the path, the process that counts – the result is only an add-on.

  4. Ke-Ke Says:

    Well I am an artist that loves to draw wildlife art. Since I don’t have the time to just go out to the zoo and see the animals that I want to draw for my portfolio for art class everyday I look at pictures from the internet as my reference. Now I understand what you are saying about them tracing the picture but I don’t do that I draw the animal and try in some way to manipulate the background. Now is what I am doing, is that something that you would call cheating? Maybe I should give credit to the photographer that I used his photos in my portfolio or something

  5. vyala Says:

    Ke-Ke- – from the legal point of view it would clearly be copyright infringement if you copy the photographs of someone else. So in the end there is no other way of taking your own images to be on the safe side. The alternative is, that you ask the photographer for his/her permission, but that would probably not save you any time and may even involve additional costs. My question for you is, if you don’t take the time for photographing the animals yourself you want to draw, to study their movements and behaviour, I would entirely advice you to chose different motifs for your work. To be honest – as soon as your object of interest is an issue of time relevance I doubt the outcome would be to your advantage.
    Btw – just giving credit to a photographer without asking for his/her permission to use his/her photographs does not protect you from copyright infringement! This is something your art teacher should have told you!

  6. Sharon Says:

    Most of my paintings are copies of pictures rom magazines — therefore is it definitely illegal for me to display/sell them at an art fair?

  7. vyala Says:

    Sharon – this would be clearly copyright infringement and could become quite costly if you are nailed down!

  8. Rupert Songster Says:

    Working from a photographic reference is every bit as genuine as from life as long as the photographs are your own. All image creation can be seen as Art. But all copying of someone else’s work is cheating!

  9. Will Says:

    I here you, But as a young artist, i found the best way to learn how to paint was to copy other artists work, this was for no finanical cause, but just to see how they worked and got desired results, use of palette etc You could say that i was cheating, but it gave me greater understanding at the time. This is especially good for confidence boosting (Aged between 12-15), I (aged 19) now work from life (and have done for the past 3 years) with photographic aid (produced by myself) as a backing within my studio. Being able to Paint and draw from life is an aquired skill and gives greater results than photographs, defintely start out with photographs and looking at other artists work, but have the confidence to move onto to work from life, at times its frustrating but alot more rewarding when it goes right, it doesn’t matter if it goes wrong a few times.

    Another point it is not a copyright infringment if you change an image to a large degree from its orginal context, You should not worry about copyright, it only becomes an issue when you try and pass someelses work of as your own and try and sell it.

  10. anne Says:

    Hello Everyone

    I was interested to read the article on cheating.
    I teach adults who don’t believe they have any ability to create anything worth looking at. Tracing paper is very important to my classes. I encourage my students to use it to create something similar to the line drawings in the children’s painting book. Artistic merit is then necessary in painting the line drawing in order to create something good to look at.

    I agree that artists have always ‘cheated’. They use the work of others to inspire their own.

    The value of art is in creating something with meaning. Does it matter how you do it?

  11. Bev Underwood Says:

    I am trying to paint a picture of memories from my
    youth. It was a time of great joy to just be alive and raising my children. Now 68 years old I am trying to do a picture of a Ranch that was the home of the adopted grandparents of my children. The man is gone and the woman is going to be 92. I am tracing a digital photo from photo a cohort took for this project. The Ranch has changed alot since 1971. I live in Oregon and the Ranch is in Nevada.
    I don’t feel like I am cheating. I got the picture and credit is being given. It is a joint effort to please a wonderful lady.

    I am a novice and only pray that the hidden talent God has given me will come alive in the picture I am painting for her.

    I wish I could draw and paint as much as my heart and soul would like me to.

    Thank You
    God Bless


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