Friday, December 2, 2016

Part 2 - References and Originality

This is Part 2 of an exploration of the practical definition of original art. What is "Original in Concept and Execution"?

I think we've all seen or heard of someone who used someone else's photos as reference for an artwork that they then put forth as their own work. Sometimes this results in an artwork being withdrawn from an exhibit. Sometimes an award is rescinded. Sometimes an artist is "black-balled." Sometimes they get away with it (let's face it, jurors can't research every entry and calling foul usually happens after the fact). Quite literally as I was writing about this very subject, I heard from a colleague that several people commented about one artist who was copying - verbatim - photographs taken by others and had been submitting these paintings to competitions and juried exhibits. The artist gave credit to the photographers on his website. (It was unknown if the artist had actually been granted rights to the images, but for the purpose of this post, that's a moot point).

After many years of running art competitions (and entering them), my interpretation of "original in concept and execution" can best be summed up thusly:

  • Any reference images used in their entirety are the artist's own. Not purchased or obtained from any other source. Period. 
  • If elements of the artwork are created from reference images obtained from another source, they must be a) used with verifiable permission and b) placed within a completely different setting than the reference image. For instance, an artist who has never been to Africa but wants to paint an elephant, they may obtain rights to use a photo of an elephant, which they will then placed in a background of their own imagining or from their own images. The final artwork should bear no resemblance to the original reference image, other than the elephant. Using someone else's image for more than an element, even if the image is cropped, it's still utilizing their concept, not your own.
  • About the only gray area for me is a group still life or model set-up, if the artist participates in the arrangement. An argument could be made either way as to being "original in concept."
  • If the artwork is done in a workshop or class setting, it is not original in execution. 
  • I don't think that asking artist friends for their thoughts on a painting is crossing the line. Indeed, I believe it would be naive to think someone isn't going to make a comment that leads to a modification. Just make sure they keep their hands to themselves. 


I ran my opinions past a few key people that run competitions, and they basically agreed with me, although two of the five did say even an element from someone else's reference image would not meet their standards for originality of concept.

Each competition or juried exhibit will, most likely, have their own set of rules and interpretations of those rules. Read the prospectus! Some competitions are very strict and others are more accommodating. I know of a couple instances where prizes were withdrawn because of originality issues, so don't take any chances.

Your comments/feedback are welcome! Have a great weekend and remember to Live Out Loud!

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for commenting on a very touchy topic! This has bothered me for years, especially when I've viewed works in competitions that were not original in concept but taken from another person's photographs. That is not original in concept but plagiarism as far as I'm concerned. However, if the image is used in another setting completely, it may be acceptable; i.e. exotic animals are not liable to be photographed by the average person and I, myself, like to paint wild animals. I have entered one of these paintings in competition but didn't feel comfortable with that. There is no other way a person can create some paintings other than using parts of references captured by others in composing their "own" create image. With the internet so readily available and a world of images at your fingertips, it is unreasonable to expect artist not to utilize these. Your conscience must be your guide in whether or not these paintings should be entered in competitions. I feel good about taking my own photos and working from those. This is original concept.

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