I've talked about this issue a few times before but recent events in my own life and among my peers has brought it back to light: Where is the line between being influenced by another artist's work and stealing another artist's creation?
I've been painting for about 10 years. I have spent a lot of time experimenting, figuring out what I like, what doesn't work, testing out materials, and learning a lot about all the elements that go into a painting. I went through those first few years of fine arts school where I wasn't really sure what I was doing, wasn't confident in my work, and would anxiously compare my work to the rest of my classmates during critiques, wishing I had done something better or something more like someone else. I have a major in visual arts and a minor in art history, so I have spent a lot of my time doing research and looking at other artist's work. It wasn't until 2014 when I did a study abroad program at UCLA where I really grew confident in my work. I didn't know any of my other classmates so I really didn't care what they thought of my art, I just did whatever I wanted. It was amazing and liberating and when I returned to UBCO for my final year of my bachelors degree, all of my anxiety and comparison was gone and was replaced with the knowledge that I was creating my own work, the work that needed to be made through me. Since graduating in 2015, I've spent the last 3 years developing a very specific visual language that defines my work. This visual language can be seen in the work pictured above and below, and can be broken down into these key characteristics:
- a central, abstract composition
- lines that cut across and through the page. Most often 3 lines, but sometimes more or less.
- primarily muted toned colours
- light paint washes
- circular elements made through drops of paint
- more recently using toned grey and toned tan mixed media paper as my primary surface
This is the specific visual language that I have developed that defines my work. Now I'm not saying that I have a monopoly on all of these elements, and that no other artist should be using them. I'm saying that these 6 elements all together define what makes up my work. Unfortunately, I recently discovered that there is another local artist who is using these same exact elements to make work that looks the same as mine. It is most noticeable because it is a large departure from the work that they were making just 6 months ago.
There is a difference between making art that looks similar to another artist's, and art that looks the same. Here is a well known example; people often tell me that my work is similar to Heather Day's, and I totally agree. When I first found her work through Instagram 2 years ago, one of my first thoughts was "wow, it's pretty crazy that we live in different cities and work with different themes yet our paintings are so similar." Yes our work has some similarities, but it's also not that similar if you take the time to look at it. Our compositional strategies are very dissimilar, she uses much bolder colours and thicker paint than I do, her paintings often have visible brush marks while I don't usually use brushes at all, and our approaches to layering paint are very different. Our work is similar, but not the same.
I don't believe that this other artist is a thief, or a bad person, and I'm not trying to call them out in any way. I doubt that they are intentionally trying to rip off my work. I think that they admire my work, and are simply experimenting with art making practices, and trying to develop their own visual language. I am absolutely an advocate for looking at other artist's work, learning from them, and experimenting with some of their techniques if that resonates with you. But the key word here is "some." I think this quote from George Balanchine describes it perfectly:
EVERYWHERE. Steal from everywhere, not from one place. Assemble your own visual language by looking at many artists' work. Engage with it, absorb it, learn from it, and then change it. There aren't many unique ideas any more. They all start from another place, but it's all about where you take those ideas. Take it, experiment with it, use it in your work, but use other pieces as well. Keep experimenting and creating until you too have developed your own unique, visual language. Don't copy one artists' work and try to pass it off as your own creation - that is theft, and frankly it's boring. The beauty of your creative endeavours is the truth and love that you bring to them - why would you ever want to try to imitate someone else's truth? Your own is far more interesting. I totally understand the need to imitate other artist's work during the learning process. Just the other day I wanted to draw a bear but I don't know how to, so I looked at an artist's drawing of a bear in order to figure it out. But I have no intentions of selling that drawing, because that would be capitalising on someone else's work. I would never pretend that it was my own idea. I won't share or sell any bear drawings or try to pass them off as my own until I've developed my own ideas about how I want to render a bear. That is a true artist's job - finding your own truth in the content you're working with.
There is so much content out there these days and we are constantly bombarded with imagery so it can get difficult to remember where your ideas are coming from. My best advice for avoiding subconscious art theft is simply not to follow people working in a similar style to you. I follow a lot of artists and some abstract artists, particularly friends of mine, but overall I try to avoid following people who are making similar work to mine because I don't want to be unconsciously using someone else's visual language in my paintings. You can support another artist's work and wish them all the best in their endeavours without having to throw them a follow.
The one positive that I always take from situations like this is how much it pushes me as an artist. As soon as someone starts to emulate my work, my first reaction is "Well, that idea is done. Time to start something new." If someone else is working with my ideas, then I don't want to work with those ideas anymore. I'm going to find a new visual language that fits with my truth. This kind of thing disappoints me not because it’s stealing from other people (although of course that is part of it), it disappoints me because it’s simply not an authentic way of existing in the world. Why would anyone even want to make someone else’s work? We are all creative beings, we can tap into our own creativity and find what makes our hearts sing. This is the true power of an artist.