Steal from Everywhere

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? 

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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: 

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  • 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:

I do not create. God creates. I assemble, and I steal from everywhere to do it.

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. 



Artists Answer Questions: How Do You Know When a Painting is Finished?

I've decided to start a new monthly blog series where I ask a handful of my favourite artists to answer one question, and today we are starting with one of my favourites - how do you know when a piece is finished? This is one of the questions I get asked the most about my work from clients, friends and viewers, and seems to come up so often in conversations with other artist friends and in my creative coaching projects. The general consensus seems to be that it's "just a feeling" and while I know this is part of it, I wanted to delve deeper into what exactly that means. In my pieces, I am always working to balance a mix of controlled and accidental movements. There's usually a point that comes when I get close to finishing a piece where I know it's almost done and it just needs one more thing to make it perfectly balanced. It's almost like a fun game for me, because it's this last mark that is either going to make or break the piece. And it's so frustrating when the mark isn't what the piece needed but absolutely satisfying when you get that last brush or pen stroke completely right. The way I know a piece is done is when it is compositionally balanced on the page, and when I'm satisfied with the amount of movement the marks create. It's a combination of intuition and a lot of trial and error. 


Rachel Neale - @artbyrachelneale


Rachel is a storyteller at heart. Whether by narrative or canvas, she endeavours to invoke emotion and conversation. As an artist and writer, Rachel is not afraid to tackle messy conflict and dialogue about mental health. She works with acrylic, oil pastels, oil markers and text on paper, canvas and wood. She lives and works in Kelowna, BC.

"When a piece no longer tugs at me, I know it is finished. Looking at it becomes meditative. I can sit back and admire it and feel a sense of wonder. Like, “Shit. I made that with this heart and these hands and this mind?”

Knowing when to stop is not always organic. It takes time. It takes trusting my intuition. Sometimes, it takes starting from scratch. I’m a messy artist. I like being completely absorbed in the paint and the process and the mark making. When I paint, nothing else matters. Walking away from a piece, letting it breathe, is a must for me. Giving it its own space has become a part of my process. Some pieces I let breathe for a week or two.

For me, knowing when a piece is done, is a lot like yoga. It can stretch and change but it only gets stronger. The more I paint and the more I listen to my intuition the more satisfied I am with the end result."


Liz Ranney - @lizranneyart


Liz is a painter, instructor, illustrator, graphic designer, and Co-Director of the New Arts Collective. Some of her recent work includes album artwork and graphics for musicians, murals for Canoe Coffee Roasters, Don't Look Down Tattoos, and Ecole George Pringle Elementary, and private commissions in graphic design, painting and illustration. Her work is very illustrative; she uses a lot of line and accentuated colour in her portrait work. Liz's art could be described as abstract realism or contemporary fauvism because of it's expressive nature, and she uses colour as a vehicle to convey emotion, personality and balance.

"I intuitively know when my work is finished. It's very much a "feeling", but the long explanation is that there is actually a subconscious criterion in my mind, and it is based on years of technical theory, practice in observation and composition, and the careful weighing of all of the elements that make up the physical work. The main elements that I take into consideration are: composition of space and colour, balance (or purposeful imbalance), variation in mark making, paint-body surface texture, and the accurate portrayal of the subject matter. If you hear an artist say, "I just know when it's done", or "its a gut feeling", it's most likely the short explanation of someone who has their own internal criteria. 


Lizzy Taber - @lizzytaber_


Lizzy is a Florida native who is currently residing in Tempe, Arizona while pursuing her MFA in Printmaking at Arizona State University. Lizzy works in a wide range of mediums including but not limited to; printmaking, photography, painting/drawing, sculpture, and papermaking. Her work tends to be poetic and metaphorical while exploring the ideas of human emotion, connection, and the inevitability of loss. Lizzy’s most recent work is highlighting the rapid rates of destruction of the earths coral reefs and the glaciers melting in the eyes of climate change.

"It's funny you reach out to me with this question because it is something I have been somewhat struggling with, or at least getting critiqued on. I'm currently an MFA Candidate at Arizona State University studying printmaking. I never considered myself a perfectionist- but my faculty and peers have considered otherwise. I did a series of etchings and I would spend so much time designing the image, making the plates, mixing inks, printing, flattening, signing, etc. and then I would get them matted and always sealed in a light wood frame. My studio was beginning to look like a gallery - everything was framed perfectly and hung at 60 inches. That's when I thought the piece was finished. My critiques were "your work is so tight" "so pristine" "so perfect" "so beautiful" "so precious" but all of these comments didn't seem like compliments. I felt like they were telling me to loosen up or to let the work speak for itself and not be so hidden behind glass and constrained to a rectangular frame. I always thought once it's framed - it's finished! That's not the case for my work. Everyone's work is different and for some reason, my work needs to breathe outside the frame. Moving forward into 2018 I'm going to focus on alternative ways of display and not let the framing be the tell all of when it is finished. I taught 2d design last year and relearned all the basics of unity, composition, depth, colour, mark making etc. I think these are qualities in work that when they are all there and working together - it creates a successful piece. You know the work isn't done when there's something missing, there's too much, the piece is off balance, or the colours are off. But how do you know when something is finished? The only way I can answer that is when you don't question it anymore. I'm lucky to have the support of my colleagues and mentors to critique me and give me advice in deciding, but at the end of the day, I have to know it's finished. I love when the process teaches you new ways of making and just following your intuition. The best advice I've gotten is this; “Make art that YOU like to look at." So if you genuinely like looking at it, then I say it's done."


Devon Walz - @devonwalzart


Devon Walz is a self-taught abstract artist and creative guide based in Southern California. She works in acrylic and other mixed media, and her work is full of colour, movement and aliveness. She aims to capture the energy, subtleties and magic that is beneath the surface of everyday life. She believes that making art can be personally transformational and derives much of her inspiration from the process itself: its ability to heal us, to show us deeper parts of ourselves and to guide us towards moments of pure joy. She teaches others how to organically develop their style, use the creative process for healing and self-knowing, and to approach art in a soulful way via her online courses, and her work held by collectors around the world.

"When I’m coming to the end of a piece I start to make my marks more intentionally and at a slower pace. I’ll relax my gaze, notice how my eyes move around the canvas and ask where an area might feel like it’s missing something. Being very intentional with this seems to be the key to not overdoing it. I then only make a mark if the space is really calling for it.  I often take space from the painting for weeks or months at a time, checking back every so often to see if it’s calling for another mark. My rule of thumb is that if I’m unsure about if it’s complete, I continue to let it rest before calling it done. I know the piece is finished when I no longer feel the need to question it and I no longer feel like it might be missing something. Letting time pass is the best way for me to release attachment and to see a piece with the most clarity possible."