Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Why I believe in photo restrictions for competitions:

I want to write about a couple of my own personal experiences to do with being an artist and working from photographs. Hopefully, by writing about this it might give people a different perspective on their submissions to exhibitions and the way competitions need to be organised.

When I first started off with my own personal work after art school (and having 2 babies) I did a drawing derived from a photograph my friend Dan White took. It was of a man in an apron, smoking a cigarette in an alleyway. I entered it in a local contest with the local art association and won first prize. But I felt soooo guilty. Why? Well, after the prizes were given, we all were talking to the juror (a great local pastel artist who writes for Artists Magazine) and he told me why I had won. Among his reasons was the execution, but a big part of it was the concept of the man and his surroundings. Since I knew part of the reason I won was because the subject was so interesting and I didn't find that subject - Dan did - I felt guilty. & I hadn't given credit to him. If I could have said, "done from a photo by Dan White" I would have felt better, but no, I was representing it as my own by entering it in a contest - & winning!

Now here's a similar story but with the shoe on the other foot (is that the right saying?):
I created the above photograph of a still-life which I uploaded 3 years ago into the WetCanvas Reference Image Library for people to use on the site. I found the objects, arranged them, lit them, cropped the photograph etc. Here is that photograph on Wetcanvas. So many people painted this still-life and I was completely fine with that (that's why I offered it on the ril), but then I started getting emails from people thanking me for the photo reference because they just won this or that award with their painting they made of it. If concept and composition is a big factor in judge's decisions, when picking the winners - would those judges have awarded that award if they had seen my original photo and known it wasn't the artist who made that reference? I don't know.

So I think if you used someone's photograph in your piece to be honest and ask yourself some questions:

  • Is the concept of the piece your own or the concept of the photographer?

  • Is the design your own or just a slight derivation of the original artist's (the photographer).

  • If the judge could see the reference image it was derived from, and knew you did not take the photograh, do you think they would judge it the same?

So if you can honestly answer these questions with saying yes it is your concept, your design and you sincerely believe the judge would not alter his/her opinion if he/she had knowledge of the reference photograph, I say enter it!

I want to note that what I am talking about here is in regards to juried exhibition entries and not everything an artist creates.


Unknown said...

Funny that this picture came up, because a few days ago I was looking for still lives in the RIL and saw it, among with some other great ones, and faved them just so I could use them for practice later.
Since that day, however, I've been whining to my fiance about buying a good camera because I'd rather get my own subjects and reference pictures, so that I am not just subject to the references, or lack thereof, of interesting subjects on the internet that would also match my interests.

I can see why these questions came up, given the UKCPS conversation that's been going on about in several blogs and on ScribbleTalk - and you bring up good questions.

I think by moral and virtue alone, an artist should work just from their own pictures. Like you said, it's a lot of guilt to bring upon your shoulders if you win from working from someone else's reference to the dot of the I; and not giving said person accreditation.

I am no judge, but I do think a judge would look at the piece differently, because while the rendering process was definitely the artist's, the whole thinking process on the subject, lightning, composition, mood, was not thought of by the painter, but by the photographer you took the picture from....

And anyone who reads my opinion here has every right to shoot me down on this, but again, I'm looking at it much like you, Nicole, based on morals and virtues. Wouldn't it be more exciting to go through the whole process of thinking how to set up what you're wanting to paint for competition reasons, than just copy what someone else already thought of? -- I think so.

S.G. Chipman said...

What I think a lot of this boils down to is artistic intent. Did the photographer take that photo as a stand alone work, something that could be entered into a show on its own merit? If the answer to that question is yes, I'd say stand down on recreating it in another medium.

Michael Finley said...

Thanks for that explanation. I was wondering how others felt about that.

This was where I was coming from. I design a lot, build a house on it and do the excavation.

No it is not an accident that you can not see the house from the road, you swing around a curve and see the lake and then the house comes into view. The house is a salt box with brown vertical siding to blend into the surrounding hemlocks. Hemlocks left as close to the house as possible in an attempt to give the house a feel of being part of the woods etc.

A photographer takes a photo of my work, this is his artistic interpretation of my work which is the subject.

I have no intellectual property other than the plans I have drawn. My plan can’t be copied although this happens all the time.

I was going with that a drawing of this photo would be the artists interpretation of the photographers work. In effect the photo becomes the subject.

I have a question. Is it OK to make a drawing of a sculpture and submit it to a juried show?

I have a understanding that any group can set any rules they feel are best for any contest as long as the law is followed.

Making A Mark said...

Stephen - I don't think most judges would know one way or another when looking at a work. Most are going to give an artist the benefit of the doubt and assume it is their own work - concept, design and execution whereas in reality for most it is only the latter. The concept and design is all down to Nicole.

However, in a competitive situation, if a judge were to see the original photo and the identity of the 'author' of that photo - alongside the work entered in the competition, do you think they'd feel the same way about it?

I remember when Nicole put this set-up together. She did a wonderful piece from it. It's good that people can also learn from the photo she took at the time - it's truly inspiring. But I have to say that I'd have major reservations about entering it in a competition and claiming it as my own original artwork if it was a realistic copy.

I stopped posting my photos to copyright free databases a long time ago. Mainly because I want people to be like Jael - I want them to want to create their own material and to understand the very real and stimulating value of that process.

Making A Mark said...

Michael - doesn't it rather depend on how close to the original it is?

If you have a photorealistic copy of a photo what's new?

A photograph of your house is a novel and wholly original insight into the experience which is your house. Just as my drawing of the second edition of Damien Hirst's sculpture "The Virgin Mother" was - bearing in mind that Hirst's sculture was also clearly echoing Degas's bronze scultures of the Little Dancer which were weren't even made until after he died!

The thing is a lot of art is really derivative - and that's not a bad thing in my eyes. However, it seems to me that it only really works well when it moves the concept on a stage and provides a wholly new perspective.

Michael Finley said...


I should have mentioned that I often work with architects or home owners as a consultant. I help match the structure to the land and sometimes do all the design and construction.

This house was hypothetical as to explain an actual project would have been to complicated.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Nicole, I soooo agree with this. It's not that working from your photo is wrong -- that's why you put it in the reference library in the first place. It's that people are entering it in competitions.

That just doesn't sit with me. If you're doing photorealistic work, you should be using your own photos. There's more gray area the more impressionistic or abstract you get, I think.

In response to Stephen's comment, I'd say that the photo isn't really the reference in a photo-realistic work. If we do it precisely as seen, we're high-priced color copiers with varying degrees of accuracy. Now, Nicole did a piece where she had a photo of a painting in her painting -- in that case, I do think the photo becomes the reference, because it's clear that the photo was just another element in the still life.

Elizabeth A Patterson said...

Besides the "guilty feeling" factor, I think there is another feeling that goes along with working from a photograph taken by someone else. That is the knowledge that I did not actually see this moment in time with my own eyes.

Having niggling little thoughts at the back of my mind tends to diminish the joy in what I'm doing... so, I just don't use others' photos any more.

EXCEPT, for portraits, where for whatever reason, I can't have a proper (or casual, candid) sitting and take my own photos. Those are always the most challenging, and I must admit, less satisfying to me in the end.

Unknown said...

Speaking as another artist, I agree wholeheartedly Nicole. Very nice post, well-thought out and presented.

Debbie said...

What about artists' that draw and paint pets and wildlife? Sure would be hard for me to go looking for an elephant! I understand the concept for stillifes though.


Doris Joa said...

I totally agree with you Nicole. I think when doing a painting it is not only putting the paint on paper - developing the idea, waiting for the right light, setting up the still life, working with figures or pets etc. etc. is the whole process of creating art. That all makes art unique. I never would use other people photos, I would feel bored and it never would be my own creation, I could not be proud of it. It is maybe okay to use other photos for learning and practice but I also didn't this. I have seen so many artists using photos from WC library and they do show it on their website/blog etc. How can they be proud of this work, when they are not able to invest their own time and ideas for creating this art?
When I paint pets or figurative work or flowers etc. I always use my own photos . It means often a lot of work, sometimes the sun is not playing with me or they do not "pose" as I want to have it. When I would like to do wildlife paintings I would visit a Zoo or Wildlife Park and try to do my photos there or at other places. This is the challenge but it is also fun and you learn to know your subject better instead of painting from foreign photos. I am doing a lot of rose paintings, when I want to do a painting of a special rose then I go and buy this rose and wait patiently until this rose is full in bloom etc. Otherwise I would not paint it. It is the same with each other subject. It means a lot for me to be able to say, that it is my work, my design, my idea and then I can be proud of it.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting discussion, Nicole, thank you. I offer copyright-free photo resource CDs for artists, and never even thought of someone entering--or winning!--a show based on one of them. (I believe since I made them copyright free, I have to not care...but what about the artist, or the judge?'ve made me think!)

What I DO find perplexing is that I also write how-to art books, and occasionally have seen copies of my paintings from one of the books in a show. Once I was even asked to judge said show! Very, very weird...

This is a situation in which I have very mixed feelings...they ARE how-to books. There are step by step illustrations. Originally, I used to be able to write "I used this brush to do that, and then altered this area because I decided it needed emphasis..." or some such. But in some of the more recent books my words have been edited to say "use this brush and that color to paint this section, now do this over here..."

So in my way of looking at it, this becomes a very gray area. It makes me uncomfortable...

In any case, I believe many artists just don't have any idea this could be a problem, legally or ethically. I frequently explain about copyright infringement to my students, and tell them if they use someone's photo as a reference they need to get permission from the photographer. So where do we go from there? Yes, you've opened a very interesting line of thought...

Cathy (Kate) Johnson

Alvin Richard said...

Great discussion platform.

Before I started to paint, I took a perspective drawing course where we had to submit a piece to the teacher on a weekly basis. On several of my drawings he wrote, "If it's an original - Extra!, if not....not interesting". His point was to work from your own material if you are going to be an artist.

You can become a painter, or become an artist. Part of being an artist that goes beyond technical ability is the conceptual side. To create imagery that is meaningful to you, that is part of your personnal view. And in time, becomes identifiable as your body of work.

I think that you should only use other people's photographs in the case where you are willing to compromise your own artistic freedom for a commission for a buyer, where the buyer supplies the image and it does fit into your own vision of what art should be.

I've seen other photographer's pictures used in painter's work, and it is fine as long as it's being used for an exercice, like copying a painting to acquire a sense of painting like an impressionist would. But to sell it as your own work or submit such a piece in a juried show is unjustifyable. Furthermore, most juried show have a weiver to sign, where you agree that the imagery is your own.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the big response everyone!!

I completely am aware that what I wrote works well for some and some people it will be more difficult for.

SG Chipman - I see your point, but when a show makes rules its hard to make sure you have every instance covered. Its easier to be more cut & dry. Also if you really think it is your work - you should submit it.

Michael - there are some funny points to the whole discussion aren't there!? For the most part if things are out in view publicly you can draw/paint them.

Cathy - how funny judging a work from your own book! Thanks so much for posting - I think it added greatly to the discussion!

Alvin - agreed - I do think people have differing views on whether a work is theirs or not, but it is the artists job to decide for themselves! :)