As many of you know, there was quite a controversy about the fact that the gold-medal award winner in an international art competition seems to have made unauthorized copies of two photographs when she composed her watermedia painting. The image included exact copies of two photographs that she overlapped when developing her painting. The portrait of a man and the shot of a textured wall were among many images posted by a professional photographer on a stock-photography website. Stock photos are available for use if an advertising agency, magazine publisher, artist, or lecturer signs an agreement and pays a fee for a specified use.
As clear as it might be that the watermedia artist may have violated another artist’s rights and/or disregarded the spirit of the art contest, there is a question about exactly where one should draw a line between creativity and appropriation. Many artists use digital photographs as the primary source of their paintings, and that practice is accepted by most art groups if the painter uses his or her own photographs and brings some new interpretation to the image. But is a painting more original if it is based on the artist’s own photos, a combination of photographs, or a digital image? And is it permissible to include another artist’s image in a painting if one has permission or changes the borrowed image?
You might think it is easy to resolve these issues, but what if a wildlife artist pays a photographer to use his or her photograph of a rare bird as one small part of a landscape painting? Or suppose a painter puts a direct copy of a Corot landscape in the background of a portrait and acknowledges the French artist in the title of the portrait? And what about a photorealist painter who paints a copy of his photograph with such precision that one can hardly tell the difference between the painting and the photograph?
You might say that the best approach is to work from life or from one’s imagination, but there was another recent controversy about a semiabstract painting included in a juried show that incorporated many of the signature elements of George James’ watermedia paintings. Was that flattery or plagiarism? I would be interested in reading your comments about the use of photographs and borrowed images by painters, especially in light of the technology that now allows people to make direct copies of their own snapshots and images downloaded from the internet.