Yesterday I discovered that art pirates had struck. A number of my paintings and designs had been downloaded, then put on other websites by individuals claiming them as their own. Instead of painting, I spent the day issuing take down notices and protecting my intellectual property. It launched an interesting discussion on the Sketchbook Skool closed Facebook group. Obviously outright theft like this is not ok- but what about sharing a drawing you've copied? Or what if you're inspired by an artist's style? So I've attempted to put together some answers.
Can I copy other artists' work to help me learn?
What goes in my sketchbook stays in my sketchbook- unless I let it out. Copying from other artists is a great way to learn. It doesn't replace drawing from life- that's the best way to learn to truly see what we're looking at and develop our own styles. But if you're struggling with a technique, copying from others can be the way to get the hang of it.
What I can share- and how- can start to feel like a bit of a minefield. Recently I was struggling with how to paint watercolour waterfalls and looked at Cathy Johnson's “Painting Nature in Watercolour' to help me. Directly copying waterfalls from her books is a good way to learn how she balances light and shade and layers her strokes to create the effect of running water. I'm really pleased with how my copies turn out. But what can I do with the results?
Because Cathy published her book as an educational guide, I can be pretty sure that she doesn't mind me copying the work from it for learning purposes. However, Cathy owns the intellectual copyright to the painting I was copying. She's the one who put in the time in the field, chose what to include and what to leave out, composed the image. When I copy her painting, I'm using all of those decisions she's made. It's not ok for me to try and sell that work. Sure, the brush strokes are mine, and my work is a bit different because my style asserts itself- but Cathy's thinking is still behind it. Legally, these copies should stay in my sketchbook and I should now go forth and find waterfalls to create my own.
Sharing online becomes a little more complicated. Legally, I shouldn't do that either. Cathy still owns the intellectual copyright. Many artists remember what it's like to be a beginner and will still be happy for you to share your work if you acknowledge the source, but you should be aware that they may not approve- especially if the art you are copying is not part of instructional materials. If in doubt, ask the artist first.
How about drawing in someone's style?
Art which is 'inspired by' or 'in the style of' becomes a more complex gray area. Part of it comes down to source images. If I take Cathy's waterfall and try to interpret it using a ball point pen technique inspired by Andrea Joseph, then I am still stealing Cathy's image, but probably wouldn't get into trouble with Andrea.
If I go out and find my own waterfall and try to apply Cathy's techniques as I paint it, then it's my work. I'm making the decisions about composition and colour, I'm selecting what to keep in and leave out. It's my work and I can share it where and how I like (hooray)! It's polite if I acknowledge her as my inspiration, but not essential.
The same applies to my Tommy Kane-inspired boat interiors. They're my own observation drawings of my boat, and whilst I've applied techniques learned in Tommy's 'Beginning' class to create them, they're my own work. My own way of drawing slips in and nobody is about to mistake my work for Tommy's. I can share these drawings or sell them to my heart's content. (If you don't know Tommy's work, you can check out his blog or his fantastic book, All My Photographs are Made With Pens)
I would start to run into rocky ground if I drew similar subject matter in a similar style. If I embark on a series of Tommy Kane-style squirrels with water pistols, then Tommy would be within his rights to object- it's just all too close to his trade mark and I'm encroaching on his intellectual property.
Photographs, quotes and movie references
Photographers own the rights to their work. Just like with Cathy's waterfall, they've chosen how to frame their shot and they put in the work to get it. If I draw directly from a photo I find on Google or Pinterest, I am not changing it enough for it to count as my work.
The best way to draw from photos is to make a number of sketches from a number of photo references. This helps you to really get to know the subject. It can take a while, but after a number of reference sketches you will be able to create your own unique pose, resulting in your own unique artwork. If there is one photo that you just HAVE to draw, then contact the photographer and ask their permission- and be clear if you want to sell the results. Be aware that photos of celebrities and shots from movies are also copyrighted, as are comic book and cartoon characters. So draw Star Wars characters for your kids by all means- but share online with caution and don't try to sell them, however cute your cartoon Darth Vader is!
There are also a number of websites where generous photographers post their images to be drawn. Some require credit, others like Unsplash don't ask for any acknowledgment at all.
By the time the creator has been dead for 70 years, most work is out of copyright (in the UK at least). So you can copy Van Gogh, Munch and Rembrandt then share where ever and however you like. My drawing using a quote from Shakespeare is safe to post. I have other lettering pieces which I shouldn't share as they use quotes from more recent books. In reality, nobody is likely to hunt me down if I share my lettered piece from 'The Book Thief', especially as I'm not selling it. But legally, although it's only a sentence, I do not hold the copyright. There are occasional exceptions such as J.M. Barrie's 'Peter Pan', which is owned by Great Ormond Street Hospital in perpetuity.
How does collage fit into all this?
Collage gets complicated. 'Fair use' depends on what you do with images, whether you use the whole image (such as the entire repeat in a pattern) and if your work is considered to be 'transformative'- you have taken the image and created something totally new. What your using it for also affects your rights to use it- a single piece of art is more likely to be allowed than a series of t-shirt prints. The Graphic Artists' Guild have an excellent article here and there are numerous articles on Quora including this one. News images tend to be fairer game than an artist's illustration, but be aware that different judges interpret the law in different ways- to play it safe you may want to ask permission from the source of your images.
How about Google images- I can use those, right?
Google doesn't pay any attention to licensing when it trawls the net for images. This means that the images displayed may well be copyrighted. Some will display watermarks, for others you will need to click through to the webpage. Do not use the image unless it clearly says that it's free to use through creative commons (the same applies to music and video). If you're not sure, then contact the owner.
The same applies to images on Pinterest. Seeing them does not give the right to use them. If you can't find the owner, then either don't copy that image or keep your version to yourself where it can't upset anybody!
I've put some links to sites you can use to draw from at the bottom of this page. Some will let you use the images without acknowledging the creator- others need you to give credit. Always check carefully!
How did Copyright affect this post?
Because I haven't asked if I can use their images, I've linked to Andrea and Tommy's websites instead of copying them here. I haven't included some of my favourite illustrated quotes because they actually infringe copyright (I only recently discovered this) and I guess any sketches of Han Solo I may have done will need to stay under wraps.
I can share images from Unsplash though-they're Creative Commons Zero License- so here's an inflatable flamingo. I don't even have to give credit (but I will- it's by Vicko).
Resources and disclaimers
Austin Kleon has written an excellent book, Steal like an Artist, about being inspired by others and what is- and isn't ok. And Sketchbook Skool offers a number of courses aimed at teaching you to draw like you (How to Draw without Talent, Beginning and Seeing are all great places to start).
You've probably figured out that I have no legal background and am not an expert in copyright law. I've tried to check my facts as carefully as possible, but I'd recommend contacting a professional if you have questions or concerns.
The Amazon links contained in this post are affiliate links- if you order something through them I get a small percentage (this adds nothing to the cost of your purchase but helps me buy art supplies). I've only linked to things I love.
I don't receive anything if you sign up for Sketchbook Skool. I just think they're awesome.
And finally, thank you to Peggy Bjarno, Jaelle Farye and Aleesha Sattva for suggesting some useful edits to this post!
Photos to draw
Pixabay and Unsplash have Creative Commons Zero License- this means you don't need to attribute the photo and can sell work created from these photos if you like. Freshly Curious requires image attribution- you need to name your source. If you have any other suggestions for image sources, add them as a comment and I'll put them on the list.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.