Kokopelli Conga

Kokopelli Conga
"A work of art that did not begin in emotion is not art." --Paul Cezanne

April 27, 2015

If I want to paint a trout, do I need to become an underwater photographer?

"A work of art that did not begin in emotion is not art." --Paul Cezanne

Am I a big fan of Cezanne? Not really. But, I love this quote and think it entirely appropriate to the art world today.

I read a lot of art-related articles, blog posts, magazines, and other random thoughts. The last few years, especially, it seems there are a lot of words being written about originality. Your art must be "your own." As an artist, you must find "your own voice." And, heaven forbid, your "voice" sounds (or looks) like some other artists' voice. Don't copy someone else's style, technique, or reference material. You can't enter any kind of competition or show without the raincloud of ORIGINALITY hanging over your head, from source material to composition to technique.

Want to paint a picture of a lion? You had better pay for a safari to Africa to snap some of your own reference photos (or at least your local zoo - if you can get the lion to look at the camera)...or else face the threat of copyright violation!! Because, as we all know, lions are readily available for photo reference. And we all know artists are made of money so they may travel the world to randomly snap photos, whip out their plein air kits, and make sure all their reference material and the paintings created from are 100% original to the artist - and no other person in the world might possibly have seen that particular lion on that day and taken a photo!

"Kitty" ©Jennifer Love

Then...once you are nestled back home in your spacious, beautifully lit, spotlessly clean art studio - with no interruptions from kids, husbands (or wives), cats, dogs, lawns that need mowing, or piles of dishes and laundry that need to be done...you can begin to masterfully create your king of the jungle painting. You can take as much time as you need - with creative juices endlessly flowing. (Yeah right! In our dreams!)

But, be careful with those creative juices! Don't deconstruct the lion's face and reconstruct it with a geometric pattern for some unique and original composition - you might be accused of mimicking Picasso. Don't paint with small dots to create your lights and darks - lest you become an inadequate imitator of Seurat.

Certainly, I have struggled with "finding my voice" as an artist. I finally had what I considered a breakthrough on what identifies my work as "my own" a few years ago. But, is my technique and are the tools I use to achieve it it really unique to me? Yes and no. And is even this technique constantly evolving? Yes! 

"First Green" ©Jennifer Love

I am sure there are many watercolor artists out there who use wet-in-wet, dry-brush, stamping, and splatter techniques in their paintings. How likely is it that every single artist out there has created some technique or subject matter that is brand new - something that no one else has ever seen before past or present? Not very.

So, if your art voice is similar to that of another artist, does it demean you in some way? Does that mean it's not truly your voice? Are you a sham, trying to make it in the world of "true" artists? I don't think so.

And the copyright thing... Of course, like all artists, I want protection of copyright law 
(you can see the little copyright symbol with my name by each painting I post online), and I understand that professional photographers should also have recognition and payment for their artistry.  Do I want someone to download a pic of one of my paintings, print off copies, and sell them for profit without paying me a royalty? No. And I would never do that to a photographer either. 

But really, I think the world has become too litigious. I have sat in classrooms and workshops full of many talented artists who all use the same reference photo to make a painting - perhaps to learn a new technique or skill. And guess what? EVERY single one of those paintings is different! If someone were to use my painting or photograph as a reference to create one of their own, then the new painting is, in fact, unique to them. How much must a photo reference be changed in order to make it "original?" Protect your artwork - watermark your paintings and photographs, make them low resolution for online publication. But, if you are going to publish your work online, expect that other people will see it - and some will probably reproduce the subject matter for their own art. 

Click here to read "Richard Prince Wins Major Victory in Landmark Copyright Suit" - an article about a copyright lawsuit brought against an artist who used another professional photographer's work in his art collages. The court makes a ruling about "fair use" of copyrighted photographs to create other art.  

I use my own reference photos and material as much as possible. If not using my own reference photos, I ask or obtain permission from the photographer whenever possible. But really, if I want to paint a picture of a trout, am I going to get myself an underwater camera, learn to scuba dive, and go for a swim? I don't think so! 

I am also not going to reproduce a photograph exactly as I see it in it's entirety either! I want my work to be original. I just think this source material issue has gotten a little out of hand.

"Kokopelli Weave" ©Jennifer Love

Is not every interpretation and painting I create from a reference source uniquely "my own" just by the mere fact that I drew it with my own hand and selected the colors from my own palette in a combination that no other artist would be able to repeat and that, in fact, I would never be able to repeat either because every dip of the brush and stroke on the paper brings a slightly different intensity of paint? Is it not "my own" due to the fact that I am the only person in the world who can actually lay down washes of paint in the way that I do it, with the pressure and direction of the brush strokes and the pooling of water and paint done only by my hand, and therefore impossible for any other person to replicate because they are not me

So yes, as an artist, use your own reference material whenever possible. (I even planted Butterfly Bushes in my yard to attract source material!) Paint en plein air when you can if you like to (nothing more original than that!). Certainly, try to find your "voice" as an artist. But, I suggest we stop stressing about finding a voice that is completely unique and different than any other artist out there. It's not going to happen. 

I am weary of the criticism of those who point fingers at artists crying "copycat" because their technique or subject matter resembles that of others. Find a technique and style and color palette that appeals to you - that you love to work with - and create your work with passion! Passion is more important than being different than everyone else. No other artist can duplicate your personal brand of enthusiasm.

"Dancing Sea Dragons" ©Jennifer Love

Even though there is nothing truly different about the technique used in my personal art "voice," I would hope that you can look at my body of work and see that there is enough common thread of "me" running through it that you can tell it was created by the same artist. That is my hope, and the goal I work for. There is no other artist in the world who paints anything in exactly the same way I do. Even if they have the same brushes, paint, paper, palette set up, and reference material. The strokes laid on the paper by me are uniquely my own - and thus every painting I create is, in fact, original and unduplicable (even by me).

Of course, follow the rules when you enter shows. Make sure your reference materials are your own, etc.

But, outside the competition arena, as an artist, stop listening to the critics and start listening to your own inner dialogue. Stop worrying about finding something to create that is different than everyone else. Instead, find the thing that makes you most happy in your art and do that! And be content in the knowledge that you are creating with passion.

"An Orange Pair" ©Jennifer Love

As always, thanks for stopping by my blog! :)
I would love to hear your thoughts or feedback in the comments section. 

This blog post is an update to original posted 10/23/12.

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