“bad artists copy. great artists steal.”

For those not familiar, the title is actually a quote by Pablo Picasso and has to do with drawing inspiration from something while putting your touch on it. I guess he should know. Picasso is often attributed as the Father of Cubism when in reality he and Georges Braque worked together on the theory and were directly influenced by Cezanne, who had begun breaking up the picture plane in less abstract ways.

I have been sitting on this topic for some time now and a recent post from Bridget Pilloud brought it to the forefront. Bridget’s post is about outright stealing, using another’s content as one’s own. As a visual artist this is a sticky topic for me.

The thing is, I was accused of stealing from someone that used to be a friend. I had created some new photo collages based on an idea I had in college, after seeing her do something that reminded me of it. My images and hers were very different but both were made from buildings, different buildings (of course, no one has made art from buildings before). I credited her as an influence and she accused me of stealing outright. This, by the way, all happened on flickr where actual stealing is a regular event.

I don’t agree with her and I did not take it personally, but it made me think long and hard about how we are influenced. I could have turned it around and claimed she stole my college idea which was influenced by I don’t know what at that time. Instead I let it go, but the concept has been nagging me since.

What is originality in art?

In this age we are so bombarded with imagery (artistic and not), music, ideas, and plain old stuff that it is impossible for me to entertain the notion of true originality. That is not to say I can’t be uniquely creative in my interpretations, but that I have been influenced is not a question. The image above contains a painting by Piet Mondrian on the top left, one by Van Gogh top right, one of mine from 2003 bottom left, and a photo collage of mine from 2009. Trees all, but not the same, although there are comparisons one could make: the use of blue, red, and gold, the textural qualities, the patterns of branches. While I love Mondrian and Van Gogh’s trees, I can’t say I had either in mind when creating my trees, yet they are in my memory bank. My point is, how can we know how much is coming through as collective experience?

Is art simply a manifestation of memory?

Are “original” concepts simply the rearrangement of our perception of what we have seen, heard, felt, and experienced?

Seth Godin has this to say about originality:

I get two kinds of mail about this. One group points to organizations or individuals who are stealing my ideas. “Stop them!” they say. The other doesn’t hesitate to point out that I’ve never had an original idea in my life, and that I’m merely a promotional hack.

Now, more than ever, we can see the work an artist (in any medium, any endeavor) produces over time. If all an artist can do is steal, the truth will out. For the rest, though, a lifetime of consistent provocation, inspiration and generosity can’t help but shine through. Inspirations and all.

I think this is what Picasso means by “great artists steal.”

Great artists steal – they take the idea, theme or pattern and they make it their own. When you steal, you take away the whole thing – this particular idea no longer belongs to the original author. You take it apart, you figure out how it works and you put it together adding your own unique touches. Now it is yours and once you are done with it no one will even remember it used to belong to someone else. You started with something that was not yours, but the end product can no longer be called a copy, imitation or knock of because it stands on it’s own. You’ve successfully stolen something, and gotten away with it.
Luke Maciak

If this is the case then why is it still such a sticky topic? In my case, I am not really concerned that my work will be copied. Posting everything I do on a website and elsewhere on the internet makes it unlikely it won’t be. Rather, it really upset me to be accused of stealing. I don’t know how one can clearly define the space between inspired work and out-right forgery. I like what Jim Jarmusch has to say:

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
— Jim Jarmusch

I think I can agree that originality is obscure at best, at least in the way it has been defined. Perhaps a new definition of originality can be created? Or maybe we can agree that “All creative work is derivative” and just get on with creating our art?

What does originality in your work mean to you?

How do you incorporate influence, inspiration, and experience in your work in new ways?

22 thoughts on ““bad artists copy. great artists steal.”

  1. This is a great topic and a very difficult subject. As visual people, most artists are influenced by other works and ideas and reference materials. It’s very hard sometimes to know where your inspiration comes from and it’s hard to ever say for sure who had what idea first. It’s something I find scary as a business professional sometimes in both the capacity of not wanting to inadvertently create something that seems to close to someone else’s work OR to have someone do that to me. I think as long as there is respect, honesty, openness, and generally good intentions, we’ll be okay.

  2. Here is what I want. I want people to look at my garters and say “that is a Never a Plain Jane design.” They can also say, “oh, this reminds me of such and such costume from Burlesque” or “hey, I think I saw that trim on one Shabby Apple’s fall dresses.” Sometime I will make a garter that looks strikingly similar to someone else’s. Why? Well, maybe we were both watching Dirty Dancing over the weekend and then we watched the same tutorial on a sewing blog and then we both found a great stash of ostrich feathers. Seem like too much of a coincidence? It really isn’t because someone interested in making garters is going to be interested in many of the same things I am. Such is life. And seriously? How often have you seen fashion recycled?

  3. So true. As much as we all want to be completely original, no one experiences life in a bubble. We’ve all seen, read, touched, smelled, heard, experienced throughout our lives. Those things that resonate with us become part of our artistic creations. As long as you make those creations your own and don’t outright copy another’s work and pass it off as your own, your work is original. And honestly, the more varied experiences you have, the better your work will be.

  4. Very thought provoking post and comments! This is something I stress over a lot, to the point of it really stifling my own creativity, for fear I may be subconsciously copying someone. It’s nice to hear someone discuss the subject in a non-emotional way, that addresses the reality of the stimuli filled environment we live in today.

  5. Thanks for the feedback!

    As Teri says I think it comes down to the commitment to never outright copy and pass off work as our own we are OK.

    I also like Jamusch’s line “Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent”.

    Authenticity comes from the heart and soul and whatever color’s it. The influence may or may not be on a conscious level but it is there. As long as we are putting our unique stamp on it we can own it.

  6. I’ve certainly felt the fear of inadvertently creating something that someone else has already done…until I realized it’s probably all been done :) The point is not let all this stuff STOP you from creating what you want to create. I think there are people who literally copy and paste and that is wrong. But from there, it’s all very blurry. I’ve just decided to put my efforts elsewhere…instead of worry so much.

  7. This is an interesting topic — so many aspects to consider. It’s something that I question about with my own work every now and then. As creative people, we absorb a lot of images, ideas and stories. We file them away in journals, notebooks or on bits and pieces of paper so that our creative ideas can percolate over time. Some of these images also remain the far corners of our minds so when they resurface, we don’t always remember where the idea originated. As others have said, I think it comes down to intent. Was the intent to duplicate this art or rather use it as a springboard to go off in a unique direction, though with similar subject matter. Once we share our art and ideas, particularly on the internet, they are out there beyond our control and it can be difficult to determine what the various artistic intentions of others. Thanks for bringing this up in an open-minded discussion without accusation.

  8. Interesting topic and juicy comments…
    As an artist, I am always learning and experimenting from everyone and everywhere around me – and I think most creative types are this way as well. I’m always reading books, magazines, going to exhibits, taking workshops and teaching others – how does one learn otherwise? Sometimes even when teaching others, I learn from the students – it’s a give and take. I have a quote that I have on my studio wall by Pierre Auguste Renoir…”ART MUST BE INDESCRIBABLE AND INIMITABLE…” and I go about creating with this in mind – and if someone wants to copy it – GOOD LUCK! True artists are a living, breathing, evolving entity – it’s in our veins, we have to create…we can’t live without doing so. Theives are just that – there’s no passion to create, just greed – plain and simple.

  9. Great post Gwyn!

    My previous digital art professor and mentor relayed Picasso’s quote as well. I find it funny, that through my photographs of other people’s architecture, I will create my own art.

    As seen here, http://www.leahquinndesign.com/tag/victorian-gate/

    I find that new art work can come from anywhere, including work done by someone else. So in this case, I created art from a beautiful wrought iron gate I photographed. Obviously I did not create that gate, but created new art from someone else’s art. As long as you site where you were influenced, I know us artists will be okay with ‘stealing’ someone else’s art. Just don’t pass it off as your own… lol

    1. I like what you did with the gate Leah! As someone that uses photos as the main element of my art I am always copying what is and making it my own. When I manipulate a tree am I stealing from nature? I don’t think so. It is all art!

  10. Making toys also creates similar dilemmas. Am hopeless at making a pattern up from scratch: on the other hand, I can create endless variations on a theme by changing the colours, and facial features of my foxes, bears, coyotes and rabbits. I tell myself that I am not stealing anything: why else were the patterns published? So, I’ve followed this discussion with interest and find myself oddly reassured that I’m not stealing anyone’s original idea, although I am (hopefully) improving on it. Currently, most of my patterns I’ve had in my toy file for nearly 50 years, so don’t think the originators are going to have a problem anyway. It’s the newer patterns I’m coming across that are niggling …. just a little! Thanks for article and comments.

  11. Great topic, great comments! I’m always surprised when someone keeps an artistic idea secret because it’s ‘theirs’. Where did that person think they got the idea *from*? Do they think the brain lives in a vacuum? We are constantly bombarded by information whether we know it or not. So the inspiration for my next piece may – either consciously or unconsciously – come from someone else. I think that the key part is that an artist (or artisan) brings his or her own creativity to each piece. I don’t see that as stealing, but I do get what Picasso was driving at. Make it your own!

    1. Yes, Gretchen I too am dumbfounded when someone gets possessive about an art technique or idea. That was the premise for the whole discussion. I am so glad the comments and discussion have supported my gut feelings.

  12. What an interesting and timely topic! I don’t consider myself an artist by trade, but perhaps my ruminations will be interesting for this discussion. We are all creators.

    When we talk about making something our own, I think a handy way of breaking that down is by differentiating between concept and form. I think that we can draw inspiration from something either in concept or in form, but to copy both is, well, copying.

    So we can borrow concepts and execute them in our own way, or we can appropriate a form for expressing our own (or just a different) concept.

    At least that’s the litmus test I use for myself. When I’m creating, I of course collage from the world around me. But the combinations I create are distinctively mine.

    If I am drawing both concept and form from the same place, I know that I’m probably crossing a line.

    1. Love this interpretation Katie! Yes, concept or form, but not concept and form!

      The person that accused me of stealing was trying to own a concept. What I had done was actually alter her concept of collage in a way that no way resembles her work. The form was very different.

      This simple answer solves what seemed a complex issue that has been haunting me for 2 years.

  13. When I see work similar to my own I usually wonder if I have seen it before, and was subconciously influenced by it, and am psyched that what I am doing seems current and on trend. To immediately leap to the conclusion that they must be copying me seems so conceited. As plainjane said, to think that others in your field are not looking at the same inspirations is just foolish.
    We should all just be glad that God does not concern Himself with copyright.

  14. I can’t even count the hours I’ve spent in fear and frustration that I’m ‘stealing’ someone else’s work. That makes me a bad writer/artist! That means I’m not creative! Right? Of course not, but that’s what my inner critic likes to tell me.

    Over the last year, I’ve seriously loosened up my grip and come to approximately the same realization you’ve outlined here. While I may be stealing an idea, my use of it creates something uniquely mine – just like we can tell the top right tree is Van Gogh’s. Adding my touch to an inspirational idea brings something new to the topic at hand, making it new if not wholly different.

    Copying and plagiarism are the enemies, and I’m simply not built do indulge in them (seriously, I have a physical aversion to both). Taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own is kind of gross, and that’s where the line is crossed. Ain’t nothing wrong with being inspired by the work of another and creating your own under its umbrella, but using that idea as it’s made is where the problem lies.

  15. Reading this post and the wonderful quotes contained in it gave me such a sight of relief! As a graphic designer I struggle with this a lot. Sometimes I don’t want to log onto Pinterest or surf around on the design blogs because how can I *not* end up being inadvertently influenced by everything that floats past my eyeballs?

    On the other side, I have had the experience of having someone steal my work. A customer tipped me off to it actually. It was of my (free) tandem bicycle wedding invitation. Now, that tandem bike is a bit of clip art that has been used by everyone and their dog. I wasn’t the first and I won’t be the last to use it and it’s not like it’s the most original idea on the planet. However in this particular instance the layout, the color, the typography everything was almost IDENTICAL with the exception that a *slightly* different font had been used.

    I confronted the person and she took it down. I was mostly annoyed at the her, I thought ‘Come on, put a little effort into it, don’t just rip it off 1 to 1’ I think this speaks to the quote about taking the work somewhere new.

  16. This is SO true. Who doesn’t steal these days? A copy is when you simply use someone else’s work. Stealing is when you take, as inspiration :) Lots of my work are, especially, inspired by Nightwish. I relate incredibly well to Nightwish, so it’s hard NOT to steal work from them! Beatles stole stuff, Disney stole stuff, Nightwish stole stuff! Miley Cyrus is an example of making carbon copies, since she stole the song “Party In The USA”.

    I’ve had people in the past tell me I ripped off Nightwish, but it’s inspiration and influence. Tuomas, from Nightwish, steals stuff. He stole titles like Creek Mary’s Blood and Song of Myself :) He never made it as his own original work, though. He openly tells where he gets his inspiration from. I do, too. I do get pissed off if people think I simply made copies of someone else’s work, but who doesn’t make originals these days? I admit, few of my works do look like carbon copies, but I still made that piece of work my own, and gave my influence some credit. Like I said, what isn’t original these days?

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