Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The importance of Originality For a Fair Competition

                     Why is Originality and the need for complete Originality such a hard concept to grasp? If you are working as an artist or aspire to work as an artist you must understand that originality is everything and that your legacy will be dust in the wind unless your work is identifiable as yours and belongs in no part to another.

Or-ig-in-al: belonging or pertaining to the beginning or origin of something, or to a thing at its beginning. Originality can be distinguished from reproductions, clones, forgeries or derivative works. An original work is one not copied from nor based on the work of others
(compiled from various sources)
 Derivative work is the legal term used to define any "creative work" that is created (or derives from) and "copies" major elements of a previously copyrighted "first work" or "underlying work".

 ANY time you create a piece of art using a reference other than your own (which is the first work) and you do not make very substantive changes (substantial changes mean the new work is easily identified as containing new content, contains significant development in its own right, and expresses the unique demeanour of the artist who made it) then you are creating a derivative work that is not an is a reproduction or a copy.
- A derivative work cannot be copyrighted unless it stands alone as a new work and you must prove how and why it stands alone and distinct from the underlying work(s) used.
- A commission cannot be copyrighted by the artist; the person who commissioned you holds the copyright unless they choose to award you that right.
- Copyright is only issued once per unique image no matter what form it takes, no matter what media it is represented in.

... yes I know people go around sticking the copyright symbol on their art that they have produced from reference material that they “bought the rights” to. Buying the “rights” means you get to copy the reference without impunity and to derive income (royalties) from the copies you make without impunity. Buying the rights does not transfer the protection of copyright to your copies.

                    So why is all this so important for any artist but especially a competing artist to understand? This post has been simmering for quite some time, and finally brought to fruition after a very heated and somewhat acidic discussion on an art forum that I have belonged to pretty much since its inception. The moderators of this group have industriously instigated a monthly contest and award prizes in 3 categories. To ensure that the integrity of their contest was maintained the moderators updated the rules to state that all reference material must be taken (presuming photographic reference) by the submitting artist. The fun started there….but in the end the new rule stands, as it should.

I read with interest the arguments by those who stated that for "personal reasons" they were unable to "do the work" to gather their own source reference material and thus were only able to create "derivative paintings" from references not their own.  They felt that the rule demanding complete originality was impinging on their right to enter the contests and possibly win an award.  I thought this was a rather baseless argument - if you are truly an artist you should be able to capture and portray the beauty in anything, no matter how mundane - use your skills, paint what you know and what you have a true life connection to! 

                            In the past I have found my art hanging in a show with work that I recognized as not original and having been painted from mass marketed photo references owned by other artists, published and sold via the internet and other venues. The entry guidelines stipulated “Original work” only. Most artists understand what original means and wouldn't dream of entering into a competition anything that wasn't original. Unfortunately in the world we live in the internet has made it far too easy for a technically capable artist to produce work from found photographic reference material that they have no connection to other than they saw it, they did what they had to do to acquire it and then they painted a copy of it.

From my point of view, when you enter a contest – any contest where you are competing and are vying for prizes, you fully expect that the standards for entry into the competition will be equal for all who enter. Most artists do enter juried competitions from time to time as a way to increase their exposure as well as their "worth" if they should be so lucky to win an award. When dealing with art where each work is as unique as the artist with the vision who created it, a level playing field is a hard thing to nail down. Pretty much the only valid starting point has to be that the work is and can be (if required) proved to be original and wholly created from “concept through to completion” by the competing artists.

I (and all other artists that I know) work hard to get the photographic references that we use to create our art. It takes great skill, a lot of time and a good bit of luck to consistently take good workable photos of birds and wildlife. I personally have spent many years honing my field craft skills, learning as much as I can about DSLR photography and processing, upgrading to better and more expensive photographic equipment and travelling a lot of miles to get my references. In studio I spend hours taking and re-taking photo after photo of a still life set up, the contents of which I have personally sourced and arranged to please me. Then of course there is all the technical work of composing multiple images into one and putting your concept together even before you touch brush to canvas. The result of all of this work is that everything I create is the sum total of me, what I saw and experienced, my point of view, my influences, my knowledge and thus, my work is totally original, and I hope as such expresses the unique connection that only I have with the subject that I am painting. ...why would you do it any other way?
                                                                                                                                                                  I haven't really entered that many juried shows over my lifetime career but when I do I have a request for the organizers of any show that I may enter in the future…Give me and all artists who understand and strive for originality recognition for all of our work and please do your best to not allow artwork that is anything less than original to hang in competition with ours….I know it is impossible for the organizers and jurors to know where the reference material for every piece comes from and the best you can do is spell out on the entry form in no uncertain terms what is allowed and what is not allowed …BUT… when you have proof available that a piece is not original, just remove it, to leave it hanging is not properly honouring every artist who did do the work and a blow to the integrity of your show.

… I’m not quite sure what show organizers who don't strive for originality would do if the day comes that they get more than one entry painted from the same reference but by different artists…will they allow them to all hang at one time? This must have already happened somewhere, the number of stock photo, image libraries, "paint my photo" sites on the internet is continually growing and no matter how many pictures there are to choose from the same photos seem to get chosen time and again, to be rendered in all media but still recognizable as a copy of the original photograph. I don't sell the rights to my photos but I do get requests, and often the requests are for the same one or 2 over and over.

                            Outside of competition? It is none of my business to comment on the integrity of any artist unless it has direct bearing on me and my work. I have no control over anyone but myself. Of course my opinion would be that if you use reference material that is not your own and especially if that reference is accessible to any artist who may wish to paint it that you should be honest and divulge that information to anyone who may wish to purchase your artwork. As a multiple award winning artist I am certainly not threatened by the practice but I am bothered by the dishonesty, and I do know those that who buy/collect original art are becoming wary of purchasing something that is less than authentic. I can't imagine how angry I would be if I were to hang a painting I love in my home and then find out that it was a copy, and even worse possibly one of many that may exist in various formats.  Let the purchaser decide if they want to pay your price or not. That is more or less what it boils down to in the end, whether the patron is captivated by your concept and the life experience you have portrayed to the viewer…or is it simply your technical ability as a painter of things that has caught their eye?


Anonymous said...

Once again a very well put pointer for those artists out there aspiring to be professional. Please read this and really take it to heart. Most competitions that specify "original" works mean it. If it is a derivative work and you have not specified it as thus, shame on you and your award should be removed if you are found out. PLEASE use you own photos for competitions and save the other works done from stock shots for practice. I know it is part of the learning process, that thing called practice, but do not try to enter it in a competition.

Anonymous said...

fascinating article and definitely worth the read!

Anonymous said...

Interesting read. I agree to a point. If I have derivative work, I would be honest and have always been. I feel there has to be a space for the handicapped who cannot get their own photo references. The last photographer that I gained permission from, chooses one artist to use the work. That's it.
I am leaning more and more towards my own references. The balance is beginning to shift.

Joann said...

Hi all and thanks for your comments, sorry I had them turned off! Duh!