There are a few artists out there suffering from an illness: Copycatilism. That’s right, I just made that up but I’ll bet you know exactly what I am talking about. Symptoms include: laziness, lack of imagination, tendency to spend hours looking at other artist’s work, and the click of the mouse to save images for later use. Those infected may also lean towards tracing, transposing, and photoshop tweaking to disguise their symptoms.
Copying happens for several reasons in my mind. You have the student variety, a student is taking a workshop or class and suddenly the student’s work looks like the instructor’s work. This is natural and excusable if the student moves on and graduates to their own version and work once the instruction time is over. Then there’s the, I’m just experimenting variety. This is usually a weekend artist that sees something they like and they try it on for size. Maybe they completely copy the image or they change the palette to match their sofa. I don’t mean this in a condescending way, but they like something and they want their own version of it and never intend to do anything with it other than hang it in their house. Which bring us to the more insidious kind of copier, the I came up with it myself kind. This is the person that emulates and tries to own someone else’s work. This is the person infected with Copycatilism.
I’ve been exposed to people infected with Copycatilism as have many of my artist friends. A few years ago I had a workshop co-participant ask to use my ink because she liked my custom mixed palette and loved my imagery so could she use my stencils too? AWK-ward. She managed to create a color palette like mine anyway, and copied my imagery, along with my compositions and image size. She was so proud of her “new” work. I started to think I was crazy, that I was imagining that she completely copied me, how could this happen in a workshop in front of other people??? Until another participant came up to me a whispered that this woman must like my work so much she decided to copy me. My stomach turned inside out. I almost skipped the last day of the workshop. This copy cat contacted me a short time later so that we could “work together.” I tried to be kind and compassionate but I did tell her that she needed to be aware of what she was really doing. I never heard from her again.
That’s an obvious case of copying but what about when you aren’t sure? My take is that your gut is sure. If you see a work out that looks enough like your own that a bell goes off internally, there’s a good chance you got copied. Sadly, the internet has made all of this quite easy to do. It also makes it easier to see when you may have been copied since it seems we are all connected now via Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and the like. Not to mention that if you don’t see it yourself someone you know may see it and let you know.
Some things are not really copying though. Like a friend said the other day, “I just invented the circle now if anyone else uses it I’ll know they copied me.” She was of course being sarcastic. There are iconic images, shapes and styles that just aren’t copying. Like a circle, certain images are so widely used that it doesn’t amount to copying. Now if the color palette, size of the work, material, texture and the like are the same, then that increases the likelihood that it is a copy. I have a painter friend who was alerted to a series another artist created chronologically after hers that was so similar that when I saw the work there was no mistaking that she had been copied. It was so obvious it was disgusting.
Some say that if you’ve been copied you’ve arrived, that it is flattering. I don’t really see it that way although I understand the perspective. It’s one thing to try another artist’s technique as an experiment, but once an artist claims someone else’s imagery as their own original idea they have crossed a line. I don’t think there are very many of us out there making art that is entirely original, myself included, but I do think that artists need to make sure that their ideas are fresh and not someone else’s worked over. Or not even worked over in some cases. In the meantime, pray for a cure.