Respecting Artists – inspiration, copying and whose work is it anyway?

A bit of a tricky topic today, one that can be quite confusing. As I develop my designs I often use an image or a style for inspiration. Sometimes I’m literally asked to copy an image. What’s the line between inspiration and copying someone else’s work?

Every day we see all sorts of lovely images and want to share them. Perhaps there’s a gorgeous woodcut of a woodpecker and you promptly send it to your friend who’s enchanted. All this is fun and above board. I think most artists are happy to bring joy to people while enjoying this sort of exposure. It’s sharing their images for private enjoyment.

Everything changes when commercial use comes into the equation – after all, this is an artist’s livelihood and their art makes their ends meet. Wedding photographers tend to give their clients low res images specifically for sharing on social media – this way everyone can enjoy them, but the low res makes it hard for some rotter to use them commercially and make money off someone else’s work.

And that ladies and gentlemen is in essence what I’m talking about. There’s a person behind every piece of work, someone who’s been excited and who’s struggled to create what you’re seeing. It’s an individual artist trying to make her way.

In my line of work even typography often belongs to someone. It takes great time and skill to create a beautiful alphabet. Yet sometimes I’m literally asked to copy an image. Perhaps the person doesn’t realize it’s copying or perhaps they don’t want to realize.

Going to School in the Rain

This charming painting is Going To School In The Rain by Wang Ani. Its colorful style is the Jinshan peasant school of painting. An article outlines how Wang Ani has had trouble with people copying her work. It’s a moving story and one that should give us all pause as we admire and disseminate art.

For these artists, connections and contacts are vital – most make their living from the sale of their paintings. Although the local authorities have promoted the artists in their Fengjing town village as an important tourist destination, it is not easy making money from art.

And what is now making it even harder is the spread of fake peasant art. Fake Jinshan peasant paintings reportedly began to appear 10 years ago but the painters had hardly any recourse then, said Xi Jiping, the president of the Shanghai Jinshan Peasant Painting Academy.

“We did win some court cases over fake paintings but the proceedings were so costly that though the artists won their cases they lost money. The costs of protecting copyright are too high for rural painters,” he told the Global Times.

Let’s say we wanted to use these charming children on bicycles. What would the line be between copying and inspiration – or is there one?

  • We’ll change the background
  • We’ll change the number of children?
  • We’ll change the color scheme?
  • We’ll make some of the children face the other way?

None of that works.

You cannot copy the cheeky children in their colorful slickers on bicycles and say it’s not copying. This is the core of the work; it’s iconic, it’s the painting’s essence.

What would be inspiration, you ask? You could have the children flying colorful kites for example. It keeps the fun tone, it keeps the upbeat style but it does not reproduce the core part of Wang Ani’s lovely painting.

Let’s get inspired to make our own art and produce our own beautiful designs together.