This is how you can get away with it too
A few days ago, I shared my experiences with Brock Johnson, a social media Growth Coach, whom I bought services from. That piece was not written in an attempt to cancel or expose Brock, however, I was dissatisfied with his product and decided to share an honest and no fluff review. Well, I was not ready for its aftermath.
Once published, the internet went ahead and did its thing. Professional social media managers began reaching out, others which included artists that were shocked and even friends. Many asked if I was going to start social media consulting. So far, the article has been read 1,837 times which is way more than the number of subscribers to ‘The Inkplate’…Damn Daniel!
All of this attention made me reflect on my work. For a fraction of a second, I felt bad about Brock but then I remembered how he stole content and runs a multimillion-dollar company! Jokes aside, it made me remember my most embarrassing moment as an artist when I got caught stealing and was called out.
In 2018, while I was dabbling into painting, I made a painting that copied the work of Emilio Villalba. I was fascinated by his work and still am. I desperately wanted to replicate the ethereal feeling he captured in his paintings. During a Dia de los Muertos festival, I had my painting up for sale. A gentleman came up and was struck by it. He stared at it for a long time, smiled, and eventually asked if this was my painting. I said yes with much excitement. He made some comments regarding the brushstrokes and composition. I smiled again and nodded. He asked how I had come up with the idea. I probably responded with some bullshit which he caught a whiff off.
‘This is not your idea. These were the eyes Emilio did on the Instagram demo. I watched it too.” He called me out.
He was right. I had taken a screenshot of the eyes, printed that picture and traced them on my canvas. I painted until they looked almost identical. Which they weren't because Emilio is a modern master, and I was being a bozo.
Being called out so publicly and to my face made me rethink how I made art. It did not matter that I was a small-time artist in an obscure little festival or that I admired Emilio as an artist. I had claimed intellectual property that wasn't mine.
It was wrong and I had to change.
Steal the Right Way
We think there is a blurred line between being inspired by someone and stealing their content. We can't just slap an ‘inspired by’ or ‘after (fill in the blank artist)’ as a title. Plagiarism, skimming or changing one tiny color or detail is still stealing.
But you can steal like an artist. I do it all the time. Instead of just replicating an artist’s style or idea, study and build upon it.
Throughout art history, artists have learned from each other without stealing. A perfect example is the statue of David. The subject matter is not unique, but the results are.
Donatello created his version in 1408
Verrocchio in 1473
Michelangelo in 1501
Bernini in 1623
Each artist took the same subject and built upon what a previous master had created. Sometimes David is depicted naked and other times clothed. His age ranges from being a child to a grown adult. So does his posture, the sense of movement, and artistic style. You get the idea.
How I Steal
I have stolen ideas from Katsushika Hokusai, Chiura Obata and Tom Killion. Let me explain.
I am currently working on a series called ‘36 Views of Yosemite.’ I’ve never claimed that this was my original idea. Japanese artist Katushika Hokusai created a well-known series called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. These are a series of beautifully illustrated and masterfully carved landscapes of Japan with Mount Fuji always present somewhere in the print. I took that original idea and ran with it. I could have picked a single mountain or landmark to build my series. Instead, I decided to honor this legacy by expanding my subject to a whole region: Yosemite National Park.
The Great Wave
From Tom Killion, I have taken more direct inspiration. Mr. Killion similarly attempted a series of prints around a single mountain like Hokusai did and created Twenty-eight View of Mount Tamalpais. Mr. Killion’s style is not a Hokusai ripoff as he mixes and honors both traditional japanese woodcut prints while printing on with oil based inks and an industrial press. Combining eastern and western art, he created something distinctly his and unique to our eyes. Mr. Killion also has an extensive collection of High Sierra prints where he depicts Yosemite in spectacularly detailed fashion which is how I first became aware of him.
Most recently, I have been studying Chiura Obata. He created over 100 drawings during a visit to Yosemite in 1927. From those drawings sprung, thirty five woodcut prints, Mr. Obata built upon the legacy of traditional Japanese woodcuts but injected a vibrancy that seemed unique to his contemporaries with his unique painterly prints.
I utilize the work of Hokusai, Obata, and Killion as an inspiration for learning. I can learn composition, color theory, and perfect my craft without having to directly steal from them. I can honor their legacy with respect and maintain artistic integrity. The more sources and teachers I have, the farther it keeps me from plagiarizing a single artist.
I have also made it a goal to avoid being carried away by the admiration train since this will prevent me from developing my own style.
It is okay to steal as long as you do it by: studying, honoring the predecessors that clearly influenced you and transforming a basic idea into something new. If you do a good job at this you will have a sense of what is worth stealing.
If you're still not convinced, Austin Kleon wrote an excellent book on this topic.
What I Am Working On
Last few days I have been working on small stamps, particularly on a signature stamp for my prints. I’ve always wanted to have a tiny stamp I can use instead of having to individually sign each print.I’m still working out the final design, so for now I’ll keep signing away with pencil as usual.