Is Copying Art Plagiarism?

Considering if it is OK to copy another artist's work and, if so, in what circumstances.

Is Copying Art Plagiarism?

For my art development I will often copy another artist’s work in my sketchbook; I find it a helpful way of learning a new technique.
I sometimes feel guilty about doing this and I often wonder where the line is between doing this and plagiarism? According to the Oxford English Dictionary plagiarism is defined as, “The practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own”. In this article I will explore what copying is acceptable and where I think copying becomes plagiarism.

I don’t think that there isn’t anything wrong with copying a drawing or painting of someone’s artwork just to build on your own art work if it is not going to be publicly displayed anywhere.  By studying closely another’s work you can learn new skills that you can then put into practice into your own original pieces. I watched an art video on YouTube and there was an interesting quote that made me think, in which Gary Panter said, 

“If you have one person that you are influenced by everyone says that you are the next whoever but if you rip off one hundred people everyone will say you are so original.”

You could also apply this to plagiarism because if you are practising by copying one person’s art you are just imitating them and therefore plagiarising their style. However if you take inspiration and copy from many different artists you are not learning to be a clone of someone but taking various ideas to develop your own style. I spoken to an art tutor Harriet Davies, who said that taking different parts from different artists is a useful way of challenging yourself to expand your skills and learn.

Many artists will use other people’s photography to create art from, for example you may want to paint a landscape and decide to use a photograph you’ve found online or you may want to use a photo of a celebrity to draw a portrait from. Some would class this as plagiarism because it is copying but I would say it depends on whether you are copying something that didn’t already exist, for example the landscape was already there. In my opinion it all depends on whether you are copying a unique composition and the style of the photograph or whether you want to paint a specific person or landscape and need to use a photo rather than seeing it in the flesh.

Some would say that it is OK to copy another’s work and publicly display it. They would not count this as plagiarism as long as credit is given to the original artist. On, sacredflamingheart says in a journal, 

“Don't dupe your audience. If you made a work with the intent of copying or alluding to another work, SAY SO IN YOUR DESCRIPTION.”

Some would add to this that as long as you are not getting paid or even potentially getting paid for it in any way it is OK to copy a piece of art and publicly display it. Finally there is someone like convicted art fraudster John Myatt who used to copy paintings and sell them as originals, this was illegal but after coming out of prison he now recreates masters but sells them clearly marked as copies. The copyright has expired on these pieces because the artists have been dead over 70 years.

I wouldn’t want someone else to copy a piece of my art and publicly display it even if they state that it is mine, I would want them to ask permission. So I would not want to do that with others work. I do think though if you are not going to publicly display the work it is OK to copy it. I feel the exception to this is if a person or group was studying an artist and doing an exhibition of their work as part of the study of the artist. People’s art is very personal to them and copying another’s work feels to me like pretending to be them or stealing.


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Nyah Harper

Nyah Harper

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  • Luke Taylor

    On 11 May 2018, 15:00 Luke Taylor Contributor commented:

    This is a really good issue to discuss. Just where does the line cross between copying other artists to learn off them and using other artists' work as your own?

  • Nyah Harper

    On 18 May 2018, 13:48 Nyah Harper commented:

    Yes Luke Taylor, it's a difficult issue for many artists.

  • Carol Leach

    On 18 May 2018, 16:39 Carol Leach commented:

    very good arguments both against and for in certain circumstances

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