Art Theft


I’ve been thinking this week about art theft.

I don’t mean art theft as in black stocking cap clad thieves pulling off a museum heist. What I’m talking about is art swipes, instances where artists have outright copied another artist’s work.

Now, here I have to be careful because a charge of plagiarism is a serious thing for an artist. So let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about before we begin.

I’m not talking about using reference photos or even about “lightboxing”. References are necessary in creating realistic artwork and no two artists will produce the same image from the same reference. Lightboxing refers to tracing an image using a lightbox, a device which shines a light up through a glass plate. A reference photo is illuminated from behind so that when a sheet of paper is placed overtop one can trace the underlying image. Even that method sometimes is necessary in creating commercial art. It’s a useful tool that helps artists, particularly with tight deadlines. Some consider the use of a lightbox a cheat. Some purists consider the use of references a cheat, as if art produced without reference to the real world is somehow more ‘pure’ than art that references the real world in some way.

I don’t want to get into a debate about that issue. I consider the use of references essential to creating realistic art. If you can do without it, great.

What I am talking about is copying the work of other artists.

All artists, when they’re learning to be artists, and even when they are professionals, will copy the work of other artists, particularly the work of the old masters. These are called studies and doing a study is immensely helpful to an artist. By trying to reproduce a DaVinci or a Carravagio an artist learns a great deal about the technique used to create the image. It’s like reverse engineering a painting. What you learn in doing that is immensely valuable, and as long as the work that you produce is labelled as a study and there is the understanding that you produced it in an attempt to learn something, then there is no crime.

It’s when you copy something from another artist and call it your own that the art theft happens

So, after that long preamble, let’s get down to the nitty gritty:

Probably one of the most imitated fantasy artist is, not surprisingly, Frank Frazetta. Frazetta is certainly one of the moist influential stylistically. Genrations of young artists enthusiastically copied his style while trying to find their own artistic “voice”. I was one of them. We all tried to imitate Frazetta in some way. Some artists just never moved away from that imitation to develop their own style.

And some just flat-out copy his stuff.

Check this out. It is the cover of a Weird Tales Omnibus edited by Marvin Kaye. It was released in 1996 and the figure on the cover bears a striking resemblance to a figure from a Frazetta painting:


I’m not going to say who the artist of the weird tales cover is. I’m not interested in publicly embarrassing a fellow artist.

How about this one:


Again, I’m not going to say who the artist is.

And just so you don’t think that it’s all other artists copying Frank Frazetta, here’s something interesting: Here is Frazetta’s famous cover painting for Conan the Destroyer:

and here is a photograph of a painting by French orientalist Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouy called Bearers of Ill Tidings painted in 1872:

Lecomte Porteurs

Notice something familiar about one of the dead slaves:


(I am indebted to James Gurney’s art blog GURNEY JOURNEY for the above images)

Why did Frazetta copy that particular pose? I don’t know. He’s not around to ask anymore. It’s not like he couldn’t have done it from his imagination. None of the other figures seem to have been copied. Maybe he just got tired of coming up with poses and decided to swipe one. Perhaps he had done a study of this painting and the figure stuck in his mind. Who knows?

As beginning artists we all start out emulating styles, copying what we like, studying, trying to figure out how our favourite artists did it, trying to see if we can do the same and eventually we find our own place, our own style. Sometimes, however, situations present themselves — maybe it’s a tight (TIGHT!) deadline or a sudden lack of inspiration. Either way it seems like a good idea at the time — a quick solution to a thorny problem. Unfortunately when it is in print or online it can be an embarrassment that is not easy to ignore. And if an artist makes a habit of swiping (and there are some artists who swipe regularly and blatantly — professional artists) his or her reputation suffers the ignomy of ridicule from fans and open contempt from one’s peers.

Circumstances conspire to create a problem for an artist in which a swipe seems like an easy solution. Artists need to make the rent and feed themselves of their families. Sometimes a swipe can make the difference between making a sale and not making one. It’s a practice that can be forgiven from time to time.

As a habit, however, it is not so forgivable.

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