When is a work of art all yours and and original and not a copy of another’s work? Inspired by a viewers comments about a new work of art I posted on Facebook.
Viewers of my work frequently ask me about the squiggly black and white lines I have dancing through just about all of my work. I always tell them the story of when they first appeared. I was painting a large watercolor on paper and there was one area of the work that I didn’t like. Watercolor is very unforgiving and I didn’t know how to make that area work and still keep the integrity of the work. I took out a ruler and drew three straight lines through the troubled area. Then I painted them black and white. These black and white lines have been dancing, they are no longer straight, through my work ever since. For me they represent motion and movement in the work they appear in.
So where did these lines come from? Just out of the blue like I described them above or was there something in my history of being around art, literally all my life, that I could look back to and say this is where these wonderful dancing lines came from. The only thing that comes up in my memories is a an exhibition at the Chasen Museum of Art, where I was volunteering as a docent, of work by a people who inhabit the Ivory Coast of Ghana in Africa. Just about everything they owned, furniture, footstools, weapons, clothing had a checker board pattern on it. I must have given over 50 tours for that exhibition and perhaps that is where the black and white lines came from. I don’t know.
I tell this story because recently I painted a painting which I called “The Performance.” I was challenging myself to do figures as I rarely do them in my work. I had been researching how other artists have done figures just to give me some ideas how I might want to do mine. I knew my figures would be suggestive and not detailed with reality. To my surprise I created my first figurative work unintentionally, just like the black and white lines suddenly appeared in my work a figure appeared in my work. When I finished the piece I called it, “RingMasters Coat.” And there is was my solution to how I wanted to do figures. And I have been working on an entire series I call “At The Circus” where figures are the main focus of the work.
For the most part I began the works with watercolor washes like I do 90 percent of my pieces. The washes don’t always remain but the work always starts out that way. For the newest piece in this series “The Performance” started out with a wash, and I was going to move into try and accomplish what I have been unable to accomplish in many years transparent watercolors. I had played with some watercolor sketches in my Kasba Lake Series and thought I had a good idea as to where I was going to go and create a transparent watercolor. I liked where the piece was going but suddenly there was a huge drip in the work that I didn’t know what to do with.
I returned to what I was comfortable with to make the piece work – I added opaque color. Two figures appeared. I saw them right away and began developing them. But what to do with the background of the work. I was coming at it backwards. I wanted to create a wash that flowed across the entire piece but that would have destroyed the figures which I liked. So I abandoned the watercolors and began using opaque color for the entire piece. But the question came up what to do with the background. I blocked out some shapes filled them with color and called it a day. The work was done. Mind you there were about 20 different layers underneath the finished work. I was never comfortable with the solution I came up with. When I called it a day I posted the work on Facebook to share and get some comments on.
The very first comment was that looks like Bob Burridge’s work. I was devasted. What did I copy someone? I knew of Burridge’s work, he has been a judge in many of the completions I have entered. In fact recently he awarded me a 2nd place in a very prestigious exhibition. I was extremely honored. But there was no way I would copy his work. Perhaps like the black and white lines, the influence of his work just appeared in mine. I went to Burridges website to remind myself just what it was he did. And sure, enough my work resembled his. And he loved the colors orange and yellow with complementary colors as a focal point in his work. I love orange and yellow together – and often use a complementary color to bring the viewer in. And Burridge had done an entire series on a circus. I was devasted. I knew I could never enter this piece in a competition – it was way too much like his work. When you enter a competition, you sign a form stating that this is your work, not done in a workshop, not copied from another’s work, not copied from another’s photograph. You sign that everything in that work is yours and only yours. I couldn’t do that with this work.
These two stories bring me to the point of this post – just when is a work a copy and just when is a work yours and yours alone, an original?
Most of us know when our work is a copy of another’s, but do we always? And what about folks who for example do landscapes, just how different can a landscape be, and you can still call it your own? Flowers are another example the list can go on and on. Yes, most artists are inspired by other artists, but not to the point of copying their work.
Those of you who read my blogs know I challenge many a work as art because it is not original. The question becomes then what is an original work of art? If we make figures like others have made figures, if we handle color like others have handle colors, if we create landscapes like others have created landscapes does that mean our work is not original? I have argued yes it does mean your work is not original. So, is anything original anymore? I answer yes, if you the artist are in the work.
My work “The Performers” had very little of me in it as it was presented. The simple fact for me that there was a horizon line to add perspective disqualified it for me. What you say, a simple horizon line that adds perspective, disqualifies the work as original. I say yes, especially if almost immediately a viewer asks if I know of another artists work and tells me how much my work looks like his. Yes.
I changed the work – the first piece no longer exists except in photographs. I am very happy with the changes, and there is no one I venture to say that has another piece like it. It is an original. And yes, I will enter it in competitions. We are influenced by other artists, we do admire other artists, we are inspired by other artists, but it is not until my black and white lines weren’t straight anymore and danced across the paper that those lines became mine. And it was not until I changed the background of my work and created my own blocks of space and perspective did the work become mine. That is how I understand the word “original” when I say to be a work of art it must be original.