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Style thieves and questions of integrity.

On episode 77 of Waiting To Dry, we talked on the podcast about owning a style. When you come up with a new style, how much of it do you get to claim and where does the line get drawn?

Take for example my Painted Roses series. How much of it is truly mine?

Plenty of people have painted beautiful nude women before me. The patterns themselves are from vintage illustration or other sources not my own. Even the merging of pattern and background is a Photoshop filter that anyone can use(Hell, I will even show you exactly how). No one element of it is completely original. Yet, when it’s put together, it becomes a statement all of my own.

So it stands to reason that I would only be able to call out someone who is putting together those 3 elements in the exact same way that I do it. Everything else is fair game. So then, in order to claim my share of the market, I have to keep expanding my visual vocabulary to include more and more distinct pieces, and also grow within my own visual parameters.

The larger problem that was brought up in the podcast was this issue of artists freely imitating other artists for financial gain, and the institutions that give them permission to do so. Let me know, is this a problem for you? How do you feel about it?

Audrey Kawasaki is someone who is well-known within the art world to have imitators, yet a Google search of the phrase “Audrey Kawasaki imitator” doesn’t readily come up. In order to understand this phenomenon, we have to understand what she can truly lay claim to.

  • Painting on “bare” wood? Not really, although that is one of her signature elements.

  • Thickly outlined flowing strands of hair? Maybe, but that is one of the more subtle features of her work, and isolated, wouldn’t immediately jump out as hers alone.

  • Some of the background patterns and shapes have a distinct “handwriting” that I think she can lay claim to the essence of, but that’s not what most people usually talk about when they think of Audrey.

  • It’s really the facial shape and expression, the body type and shape, and the proportions that stand out as being her work. And that is what is mostly imitated of her work.

Was she even the first to start painting figures in this way? I bet not, but she surely has to be the one who made it wildly popular through her exposure via popular art magazines. So then also branding fits into this concept of ownership here.

Malcolm Liepke (L) & Milt Kobayashi (R)

Malcolm Liepke and Milt Kobayashi - I don’t know the entire story here but apparently this style was developed in tandem when they were roommates together, so I know that there isn’t really a fight here. This style is so distinctive that it has spawned many imitations. Many of those imitators went on to create distinctive styles spawning imitations of their own.

As artists, our ideas are our currency. Our work lives and dies on the strength of the ideas put forth in it. That’s why, when it is imitated for personal gain, it feels so violating. This is of course much different than copying to study, which every student can and should do.

There is usually an unspoken rule that your artistic voice is considered sacred, because it can only honestly come from you. Yeah when the sanctity of this understanding is broken, what is the punishment? Should there be one? How is it administered, and by who?

When a gallery shows work by an artist who is clearly imitating a more popular artist, what is your reaction to that? What if it’s in a gallery you are showing in?

If you have a relationship with the gallery owner/curator, do you feel like it’s worth bringing up? I don’t know if I’d be ready to deal with the responsibility of calling someone out like that. What tends to happen is that the offending artist is ostracized (if they are even of a certain clan; imitators tend to be lone wolves - avoiding scrutiny, perhaps?) but the gallery is rarely called out directly. The question is, should they be?

I can only speak for myself here, but I tend to focus more on staying true to my own voice and work in order to avoid imitating any single influence too strongly.

Sidetrack: I borrow both consciously and unconsciously from many different sources to the point where it would have to be an effort to imitate an artist at this point. One way of getting to your own style is by trying to do a copy of someone’s work and noticing where your tendencies differ while trying to copy it - and most importantly - noticing what you would do differently. So you contrast your natural artistic inclinations against your influences.

Ok, back to it. For me, taking on the task of the art police is too giant a task, and I’m not totally sure it’s that effective or worth the effort. The lines get blurred the more specific you try to get, and the blatant offenders tend to get weeded out eventually. I have called out offenders in the art community for many different reasons including this one, but the majority of my efforts will always be on making sure my own integrity is upheld.

Is this even a big enough problem to worry about? And do you as an artist feel a way about upholding the sanctity of an artistic voice not only for yourself but for when you see violations in your art community? Let me know with a reply here, and feel free to share this to spark your own discussion.

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