What makes artwork original?

Making Artwork Original

A question was recently posed on the use of photo references in artwork and to further describe what makes artwork original? The questions were…

  • If I painted from other people’s reference photos, is my work considered original?
  • If I’m working with my own reference photos, do you care if they were taken in a photo workshop?

artist at workSo what makes artwork original? My reply, although not intended to be legal advice on copyright issues, perhaps will give food for thought.

Most artists use reference material, even having files of clippings from magazines and other sources. These include, electronic images, paper as well as their own photos, sketches etc. Artists use these as tools for inspiration and designing their art. Part of the issue is the extent to which a reference is used (originality) when it comes from someone else (copyright issues) and whether you have the right to use the images.

The first issue is when painting from other peoples reference photos. A photo like art is protected by copyright. If you’ve been given the OK to use them without restriction, then of course you can use them. If you’ve copied the photo verbatim, in a painting, the originality would be questioned. After all it was still another persons vision. But, if you’ve only used it as a reference to incorporate into your own composition then you’re using your artistic talents to compose a scene and not someone else. Thus, it’s an original.

Using your own photos

If you take your own reference photos even in a workshop setting, YOU still took those photos, so you have the right to use them unless there was some restrictions as part of the workshop on their use outside of the workshop, but other than that they’re still original.

However, there can be exceptions, but not in regards to originality. If you’re painting from a human model and you paint them in such a way that they would be recognizable. There could be the question of having a model release giving you the right to use that persons image. I was in a workshop that had a cowboy model and I took my own photos. If I painted him in the future in such a way as to make him identifiable, I might wonder whether or not another model release was needed. There was an art show in connection with this workshop and the painting of him that I did sold. So there may have already been a general model release as part of the workshop.

In my opinion if you have the right to use a reference photo taken by someone else, but have copied it as is, then I would question originality even if you had the legal right to use the photo. It was another persons vision.

If you’ve taken the photos then that’s you’re vision. Just as along as you’re not infringing upon another persons rights or trademarked images.

I hope this gives some clarity.

2 thoughts on “What makes artwork original?

  1. Jim Deady

    Thanks for this email, William. Have you painted 30″ high x 40″ wide paintings? If so, were they commissions or just speculative? How much would this size be?

    Jim Deady
    Richmond, VA

    1. William Post author

      Hello Jim. Yes I’ve painted 30×40 paintings and larger. I normally don’t paint large paintings just for the sake of painting larger paintings. Although if I think a scene is a really good composition, I may not want to waste the idea on a small canvas, so I’ll do a larger painting. When doing a show, I like to have a larger painting depending on the venue (available space) as a center piece. As far as price it can depend on complexity of the scene and whether it is painted under my William Hagerman signature or my Byron signature. My primary work for that size would be around $6000 – $6500. A 24×36 has been at the $5500 price range, 36×48 at $7500. So a 30×40 falls in between. A Byron signature work is approximately half.

      So if someone is just waiting for me to do a 30×40 painting on speculation, it might be a long wait.


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