Dec 30, 2013

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The Great Artists Copy

copy1I was standing in a small art gallery in New Bern, NC staring at a six foot, paint splattered canvas. Thoughts ran through my head of Teri Horton and Jackson Pollock. I checked the back of the painting for fingerprints. Nope, not a Pollock. Simply a copy.

As teachers, we deal with the issue of copying all the time. Whether it’s the kid who wants to copy SpongeBob or the student who wants to draw a lion, we all entertain the issue of copyright infringement.

The question we must ask ourselves is when, if ever, is it appropriate to copy?

The issue of copying has been around since the beginning of time. Apprentices would copy works to learn from the hand of the master. In more recent times, Pop Artist like Lichtenstein have been accused of plagiarism. Shepard Fairey was sued by the Associated Press for using their Obama photo as the source for his “Hope” poster. Banksy might have said it best when he engraved these words in stone, “The bad artists imitate, the great artists steal.” Most would say he stole these words from Picasso. However, whether Picasso was the first to voice this expression is still open to debate. The point is, all artist copy, but when is it acceptable?

I decided to ask teachers what their thoughts are on this controversial topic are. Though this is not a scientific survey, it does represent the varying opinions of art teachers.

The most staunch opponents to the issue responded with a resounding, “No, not in my class!” Though many teachers might agree with a no copying policy, the question of what is considered copying comes into play.

More teachers are opposed to students drawing copyrighted characters like Pokemon, yet tend to be more lenient when it comes to drawing from a photograph. For example, if a student wanted to draw a zebra, it would be acceptable to acquire a photo from the Internet as a reference.

Some teachers insist that a student use at least three different references to create an original composition. What they may fail to see is that even though the composition is original, the images used are still copied.

Teachers that were more open to the idea of students copying work cited the following reasons. First, a student that is not confident in his or her ability to draw, might find solace in copying a simpler image. The success achieved from copying the familiar might be the affirmation that propels the student along in art.


Another reason that seemed universally accepted was in the case of parody or intertextuality. In these advanced situations, using previously created imagery is not only accepted, it’s necessary for the success of the piece.

Throughout the history of art, copying has been a constant and controversial subject. It certainly is a topic in art that is not quickly dismissed.


Do you allow your students to copy? Why or why not?

Do you have different rules when it comes to copying different things? For example a Disney character vs a reference photo?




IanThis article was written by AOE Team member Ian Sands. Ian is the incredibly creative HS Art Teacher from Apex High in North Carolina. Ian is originally from NYC where he received a BFA from the School of Visual Arts.

About Ian | Ian’s Articles

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  • linda

    This is a very interesting question. I have no quick simple answer to it. A few of my views on “copying” are as follows:
    1. learning to draw does involve a level of “copying”. If copying a character inspires a student to draw….I’m totally fine with it.
    2. we discuss the issue of “copying” but I find most are very capable of using a source for inspiration rather than make an exact copy. (I work k-5)
    3. we also discuss that “copying” has been around since the beginning of time….we look at examples of how artist ideas spread.
    4. We also discuss what is NOT copying….if you are drawing a picture of your house and someone else sees it and then draws their house I do not call that copying….I call it inspiration. A copy is a copy and who can do that (school age)
    4. Doesn’t Picasso have a statement that every artist copies……..
    5. I am a working artist aside from being an art educator. copying is always part of many artist to artist conversations. My point of view is that if someone wishes to copy me, fine…..I’m typically onto something else by that point anyways…

  • Nancy

    When I was in college I learned about Post-Modernism. Wikipedia says:

    There are several characteristics which lend art to being postmodern; these include bricolage, the use of words prominently as the central artistic element, collage, simplification, appropriation, performance art, the recycling of past styles and themes in a modern-day context, as well as the break-up of the barrier between fine and high arts and low art and popular culture.[1][2]In the Ohio Visual Arts Standards we teach students the source of art ideas comes from: experience, nature and other people. In my opinion we source our ideas by looking at others artwork but then we make it our own, not by trying to reproduce what someone else has made. To me Appropriation and ‘recylcling of past styles & themes’ is one of the valid sources for art ideas that come from other people..

  • faigie

    This is such a loaded topic for me. I don’t have an art background (even though I did become an art teacher :)) but, my background is from a very progressive school of education. I had always thought copying was an absolute no no until I read Mona Brooks book on drawing with children. I always though that artists draw out of their imaginations so it was a real eye opener for me to see how artists use other images and artworks to copy and get ideas. I am also presently teaching a group of first graders art in my home (and in a school) and I see the amazing levels of skill in one age group and I realized that they really do need lots of experience copying all sorts of things if they are going to be able to copy even parts of images for their artwork. I also think that there is a different copying problem. That of kids copying each other when they are not confident enough to do their own stuff.

  • Linda K

    If you’re talking about using reference photos, I think its not only acceptable, its necessary. How many people could actually go out on safari and draw a zebra from life? Copying works of the masters is very useful learning tool and can provide inspiration and techniques that students have no reference for if they are not taught. Art is not made in a vacuum. You are inspired by and use the world and work around you to create your own vision.

  • iansands

    Wow, these are really wonderful, well thought out comments! Another thought I had after I wrote this post was that the visual arts are the only arts in school that discuss this topic. Band, drama and chorus all have their students copy works by other artists without discussion.

    • Lisa

      I had never thought about that before! How many chorus/band programs have students actually compose their own work? At the elementary level, when I see students who are capable of drawing well from copying their favorite cartoon character, I tell them to start expanding and creating their own work. Many students who love to draw love that challenge. The other students find comfort in attempting something that already exists. But we do talk a lot about art for ourselves (in which copying can be ok to learn from) and art for others (if being sold, MUST not include any copying at all).

  • Patty

    I’m a high school attack teacher and we never work from photos. We do lots of self portraits, lots of still lifes, and lots of drawing and paintings of the ugly landscape outside of our art rooms. My colleagues and I borrow students from one another to model for our classes, but we don’t work from photos ever. Our students earn hundreds of thousands of scholarship dollars every year. We have so many schools who want to visit our students we turn most of them away. We make great artists because they work from life.

    • Andi

      What is an attack teacher?


    I have been thinking about this post for a few days because I never really considered working from photos a problem. I have definitely loosened up my ethics on “copying” in all forms after trying to expand my own art business. I am a photographer and since I graduated RISD the landscape of photography had changed. I was not able to go back to school (and many teachers at school couldn’t teach me what I really needed to know in the field) SO I COPIED AND STOLE RELENTLESSLY. I looked to online learning communities, youtube, creative live, other photography forums like B and H and followed step by step their techniques. Four years of school gave me a base but it was copying that really freed me artistically because I learned things quickly. It was that and *oh yeah* the pressure of having to perform on real jobs. So there is my reasoning for giving children aids like photos etc. not to a limiting degree, but to a freeing degree. As you work in the art industry you find, just like life, it is very grey. Just like any other job, being a mom, being a bus driver, you’ve got to learn basic skills if you are going to survive. The beauty is, even if we all have the basic skills, we will all create something different. So yes! In my classroom we draw from life, from pictures, using limited tracers (although I still don’t entirely condone them!), draw from other artists, it’s all fair game! It’s a different world. There is no high art, low art, most museums (to me) are antiquated, art is on display all around us, our teaching styles need to change with a changing world.

  • Ms. Mona

    I have students who have never drawn and those who have drawn their whole lives. I do allow students to look at photos, take their own photos, project, trace and borrow images. This is all done with them knowing that no work copied will be allowed to compete in any show as their own. I do believe that using some of these crutches will build confidence in the reluctant artist and get them excited about learning to draw more better. My classes are filled with a very diverse group of students with very different experiences. I use what ever I can to get them “hooked” to push a little further and explore their abilities. I think, what ever it takes, with in reason, I will do.

  • Colleen Haley

    When I first began teaching I had a firm “No copying” rule, I wouldn’t let students draw characters from popular shows or games and really tried to discourage students who would “copy” their neighbors works ( I found that I would have certain groups of kids who would all draw/paint the exact same thing as each other and I would have all of these clone pictures). The more I thought about it I began to question what I was really saying no to and as I started to allow students to copy I began to see some real benefits to it.
    The first was that I was validating what the child viewed as important instead of saying it didn’t matter. I know it can seem really easy to look at a students drawing of a pokemon character and think “well they just copied it so it doesn’t count” but I found that children really value some of these things and if their artwork should be an expression of themselves, than thats what they’re doing and it should be validated.
    I also found that by allowing them to draw or copy a character or an image they liked, it helped to illeviate some of the stress of coming up with an idea or even trying to draw something that they find too challenging. When they didn’t have that stress, I could help them with more technique. For example I could help them with their craftsmanship, color mixing, shading, composition etc… I found this to be extremely helpful with students who are struggling more than their classmates.
    The other thing that I found was when I allowed students to copy each other, there was this sense of healthy competition along with peer mentoring that naturally occurred. For example, I had a group of 4th grade boys who wanted to make a dragon sculpture. Another group of boys saw it and wanted to do the same thing. Next thing I know, the boys are asking each other “how did you do that?” and the students are teaching each other or while trying to make their dragons wingspan bigger than the other groups they had to problem solve to make sure the construction was sound or it stayed balanced.
    Now I can see being a little more strict about it with older students but for me personally, with Elementary age students I have learned to embrace it more. While allowing it, I try to push the students further in some other area. So I might say “Okay, you can draw a picture of this character, but lets look at how you might be able to add value and make him look more 3D” or “how can you make this your own? What special touches can you add to make this look like a “Billy” painting and not just a copy?”.