Friday, 20 March 2009


I've decided blogging is rather a nice thing to do over morning coffee, to organise my thoughts for the day - so expect a regular entry about this time. Today I'm going to talk about about photography, and how I use it in art - and problems thereof with copyright and integrity.

The last couple of days, I decided to do some paintings for my former co-workers down in Yeovil, as a thank you for all the help they gave me in working towards my professional architecture qualifications. At first, I thought I'd just give them something from stock, but then I decided - naah, let's do something a bit more specific to them. I wanted to do something with soft colours and rolling hills, that would sum up somerset.

Cue problem. I had no photos to work from. I'm not someone who's good at working purely from memory, or directly from the imagination. I like to have a base picture to start from, even if I never look at it through the whole process of painting, and the final picture comes out nothing like. Probably a hang up from my architectural education, where I was taught to record what I saw rather faithfully.

So I turned to flickr, which turned out to have nothing much of use, then to RedBubble - where I found the wonderful work of Steve Spraggan. I would urge anyone reading this to go and have a look at his photography - it's incredibly beautiful. I found these two rather perfect images here :

*From his redbubble site - I wanted to link these pics directly to it but haven't worked out how yet!

Now here comes an ethical dilemma. Firstly, is it legally right to base art on someone else's photographs? There are copyright laws involved here, and so many issues as to fill up a thousand days worth of blogs talking about it. But basically - no. It breaks UK copyright laws.

Copyright applies to any medium. This means that you must not reproduce copyright protected work in another medium without permission. This includes, publishing photographs on the Internet, making a sound recording of a book, a painting of a photograph and so on
Source -UK Intellectual property office

There's a lot of debate about this these days - a whole Creative Commons debate, a realisation that so many artistic works these days come from 'remixing' - graphically or musically. The Obama Hope poster is a very famous example where copyright was broken (although laws are different in the US, and the case appears to be murkier). And it's not very realistic - how many people apply for permission to cross-post pictures on the Internet? the Internet would surely become a text based medium if everyone did that, and be a much poorer environment.

But really, this is just a couple of presents for friends! is it a big deal?

Well, yes. Because I do also plan to put the finished paintings on the Internet, to promote my art, and possibly sell prints or cards of the paintings.

In other words, I plan to profit from my theft. So I did the sensible thing and asked the artist for permission, which he kindly gave. And in return, I'm publicly thanking him, and linking to his work every where these images are displayed. A win-win, hopefully.

With the legal side out the way, that brings me to the artistic side - is it really art if I'm just copying someone else's vision?

As said above, I nearly always work from photos (or en plein air). But I generally make it a rule only to work from my own photos.

The reasons for this are threefold - copyright, as mentioned above. Secondly, when I take photos, I'm taking them with a painting in mind - I'm looking for something quite different to a good photograph. The composition isn't always the same, the lighting will be different, and what makes a great photo can make a very dull painting, and vice versa.

The final reason is a little more difficult to explain - I need to kind of feel myself in the photo. Working from a photo of a place I have never been will often result in a flat dead painting - I can't capture the emotion I felt when there. It sounds a bit hippyish, I know, but that's how it works. I often can't even use my own old photographs - the emotion has leached out over time, and whatever I felt when there is forgotten.

The photo is the beginning of a process, of a seed of an idea, that will wither and die quite quickly if I don't turn it into paint soon. Sometimes I have to work from other people's photos'; for commissions for example, but I don't generally like it.

With that in mind, how did I manage to work from Steve's photos?

When I lived in Somerset, I would take an hour long train journey at 6am every day through the somerset countryside. The beauty of the morning mists rolling over the somerset countryside was something that would take my breath away day after day, and left me with a memory of these train rides being a rather wonderful part of my life, rather than a dull commute.

Steve's photographs brought me back to that time, to the magic of these early mornings on an empty train, very forcefully. If I could have stopped the train, these are the photos I would have taken. (If I had also been as good a photographer as Steve!)

So, in this particular case he captured something that was important to me, that I'd seen again and again, and that I could feel myself in the picture. So it worked, and I felt when I painted that I added my own interpretation, my own emotion, to my version of Steve's vision.

But I do look back on times when I was younger, and I did highly representational paintings from photos in books, with a sense of shame, and a sense that I cheated.. I guess this is an issue that all artists make their own rules on, and as best as I can sum up, these are mine.


  1. I'm glad you'll be making these posts on a regular basis. They've started to form the structure of my day. Get in; deal with email; get breakfast; check Works In Progress.

    As someone who doesn't actually have a creative bone in her body, I find the artistic process fascinating - more so when I know the author.


  2. Really glad you are enjoying it, Nat! I'm enjoying writing it more than I thought I would.

  3. 1. I'm ALWAYS interested in reading/hearing about someone's creative process. I'm a details person so I like to know how things grow from a little spark into something fully grown.

    2. I love sunrises so much. I recently made my final decision that sunrises > sunsets. It was a hard choice. :/ Sunrises get me high.

  4. Thanks for posting your thoughts on this. I enjoyed very much reading your thoughtful approach to this. Your paintings are beautiful.
    I encounter one person (not an artist) on a very regular basis who thinks that painting or drawing from any photo is "just copying, not art". It can be quite frustrating.
    I'm looking forward to reading more from you.

  5. @ Isis :

    Me too on sunrises! I think it's because they are more private, maybe - everyone gets to see the sunset, but sunrise there's often no-one about. the best sunrioses are those you see after you've been up all night.

    @Joanna - Glad you are enjoying reading. The copying thing is silly, isn't it? because the same argument could be made from films that are made of books..