Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Copyright Issues - Using Someone Else's Photo to Paint & Enter Into a Show or Sell

Today in the watercolor society meeting a talk was begun about copyright and what is infringement/stealing and what isn't. I had one artist tell me that anything that is not from a photograph I took with my own two hands and camera cannot be painted and sold or put in a show. I can paint it - but it can't go in a show or be sold. I said, are you telling me that the photos my husband takes are off limits? She said yes, they are.

What do you think?

I told Jerry this and he says, no. If they are his and he has given me permission to paint them and do what I want with them, I can paint them, sell them, put them in shows. that true?

Does it depend on the rules of the organization? Are Ohio Watercolor Society rules more stringent than our local club shows? And are the American Watercolor Society rules even more stringent?

I tell you, there were a lot of head shakings and shufflings when this was being talked about. Do you think artists who are showing their work, doing workshops, selling their paintings are all taking their own photos? If they aren't, are they breaking the rules?

For more info go to:

Let me know what you think - how this makes you feel? Have you, like me, been painting works that are from photos taken by your spouse, sibling, mother, father, best friend? Did you think it was okay because they gave you permission to paint from their photo?

Here is what I found on

What if I take someone else's writings, text, HTML or graphic image and change it around to suit my needs? I own the "new" version, right?
If you did any of that with the original owner's permission, and according to his/her terms and conditions then you own the "new" version. If not you may be committing copyright infringement and/or plagiarism

So, according to this, if Jerry gives me permission to paint and sell/show that painting, I can do it without having committed copyright infringement or plagiarism of any kind. But that's not what the woman at the watercolor society said. She said even with permission, I could not enter it in a show or sell it. So where was she getting her information?

Well, probably from the Ohio Watercolor Society show requirements, which state:

Original Work Only. No copies of anyone else's photos, drawings or paintings will be accepted. No class work. The decision with respect to creativity shall be solely the judgment of the exhibition committee and the final juror. Each submitting artist irrevocably accepts their decision as final and binding upon him or her.

So, I can't enter a photo taken by Jerry and painted by me in the OWS. That's true.

What about the American Watercolor Society? What are their rules? They state:

Original work only is accepted. No collage, pastels, class work, copies, digital images or prints; original work only.

Hmmm...doesn't say anything about not using a photograph that was taken by my husband and, with his full permission, painted by me and entered. Does it? Doesn't it make "original work only" a bit ambiguous and open for discussion? Not as direct as the OWS at all.

So be honest - how many of you painters have painted something from a friend's photo or a spouse's photo and then have put it in a show or sold it? I'll bet the number is large. Also, what about those artists who paint portraits? Do you think they get permission slips from every person they secretly photographed in a crowd and then painted? I guess this is just blowing my mind and I'm looking at my work and wondering - how much of it can I call "mine?"


Nava said...

Rhonda, I hardly think that your husband's wonderful photos are off limits - if the photographer gives you explicit permission, I am pretty sure you can paint from them and show them. Copyright infringement is when you steal someone else's work. If you are given permission - how is that stealing? So many times people say with utter confidence things they do not actually know whether they are true or not (and yeah, I just did that above ;-)

Which is why it's always best to go to the formal source and check what the rules actually say.

RH Carpenter said...

Thanks, Nava. I'm hoping more artists will speak up and talk about this. Right now, from what I've read and included in the revised version of this post, the OWS says no no no - my own photo only, but the AWS is not as clear about what "original work" means. And yes, I agree that it's not copyright infringement when you have permission to use it for a painting (unless you also say: I took this photo, it's mine.)

Marilyn Fuerstenberg said...

Well, that sort of happened with me. Even though the rules did not say anything about having to have taken the photo myself. I felt a tinge of guilt when I used with permission a photo taken by Jane and entered the final painting in a show and it got accepted.

I imagine they are thinking the lighting, composition, mood, etc. are not yours, but rather the photographers. What good then are reference photos. I don't think I copy the photo as is and make it photo realism, but who am I to comment on laws and rules.

Dawn said...

wetcanvas has gone around and around on this very subject.
good luck Rhonda! ;)

Sandy Maudlin said...

The OWS has definitive rules about what cannot be entered, more strigently stated than most other organizations. However, their rules do NOT apply to all other shows, as some might lead you to believe.

Keep painting from your husband's photos, etc. For your own artistic growth, possibly make it a goal to eventually take your own photos so you're in charge of the whole picture from beginning to end, since that's when the composing starts.

And that's another story - how many hundreds of photos have to be taken to get one you want to paint?

I may paint from friends' photos only with their permission but am finding that I really do paint best when I am emotionally attached to the subject - after having been there/seen the place, etc., in person. It's all a growing process. Keep painting!

Nava said...

Well, as you probably know, AWS got themselves into a huge mess with this year's gold medal winner (as you can read here. Nothing seems to have happened with it yet, so I'm not sure they are the best example... ;-)

Myrna Wacknov said...

I would like to take the discussion in a little more different direction. On John Salminen's new video he talks about how, when you are the one taking the photo, it is an extension of your vision and you are composing with the camera. If someone else took the photo, then it is their vision, not yours. Originality takes on a different dimension when viewed this way. That said, I own up to using other source material from time to time. I am very careful about entering shows and submit only work from my own photos. You can't get into trouble that way.

Watercolors by Susan Roper said...

I think the ambiguity here arises from the vague way the Ohio group wrote their guidelines.I assumed it to mean "the work of another artist" when it said "anyone else's". Of course, the way it is written says what it does and, if taken literally,would mean you could not use any of Jerry's photos.

When I ask for permission (and I always do!) to use another's photos for a painting that I intend to sell I always save the e-mailed permission to do so and have a folder where I save the printed permission. So, if a photographer changes his/her mind later about giving permission I have proof that I had permission when I did the painting and sold the painting. I think that as long as you do your due diligence to always ask, and save the permission, you will be okay.

I think the Ohio group should be asked to clarify if that is what is meant by their "rule". It could be translated to mean several different things.

Talk about unecessarily squelching creativity!

RH Carpenter said...

I'm enjoying the comments about this and thank all of you for stepping up and commenting with your ideas, suggestions, thoughts! I know it's better to be safe than sorry and that, when painting from a photo taken by another, you may just be copying their composition, etc. - but maybe you don't copy and take a bit of this and that and rearrange and change and make color and temperature and value changes and then what? Still copying their work? Anyone willing to pose for me in a bathtub in the nude? If not, how do I get that photo to work from? ha ha I will supply you with plenty of hot drinks and warm towels during breaks :) And how about I use myself as my own model but have Jerry take the photo that I set up? My composition and thoughts but his finger on the camera = his photo? I just don't want to break rules and get in trouble and be thought of as a copycat or a stealer or anything - that's where I'm coming from, not really concerned with what others do but what I do and what I should do. Perhaps it's time to go into abstracts! haha

Peggy Montano & Paintings said...

I am very interest in this conversatin as I have thought about this many times. Yes, with her permission, I have paintied from my daughter's photographs. She is the one who made it to the Grand Canyon. However, my paintings never look like a photograph. I change things but use the photograph as a reference.
I will stay tuned. said...

Your friend is full of whiffle dust. Suppose you wish to put a golden eagle setting on a nest in you painting, are you to climb a mountain and wait with your camera.

I think it common that those who spend the most time worring about this rule and that don't paint very well. They should focus on painting from anything. Somethings are clearly copywrited most are not. Tell her she should be painting from photos at all only life.

RH Carpenter said...

Daggonnit, Bill, I had my climbing gear and helmet all ready for that climb to mama eagle's nest!
Thanks for your input - I like the term "whiffle dust" and will hereby steal and plagarize and infringe upon whatever copyright you have on it :)
Peggy, I think this is something every artist has to work out and decide for themselves and then read (carefully) the rules of each show you enter, especially the regional and national ones. So let's just go paint!!! Or like I told my wc teacher, Sandy one time, I'm too depressed to paint so I think I'll take up the banjo instead - afterall, Steve Martin says you cannot be sad while playing the banjo!

Anonymous said...

Hi Rhonda,
I think in all of the work that I have seen of yours that are from Jerry's photographs, you have never STRAIGHT COPIED the photographs as is, you have always made changes to express what YOU wanted. As for your self portrait a la bathtub
isn't that why they invented the self-timer?

Suzanne McDermott said...

Societies, associations and organizations are all about creating rules and restrictions for all sorts of reasons — power and control, organization and management, definition and identity and so forth. Artists are all about exploring, pushing the envelope, exploring personal expression and, uh-oh, breaking the rules. If someone gives you permission (or if you pay for usage), of course you can use an aid to make a painting. And you can crop parts of a reference image to make it your own. You can't steal intellectual property, although people do it and have done it since the beginning of expressive time. However, if you choose to belong to an organization with rules, it's their game, so you must abide by their rules. But (intellectual thievery aside) you don't have to play by their rules if you don't buy into their organization. Generally speaking, people seem to love controversy so that particular opinions can be expressed and argued over, defining egos and what's "right" and "wrong". Another opinion!

RH Carpenter said...

Thanks, Jane, you are probably right but you still have to follow rules IF you are going to enter a show that requires your own photos. Suzanne, I understand your comments, too, and feel a bit stifled in ways - but then again, I just checked an online contest/competition for The Artist's Magazine and it says use your own photo OR have the permission of the person who took the photo. So each place makes their own rules and you have to be stringent in following through for each individual place. I guess the reason this is such a big deal to me right now is because in 2009 I do intend to enter more juried shows and have to know the rules :)

Again, thanks for everyone who jumped in and commented and talked this out with me! You all deserve the BEST BLOGGER FRIENDS AWARD!

Anonymous said...

If you have a photographer's permission it is perfectly legal to paint from it, show it or sell it.

Etiquette states that you should credit them with having taken the photograph.

As to what certain contests will allow - like stated above, read the rules, contact the officials if unclear.

As to using photos for reference, but making them your own - it's a gray area and pretty much comes down to how recognizable it is to the original photo.

Is it morally/creatively right or wrong to use someone else's photos? I've been thinking about this a lot lately, since the Cheryl Luxemburg case and just haven't reached a definite conclusion.
I think there are too many variables to have one blanket statement about it.

I put a lot into my photos and consider photography to be an artform unto itself and would be upset if someone just used my images without permission. However, I would be willing to give permission on most of them, if asked and under the right circumstances.

I'm not very interested in painting from other people's photos in most cases.
But, have been trying to figure out what the difference is in the few I have ----
I think it's that, on first seeing it (the photo), I instantly saw it differently than what was captured by the camera and felt a need to express that side of the subject.

Not sure if that makes sense or not.

It's a question that I'm still working on for myself - and in most cases, I think that's what artists need to do.

RH Carpenter said...

Angi, we all have to do what we have to do and each person's conscious is their inner rule-keeper. I hope mine leads me in the right direction, always. It will be educational to see what the AWS decides in the final statements and actions.