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Artists borrow from each other across all mediums, but it’s hard to decide where inspiration crosses the line without personally going through the process of creating an original piece of work.
There is no definitive guide to visual plagiarism, at least not one that’s commonly accepted. Artists and audiences are left to draw their own conclusions, whether they realize they have an opinion or not.
Below, four Winnipeg comic book artists draw their own lines between inspiration and plagiarism.
Century Wire had hung in the shared studio space of comic book artists GMB Chomichuk, 43, and Justin Currie, 33, for years. The piece features a girl with a crow on her shoulder, sitting on power lines. It is a bit collage and a bit pen and ink, and Chomichuk says it was the first piece where he really felt like he’d found his style.
Justin was hard at work on a new piece and called Chomichuk over to check it out. The similarities hit Chomichuk right away, leaving him puzzling over whether Justin realized what he’d done.
The new piece was a girl standing on power lines.
It was parallel thinking. Justin was inspired by what was around, and had recreated Century Wire’s concept in his own style.
Even with such similar content, the two pieces were different in form, colour, and composition; to Chomichuk, all the things that actually matter in art.
“They look completely different. Like, the core idea was similar, but such different styles from different artists, even though we’re in the same room,” says Justin.
Chomichuk doesn’t consider Justin’s piece any type of infringement.
“I don’t own power lines, and I don’t own magical women as a concept, and I don’t own sunsets and I don’t own murky compositional elements,” says Chomichuk.
“I myself could never make that, right? The path that leads to there, diverges through his life in a way that I could never express.”
Chomichuk points out the differences in the compositional elements: the vastly different stories told by both illustrations; their very different meanings; one’s standing, the other’s sitting; Justin’s is big versus small, similar to his overall body of work. For Chomichuk, “All the parts to me, that make this important to me, aren’t in that one [by Justin].”
Bradly Wohlgemuth, 29, goes by the pen name Renegade Pencil. He’s currently working on the second volume of his dark, cyberpunk comic series, Misery is Company.
Bradly went to university for fine art, where it was drilled into him, “Be original. Be original. Do your own thing.”
One moment in particular stuck with him. A teacher pointed out, “this drawing is really, really good, everyone is gonna love it, but it’s really boring because of it.” Bradly says he feels as though he was giving people exactly what they wanted to see, but it wasn’t anything new. He’s been focused on his originality ever since.
Bradly doesn’t worry about accidentally copying ideas, but admits that no matter what you create, someone’s inevitably beaten you to it. It nags at him that he could feel he’s had a totally original idea and find out years later it’s already been done.
While working on Misery is Company, he didn’t realize all the similarities it had to Deadpool or Bloodshot, where the protagonists’ bodies have the power to regenerate. Bradly claims he came up with his ideas before he heard about the concepts behind either of these series, explaining, “Especially in comics, you create something and then someone finds that it’s exactly like, you know, this other existing material that you may or may not have even known about.”
Even if he might have some ideas in common with others, he knows he’ll at least have original illustrations and dialogue to go along with his comics.
While Bradly is focused on keeping his concepts original, when he needs to draw something technical, like a building, he’ll use a reference photo.
Reference photos can be photographs, illustrations, or any other type of visual. How much an artist chooses to lean on them can range from painting over an image, to using a single element like colour, composition, or style.
Ryerson University’s guide, Best Practices in Preventing Visual Plagiarism, explains, “It is often unavoidable to use another artist/designer’s work as a starting point and it is acceptable to be inspired by their work, but students need to understand that for their work to have been ‘inspired’ by something, there must also be ‘departure.’”
When Bradly uses reference, he normally wants to mimic a technique, rather than an entire image or style.
When it comes to referencing specific elements of another piece, he’s hesitant.
To Bradly, the composition is the structure of the drawing, and it’s essential. Someone copying his compositions would bother him, since he puts hours into planning his drawings before he even starts.
Colours, on the other hand, are fair game for Bradly. After all, he says, no one owns colours. Most of his art is in black and white, but if he were to pull from someone else’s palette, he’d want to put his own spin on it.
Bradly sees those who choose to outright copy a reference as a small minority. To him, it’s normally a sign that the artist’s originality and skill set are lacking, and so the outcome will inevitably pale next to the original.
He points out that those who copy are often cobbling together other people’s work based on other people’s ideas. Since the person who copies lacks the original vision of the artist, their product often turns out to be a “hodge-podged” mess of things rather than a piece with a cohesive artistic focus.
Creativity is a priority for Bradly. He’s proud that everything on his social media is his own original work.
Fanart is when an artist redraws another artist’s original concept or character. Bradly points out fanart does well online because it’s so easily recognizable, but he hardly ever does it.
His work as a graphic designer gives him the luxury of not having to support himself through his art, which gives him the freedom to create and promote what he wants in his off time.
He wants to promote his own work and admits that though it might sound egotistical, he has some great ideas.
To him it’s about “building on your own brand instead of on someone else’s.”
He says big franchises don’t need his fanart to help promote their brand.
Scott Ford, 28, and Bradly have been friends since art school. While Bradly works almost exclusively in black and white, Scott’s digitally created art features vibrant colours and a cartoony style. Scott has published several comics, like the colourful Ark Land, and the dark and moody Romulus + Remus.
When Scott first started art school he would avoid using reference photos as much as possible. He thought he was being professional, but his professors taught him that the opposite was true.
“Over the years there has grown a bit of a misconception that using references is bad or unprofessional, but that’s not true at all.” says Scott.
If accuracy is important, then reference is important. This extends beyond the learning stage. When drawing something unfamiliar, Scott describes photo references as an essential part of the creation process.
Colour is one of the most distinct elements in Scott’s art. When taking inspiration from another piece’s colour palette, he starts by getting a general feel for the piece. The majority of Scott’s work is digital, which gives him the option of colour picking directly from another image. By creating colours for himself, and not colour picking directly, he’s able to find a solution that works better for his own mood and atmosphere.
When Scott sees a piece of art he likes, he tries to learn from that piece rather than just copy it.
He’s influenced by so many different creators that instead of taking inspiration from any one artist, he tries to be more influenced by technique. Scott says it’s more abstract than just drawing hair the same way someone else does. He looks at things like colour theory, geometry, and composition.
Sometimes, it’s the mood that inspires him. It can spark something in him to create a piece that makes him feel that same way, but Scott doesn’t stop there. He expands on the ideas that created that mood, tweaking and making changes as he goes.
As a comic book artist, Scott has done a lot of comic cons across the country, and fanart is a huge part of that community. To him, fanart is a grey area he’s been thinking about for years.
He used to only create original works, but fanart was always something he was really interested in. Not so long ago, he finally decided to take the plunge and just do it.
“I just love this thing, and art is how I express myself, and I really just want to express my desire for this thing through how I express myself.” says Scott. He wants other people to see his fanart so they can share in their mutual appreciation for the source material.
He wants his fanart to look like what he’s basing it off of, but in his own style. He won’t force himself to stick too close to the source material. Scott says, “I’m referencing sort of the forms of maybe how a character looks or what their clothing looks like.”
On top of all that, for Scott, fanart is a way for the original creator to see their creation in someone else’s style and a new light.
In an interview with Newsarama, Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward shared his feelings on the huge amounts of fanart surrounding the show, “It’s cool, man. I can’t say it’s anything but cool. It’s illegal [laughs], but it’s totally rad.”
Ward doesn’t hold the copyright to Adventure Time, Cartoon Network does, so creating anything based on Adventure Time technically requires Cartoon Network’s permission. Going against the copyright holder means the possibility of being taken to court for profits and damages, or even jail time.
Even with this legal right, most companies turn a blind eye to fanart. It’s often seen as free promotion, and a benefit to fan communities.
Using concepts and characters from copyrighted material is easy to spot. Borrowing from a style can be almost as easy to identify, but doesn’t violate copyright and is often seen as inspiration or homage.
Romulus + Remus was Scott’s foyer into comic creation. The two-issue comic was very clearly inspired by Hellboy’s dark and moody style, created by artist Mike Mignola. The two share similarities from character design to style choices such as angular shapes and high contrast shadows.
People liked that about Scott’s comic, but he’s since moved away from the project. He’s still proud of it, but after realizing how similar his style was to Mignola’s, he decided even though he wasn’t copying, he didn’t want to be known for “the comics that kind of look like Hellboy.”
While people can still see that influence in him, Scott wants to create his own art. He says you can only create what you know, and though that influence is still a part of him, he’s also influenced by hundreds of other things, and they all mix together.
If you’re only influenced by one artist, Scott says you can’t help copying them in a very direct way. He says it’s by learning to take from the influence of other artists, learning art theory, and learning from the natural world that you combine enough influences to create your own vision. It’s through a mixture of many influences that you make decisions which are unique to you.
Justin Currie, 33, is a comic book artist with his own studio, Chasing Artwork. He’s published his own comics and worked with top-level companies like Disney, Blizzard, and Marvel.
He’s developed his own distinct style he calls “Shattered Vector Painting,” combining his training as a graphic designer and traditional painting skills. After years of practice and trying to duplicate the styles of other artists, it’s become his own.
At New York Comic Con, Justin met a group working on the Marvel movies. They bought a bunch of his stuff, and the week after he found himself working on Ant-Man and the Wasp.
A lot of his work is fanart. To him, fanart is about elevating the source material by doing something new with it in his own voice.
He didn’t get the job because he illustrated Marvel characters — anyone can draw Spider-Man — it was how Justin drew them, in his own style.
“As you’re doing your own voice, I think that’s kind of, you’re like, elevating the source material and you’re kind of doing something new with it,” says Justin.
His process starts with the creation of a mood board of colours, compositions, backgrounds, and styles to pull inspiration from.
From there, he’s not afraid to trace over or pick colours from a piece, because he knows by the end it will be his own. By taking from many different sources and adding his own artistic vision, he creates something new.
If you’re not looking at other artists, Justin says, “I don’t think you’re going to grow, really.”
He’s adamant that artists can’t improve while isolating themselves in a vacuum, and trying to work in one usually leads to stagnation.
“I think when you take a look at something and kind of run it through the filter of your process it should come out the other end distinctly looking like yours and not the source material.” says Justin.
Justin’s work is always changing and evolving, because even now he’s still trying to duplicate what better artists are doing and implement it into his own style.
College Art Association is the top organization in the United States for visual arts professionals. Their Code of Best Practices in Fair Use in the Visual Arts points out many artists incorporate or reference other pieces in their own work. “Such quotation is part of the construction of new culture, which necessarily builds on existing culture.”
According to Justin, those who think they can grow without consuming and learning from what others create are looking at things through rose-tinted glasses. Whatever they do learn, they won’t learn as quickly or efficiently.
These days Justin sees people as much more possessive of their work and ideas. He says this forces people into a vacuum, stagnating and slowing everyone down. With this shift in culture around plagiarism and copyright, he says the community has moved away from encouraging people to learn from each other.
When it comes to directly copying something, Justin sees it as a shortcut that teaches nothing. “You won’t be able to duplicate work at that level consistently, and I think that’s hurt some people in the past, where they’ve pumped out a great painting, but can never do anything like that again, because you know you can’t trace the same thing over again.”
He knows other artists who contend with their own formulas for style or content being stolen. To him, that’s like stealing a business plan. He says the only option for those being copied is to work harder and try to stay ahead.
Justin points out different industries have different standards surrounding visual plagiarism. In concept art, deadlines move so quickly that many pieces incorporate photos directly, in a process referred to as photobashing. An artist creates a digital collage of images or 3D digital objects and paints over it. The initial art is just a storyboard, Justin explains, and gets passed through a number of other art departments before its final iteration.
In instances like these, Justin says, doing everything from scratch would keep things at such a slow pace the artist would be fired.
GMB Chomichuk, 43, has created a distinct style for himself. He’s written and illustrated numerous comic books like The Imagination Manifesto and Infinitum. He and Justin share a studio space filled to the brim with art and books.
Chomichuk’s distinct style can at times move beyond simply referencing photos to incorporating them into an illustrated collage.
He tries to take as many of his own reference photos as possible, and even works with photographers to create photo libraries for his various projects. He’s also a big fan of the public domain.
When he was first starting out, Chomichuk found it easiest to throw a photoshop filter over a collage.
When working on his project Underworld, he brought in the main characters and did extensive photo shoots capturing what the characters would be doing and saying.
He describes the world of the story as a “weird mythological like, dreamland horror landscape.” To match that feeling he wanted a very realistic style, which required heavy use of references.
Chomichuk loves collage, so he’s happy to cut up a body from one place, a head from another, and smash them together to create a new character.
Deciding how far he’s going to push a project from collage to illustration depends on the context. He has to consider both the project and the motivation behind it.
He’s not trying to hide his footprints. If he’s not afraid that it will distract from the story, he’ll leave it obvious that he’s “hacked these things together.”
More often these days he finds himself making a collage, and then drawing it separately.
To artists hesitant to use a reference, Chomichuk says, “I think that people who are afraid of using tools, maybe should think twice about building things.”
Ryerson’s Best Practices in Preventing Visual Plagiarism describes seeking out inspiration as visual research and identifies it as one of the strongest tools to foster creativity and avoid plagiarism.
Ryerson’s guide addresses those who are afraid of tainting their artistic vision through research. “It is easy to fall in this trap by falsely believing that our ideas could get affected by analyzing the work of others. This “influence” comes from not having enough critical thinking skills to judge the work of others and separate it from what makes our project unique.”
As for sampling colours, Chomichuk describes the practice as “old as art itself.” He imagines if Rembrandt could have sampled the work of his peers, he would have.
Finding old works and understanding how they were made was, and is, an important part of studying. The difference now, Chomichuk says, is “the tools have improved to the point where rather than say, ‘I wonder if that’s, what blue is that? Is that cerulean blue?’ you can know exactly.”
Chomichuk views inspiration as similar to plagiarism, in that it’s “trying to hit an emotional beat the same as you felt somewhere else.” That emotional beat is just one element of the piece, just like colour or composition, yet taking that emotion is considered inspiration rather than plagiarism.
“People who do make creative works have a very much more nuanced approach to what qualifies as inspiration or plagiarism. Again, being a spectrum, not a category.”
Copyright generally lasts 70 years after the author’s death before a piece passes into the public domain. So, Chomichuk wonders, what if he recreates an image from the public domain? That wouldn’t violate copyright. But it would be copying. So, is it not plagiarism and technically allowed, because the law says so?
“What I find the most shocking is the people who have the most clear-cut answers about what plagiarism is don’t make any creative work themselves, at all.”
Chomichuk notes that communities surrounding other artistic mediums have their own rules around plagiarism.
In one artistic medium, something might be an accepted rule, but in others it’s not.
Even Jane Dorner, a former chairman of the Copyright Licensing Agency, finds plagiarism difficult to pin down. In her paper “I Borrow, You Steal: Plagiarism through centuries and across art forms,” she points out, “We are exercised about the difference between ‘borrowing’ and ‘stealing’ because the first is normal, natural and inevitable, whereas the second raises indignation.”
For Chomichuk, plagiarism has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, and more than anything, intent matters in art.
Even if it’s not fair, the way he sees it, plagiarism is just what people do. A lot of work is sudden inspiration, making it hard, if not impossible, to identify the source. Because of this, most artists don’t even realize when they’ve taken an idea from someone.
“If you ask artists, everyone knows their ideas don’t start in them. They start in the world, and then pass through them.”
Ryerson’s Best Practices in Preventing Visual Plagiarism explains that the source material should be changed in five to eight significant ways before it counts as an original work. They then go on to list 24 changeable elements such as colour, intention, and process.
Rules like this might help establish a baseline, but there is no definitive answer. Everyone has to find that fine line between inspiration and plagiarism for themselves.