Original Sin
posted: April 9, 2008
I posted this yesterday, but then had second thoughts. I assumed that after hanging out there for most of the day with no comments, that maybe it's not possible to talk about the topic of originality of style in illustration and art without bringing up specific personalities.

I'm not interested in outing anybody here. I am interested in the idea of where we come from as artists, and where that stops and where we begin. It's a murky line for me, I'll admit. I think of it like accents: You grow up in a place, surrounded by certain people, chances are you'll kind of look and sound like people from that region.

Every industry has its ripe armpit. I’m sure that for accountants, it’s the second set of books that “nobody” keeps. For athletes, it’s performance enhancing drugs. For us artistes, it’s originality of style.

When illustrators get together, one of the favorite gossip subjects is who’s ripping who off.

In the best of worlds, it goes like this: There is a Great Artist. The Great Artists dies. Years later, a clever art student discovers the Great Artist’s work and, like a child with a Batman costume, tries it on and doesn’t take it off until he either outgrows it, or he’s shamed into wearing his own clothes by the taunts and jeers of his peers.

To continue the analogy, the problem arises when the student does not look to the graveyard of Great Artists Past, but to the coatroom, lockers, and lunchboxes of his own classmates. Taking the clothes, eating the lunch, and passing in the homework of your classmates might get you a gold star form an oblivious teacher, but once that recess bell rings, you can count on a very rough reception at the jungle gym.

Now, how many of us are Originals? That’s a rhetorical question. None of us are. But it’s clear to see who has made the effort to hammer out their own bivouac on the cliff, and who is getting a free piggyback ride. I freely admit that I picked my way to where I am by using one person’s foothold here, another person’s handhold there. If I’ve reached any summit, I had a looong line of sherpas who got there before I did. Same goes for the rest of us.

If you’re not familiar with my work or those I owe a great debt to, here are some names: Mort Drucker, Jack Davis, Chris Payne, Gottfried Helnwein, Sebastian Kruger, Andrew Wyeth, Pat Oliphant, Vermeer, Caravaggio, and many many more. There are probably times when I cough up too big a chunk of one or more of these great artists work, but it’s never by design, and I’m always surprised by it, though I shouldn’t be. And when I do, I’m humbled by how far short I’ve fallen, and the idea of making my own way becomes that much more attractive.

We’re fortunate being artists. Each day we have another chance at expressing ourselves as ourselves. It seems like such a missed opportunity to use the short time we have here to sing someone else’s song, in someone else’s voice.
David Flaherty April 9, 2008
I think this accelerated process of style theft extends to other art forms too. Music can't get enough of someone who sounds exactly like artist x. Lilly Allen breaks the airwaves and KCRW plays ten other women with cockney accents all of a sudden. Technology has added to this trend, illustrators with their portfolios would skulk about to art directors with their work, now it's all on the world wide web for anyone to copy and clone if they have a nimble eye and a certain facility. Some cases are egregious and others more infatuation gone wrong. In the music world we always listen to the best song and we don't really care who did it.
Rob Dunlavey April 9, 2008
Dale: Thanks for starting this discussion! Just about any image I create occurs within a room crowded with artists, past and present, who I admire and frequently adore. They are the road map for my insane art life. Hopefully, we all pursue our art somewhere at the edges of this map. I relish the moments when my breath escapes and I've slipped off the map for awhile and come into my own voice. I'm supported by all the others but hopefully, I've added a unique quality to the whole circus. To go about this illustration business in a calculating way merely offering a service that fills a shallow stylistic need is repulsive to me. I see the requirement it fills in the marketplace but it doesn't seem very creative or ultimately very satisfying. If nothing else, if you find that you are in place where another artist is proudly standing, SALUTE and ACKNOWLEDGE him or her. And then consider moving on and getting your own spot. How you get there is your own business.
Larry Potter April 9, 2008
I find it a waste of time to try to pull meaning and depth out of the ephemera business. I say we end this thread. Larry
Nick Ramos April 9, 2008
Personally, I agree with Dale. I think that there's illustrators out there that lack originality. They learn technical skills and decide that by mimicking someone who's already made a name for themselves, they will have an easier time selling themselves. I always like to play a little game called: "Name that illustrator!". Just yesterday, I was reading something and though for sure that I was looking at a Gary Baseman illustration. Everything looked the same, except for the signature. As far as illustration annuals, I definitely see a lot of people that copied someone else's style. Sometimes I wonder if they are molded by their reps to have that style... or do the reps wants someone who looks like someone else... it's like luring people on the sidewalks to buy fake purses... since the originals are out of their price range.
Harry Campbell April 9, 2008
I couldn't find the post where this all started. It's very difficult to be completely original. I think the thoughts expressed here are valid on originality etc. Here's a little observation of my own work history. In my old style of a more cartoony approach I think I pulled a lot from the Ren and Stimpy work, Fairly Odd Parents etc. At the time I was working at Nickelodeon as a designer and it was just what I was immersed in. I was constantly analyzing work by our friends Jim Pallout, Hal Mayforth, and Elwood Smith, just to name a few. The work I did then was fun but it really wasn't what I was about, so I think I did borrow stylistically. When you work for places like Warner Bros. and Nick you are encouraged to go out and find what's hot, fresh etc. I probably brought some of that to my illustration work. As some of the best illustrators in the business have demonstrated here on Drawger, inspiration is everywhere, even in the walls of Adam's old house. With my current work it is more like mechanical drawing with a concept. I'd like to think that I'm inspired by mid century artists like Jim Flora, and Alex Steinweiss, but I also love looking at cutaway drawings of transmissions and brake parts of 58 Buicks. I find inspiration there. I have actually noticed a few knock offs of what I'm doing, a good thing I guess.
Joseph Fiedler April 9, 2008
Well, here's a story: one time I was working with a designer whom I respected. The client was a health care system. I was to do a BW illo for a layout that she prepared. Since I've got a good memory, I realized that she had cribbed the concept from a copy of CA. I pointed it out to her and she said..."we are not reinventing the wheel here!". She has since gone into the family restaurant business. It's just an idea of how some folks see it. Another take is that there is an over emphasis on CREATIVITY and ORIGINALITY in our culture today. The idea seems to suggest "entitlement" or whatever. Fuck it.
Alex Murawski April 9, 2008
The quest for originality is a constant undercurrent in my classes as it is everywhere. Particularly true since the second rate and lazy (IMHO) trend toward appropriation has gained such hot currency in the art world. I am often, and sadly reminded of the the lack of basic principles that students have (perhaps getting in their earlier education but just as likely at home) by the cavalier way in which some of them will simply take something and pass it off as their own.... no credit for source... no acknowledgement that it was taken at all. Or that there is anything wrong with it when confronted. Little cultural sociopaths. Yes, I know that copying masters can be a valuable part of the learning process, but this is different. We are living in the napster era and it's childish sense of entitlement runs deep. Good luck to us all in the copyright and intellectual property fights that lie ahead if this is the mindset of the people who may be called on to vote on the issue. How can we hope to keep what they don't value? Well the lights have gone out on Western civilization before... maybe it's hubris in the face of history to suppose we've changed that much. Good night and good luck to us all! Learn Chinese.
Hal Mayforth April 9, 2008
When I first met Elwood Smith, he was established and I was just starting out. The one thing I remember him saying which had quite and impact on me was that it takes 10 years to develop a style.Do not plan on making a living as an illustrator until 10 year after getting out of school. After picking my jaw up off the floor, I perservered and lo and behold he was right. A style comes about though hard work, evolution, mutation and alot of copying the masters. This process does not happen overnight. The folks that are ripping off others to gain a foothold in the marketplace are doing nothing more than cutting in line. My advice would be to step to the rear and work your asses off.
David Ramshaw April 9, 2008
It's not like any of you tossers are doing anything original.
Joseph Fiedler April 9, 2008
Doug Fraser April 9, 2008
Wow, like laying down rules at a knife fight. In an age of immediate gratification, and digital swapping, influences & integrity are flowers being choked off in the weeds. The pop referential qualities of contemporary illustration grow out of a consumer based approach. Starting with buying a career at the local art college. Technology has afforded an ignorance of the greater context. Context and thought take time. Something that takes time just ain't that cool anymore. Also there seems to arise a herd mentality for celebrity status regardless of the lack of integrity. The herd mentality is also served by illustration annuals that bills themselves as the "best" of the year, juried by a "select few". The "style" of the unique is quite often overlooked in the myopic view of the "few", and the herd. Illustration at the end of the day still is a minor event in the pop cultural world. Having your toilet plumbed right has a more immediate impact on the average person's life. The bottom line still lies in the light of day, and your own gut. Still don't go looking too hard for a mythical integrity in the other artistic endeavors, the smell might be the same. I definitely have my own influences which have been from a number of sources. They stem from a interest in the contemporary as well as a criticism of it, but as an illustrator I've had to deal with the compromises of a client. So my halo's been dinged up. I have my own internal shit o' meter. Sorry about the poop references, just flowed that way.
David Ramshaw April 9, 2008
You know, that was a snarky comment on my part. I'm sorry. I'm lonely and act like a jerk sometimes. Not sometimes, often. I think I'm really talking to myself with all my angry comments. I'm unhappy, and frustrated that I can't make my way in this business. I hope you all will forgive me.
Steve Brodner April 9, 2008
I say this to my students and I say it to you with respect: Shut up and draw.
Dale Stephanos April 9, 2008
Well put Steve! Thanks for the thoughts everyone. You all put it better than I did. It's an uncomfortable subject, but we all talk about it don't we. I think that those of you who are in the position to influence students have your work cut out for you. It's not a "Kids these days" kind of thing as much as it is a comment on the way our society views the role of the creator (small c) these days. A couple of you mentioned the way copyright laws are treated lightly today. I can see why, what with the availability of music downloads (I pay for mine), Google image searches (anyone use these for photo reference and pay? Really?), and the ease of identity theft. It's all the marijuana of the easy "get" that leads to the heroin of outright artistic identity theft. I think Rob D had it right when he mentioned acknowledging the other artists in the room with you, and I'd just add that it's important not to see your reflection in their work.
John Dykes April 9, 2008
>to sing someone else’s song, in someone else’s voice< ... today on the radio: I heard a U2 rip off... same damn thing - base line, beat, even the sound of the singer. I wondered how they could get away with it... or rather, how the dj would go ahead and play it. A.D.s: perhaps its a lack of imagination or vision. Following rather than leading. And laziness... How many times have I been called (esp earlier in my career) by an AD who says: You know that..(and I know where they are going with this)... that cover... the view of the world (Steinberg)... Agh.
Mike Santos April 9, 2008
Mike's List of Drawgerite Sinners who style-ape (1 is low and 2 is high): Cusack: Sinner 6/10 Campbell: Sinner 6/10 Toelke: Sinner 8/10 Williams: Sinner 8/10 Rogers: Sinner 7/10 Nabaum: Sinner 5/10 Moran: Sinner 8/10 Reese: Sinner 7/10 Pailott: Sinner 6/10 O'Brien, J: Sinner 6/10 Moores: Sinner 8/10 Slade: Sinner 8/10 Stahl: Sinner 9/10 Heatly: Sinner 6/10 Hundly: Sinner 7/10 Gothard: Sinner 8/10 Brodner: Sinner 6/10 Mayforth: Sinner 4/10 O'Brien, T: Sinner 4/10 Dunlavey: Sinner 8/10 Saunders, R: Sinner 7/10 Ward: Sinner 7/10 Hunt: Sinner 5/10 Steinberg: Sinner 8/10 Flaherty: Sinner 7/10 Taxali: Sinner 6/10 MCauley: Sinner 7/10 Kroninger: Sinner 6/10 Fraser: Sinner 9/10 Tallardy: Sinner 6/10 Stauffer: Sinner 6/10 Weins: Sinner 8/10 Fiedler: Sinner 7/10 Spollen: Sinner 8/10 Goldin: Sinner 6/10 Allen: Sinner 7/10 Bakal: Sinner 7/10 Kilpatrick: 7/10 Gothard: Sinner 5/10 Dykes: Sinner 7/10 Hermann: Sinner 9/10 Jones: Sinner 9/10 Mably: Sinner 6/10 Zimmerman: Sinner 0/10 Glitschka: Sinner 10/10 Fisher: Sinner 5/10 Buzelli: Sinner 6/10 Blitt: Sinner 7/10 Levine: Sinner 7/10 Jetter: Sinner 4/10 Burckhardt: Sinner 7/10 Bamundo: Sinner 7/10 Staake: Sinner 8/10 Pelavin: Sinner 6/10 Leib: Sinner 6/10 Vaconccelos: Sinner 8/10 Kuper: Sinner 8/10 Piven: Sinner 4/10 Schmidt: Sinner 5/10 Aubry: Sinner 7/10 Enos: Sinner 4/10 Rodriguez: Sinner 4/10 Borge: Sinner 7/10 Wiens: Sinner 8/10 Sloan: Sinner 8/10 Smith, J: Sinner 8/10 Smith, E: Sinner: 7/10 Bleck: Sinner 8/10 Espinosa: Sinner 7/10 Brooks: Sinner 8/10 Hitz: Sinner 6/10 Klein: Sinner 6/10 Sockwell: Sinner 7/10 McKible: Sinner 10/10 Stephanos: Sinner 9/10 Ross: Sinner 9/10 Saunders, Z: Sinner 10/10 Hunter: Sinner 6/10 Curtius: Sinner 6/10 MacLeish: Sinner 8/10 Crawford: Sinner 7/10 Drescher: Sinner 4/10 Matcho: Sinner 7/10 King: Sinner 6/10 Wiltschonke: Sinner 6/10 Ciardello: Sinner 6/10 May God have mercy on your souls. Word to your Mothers, MS *The above list is based on the work as of today's date.
Paul Rogers April 10, 2008
(A note to Santos, I deserve a higher sinner score, please raise it to a 10. And leave my mother out of it.) I've always been one who looks to the past as a way to bring an appropriate visual style to the communication problem at hand. Sometimes its a starting point that leads to something new, sometimes its a lazy but effective way to get the job out the door on time. Sometimes its merely a way to generate a level of personal interest in a project so I don't have to start drinking at 3 in the afternoon. The entire history of image making exists to a greater or lesser extent in everyone's minds, not just artists. Tapping into this shared consciousness can add to the effectiveness of the piece. If there is some connection to the past that can strengthen the idea that I'm working on today, and its something that I think I can achieve with a proper level of respect, I'll use it. Students may try to imitate an artist who is working today, but their efforts are usually reduced to some stylistic mannerism or technique, not a real investigation into the idea of style. I advise them to try digging into the things that the illustrator they admire is looking at. If Michael Schwab admires Ludwig Hohlwein, look into Hohlwein's posters to see what's there that you can bring to your own work. If Gary Kelley admires Juan Gris, check out the early cubist paintings and see what connects to your own experience in the world. Throughout their careers, Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast have shown us how it is possible to use the influence of history to create powerful images for the contemporary market. Here's a quote from a lecture Glaser gave to SVA in 1986. ". . . a few observations about characteristics of imitation, influence, and plagiarism that may help define their differences. Imitation and influence generally acknowledge their sources, plagiarism conceals them. In both, the fact that the original idea is continued and celebrated, with or without significant modifications is the central issue. In plagiarism the intent is to cash in on the idea and use it for other reasons, usually self-aggrandizement or financial reward. The attempt to conceal sources produces work without the internal tension that original works possess. Since only surfaces are copied, plagiarized works are always characterized by a lack of energy. After acknowledging how difficult it is to clearly establish the boundaries between these ideas, a most amazing fact emerges - we all know it when we see it."
Doug Fraser April 10, 2008
Paul, thank you for raising the bar. Art is not a science, with all that implies. I've noticed a certain conceit about one's virtue in this area. I don't know if any hard rules every could be arrived at. It boils down to a case by case assessment.
Robert Crawford April 10, 2008
originality is creative copying- Philip Johnson
Leo Espinosa April 10, 2008
I would not attempt to sound like Milton Glaser but more or less he told me this one night after class (picture the guy with his raised eyebrow and crazy smile): The style you worry so much about is only related to the way things look, but what really matters is the manner in which you execute your work (he was talking in the context of Design and Illustration). He added that if you free yourself from the limitations of style you will end up approaching every assignment in a more honest way and your real personality will show through; Then people will look for you because of the way you think and not because of your work looks. I would never be able to get that out of my head.
Gary Bennett April 10, 2008
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Adam McCauley April 10, 2008
Paul, thanks for the Milton Glaser quote. It's fantastically articulated. Glaser is an appropriate person in the context of this discussion, as a lot of his work alludes to various influences, but it always remains his own. This is a common theme of all good work, be it in the arts or be it in any endeavor.
Dale Stephanos April 10, 2008
Paul, Doug, Leo, fantastic stuff there. I'll be chewing on this for a long time.
Gary Bennett April 11, 2008
A couple of years ago Gary Kelley and Greg Manchess were part of a painting demo at the Society of Illustrators. They both had some things to say about how they are influenced. Kelley talked about influence and discovery .... constantly looking around at situations and artists to inform his work, and his desire to explore themes in various media. He said that a lot of his process is following instinct but, "Instinct isn't about me being who I am, it's about doing a lot of looking and being influenced by the things around me." He said, "There are no secrets, just years of experience." Manchess added, "You don't get your style, your style gets you." And, "You shouldn't shy away from your influences .... they are trying to show you a place you'd like to go". He talked about learning from Gary Kelley and then branching off on his own .... while continuing to push himself. "No one is born an artist, it's takes lots of practice and hard work." At a conference about twenty years ago in Cincinnati, Robert Heindel had a show there and did a slide presentation. Afterwards, I got to shake his hand and told him (like a naïve and idealistic just-out-of-art-school graduate that I was), “I hope some of that rubs off!” I’ll never forget – he looked me in the eye and replied, “The only thing that rubs off is horse shit”. He was right - and he was truly one of the classy ones. Remember Burt Silverman? He’s still out there and as vital as ever. I think he puts it best: “You can separate yourself, or you can decide to become a community in the very act of thinking about who you are - and where your life goes.”
Bill Koeb April 12, 2008
The Milton Glaser quote hits the nail on the head. this issue of influence and plagiarism is one that I have thought of for many years. It is one which we talked a lot of in art school, and will most likely be a topic among artists long after we are all gone. Recently, I have had an encounter which I feel is relevant to this discussion, and I thought I would share it here. I found last week, an artist who posted one of my old drawings on his myspace page as his own. These were either obtained from someone who got them from me as sketches at a comic con or from a lost sketchbook. I wrote to him asking him why it was there and requested that he please remove it and a few others that I recognized as mine. I am not talking about drawings copied, I am speaking of originals. His response was vitriolic and resentful, filled with accusations that I was an irrational egotist. I spelled out why I had done each piece, and roughly when. I even suggested a phone call to try to resolve the issue. All of my attempts to resolve the issue were met with refusals and a continued insistence that he did the works. I wasn't claiming every piece of work he did, only the 3 or 4 that I recognized and remembered doing. I have not made his name public, but have posted about this situation on my blog: I am at a loss as to what else to do, and though I have considered contacting a lawyer about it, but know of the difficulty in proving plagiarism, and am leery of the expense involved. Also, he is in another country, so the whole thing is a hard one to pursue. I feel for anyone who has been plagiarized. We all have influences, we all see things in others work that causes us to see the world differently. It would be a nicer world though, if we all played by a fair set of rules and respected each others rights. Bill
Richard Borge April 13, 2008
Whenever I give a talk to students or am in a teaching situation, I bring this topic up with them. I try to convey the importance of developing their own voice with their art... to make a ton of images and keep experimenting with different techniques, and a style will emerge naturally. I also preach about the importance of being a good visual problem solver. For me, I have been influenced + inspired by a lot of people, and I try to take it all in and put it in the blender in my skull and make my own version. I'm still trying to figure out the Sinner Scale...but I'm happy to be a Sinner and even happier to be on the Scale.