Last year Jane, an artist and collector, bought a painting at a prestigious art show. She loved this new addition to her collection and hung it over her computer so she could look at it every day.
Recently, Jane decided to buy another painting from the same artist, so she looked online and was directed to a gallery website. When she clicked on the artist’s name, Jane was shocked to see the same painting she had in her office for sale, again.
Well, it wasn’t Jane’s actual painting, but it was a darn good copy.
True, the copy was a few inches larger and it had a slightly different name, but when she placed the photos side by side, she couldn’t see any difference between the two.
In a matter of seconds, a cherished treasure had become nothing more than a mass-produced commodity. Jane felt hurt and cheated. When Jane contacted the artist directly, the situation deteriorated further. Now Jane was angry.
The initial reaction from the group of artists who heard Jane’s story was to question the similarity of the the two paintings. When we compared the photos it was remarkable how identical they were. After seeing the evidence, we all felt that the artist’s behavior was questionable. . . but was it unethical?
It looked to us like the smaller painting had not been done as a study for the larger painting, but instead one was actually a copy of the other. This conclusion seemed to be confirmed by the artist in his response to Jane’s email—the artist had deliberately reproduced his earlier painting.
Our discussion raised several issues for me personally since I often use small plein air studies like the one below as inspiration for my studio paintings.
Would my client understand the difference between a studio painting based on a study and a painting copied from an earlier work? And would that distinction affect the client’s feelings?
Using a smaller study as inspiration for a larger studio piece is common practice by many artists. I don’t know if other artists sell the study, but normally I post both paintings on my website for sale. Now I wondered if my actions might also be perceived in a negative way.
The finished painting does look different, but what would a collector think if they bought this one and saw the other one for sale online?
I decided to take the initiative and contact a client. A recent sale was the perfect test. I emailed a client who bought a large studio piece (30×36) and asked if posting the study (9×12) for sale on my website was a problem for her.
I was relieved by her response. She had seen them both posted on my site and at first was surprised, but she enjoyed seeing the evolution of her painting from a rough study to a refined painting.
Instead of being upset, my client found it interesting. She saw a noticeable difference between the two paintings and she appreciated the process I was sharing with her by showing both paintings. My client was happy, and as a result, so was I.
Ultimately, the question raised by Jane’s story is one of ethics, and I like to think about it this way:
When painting, we make thousands of decisions every hour, but each of those decisions affects the quality of the painting, so we’re forced to think about each one. I believe we should take the same care with all the decisions which have consequences to our career, no matter how big or small.
If in doubt ask, “What would my buyer think?” and go from there.
Questions of ethics are always tricky, and finding the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior isn’t necessarily easy. But when making choices, it is a good idea to consider your responsibility to your clients first, and then (as the saying goes) remember that the customer is always right!