This scenario happened to most professional artists: You spend years developing a style, technique and a subject matter that is uniquely yours. You get to that point after lots of questioning on the meaning of your art and why you make the art that you make . You then spend a lot of time and effort to market that uniqueness online and in your community.
You might also be interested in: The fine line between inspiration and imitation
And one day you wake up to see that some copycat took all your ideas as a shortcut to being successful and is making quick copies of your work, pretending that this is all his/her ideas.
It can be very frustrating for an artist when that happens because after all, it is our uniqueness that we are trying to promote and this is what makes what we make different and valuable, this is our own vision of the world that we want to share. A theft of that vision feels almost like an identity theft.
This is a complex issue as there are many variables that can make the situation more or less easy to solve
Most of us artists like to share our techniques and teach as a way to connect with other artists and to supplement our income. I personally like to share my process and techniques with an audience of artists online, with the idea that most artists will be smart enough to take what they like in my teachings and make it theirs by mixing what they learned from me with many other influences. And most of the time this is what happens. In my mind, art is a satisfying process only when it leads to self expression and exploration of ones authenticity. I also acknowledge that when an artist is a beginner, they might want to copy other artists as a way to learn, and this is totally fine as long as they are not selling a whole line of copies, pretending that this was their own ideas.
I am a Blick Art Materials affiliate and I receive a small compensation for sales. That does not effect in any way the cost of the purchaser’s order but it helps me keeping the content of this blog free.
Many artists email me to ask if they can sell the paintings they have done taking one of my classes and I am fine with it as long as I am cited as an influence for the work or they acknowledge that the painting was done in one of my classes. Of course if the artist style evolves other time and I was just only one of many influences, then the reference does not need to be.
Some recent events happening where I live involving an accomplished artist made me question my willingness to share my process openly though because I realized that it is more a question of integrity and ethics than a question of law. In the eyes of the law, you can’t copyright a style, you can only copyright a specific work, so if someone starts to paint in your own style, with your own palette and compositions, using the same techniques, but does not literally copy one specific work of yours, it is still legal, although not the best way to be taken seriously as a professional artist.
That is another factor that can be taken in account. It is easier to ignore a copycat who lives thousands of miles away from you than one who lives in your own community and will take part in the same events and exhibit in the same galleries, making it more confusing for customers to distinguish your work versus theirs.
Quality and price:
Someone copying another artist’s work is trying to find a lazy shortcut to success and did not have to make all the work it took the original artist to get organically to that point. Most of the time the copies are looking way less achieved and most of the time they will be sold at a lower price. This can hurt the most established artist sales and reputation if the overall similitudes make it confusing for the general public.
So what can you do?
Unfortunately not much in terms of legal action.
You can try contacting the artist and letting them know that you noticed many similarities between their work and yours and for most copycats that will be enough to make them realize that what they are doing is damageable for both artists. I did email once an artist who was copying my style of flower paintings and trees with patterns, she was even copying my social media posts all the while claiming on her website that “My art is a reflection of who I am”. She was disappointed to read my email because she liked my style but acknowledged that she had been wondering for a while if she was not crossing a line.
Some artists will choose to go public with the issue as did Lori McNee on Facebook with an artist who was copying specific paintings of hers : How I stopped a copycat artist on Facebook. Her case is a bit different because the artist was copying literally some of her paintings and promoting them on Facebook, which is illegal.
Then you can choose to take the high road, consider that imitation is a form of flattery so to speak and decide to not spend too much energy on the issue. Publicize your art as much as you can and make it sure serious buyers and art galleries know that your style is genuinely yours. Copycats usually get tired after a while: after all there is not much personal satisfaction in copying and they will often go from copying one artist to copying another.
What they are copying is also something you did in the past, and because you are the creative force behind the art that is being copied, you often moved on to the next step in your art journey being always one step ahead. You own the creative tools, they are just replicating an end product.