Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Some are searching for great photo references.

Acrylic collage by Cheryl O Art

I am not a lawyer. What follows are some of my personal experiences and practices concerning copyright — just a small part of what copyright means for creatives.

The artist was upset. They were lamenting that a recent painting of theirs had possibly been copied shortly afterward by a magazine.

My initial sympathy was with the artist — until I looked closer.

The paintings were each of a flock of birds fluttering around a famous historical figure. Here’s the key — none of the birds looked the same across the 2 paintings. The figures were also not similar, other than representing the same person. Bottom line; you cannot copyright an idea.

This is common sense. Otherwise, the first person who painted a horse jumping over a fence could say, “No one else can paint a horse jumping over a fence.” Untenable.

Concerning the bird paintings, what shocked me about that social media post was the number of comments by friends encouraging the painter to get a lawyer to ‘protect their rights’. This was a recommendation to put $350 per hour up in smoke.

Copyright is automatic for creatives in Western countries under international copyright treaties. As an artist here is some of what I keep in mind to respect the rights of other creatives.

1. Photographers own the copyright to their photos.

It’s a great time to be an artist. We’ve all got cameras on our phones, no lugging of heavy lenses for most of us, and can take our own photos to work from.

If taking photos doesn’t work for you, some fantastic sites offer open-source photos for artists. Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay, to name a few, have wonderful images on any subject. Contributing photographers generously make their photos freely available to artists, no attribution or royalties required. Just be aware that mixed in with open-source photos there can be ads for photos that require royalty payments, to note what you are clicking on.

If you are accessing photos from any source online, it is important to read the fine print. Some have restrictions such as no commercial use. You cannot sell those paintings. Or, they may require that the photographer receives attribution or a royalty fee per use. Making yourself aware of the rules on any photography site can help keep you out of trouble concerning copyright laws.

2. You cannot copyright a palette; i.e. a specific group of colours used together

Painters, you might find a colour combination used by a particular painter that you love. Whether it is the intense colours used by Lawren Harris, or the unsaturated browns in an Alex Colville painting — you can paint using those same colours with no copyright infringement.

3. You cannot copyright a style.

There is nothing wrong with attempting to paint with the luscious thick brush strokes of van Gogh, the dark backgrounds of Rembrandt, or the abstracted blocks of Picasso. We all stand on the shoulders of the artists who went before.

However, I am aware of an exception to the style rule, and that is the style frequently used by Indigenous artists. I respect that. We have horrifyingly taken so much from these people, let’s not infringe on artistic style too.

4. It is not enough, not even close, to change the colour of the barn.

Acrylic collage by Cheryl O Art

If you break copyright law by copying someone else’s painting, or a photo you don’t have express permission to copy, and then publicly display or sell that painting, you become liable.

In court, a jury of lay people (not artists) will have the original and copy in front of them. They are asked: did this artist (the copy) have this painting (the original) to copy while they painted? If yes, the original artist may request compensation for the violation.

5. Educational purposes and copyright

You can copy anything in the world as a learning experience. It’s a way to practice that I highly recommend to art students. You will learn a ton from sitting down and painting through that famous painting you love; so much more than just staring at it.

This practice has a long and proven history. Michelangelo learned his craft by copying the famous artists that had gone before. Many of the impressionists met each other copying the famous paintings hanging in the Louvre.

It’s what you do with that copy afterward that is protected by copyright.

Among other important aspects protected by copyright, you cannot display your copy in public.

You can, for example, hang it in your home (private display), or gift it to your Mom to hang in her home (private display). You cannot gift it to your sister to hang in her office (public display). Social media? That would be public display.

In addition to other restrictions, you cannot sell your copy.


I have not touched on all the aspects that copyright covers, far from it. There is the right of association, that an original cannot be altered, that heirs may be able to renew a copyright, that when you buy an original work you are NOT buying the copyright, and much more. There are also new treaties concerned with the accessibility of art, and also concerning technology and the internet. It’s a lot.

Instead, I end with a personal story.

By Cheryl O Art

While teaching a still life class, I explained to the students that they were copying one of my paintings as a learning experience. I stated that I was retaining copyright: no public display, no sales, among other things.

Later I heard that a student had put her copy of one of my paintings for sale in a public format. I tackled the topic in the next class, saying, “I heard that you put your copy of my painting for sale?” The student replied, “Yes, but it was okay because it was for a charity.” I said, “No, that is not okay.” She said, “Yes it is, because I put your name on it.” Yikes!

You can appreciate that I was not happy to learn that there was a much inferior copy of my painting that had been displayed and sold in public, with my name on it. I requested that she not do that again.

Copyright is there to protect your creations too. These restrictions are good for the artistic community. It’s worth taking the time to research these important rights concerning your work, and the work of others.

Not everything I write is published on this website blog.

If you want to read all my writings, you could connect with me on Medium. This platform allows 3 free articles per month for non-members to read. Members pay $5 US per month and in return have access to unlimited articles on almost every topic imaginable. 

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Cheryl O Art writes on Medium