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Did I cross the line? Art theft the silent killer

I was sitting there and working on the update for my webcomic and it just wasn't working. I was trying to draw a bottle, that's all. Just a bottle, but I just wouldn't come out the way I wanted it too look. I've drawn plenty of bottles before, but mostly just for backgrounds so I've never spent much time on them, but this one was supposed to take up the left third of the "strip row" I was working on. The really big problem here was that I knew how I wanted it too look and I knew where I could find the visual reference for that look. Eric Powell's Goon. Goon is published by Dark Horse and I have all the Trade Paperbacks sitting on my bookshelf. So I bring out "Nothin But Misery" and look at the page with the bottle and sure enough it's just the way I envisioned that I wanted it in my panel. So I draw it and finish up the rest of the update, add text and so on and post it on the webpage.
And I start to think...
Did I just commit art theft?
Ok so I didn't steal Powell's art outright and claimed it as my own but anyone who has visited sites such as the Drawing Board, Eatpoo.org or Conceptart.org know how seriously they take plagiarism on those message boards. I didn't copy Powell's frame straight off, I just used one element in it as a reference (not to mention how crappy my art is compared to his), but there is no denying that my bottle is derived from his.
Powell's art

My offending art
Where do you draw the line between inspiration and theft. I believe I balanced on the line this time (or perhaps I am simply unwilling to admit to it). Powell is a major influence on my own style, faces especially, but it is extra clear in the last couple of updates which have been rendered without ink, that he has also influenced my shading. Mike Mignola is another huge influence, but more when it comes to the use of solid blacks and inking. My wood texture was directly influenced by Foglio.
Being inspired by other people is natural when you're starting out as an artist in any field. I play the trombone as well and in one of the books I have on the subject of jazz, the author writes about the three stages of learning improvisation. Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate. When you start out you start out by imitating other artists. In my case it was MacHall of all things. I was not very interested in drawing when I was younger, I was much more interested in telling stories. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I started to think about creating comics and I was absolutely in love with the look of MacHall at the time so naturally all my attempts at drawing were modeled after it, right down to the "cat noses".
However, my interest in what stories I wanted to tell shifted quite quickly to subjects to which the MacHall style was poorly suited. My inspiration shifted to Mike Mignola, whose output today unfortunately is rather limited yet continues to inspire.
I'd say I'm clearly in the second phase by now and I pick up things I like here and there. My dabbling in, borderline, art theft is an indication of that, but I'm looking forward to the day when I get to the innovate phase. Maybe I'll be able to draw a bottle on my own by then.

One of the things I

rabbitpie's picture

One of the things I remembered the most clearly from design class was my advisor telling me that "we are all thieves and whores". We all steal from other people unconscieously---not copy/pasting but just taking bits of style and tone and stuff from our favorite artists and incorporating it into our work. But as long as we acknowledge it, respect it, and use this act of "stealing" to better ourselves as opposed to claiming that it is our work, it's okay.

Even though your art is similar to the original, I can see enough of your "style" that it felt like your work. I think that you will eventually develop your own, more unique style.

Read Seventh Draft!

Inspiration, not theft, I think

Aleph's picture

All artists start out by looking and and trying to mimic that which they admire. I cant say I agree with all your tastes in what to emulate, (Powell looks great though!) but taking some inspiration from Powell's handling of texture/light is no more stealing than Powell would be stealing if he got that bottle and wood grain from still life. Learning starts by recognizing what already works and absorbing that information.

In terms of art theft I think what most people are upset about is taking actual art and modifying it only a little bit for your own uses, not taking elements of it and applying them to your own interpretation. If you'd drawn your character in that pose with that lighting and that bottle of rot gut in its hand, well, if you credit it that's homage, and if you don't, that's ripping the artist off but it's still arguably fair as long as you draw it yourself rather than actually taking someone else's art and inserting it into your own work.

I've seen people take entire scenes from comics and modify them only enough to put their own characters in-- which looks rather odd when they have to remove costume elements or change scale but don't do it correctly. That's more along the theft lines, but it's done all the time especially in the shiny-eyes circuit. Personally I wouldn't do it, wouldn't like it done with my art, but I can't really cry foul on it either as long as they use their own work and don't CAP someone else's.

Art theft is a hard thing to define and an even harder thing to defend yourself against-- but I don't think any of us want to go so far as to say 'You can't draw stuff inspired by our techniques'. Basically if I were you I would just ask myself, 'If some fan did this, would I be irritated?' If the answer is no you're probably safe. If you're doubtful, you can solve the dilemma by writing to the person and asking :) I did that with the Milo-inspired shirt I used in my second book, and the artist in question was quite obliging :)