I follow several people on Instagram who post wonderful photos of animals, especially squirrels, raccoons, and foxes. The other day, I was scrolling through my feed when this photo of a raccoon literally took my breath away. I was enchanted! And I was also seized by an irrepressible desire to paint her.
At the same time, though, I was acutely aware that someone owned the copyright to this image. But frustratingly, I couldn’t tell who. As often happens on the internet images are posted and re-posted and re-posted until any original attribution is lost forever.
What to do?
As an artist myself, I’m aware of copyright protection and want to avoid violating the copyrights of others. I know that by copying the photo I would be creating a “derivative work,” and that's a copyright violation. But what, actually is the violation? Creating the work or what I would then do with it? It seemed that if I just created a painting from the photo for my own use and enjoyment, it should be OK. I’m not positive about this, but I think a copyright lawyer might very well tell me, no, it doesn’t matter that I don’t make commercial use of the image. Just copying it without the copyright owner's permission is a violation of copyright law.
I still couldn't just let it go. The image had a hold on me.
As much as I loved the raccoon's crown of bright pink azalea blossoms, I thought if I did a painting, I’d use different flowers. Then, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do some type of crown other than a floral one. I remembered an art journal spread I did of a crown of birds. I’ve always liked that idea, but was never satisfied with my rendition. Perhaps I should try giving the raccoon a crown of birds. Yes! I liked that idea very much.
The thing is, I thought I’d still be violating copyright law with the raccoon. If I used that raccoon photo as a source for her face, even though a significant part of the finished painting would be different from the original, it could be argued that I would still be creating a “derivative work.” And what about any source photos I would use for the birds? I’ve heard some artists assert that if you deviate by some percentage (different people quote different percentages) from the original, that you’re OK. But I’ve had a copyright lawyer tell me there is no such “rule.”
I was getting discouraged. I wanted to do the right thing, but I also wanted to create a painting inspired by this beautiful animal. If I were to only use source photos that I take myself, the vast majority of the subject matter I enjoy in my art would be unavailable to me. I want to create original work that tells (or suggests) a story and draws positive attention to animals. I’m not trying to profit off the work of others. I’m simply trying to bring what joy I can to the world through my creativity.
So, I started my piece. The drawing was quite challenging. But here’s where I am so far. There's a long way to go - more work on the raccoon, more work on the birds, then some drama in the sky, and maybe some text. By the way, I'm using acrylics (just the craft type) on a cradled wood panel.
Now that I've worked through my angst about using the source photos, next time I'll be writing about something more interesting though not necessarily more important - the art process itself.