Thursday, March 06, 2008

CPSA and UKCPS: originality in concept, design and execution

Impression, Sunrise - the work which started the Impressionist movement
Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant, 1872

Oil on canvas, 48 x 63 cm - Musee Marmottan, Paris

The building blocks of original work by an artist are concept, design and execution.

The emphasis of the new rules for CPSA and UKCPS (see yesterday's post) is on work submitted for competition being solely the work of the artist ie original work. But what does this all mean? I noticed quite a few questions coming up yesterday about what is and is it not OK.

So today I'm going to try and do an overview - from my own perspective. Irrespective of whether or not you are involved in or following the current debate about the changes in the CPSA/UKCPS rules, this topic is likely to interest a lot of people and you may also have a view. So - here goes - feel free to jump in with a comment about your own perspective on this.

For those interested in the exhibitions, please ask CPSA or UKCPS if you're not sure what they mean by these terms. I've left the contact details in the links at the end.


At one of my first classes at the Princes Drawing School, I was talking with one of the other artists and we were telling each other about our work. I told her the name of my website - Pastels and Pencils - and her immediate reaction was "Oh - so you have more of a craft approach than a conceptual one". I was non-plussed. I'd never really thought about it before - but I've thought about it a lot ever since.

'Concept' in the world of art

The reality is that there are an awful lot of different ways of thinking about art - from the conceptual art movement which is associated with a lot of contemporary art to those who prefer to think about it being purely about aesthetics. However that's a VERY big debate and we'll leave that on one side. Well apart from a quote which illustrates what I mean.
In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work . . . all planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the art."
Sol LeWitt (American, 1928-2007), in "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," in Artforum, summer issue, 1967.
Concept in the world of CPSA and UKCPS

For the purposes of CPSA and UKCPS and their exhibitions/competitions, I think "concept" is a much simpler
notion - albeit they completely fail to define it on either site! Which I think is a pity as both societies have quite a few members who have not had any sort of formal training in the fine arts.

However CPSA does provide some help with its FAQs page for Exhibitions.
It is critical for artists to be original and to nurture their own special vision and style.
CPSA - Exhibition FAQs
What is an original concept?

For me "
Concept" is the vision or the idea behind the artwork, it's the notion of what should be displayed and how it might be created. Put simply
  • It's your idea
  • It's the thing in your head which you want to get down on paper.
  • It's your way of seeing.
  • It's your view of the world.
  • It's what dominates your way of thinking.
  • It could be a metaphor or a 'pun'
  • .....or it could just be a thing of beauty to you which absorbs and interests you.
Now down to the nitty gritty. This means if you copy from a photograph taken by somebody else, then you are using their concept.
  • You haven't had the idea, the photographer did (unless they did it under your direction).
  • It's not what you saw, it's what they saw.
  • It's not your view of the world, it's their view of the world (unless they did it under your direction). Get the picture?
An original concept comes from the artist and where/how they live their lives. However, in my opinion, total complete originality can be a very difficult thing to find. For example, we are all influenced all the time by:
When Monet painted "Impression, Sunrise" he had an original concept and an original style of execution. It shocked people - and made them think - and then some of them wanted to paint like that too!
An art movement is a tendency or style in art with a specific common philosophy or goal, followed by a group of artists during a restricted period of time, or, at least, with the heyday of the movement more or less strictly so restricted (usually a few months, years or decades). Art movements were especially important in modern art, where each consecutive movement was considered as a new avant-garde. Movements have almost entirely disappeared in contemporary art, where individualism and diversity prevail.
Wikipedia - Art Movements
An artist can also produce a derivative work which has an original concept and is copyrightable in its own right - it can be a new way of seeing. But they don't copy work to do this and it's a lot easier to do this if the original work is out of copyright! For current definitions which apply to work in the USA see below. I'll find the UK definition and add it in later. I've emboldened the relevant bits.

Definition of a derivative work

US Copyright Office Circular 14: Derivative Works notes that:

A typical example of a derivative work received for registration in the Copyright Office is one that is primarily a new work but incorporates some previously published material. This previously published material makes the work a derivative work under the copyright law. To be copyrightable, a derivative work must be different enough from the original to be regarded as a "new work" or must contain a substantial amount of new material. Making minor changes or additions of little substance to a preexisting work will not qualify the work as a new version for copyright purposes. The new material must be original and copyrightable in itself. Titles, short phrases, and format, for example, are not copyrightable.

Wikipedia - Derivative work
Tomatoes Basil Garlic
photographer Nicole Caulfield

This is an original photo by my friend Nicole. She uploaded it to the reference image library on Wet Canvas and it is now copyright free. Many people have used it to produce their own work. However, some people have entered the works produced as a result in art competitions and won prizes.

Now do you think the judge was giving the prize for the execution or for the concept and design? When the same photo generates work which wins again and again I think I know which it is. See her post for more about this - Why I believe in photo restrictions for competitions.


Design is about composition - the decisions you make about how we will see your concept of the subject matter.

For a lot of people, especially those working in a more conventional framework of drawing and painting, it's about making a choice about what elements of composition to use and emphasise (or underplay) and which principles of composition should inform their arrangement. Others may take a different approach.

One of the reasons I sketch a LOT is because it really helps me think through compositions and has enhanced my ability to 'see' compositions. Just like if you practice drawing every day you actually get better at drawing, sketching on a regular basis helps you to see how to frame compositions and how different perspectives or views can make a subject more interesting or arresting. It's work and practice, work and practice that provides the inspiration - as with most things. Unless you are in the incredibly fortunate position of having a totally natural talent, the only way you get good at something is if you do it a lot. Artists who work from the photographs of others are essentially cheating themselves of their own potential to develop their skills.

Back to the nitty gritty. If you use somebody else's photograph you are essentially using someone else's design. The photographer made the choice about:
  • what the subject matter is
  • where the four lines which frame it are (this is the ONLY element which is altered by cropping)
  • which are the dominant elements
  • which principles should be applied in creating a focal point and the pathway round the composition
Only if you change enough for the new work to be genuinely a derivative work which is copyrightable in its own right have you done enough to make the design your own. Cutting margins off one or more sides does not do enough if you work in a photo-realistic way.

I found that in doing the first project of 2008 on composition - see Composition - a range of perspectives - that there were an awful lot of people telling me that they had been looking everywhere for help with composition.

I think a lot of the problems which exist at the moment in relation to work entered in competitions is because people haven't acquired a solid grounding in matters relating to design and composition. It's a big subject and it's not that easy to crack quickly - again we're back to the perspiration/inspiration equation.


Execution might be thought of as being made up of two things - technical skill in the use of your chosen media and your preferred way of working or style.

Both coloured pencil societies are very much focused on technical matters to do with medium of coloured pencil. Admiration of the way people execute technical skills of laying on colour seems to be of primary importance to many members. While it may be important to be competent, that is just one factor in the total equation of composition, design and execution which goes into creating a drawing worthy of being shown in the Annual Exhibition.

What I notice is that at both sets of exhibitions, the range of styles is not as wide as I see in other media at other exhibitions. If I wanted to be really controversial - why not! - I'd say most works in both exhibitions are realistic in style and competent but 'safe' in execution. They just don't demonstrate the breadth of artistic licence that I see elsewhere. I think that is a very great pity.

People like John Smolko (who recently won Grand Prize Winner of the American Artist 70th Competition) really stand out for me because of the way he has generated a new way of working with coloured pencil. I was very pleased to tell him so when I met him at the 2006 CPSA Exhibition in Albuquerque. I find his work inspirational.

However I'll leave with a quotation from the beginning of the American Artist feature article about John Smolko. It's something which those pondering on rules for exhibitions might want to reflect on. Does Lenhart's contribution now mean that Smolko's work is ineligible for CPSA and UKCPS competitions - I think not! I'd give Mr Lehnart a medal!

One of the watershed moments of Ohio artist John P. Smolko’s life, he recalls, occurred when his critique-group colleague, abstract expressionist Tom Lehnert, told him, “John, the most honest kind of line you can make is a scribble.” Up to that point, Smolko had been a traditional Photorealist.

“I’d get into art shows and notice that everything was the same,” he says. “Lehnert’s comment inspired me to explore the expressive line with all its beauty and dynamics. So I experimented and made up my own style of crosshatching.
John Smolko
John P. Smolko: 70th Anniversary Competition Grand Prize Winner, American Artist



  1. What a wonderful post! Being an artist means being able to put down on paper/canvas the emotion and feelings of what the artist sees.

    A very good book that I used many years ago (probably out of print now, but it looks like there are some used ones on is called, "Composition: A Painter's Guide to Basic Problems and Solutions" by David Friend.


  2. I think these last two posts have been really interesting, and should be interesting to all artists regardless of whether they work in these mediums or take part in theses particular societies.

    I like what you said about photographs and the one by Nicole. I have given my casual photographs to other artists to use, I didn't mind (though they were specifically not photographs I would use for my own work).

    I've had other people, very occasionally, offer me their photographs from the seaside. To be honest that just doesn't work for me in a creative way and I find it hard to know why someone would want to use another person's photo for something other than an exercise. (I used them while learning, no problem with that.)

    In fact it was another artist's photograph of Dungeness that actually prompted me to go there - it was fascinating and I felt I wanted to paint it but needed to see it through my eyes, get my reaction to it in person, in order to create from the experience.

    If I try to use a photo I haven't taken it's like working without doing a composition sketch first. The painting, for me, will always be weak.

  3. An excellent post Katherine and I absolutely agree

    Like Tina, I need to go and feel the wind in my hair and see the surf, the rocks, the gleaming wet sand in order to bring those feelings into the work - someone else's photo can't give me that.

    If I was unable to get to the coast then I'd do something locally that interested me. (I do that too anyway!)

  4. Katherine,
    Thank you for the blog post about defining your ideas of artist concepts. Since some of my art is abstract expressionism (I like to call it experimental art), I've struggled with defining concept. I've read in some artist bio's that their art is not conceptual. But, according to your ideas referencing "it's your way of seeing, your view of the world, and like Monet, an original concept and original style of execution". Whether we like the idea or not our art is conceptual, however whether the concept is original is a different matter.
    Chris Bolmeier

  5. First, Katherine, thank you thank you for the Smolko quote and links; what fantastic work, and so alive.

    I've been struggling lately with my bird sketches, tempted to work from photos (other people's; I'm no good at photographing birds) so I can *see* what happens in flight. But it doesn't really help, in fact. You get a bird that looks right (in terms of foreshortening and angle) but it doesn't feel, to me at least, as though it's alive.

    Since the whole point of the exercise in the first place was to learn how to see birds better, it's back to the drawing board. I so totally agree with what Tina's said, though have great admiration for her discipline; sometimes it must seem tempting to just borrow a photo.

  6. I have had young artists show me things that they have done while looking at my art, or say to me that they painted my art work on their dorm wall. I am happy for the attention and couldn't care less if they wish to copy me.

    But the line must be drawn at putting things up for sale or entered for judging.

    BTW, there is a blogger out there using one of my banner images! Hello. That's a little cheeky, too. Thanks for an informative post.

  7. Thankyou for another fabulous post Catherine. I agree with your view totally :)

  8. Thansk everybody for all your comments

    We have a solution to the UKCPS exhibition rules 'problem' and I'll be posting it here just as soon as somebody says I can go public with it.

  9. what a great post, Katherine. I've been browsing your blog for the last .... ummm (I'm embarassed) 45 minutes or so and I have found so much to chew on. Thanks for all the in-depth thinking and writing. The links. And of course, your artistic viewpoint. I subscribed and will definitely be back.

    I have struggled to explain to others my feelings about artists copying other artist's work ... even with their "changes" ... the paragraphs about "concept" really spoke to me. You put my feelings into words. thanks.


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