Understanding Originality for Exhibitions

Feb 10, 2023

We all want our work to be noted for its originality.

Selecting what you will paint and why you will paint it is integral to originality, and most artists understand that this includes using only photo reference material that you alone have taken. As entries are submitted for juried exhibitions, NWWS and other art organizations rely on the integrity of the artists and their understanding that this requirement is most equitable for all.

Written within Conditions and Rules of an NWWS prospectus is this clause:

A. All entries must be an original work of art, painted only by you, and not produced in a class or workshop.
B. Photo reference material must not have been taken by anyone other than you, the entrant. Photo references NOT allowed include purchased images, permission-granted photos taken by others, stock photos, or copyrighted images either published or unpublished.

Having honed your skills and having your creative cylinders firing at the same time can produce a beautiful, award worthy painting and a complete feeling of success. The first skill in that successful process is “seeing” what is in front of you and finding your visual connection to the subject matter. If you subcontract “seeing” to someone else—using someone else’s photo to paint from—then you’ve collaborated and your painting is not wholly original.

A watercolor artist’s form of expression is watercolor painting. A photographer’s form of expression is photography. If we think in terms of the photographer’s painting being every bit as creative and valuable as our own watercolor paintings, then, in turn, using someone else’s photo is the same as painting from someone else’s painting, even if you have their permission or have purchased the rights to the photo. Your derivation may be literal or highly stylized, but the subject matter, baseline composition, inspiration or other attributes came from someone else. In other words, if you didn’t take the photo, you should not submit a painting to one of the NWWS exhibitions because the photo isn’t attributable to you. Looking at the Mona Lisa interpretations pictured above, there is only one image that would be acceptable in a juried exhibition, even though the other five have artistic merit. The five were changed quite a lot and Leonardo would likely have an OMG! moment, but they are all still the Mona Lisa. Remember, as a group, we have decided to value and reward originality, not just creative interpretation. We look to reward an authentic vision, not a version.