Sunday, December 31, 2017

Open Call: Copying versus Finding a Signature Style

By Anna Wagner-Ott

Summer Breeze, 2017, encaustic on panel, 24 by 24 inches

Six months ago an artist new to encaustic wanted to know how I created my woven paintings. We had an in-depth discussion on ideas, techniques, and processes. Recently the same individual posted paintings on the internet, and I was surprised to see a similar intent and content to mine. I contacted the artist to talk about the issues associated with copying versus finding a personal theme and direction. We seem to have reached a d├ętente, and that conversation prompted this article.  

With regard to artwork, copying is reproducing the way one artist has used the elements of design to capture his or her intent. The person copying uses the same theme, colors, lines, shapes, textures or forms as the original. Yes, someone may take the same intent and tweak those elements to make his or her own painting, but it’s problematic when the source comes from the originating artist or teacher. While copying an artist’s idea and technique may not fit the legal description of copyright infringement, it certainly violates a community standard. And, of course, it violates the originator of the work.

I have seen teachers at some conferences, in some workshops, and especially on YouTube promoting a step-by-step approach to painting. The least inspiring of these teachers encourage the viewer to create a replica of their artwork with the same techniques!  In this kind of beginner-level, teacher-directed workshop, students learn the instructor’s signature style but rarely the basic elements and principles of design. Nor are they encouraged to develop strategies to find a personal theme or approach.

Additionally, many students, after taking only a few such workshops teach the same techniques as their teachers. So the baton goes from students copying their teacher to that of a student becoming a teacher who uses similar techniques and methods to teach his or her own students. One instructor a few years ago actually offered a workshop in how to paint in the style of a well-known artist in the encaustic community (who did not teach because she didn’t want her work copied)!

Strategies for developing a signature style

From my own experiences I have found that the first step to move away from copying is to find a theme or topic that inspires you and then research that theme by looking at artists who have painted on a similar theme. Instead of copying, consider these issues: 
. How does that artist use the elements and principles of art within the work? 
. What is the artist’s message? 
. How does the message work in relation to the elements and the artist’s techniques? 
. What does or does not work in the painting?
. If the work is based on themes outside of visual art, explore them at the source, whether they be science, 
mathematics, music or literature
Learn about other artists but keep them out of your studio when you are creating art   

The second step is to take many workshops from different teachers to broaden your sense of what is possible and then just paint until you find the tools and techniques that best suit your theme. 
. Make small experimental works by exploring the elements of design with different painting tools  
. Learn how to paint different types of lines, shapes, forms, and experiment with color relationships  
. Teach yourself how to apply wax for different types of surface textures   
. Painting on small panels and exploring your theme will help you begin to master the design elements and techniques   

The third step is to paint many artworks on one theme. Do variations by changing the colors, textures, lines, or proportions so that after varying paintings on one theme, you will begin to discover new ways to express yourself. If you paint artworks that come from a personal voice, then few will say that your artwork looks like some other artist’s painting. 

How I learned encaustic

When I discovered encaustic four years ago, I had never dipped a brush in liquid wax. Although I knew how to paint, I did not know how to paint with a medium that cooled and hardened almost instantly, so I took a workshop and learned how another artist painted in wax. She painted amazing expressionistic paintings. I loved the way she demonstrated how to scrape back layers of wax with a blade, use pigment sticks, and add transparent and opaque layers of colors. It was a valuable workshop because she taught how to paint with abandon.  

I took her ideas back to my studio, but I still had a quest to find my own style of painting and a theme to explore. I have always been drawn to weavings and art quilts, so I decided to begin each painting with flowing streams of colors similar to reflections in the water. When the landscape is completed, I paint a covering over it using hundreds of interlaced lines. At first the lines hardening extremely fast frustrated me, but I learned to trim my brushes so that the wax left the brush smoothly. After four years of painting different types of lines, I can now paint straight, flowing, meandering, or curving lines. 

At the same time, I researched hundreds of artists who work with textiles. The weavings of Ptolemy Mann and Anni Albers and the fabric constructions of Dorothy Caldwell are inspiring. Mann uses vibrant colors and her woven sections move from strong primary colors to softer muted tonal values. Albers weaves different weights of threads to separate each geometrical section from raised to receding areas–a push and pull of textural surfaces.  Caldwell uses needle and threads and hand sews predominantly white meandering lines onto the surface of her black fabric constructions. 

Inspiration not duplication

Mann, Albers, and Caldwell have inspired me to think about color relationships and the idea of line and shape as an embellishment to create surface textures, but I do not use their images or think about them when I am painting. In my studio I am alone with my thoughts, thinking about the connection between coverings and barriers as metaphors, and continually investigating ways to paint woven structures.

Anna Wagner-Ott lives and works in Eastern Ontario, Canada. Read her bio here.   


  1. Anna, I really liked this article. I teach and find many students tend to fall into the pattern you discussed above. Any suggestions is the teaching process how to encourage them to look beyond an instructors work during the workshop?

    I do discuss composition , design, color etc and encourage trying to find their own style. I will pass your article on to past students to encourage them to look into their own "tool box"

    Thank you