3 Art Experts Weigh in on the Ethics of DIY Art

published Oct 21, 2022
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Senior Caucasian woman hanging a painting on the wall.
Credit: SrdjanPav/ Getty Images

If you’re on Instagram, you’ve likely seen reels explaining how to create your own version of famous contemporary art pieces for your home, without spending the price of a kitchen renovation. Maybe you even know of someone who looked at an artist charging thousands of dollars for abstract art, thought, “I could do that,” and is now running a cottage industry of quick copies at a fraction of the cost.

And there’s a reason for all these DIY copies. Original art is expensive. Artists pour a lifetime of creativity, learning, and self expression into each and every piece — it’s their livelihood, and they charge proportionally for their experience and talent. There’s a sense of awe in seeing a piece that truly grabs you and bringing it into your own home. Every time you walk past that work, you think of the moment when you first saw it and the feeling of deciding to invest in someone else’s passion. 

But spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for a piece of artwork isn’t always feasible. And that’s when some people turn to DIYing their own versions of an artist’s work. Perhaps they love Josh Young’s mixed media portraits, but they realize they can recreate it on their own with a vintage portrait and a swath of paint. Or they use a wide brush to whip up a recreation of a Hunt Slonem. Maybe they grab some vibrant paints at the craft store and try their hand at one of Sally King Benedict’s faces.

But is making your own copy of work ethical? Does it make art more accessible for the masses? Or is it similar to buying a fake purse off the street, settling for a knockoff of the real thing rather than finding something different and unique? 

To find out, I asked a founder focused on making original art accessible, an artist and educator, and an abstract fine artist for their thoughts on the DIY trend. Here’s what they had to say.

“We all have the capacity for creativity.”

Tessa Ercoli, founder of Docent, an online art marketplace focused on democratizing the art buying marketplace, understands the barriers that exist — and persist — in buying original art. And she cites Mark Twain’s opinion that there are no original ideas as she explains that even the most successful of artists have been influenced or inspired by others. “When it comes to actually creating, a lot of people tend to think creativity is binary: Either you have it or you don’t. But in reality, we all have the capacity for creativity and imagination. So, anytime someone nurtures and develops that, I think it’s a good thing,” says Ercoli.

She explains that we often see images of art so many times online, and on Instagram, that, by the time we see it in person, we’ve become desensitized to it. It loses the impact it could have had — and may deter someone from wanting to spend the money on it. On that note, she says, “if attempting to DIY some expensive art you saw on the internet helps you tap into your own creativity, great! But let it be the gateway to more independent self discovery. Art is a beautiful thing when it can be about exploration instead of carbon copying.”

Credit: South_agency/ Getty Images

“DIY art is a great way to display art on a budget.”

DIYers often end up with a brush in hand because they’ve loved a piece of work they’ve seen online or in someone else’s home, and then seen the price tag. Original paintings often run into the thousands and that can be tough to swing, even if you do want to support working artists. Emily Clare, an artist and the publisher at Fine Art Tutorials, a website that offers education for beginner and professional artists, says, “Creating your own DIY art is a great way to display art in your home on a budget. You can bring your own style and vision to the space.”

She suggests starting with a canvas and acrylic paints that you can pick up affordably at a craft store. Use it as an opportunity to explore a skill you haven’t necessarily flexed before. But she acknowledges, “Lots of DIY artists and crafters will be inspired to create a piece that looks similar to a painting their favorite artist has created, or inspired by an artwork they have seen online, on Pinterest or Instagram.” This isn’t always a bad thing, as Clare says creating art inspired by another’s work can make you pay attention to specific techniques and approaches — it’s like a master study. She suggests, “If you’re inspired by a contemporary artist, take elements that have inspired you about the piece, for example, the general color scheme, the subject, or the style and change the artwork as a whole to the point where it looks completely different.”

“This work cost another creator time and effort.”

Yllen Avotí, an abstract artist and designer, comes to the discussion from a professional artist’s point of view — she pours her soul into painting as a form of expression. Is that something someone else can DIY to achieve a particular look on their wall? In response to DIY art, she says, “It’s not perfect, because you will always remember that this work cost another creator time and effort, which you just copied.” She compares it to fast fashion brands that mimic expensive fashion houses and independent designers. 

But she offers a solution that combines imagination with inspiration. Find something that moves you and don’t copy it, but use it as a guideline for something all your own. “Change the detail, shade, or shape in a picture, and it will already be completely different, your own find,” says Avotí.

Lastly, don’t copy for commercial use.

Where DIY art becomes an issue is when DIYers copy an artist verbatim in an attempt to capitalize on their success. Ercoli explains, “There is a hard line around attempting to sell art that is a forgery of someone else’s. That is never okay! And if you are publicly sharing your attempt to reproduce another artist’s work, you absolutely need to give credit to the source of your inspiration.”

This piece is part of Art Month, where we’re sharing how to find, buy, and display art in your home, and so much more. Head on over here to see it all!