“Being Inspired” by other artists

Recently, a friend of mine did some embroidery work that was very unique and cool, something that she invested a lot of time and effort into. A few weeks later, another artist with a much bigger following who was more widely known in the community came out with something that was not just eerily similar, but seemed taken right from my friend’s work.

This friend reached out to the other artist to talk about it, which I think is very brave, as I think most of us end up just sitting there and silently seething in situations like this (I know that’s been my method of coping.) The other artist came up with all kinds of weird denials and was angry and defensive, which was not a good look. In the end, my friend was quite upset at the lack of acknowledgement.

All the other artist needed to do was acknowledge them. It’s neither difficult nor does it make you look bad. Refusing to do so does make you look bad. And I get how acknowledging after the fact can be embarrassing, but it’s better than nothing. So how do we handle these things gracefully?

Many of you know that I do a lot of fan/tribute art. And even more of you probably know that in school, we’re often given “in the style of” assignments. It’s because exploring different styles helps us to develop our own style. It helps us learn what we love to do and what we hate to do. I personally make fan art because the world is burning down and it’s really fun for me, but also because there is a lack of pressure to fanart that allows it to feel a bit more carefree than when I’m focusing on my own work. This is not to say I don’t hugely respect the artists I’m making fan art of; quite the opposite. But because it’s just for fun, I don’t take it quite as seriously as I would something I was doing on my own, and ESPECIALLY not as seriously as client work. I think fan art is the opposite of client work for me and I need those kinds of breaks for my mental and creative health.

Anyway, I never pretend it’s something other than it is, and I *always* ask permission. Consent is a big part of this, with another big part being profit. My fanart is never for sale. It’s just for me, and I feel that it would be gross to profit from someone else’s brainchild. A lot of us know how bad it feels to have our ideas taken by someone else without credit.

But what if you’re not doing fan art, you just saw a piece and you were inspired by it and you wanted to give it a try? The rules aren’t really that different. A great example is me wanting to try making some kind of mask inspired by James T. Merry. Straight out of the gate, I’m telling you that’s what I want to do and why.

Now, we all have our own style (whether we know it or not, but that’s a topic for the next newsletter). In my experience, most of us can’t really recreate someone else’s work exactly, even if we wanted to, and that’s the magic of art. It can still be really obvious though if we are just trying a new thing based on something we saw and were inspired by. And while it might be tempting to think no one will notice, this is dangerous ground – our communities are always smaller and more connected than we think they are. No one is too big or too small to notice if you take ideas from them, and their friends are always going to notice (and generally get much more vocally angry than the artist in question.)

So, if you want to do a tribute/fan piece, reaching out to ask permission is always a great first step. I have only ever had one person turn me down, and it seemed from the interaction that it was because she was insecure about how easy her art would be to recreate (I’m not saying it would be; I think she absolutely has her own recognizable style, but artists are very often insecure souls regardless). I wasn’t even going to use the same material – I stick to embroidery and sequins – but she was not pleased that I had asked and said it would encourage other artists to think it was okay to ‘borrow’ art ideas. While this was an outlier, in every other situation, the artist was delighted that I asked their permission. I am always careful to make sure they understand it’s for my own fun and not to sell.

If you want to explore a material/technique/aesthetic inspired by someone else, there are a few things to take into consideration. How common is the technique/aesthetic? In the case of James’ masks, I’ve never seen anything quite like that. So, not common. In the case of the melted plastic flower petals I started working with recently, it’s pretty common and I follow multiple artists of all sizes of followings who create along similar lines. Their work is all different and their own, but I didn’t feel like I was stepping on anyone’s toes trying out a melting technique to shape my acetate. I think it’s still good to acknowledge where my inspo came from, though. I’m highlighting a bunch of those artists in an upcoming newsletter.

So keeping all of this in mind, how could that artist have gracefully handled creating something so similar to my artist friend’s piece when it seems very clear from the subject matter, technique and timeline that it was very much prompted by her work?

Very simple. Just acknowledge it. Literally all she would have had to do when she first posted it is say, “I saw {this technique} by so-and-so, and I really wanted to give it a try!”

Boom. Done.

We have a fear that if we acknowledge where we get our ideas this will somehow makes us lesser or the artist in question will get mad at us; however, it’s way better to cover your bases ahead of time than to scramble and act crappy after you’re caught out. Trying new things is how we evolve as artists, and credit where credit is due, because no one creates in a vacuum.

And this artist friend? She puts her money where her mouth is. She started exploring a technique on her own, and then noticed that I’d done something in the same vein a while back. She immediately got in touch with me and talked to me about it.

1. Acknowledge, at the VERY least
2. Always credit
3. Ask permission
4. Don’t profit from other’s work


Hemlock Tutorial

Materials/Tools required:

  • hoop
  • fabric
  • green thread
  • Embroidery needle, beading needle (or at least a needle small enough to get through your beads)
  • Seed beads

Optional but very helpful things:

    • tweezers
    • clamps
    • chalk or disappearing ink pen