What Can We Learn From Roy Lichtenstein?

Yes, this drawing is a shameless rip-off of a Roy Lichtenstein painting ("Drowning Girl") which is, itself, a shameless rip-off of a drawing by Tony Abruzzo. Yay for plagiarism!

Yes, this drawing is a shameless rip-off of a Roy Lichtenstein painting (“Drowning Girl”) which is, itself, a shameless rip-off of a drawing by Tony Abruzzo. Yay for plagiarism!

Even though I’ll mostly be talking about one of the better modern artists of the 1950s and 60s today, this article will hopefully also contain some advice about art that might be useful.

Anyway, although I’ve obviously heard of Roy Lichtenstein before, I suddenly found myself fascinated by his art on the night before I wrote this article. If you’ve never seen a Roy Litchenstein painting before, then there are quite a few examples on the Wikipedia page that I just linked to. But, in general, a lot of Roy Lichtenstein’s most famous works of art are large paintings that are based on single panels from various comic books.

On the other hand, his art lacks originality. I’m not saying this to be snooty or dismissive, but I’m saying it because it’s a provable fact. Many of his famous comic paintings are almost direct copies of panels from comic books available at the time.

He may have made a few subtle alterations to the colour scheme or the perspective but – were he to make his art today – it would probably be considered a criminal act of plagiarism (given how much he was selling his paintings for). In fact, if Lichtenstein was working today, he’d probably have to restrict himself to making non-commercial fan art.

I’m both jealous and resentful towards him because of this fact. On the one hand, if you’ve had a bit of practice at drawing and painting, you’ll know that it isn’t too difficult to copy other pieces of art from sight alone. The idea that you can have a multi-million dollar artistic career just from copying things, without having to do any of the hard work of actually thinking of things to draw is, well, kind of a cool one – if I’m being honest.

However, at the same time, the artists who originally thought of and designed the comic panels that Lichtenstein copied aren’t nearly as well-known as Lichtenstein is. They weren’t multi-millionaries, even though they came up with the brilliant images that Litchenstein essentially just ripped off. Technically speaking, they were far better artists than Lichtenstein ever was. So, yes, as a fairly obscure artist myself, I can’t help but feel a little bit annoyed about Roy Lichtenstein’s work.

But, saying this, seeing Roy Lichtenstein’s work also fills me with hope. It reminds me that there was once a time when people weren’t so strict about copyright as they are today.

It reminds me that there was once a time when artists could accurately represent the culture surrounding them, without having to worry about copyrights or trademarks or any of that nonsense.

Yes, you could argue that Lichtenstein’s paintings were parodies (in the legal sense of the word), but the standards for what was considered a parody were probably lower then than they are now.

Still, if you want to do something similar to this today- then you have to be more creative. I’m not a lawyer, but most copyright laws around the world only protect the specific way that an idea is expressed rather than the idea itself.

For example, nobody holds the copyright on zombies, grizzled space marines, musicians, selfie-takers, action heroes, goths, punks, hipsters, romantic vampires etc… But specific characters that fall into these groups can be copyrighted. So, you can still make art that reflects modern culture – but you have to come up with your own original characters and/or designs.

Plus, although most individual pieces of Lichtenstein’s “comic book” art don’t display much creativity, his body of work as a whole makes all sort of interesting creative points. For example, all of the characters in his work are either hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine.

This accurately reflects the way the media presented men and women at the time, whilst also allowing Lichtenstein himself to play with and parody gender quite a bit. In other words, the same artist created both the hyper-masculine paintings and the hyper-feminine paintings. It wasn’t a macho tough guy expressing his “manliness” and it wasn’t a fashionable woman expressing her “femininity” – Lichtenstein’s paintings were just one person expressing both of these things.

Personally, as an artist who has something of a complicated relationship with gender, I can also attest that both of these types of art are incredibly fun to make in an amusing kind of way.

So, although many of Lichtenstein’s paintings aren’t creative on their own – they suddenly become creative when you view several of them in a group. One Lichtenstein painting looks “derivative” or “lazy”, but a group of Lichtenstein paintings is interesting and creative. So, looking at Lichtenstein’s work can be a great way to learn about how to create interesting art series and/or to add underlying themes to your art.

Finally, another great thing about Lichtenstein’s art is the fact that it’s a testament to the power of simplicity.

Because a lot of his art was based on comic books, he had to use a fairly simple style. Comic book art is often slightly simpler than “traditional” art for the simple reason that, whilst an artist can spend a long time on one painting – a comic book artist often has to make lots of small drawings or painting before a publication deadline.

Comic book art is such a brilliant type of art because it distils what “should” be a complicated image (if it was drawn or painted realistically) down into it’s most essential elements.

Comic book art presents a simplified version of reality, which also looks realistic and recognisable enough not to confuse the audience. If you can learn how to do this, then you’ll create much better art.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

2 comments on “What Can We Learn From Roy Lichtenstein?

  1. It was (is) useful. I found it interesting since I have a side passion for Pop Art. Thanks for posting!

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