Three Times To Paint Copies Of Old Out-Of-Copyright Paintings

Well, since I’m still preparing a series of studies of old out-of-copyright paintings that I’ll post here in early May, I thought that I’d write yet another blog article about this subject. But, first, here’s a preview of the latest one – which is a very stylised/cartoonish and gothic version of Berthe Morisot’s “Femme à l’éventail” (1876):

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 7th May.

Anyway, I’ll be talking about when you should make studies of old paintings (whose copyright has expired). For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that you already know how to copy from sight alone.

But, if you’ve never done this before, then just be sure to pay close attention to both the exact outlines of everything in the painting (things can be a different shape to what you might expect) and to the size of everything in the painting in relation to everything else in the painting. And practice a lot. You probably won’t get it right the first time, but you might start to get it right after a few attempts.

So, when should you make studies of out-of-copyright paintings?

1) When your artistic self-confidence is low: If you know how to copy from sight, then making a study of an out-of-copyright painting can be a quick way to give yourself a real confidence boost!

This can come in handy when you’ve been going through one of those crappy uninspired phases where, however hard you try, you just can’t seem to produce any good original art.

Making a study of one or more old out-of-copyright paintings allows you to make good-looking art relatively quickly. It can even sometimes allow you to make art that looks at least twice as good as your “ordinary” original art. Like this study I made of an old Gustave Courbet painting from 1843:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 6th May.

And this can be a real confidence-booster, since it can remind you of what making good art feels like. It can also show you that even if your imagination isn’t running at 100%, you are still capable of producing good art.

2) When you need to show off: Following on from everything I’ve said, if you really want to show off – then making a study of an old out-of-copyright painting can be a great way to really impress people.

Yes, it won’t be your original work. But, this doesn’t matter as much as you think. For starters, although I’m not a lawyer (and this should not be considered proper legal advice!), even some basic legal research will show you that as long as you remember two important things, then you’ll probably be ok legally.

Firstly, make sure that you’ve checked that the source painting is no longer copyrighted. If you are posting your study online, it is probably a good idea to make sure that the source painting is out-of-copyright in both your own country and in the country where the website you’re posting it to is based.

Secondly, make sure that you make it VERY clear that your study is a copy that you painted (since you may possibly fall foul of fraud and/or forgery laws if you try to pass a modern copy off as an authentic work by the original artist).

On a more social level, showing that you know enough about art history to make studies of historical paintings will make you seem cultured and sophisticated (even if you just found the source paintings by trawling through Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons etc.. at random until you found something that looked cool and wasn’t copyrighted).

Plus, making studies of old paintings is something that “serious” artists tend to do as an educational exercise too. So, it’s perfectly respectable.

But, if anyone questions the imaginativeness of making studies of old paintings, just show them a side-by-side comparison of the original and your study and point out that you made the study as an exercise to test your current skill level. If your study looks even half as good as the original, it might impress them. If it doesn’t (and they aren’t artists, influential critics, gallery directors, renowned academics etc..), just sarcastically ask them if they can do any better.

3) When you just want to have fun: Finally, making studies of out-of-copyright paintings is wonderfully relaxing. Since another artist has already done all of the really hard work of coming up with a new idea, coming up with an interesting composition etc… you can just sit back and have fun.

Not only that, you can also use a bit of artistic licence (like I’ve done in the examples earlier in this article) to add a bit of your own style and/or personality to the copies that you make. Not only does this allow you to use your imagination in a low-pressure way, but it also means that you can make your study look a bit more distinctive than an “ordinary” copy would be. Plus, it’s kind of like modding a computer game- but with art!


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Tips For Adding Your Own “Spin” To A Study Of An Old Painting

First of all, a couple of days after I finished the first draft of this article, I suddenly realised that I’d written a much more comprehensive article about this subject last year. Oops! Anyway, this stuff is probably worth repeating. So, onwards with the article….

As regular readers know, I’m preparing a series of studies of old out-of-copyright paintings for some of next month’s daily art posts (mostly to give my imagination a bit of a rest after an uninspired phase). Anyway, one of the things that I often tend to do when making studies of old paintings is to put my own “spin” on the public domain painting that I’m copying.

For example, here’s Gustave Courbet’s”Le Désespéré” (1843).

“Le Désespéré” By Gustave Courbet (1843) [Via Wikipedia]

Now, here’s a preview of my study of it. If you compare it to the original, then you’ll see that the two paintings look somewhat different to each other:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 6th May.

But, if you’ve never made a study of an out-of-copyright painting before, then you might not know how to do this. So, I thought that I’d give you a few basic pointers. I’ve almost certainly mentioned some of this stuff before, but it is worth repeating.

1) Make lots of original art first: This might sound a little bit counterintuitive, but the easiest way to put your own “spin” on a study of a public domain painting is to make lots of original art first. The main reason for this is that it will help you to develop (and more importantly to understand) your own unique art style.

If you’re making lots of original art (that takes inspiration from other things, but doesn’t copy them), then you’re going to learn what types of compositions/layouts you enjoy using, you’ll learn which colour combinations really excite you, you’re going to find your favourite types of art materials to use, you’re going to develop your own “rules” for making art etc…

I could go on for a while, but making lots of original art (and taking inspiration from lots of things you consider to be “cool”) will really help you to understand your own artistic sensibilities.

Once you have an understanding of these, then one way to add your own spin to a study of an out-of-copyright painting is just approach your study of a public domain painting in the same way that you would approach making an “original” painting. Or, you can use elements of your own style and elements of the original artist’s style.

For example, my art style is usually fairly cartoonish – so, when I made the picture I showed you earlier in the article, I made a decision to simplify Courbet’s more “realistic” painting slightly but to less of an extent than I normally would (eg: I used more complex lighting, since I could use the original painting as a guide for this), so that the “realistic” elements of the picture still come across to the audience.

2) Keep the changes subtle: If you’re putting your own spin on a study of an out-of-copyright painting, then your final painting still needs to be recognisable as a copy of the original painting. So, keep any changes that you make to the actual content of the picture fairly subtle. Likewise, be sure that you know what you’re doing (again, a skill learnt from making original art).

For example, if you know a bit about complementary colours, then you can make subtle tweaks to the colour scheme of the painting in order to change the atmosphere or visual tone that it conveys. Likewise, if you know a bit about painting realistic lighting, then you can alter the lighting a bit in order to change the mood of the picture slightly.

If your image analysis skills are fairly good, then you could – say- change a portrait painting to a landscape and then add in some extra background details by extrapolating from whatever happens to be in the background of the painting you’re copying.

Plus, if a painting has a very recognisable part, then one trick can be to keep this part of your study as accurate to the original as possible and then change the background to something slightly different (which you think will accompany the important part of the picture well).

In short, make your changes slightly more subtle and sneaky. This will really help to give your study a “recognisable, but different” look.

3) Daydream: Finally, be sure to daydream! Look at the out-of-copyright painting that you are going to copy and try to imagine the “story” behind it. Try to think of it as a frame from a film, and then ask yourself what happens before and what happened before and what happens afterwards. Try to think of what kind of background music would go well with the events depicted in the picture etc…

But, what is the point of doing this? Simply put, it will help you to come to your own unique interpretation of the picture in question. Since your daydreams will be shaped by all of the other things that have inspired you in the past, it will also help you to subtly add other inspirations to your study too.

For example, when I made the Courbet study that I showed you at the beginning of this article, I’d originally envisaged the stark imagery of Courbet’s original painting as being like something from a gothic horror film, or possibly a heavy metal music video.

But, then I noticed that the red highlight of Courbet’s signature in the bottom corner had a blood-like quality to it that also reminded me a little bit of Tim Burton’s film adaptation of “Sweeney Todd“. Here’s Courbet’s original painting again:

“Le Désespéré” By Gustave Courbet (1843) [Via Wikipedia]

I’d originally planned to really ramp up the gothic horror elements of my study of this picture by using starker lighting and a more creepy-looking blue/red colour scheme.

However, thanks to my thoughts about “Sweeney Todd”, I also started to think about a film from the early 2000s called “From Hell“. Both films, of course, star Johnny Depp. Courbet looks a little bit like Depp in the painting – but, his tousled hair, beard and baggy shirt also reminded me a bit of Orlando Bloom’s character in the first “Pirates Of The Caribbean” film.

So, whilst editing the painting on my computer, I decided to go for ominous green shadows and a blue background to give my study a slightly more “nautical” kind of look:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 6th May.

So, yes, be sure to daydream!


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Basic Tips For Creative Copying (Of Public Domain Photos)

2016 Artwork creative copying article sketch

If you were reading this site a couple of weeks ago, you might have noticed that I made a short series of digitally-edited paintings based on uncopyrighted/ public domain photos from the 1940s and 1950s.

Before I go any further, I should probably point out that not all photos from these decades are uncopyrighted! So, do your research and, if in doubt, err on the side of caution!

Anyway, here are two of my paintings from this series (and the source images for them can be found here and here respectively)

"Vintage Photo Blues" By C. A. Brown

“Vintage Photo Blues” By C. A. Brown

"Vintage Photo Glow" By C. A. Brown

“Vintage Photo Glow” By C. A. Brown

As you may have noticed if you looked at the source images, I’ve made quite a few changes to these pictures in my copies. After all, where would be the fun in just copying these pictures directly?

Although making a perfect replica of an old photo is a great demonstration of artistic skill, there isn’t really a huge amount of creativity involved in it.

So, I thought that I’d give you a few tips about how to make your own creative copies of old things from the public domain.

1) Copy from sight: Although I’ve written about the subject of tracing before, your creative copy will lose a lot of it’s individuality if you just trace the public domain photo or picture that you want to copy. So, be sure to copy the picture from sight alone.

Yes, it can take a bit of practice (and a few mistakes) to learn how to do this well, but the main advantage of copying from sight alone is that your own unique art style will have a chance to appear in the picture. After all, if you’re basically making a new picture from a guide, then your own unique artistic quirks will probably end up in the picture too.

However, if you take the lazy route and just trace a picture, then you’ll just end up with an identical copy which won’t really look very unique.

2) If possible, use black & white photos: One of the advantages of using old black and white photos (check that they’re in the public domain first though) as the source images for your artwork is that you can instantly make your artwork look unique by just adding colour to these pictures.

The advantage of this is that, although the B&W source photo will tell you how light or dark a particular area is, it’s up to you to choose which colours you want to use.

Your colour choices don’t have to be realistic, but having a good understanding of colour theory can come in handy here since you can easily make an old B&W picture look much more dramatic by using a complimentary colour scheme (eg: blue and orange, red and green etc...).

3) Know yourself: I know that this sounds obvious, but you need to have a good understanding of your own aesthetic preferences and sensibilities if you want to make a creative copy of something from the public domain.

In other words, have a good understand of what you think looks cool… and know how to paint or draw it.

For example, I absolutely love brightly-coloured lighting (in gloomy locations). If you look at the two pictures earlier in this article, you’ll see that they both contain this.

I was able to include this in my artwork for the simple reason that I’ve been practicing painting realistic lighting for at least a year or so. As such, I was able to completely change the lighting in both pictures into something that I thought looked more interesting.

4) Attribution: Although there’s no rule about this, it’s good practice to acknowledge any public domain source images you use in your artwork.

If you’re copying something that has been made by an artist or a photographer whose name is known, then adding a simple “After [original artist/ photographer]” to one corner of your picture is a good way to do this.

This shows that your picture is a tribute or a re-imagining, rather than a totally original work (since, although it probably – technically – isn’t plagiarism to copy things from the public domain without acknowledgement, it can look a lot like plagiarism).

I erred on the side of caution in my pictures and added quite a lot of acknowledgments though, mainly since many of the public domain pictures I found were from unknown photographers (eg: photos taken by UK/ US Government workers etc…).


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Copyright Free/ Public Domain Neon Graphics

2014 Artwork Neon Images Sketch

Well, since I couldn’t think of an idea for an article today, I thought that I’d make some cool neon-style inverted colour graphics domain in case they’re useful to anyone. You can use these graphics for your website, videogame, T-shirt designs etc… Basically, anything you want.

These seven images are released without copyright/ under a Creative Commons – Public Domain licence.

2014 Public Domain Flames

2014 Artwork Public Domain Link Button

2014 Artwork Public Domain Home Button

2014 Artwork Public Domain Cocktail Glass

2014 Artwork Public Domain Yin Yang

2014 Public Domain Palm Tree Beach

2014 Artwork Public Domain Cards

Copyright-Free “Merry Christmas” Graphic :)

Well, I was making this year’s Christmas picture ( based on my “Damania” comics) earlier and I was really proud of the gothic lettering, so I thought that I’d release this part of the drawing without copyright in case anyone wants to use it for Christmas cards, website graphics or anything like that.

As for the rest of the drawing, well, you’ll have to wait until the 25th….

"Merry Christmas" by C. A. Brown [This image is released without copyright, use it however you like]

“Merry Christmas” by C. A. Brown [This image is released without copyright, use it however you like]

Should You Release Things You’ve Created Into The Public Domain?

2013 Artwork Should you release things into the public domain

(Note: The usual “I am not a lawyer” disclaimers apply to this article and it shouldn’t be considered proper legal advice. But that probably should be obvious anyway.)

Well, following on from yesterday’s article, I thought that I’d look at the subject of the public domain in a slightly different way. I am, of course, talking about the subject of adding things to it.

Yes, if you want to, you can release as much of your own original work into the public domain as you like, for anyone to use in whatever way that they want with no restrictions whatsoever.

But should you?

How do you release things into the public domain? And what can you release into the public domain?

First of all, you need to own the copyright of literally every part of whatever you are releasing into the public domain. You can’t uncopyright something by anyone else [or containing things by anyone else] without their explicit permission to do so (preferably a clearly-written statement etc…).

Likewise, if you’re making fan art/fan fiction or a parody of something – then it may be “fair use” in some countries, but it isn’t something you can release into the public domain (or even under any kind of Creative Commons licence) since it contains copyrighted material.

However, at the same time, it’s illegal to sell fan art – but sharing and displaying it in a way that doesn’t generate any profit is (probably) legal in America at least (and many major websites seem to be based in the US). Alas, the legal situation with regard to fan art/fan fiction in the UK seems to be a lot more restrictive….

Since copyright is something which is automatically given to pretty much anything that is written, photographed, filmed, drawn, painted, published etc… you have to actively release things into the public domain if you want to do this.

There seem to be several ways to release things into the public domain- you can use a “Creative Commons – Public Domain” licence (or a very similar “Creative Commons – Attribution”/”CC-BY” licence, where the only condition attached to the work is that anyone who uses it must mention who originally produced it).

Likewise, you can just place a statement next to the work in question or on the work itself stating that you are releasing it without copyright. Whilst I don’t know if this has any legal authority, it’s a fairly clear piece of evidence in case anyone tries to sue anyone. You can also write a long statement/disclaimer which states that you also won’t enforce your copyrights in countries that don’t allow people to release things without copyright.

Is there a middle ground between copyright and the public domain?


If you want people to be able to share your work freely, but you still want to retain some control/ownership of it – then a good halfway house between the public domain and traditional copyright are Creative Commons licences.

There are several different types of licence that you can use, but the one I tend to use fairly often for my art and comics is the “Attribution – Non-commercial – No Derivatives” licence (CC-BY-NC-ND). This licence allows people to share anything released under it as long as they say who produced it, don’t sell it and don’t alter it in any way.

This, to me, is a good way to keep ownership of most of my art and comics but to also allow people to share it if they want to. It’s also, to me, something of a statement that says “I’m not going to be an asshole about copyright” too.

Although I use the “no derivatives” part to protect against people modifying my work slightly and passing it off as their own, I personally (with regard to my own work only) don’t consider it to include things like most types of fan art [provided that it’s clearly labelled as fan art and uses a different art style to my original art] and things people make when they follow my “how to draw” guides.

In fact, if you make something using one of my drawing guides, then you can consider it to be your own work. However, you can’t modify the guide itself, even though you’re allowed to share it.

But, many people consider the “No derivatives” part of the licence to cover these things (eg: fan art, fan fiction etc..) with relation to their own work.

Why do people release things into the public domain?

– If it’s something you aren’t going to sell or compile or use in any way at a possible future date, then you might as well let other people use it. What’s the point of hoarding things you’ve made until 70+ years after you’ve died?

– Opposition to current copyright laws. If you’re a creative person, then releasing at least some of your work into the public domain is a much better and much more principled form of protest about our (ridiculously excessive) copyright laws than downloading/torrenting/copying things. I personally have no real moral objections to people downloading/torrenting things, but I wouldn’t really agree that it’s a proper form of protest though.

– Public-spirited generosity.

– Because you’re eager to see what other people can do with your work (although a Creative Commons ShareAlike licence also allows you to do this, albeit with a few restrictions).

– Publicity/free advertising. Copyright-free stuff can attract people to your website and might also make them notice other things you’ve made which you’ve decided to keep the copyright to.

Think through the implications and be careful.

Once you release something into the public domain, you permanently give up all ownership of it. If someone finds a way to make a million from selling it, then you have no right to demand even a penny in royalties from them. If someone changes and modifies it beyond all recognition in a way that you don’t like, there’s nothing you can do.

If someone else claims authorship of it then, although it’s still basically plagiarism (and they can’t claim any copyright ownership unless they’ve heavily modified it) by most people’s definition of the word, I don’t think that it can really be considered plagiarism in legal terms.

In other words, I think that you can’t sue people if they claim authorship of something you’ve released into the public domain (however, they can’t really sue people for copying it or claiming authorship either). But, once again, I’m not a lawyer or an expert on the law…

So, be careful what you release into the public domain.

Generally speaking, although I haven’t released that much into the public domain, the things I tend to release are very simple images which could be useful to other people (like this comic template) or drawings which I don’t really care too much about (like this random gothic/1980s-style sketch of a pyramid) but which people could use to make cool things out of.

However, I wouldn’t even dream of releasing any of my comics or articles into the public domain.

At the end of the day, use your own judgement and remember that, once you put something into the public domain, you can’t take it out of the public domain.


Anyway, I hope that this article was useful 🙂

Using Out Of Copyright / Public Domain Stuff In Your Art & Stories

2013 Artwork Public Domain creativity article sketch

Well, when I was researching the UK copyright status of an old reference photo (which is almost certainly out of copyright in the US) and whether UK copyright law applied to US-based websites (like this one), I found this absolutely fascinating website called The Public Domain Treasure Hunter.

Whilst the “Public Domain Treasure Hunter” website mainly seems to provide advice about republishing, compiling and/or reselling things that are in the public domain, one part of it got me thinking about how the public domain can be a useful resource for artists and creative people in general.

(Note: I’m not a lawyer, none of this should be considered to be legal advice blah, blah blah… the usual disclaimer)

Although the rules about when something goes out of copyright vary from country to country, most countries are sensible enough to use fixed copyright limits (even if America keeps extending it’s limits – I think that they’re up to about 95 years now!). Yes, most copyright terms may be ridiculously long, but they almost all expire sometime.

You’ll have to do the research yourself, but this means that at least a fair amount of early 20th century things and the vast majority of things from the 19th century (except for J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” in the UK) aren’t covered by copyright. In other words, you can use them in any way that you like without permission, restrictions or royalties.

So, how can you use this vast pool of resources to create new and interesting things?

1) Characters & Stories: Have you ever noticed how many gothic/horror versions of “Alice In Wonderland” there are? How many novels/comics/videogames/films have been made about Dracula and Frankenstein over the years? How many “modern” adaptations of Shakespeare have been produced? How many mythical figures and old characters end up being turned into superheroes?

What do all of these things have in common? Yes, they’re all based on things which are out of copyright.

Yes, re-telling a story and/or re-using a character requires a fair amount of creativity on your part, but it can be an interesting thing to do since it allows you to explore (and share) your own interpretation and perspective on the story and/or characters in question.

Not only that, you can also create interesting “crossovers” between old stories too (which can appeal to fans of both stories) by including characters from more than one public domain story in your own story.

For example, what would happen if Bulldog Drummond had to investigate a series of unusual deaths linked to a certain mysterious Transylvanian count who has recently taken up lodgings in London?

A word of warning – Some characters who you might assume to be in the public domain may not be in certain countries. There also seems to be some ambiguity about whether or not, part of a series of stories being in the public domain also means that the characters from that series are or not. Just take a look at the complicated situation of Sherlock Holmes’ copyright status in America. It is most perplexing indeed ….

2) Reference images: I’ve already written about how to use a reference image, so I won’t really be talking about this subject here. However, photos, illustrations, etchings, paintings etc… which have gone out of copyright can be the perfect source of inspiration and reference material for your drawings and/or paintings.

You can obviously copy them as closely as possible or you can use them as a springboard for something very different. But, even if you copy something exactly, then there are no restrictions on selling it, displaying it, publishing it etc….

However, I should probably point out that if you are accurately copying old pictures, then it’s considered good form to add “After [original artist’s surname]” to your copy. This is both to prevent accusations of art forgery (especially if it’s a very good copy) and to acknowledge the work of the original artist too.

Interestingly, some people actually make a honest living from copying old paintings too.

3) Quotes: The rules about quoting copyrighted material are slightly complicated and can vary depending on context (eg: whether what you’re writing is fiction or non-fiction), geographical location and quote length.

For example, quoting song lyrics in fiction published in the UK is usually a bad idea since music companies can apparently demand (extortionate and disproportionate) fees for permission to use even a short quote. However, quoting a small portion of a song in a review or in a critical essay/article is unlikely to cause any problems – even under UK law and it’s ridiculously narrow “fair dealing” criteria.

All in all, getting dramatic and interesting quotes from copyrighted material can be complicated and/or costly. However, none of these restrictions apply to things that have gone out of copyright.

So, if you want a dramatic epigram for the beginning of your novel, something to illustrate, an interesting background detail for your comic or even something to use in a song that you’re writing and you’re working on a low budget, then be sure to go through a few old “classics” books or check out Project Gutenburg for tons of old public domain novels, poetry and non-fiction which you can use.

Likewise, there are plenty of websites on the internet that collect interesting quotes too. But, of course, both make sure that the quote you’re going to use is both in the public domain and make sure that it has been quoted accurately on the website too).

4) Collage/mixed media: Of course, using original documents which have entered the public domain for collages and some types of mixed media art would probably be tantamount to sacrilege (eg: don’t tear up any old 19th century/early 20th century books or newspapers to use in your collage).

However, modern reprints of these images and texts – as well as digital copies of public domain images can be the perfect source of material for collages, photomanipulations etc… Not only that, you don’t have to worry about anyone suing you over it or demanding royalties if you decide to sell what you make.

A word of warning – the rules about whether photographs or scans of public domain content are (in and of themseleves) public domain varies from country to country. *Sigh* Typically, British rules/case law on this subject are apparently much stricter than American rules/case law. Seriously, when it comes to copyright, we’re terrible!


These are just four possible ways that you can use things that have gone out of copyright. There are a lot more that I haven’t thought of, but I hope that this article was useful nonetheless 🙂