On Watermarking

On Watermarking

DECEMBER 4, 2020

Dear Artist,

On the internet, there are three kinds of artwork images: Photography, which has to be printed or projected to exist materially and so can be done by anyone if it’s of high enough resolution; painting, drawing and other 2D forms meant for reproduction — which carry the same vulnerability; and all other original artwork never intended for reproduction. The reason I bring this up is that I notice many well-meaning painters applying watermarks to their images and assume it’s because they worry that it will be reproduced for profit without their permission. While this does happen as well as outright forgeries — (my dad wrote to you about this, here, ) — watermarking also comes with a more immediate and problematic effect; it distracts from your image and changes the message, context and viewing experience of your work. This is especially important to understand right now, when almost everyone who is looking at art is doing it online.

Silver Ball No. 2, 1930 Oil and metallic paint on canvas 23 1/4 × 30 inches by Arthur Dove 1880-1946)

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, in 2020 two art forms are attached to every work of art: the first is your art — that thing you made that’s sitting in your studio or in a gallery. The second is the image of that thing, an image that has to reach through the screen and incite a response in a person who once was a gallery goer — now, a scroller. This scroller is looking at hundreds, perhaps thousands of images carefully constructed as advertising, (or advertising carefully constructed as images) and discriminating on meaning, authenticity, context and the value of that thing, in a matter of seconds. Her heart and brain ask, “Is it art? Is it real? Is it precious? Does it live in the digital world or the physical world?”

If this argument feels weak in the face of forgeries, unauthorized prints, general borrowing of your images for other people’s online content or just copying, consider that if a watermark can be added to your image, it can also be removed, in which case you’ve gone to the trouble of laying something unsightly on top of an image that should have been executed with extreme care — just to try to prevent the unpreventable. You need only to google “watermark remover” to know what I’m talking about. Instead, try to focus on what you can control, including the quality and authenticity of your artwork — both versions — the real one and the image of it you post online.

Fields of Grain as Seen from Train, 1931 Oil on canvas 24 x 34 1/8 inches by Arthur Dove



PS: “A lotta cats copy the Mona Lisa, but people still line up to see the original.” (Louis Armstrong)

Esoterica: The antidote and the attraction to copying is branding — it’s why the biggest names sign their names big, plus take other creative measures to show they’re the real deal. And while being a Big Time Charlie may not be your style, it’s a worthy pursuit to pay attention to refining the originality of your ideas and presenting your work in a way that signifies the uniqueness of your process, environment and personality. I may be delusional in saying this, but I’m beginning to feel like the days of presenting only cropped, evenly-lit images of paintings could be numbered. Auction houses, museums, artists and galleries now regularly employ in situ shots, framing, shadows and light raking, interesting installation, walls and floors, furniture and even dogs disclosing scale and light conditions — all enriching an otherwise impersonal experience of looking at art online. It may even make it harder to make copies.

Installation view of Arthur Dove at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1975. Albright-Knox Art Gallery Digital Assets Collection and Archives photo.

“I would like to make something that is real in itself, that does not remind anyone of any other things, and that does not have to be explained — like the letter A, for instance.” (Arthur Dove)

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